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Tag Archives: Scholastics

The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain

In my last post I considered the benefits of applying the ESD framework to our interpretation of the history and philosophy of science in early modern Spain. We saw that, in spite of the appearance of the terms “empiric” and “rationalist” in the work of some of the Spanish intellectual figures of the period, the ESD framework had a lot more to offer than the traditional RED framework. Today I want to introduce a particular controversy that highlights the advantages of working with the ESD in our examination of science and philosophy in early modern Spain.

The whole controversy began with the publication of a book by a scholastic figure: Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo (1662-1714), librarian to the king. In 1713 he published Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), a book in which he gives an interpretation of Genesis consistent with the theory of atomism. The book stands at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide and as such it offers us a great insight into the uniqueness of the development of philosophy in early modern Spain. The book is an attempt to adopt the ideas of the new science within a scholastic framework. Alvarez begins his chapter on the creation of the sensible world with a presentation of his atomism:

At the beginning, the matter of the Sensible World was a tangled mass of imperceptible small bodies, which were the primitive state of the creative action, of the material Substance. These tiny bodies differed in their form, and due to them, through movement were capable of creating the various compositions that make this Fabric, which is as varied as it is beautiful. Each tiny body had its own place, and in this way they had extension, though this does not mean that they were subject of division, given that the principle of them was Creation, dividing them would be annihilating them.

Here we have a case where a scholastic figure attempts to adopt the new science into his scholastic system, explaining the creation of the world through the union and separation of corpuscles of various kinds. Alvarez adds a note to the passage quoted above where he explains how his account of the creation based on corpuscles and the indivisibility of matter is consistent with the power and wisdom of God. First he explains that God created all things independent of each other, giving each corpuscle its individuality, and that this is not contrary to the process of Creation, since compound bodies are nothing but united corpuscles, whether these bodies are created already as compounds or not. Regarding the indivisibility of the corpuscles, Alvarez explains that, being the result of simple Creation, corpuscles cannot be divided, since this would entail that each of the divided parts would have to exist either through creation or generation, and neither of these options is possible.  He goes on to say that the heterogeneity in form, and the extension of these corpuscles is clear, and he finishes the note with a caution which highlights the care taken by the scholastics who adopted theories from the new science. One way of preventing any suspicion of heresy was to claim that the theory was not certain, but rather that it was a probable hypothesis. This is what Alvarez does to conclude his note, saying that “…we do not propose our maxims as evident, but we are satisfied to leave it in terms of probable”.

However cautious Alvarez was, the scholastics still saw his book as a threat to their beliefs and set out to criticize it. This was the beginning of a controversy that would involve the leading intellectual figures of the time. Two scholastic thinkers, Fransisco Palanco and Juan Martin de Lessaca set out to attack Alvarez´s book and the new science, while Diego Mateo Zapata and Juan de Najera replied defending the Novatores and calling for the replacement of the old, scholastic science with the new.

We will look at the details of each of the texts in forthcoming posts. For now, I want to conclude by commenting on the nature of the experimental/speculative divide in early modern Spain. The Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy shows that the experimental and speculative ideals stand at two opposite ends of a whole spectrum. While the scholastic Palanco and Lessaca stand clearly closer to the speculative end, Alvarez, a scholastic intellectual, stands closer to the middle, with Zapata and Najera standing at the experimental end. In fact, both Zapata and Najera began their intellectual life closer to the speculative end, but went on to fully embrace the methodology of experimental philosophy as time went by. To complicate the scene even further, during the final years of his life Najera gave up on experimental philosophy and went back to defend the scholastic, speculative way of thinking. This highlights the complexity of the Spanish intellectual landscape, while at the same time providing us with the opportunity to shed light on such a landscape by examining it from the ESD framework.

Scholasticism and natural science in early modern Spain

Juan Gomez writes…

One of the most exciting tasks of my research has been to track the introduction and reception of the ESD in early modern Spain. I have illustrated the adoption and praise of the spirit of experimental philosophy in various texts by the Spanish Novatores, and I looked in a bit more detail at the work of Benito Feijoo (posts 1, 2, and 3). In spite of the insistence to abandon scholastic and Aristotelian methods and science, the progress of natural philosophy in early modern Spain lagged in comparison to the rest of Europe. In fact, the Novatores themselves recognized this lack of progress, as is clear from a letter by Feijoo which I will be sharing with you today.

In 1745 Feijoo published a collection of letters, most of them responding to a range of criticisms directed against his Teatro Critico Universal. Letter 16 in the second volume of that collection is Causas del atraso que se padece en España en orden a las Ciencias Naturales (Causes for the backwardness of Spain regarding the Natural Sciences). Feijoo gives six reasons (causes) for this backwardness, in all of them placing the blame on the scholastic philosophers and their way of thinking.

The first cause is the narrowness of most of the teachers, whom Feijoo describes as “Everlasting ignorants, set on knowing only a few things, for no other reason that they think that there is nothing else to know, aside from those few things they know.” Feijoo goes on to describe this kind of teacher, who only knows scholastic logic and metaphysics, and laughs when hearing words like ‘new philosophy’ or ‘Descartes.’ However, when asked to explain the claims of the new philosophy or those held by Descartes, they stay silent because they have no knowledge of them. (Note: experimental philosophy and new philosophy are not identical, even though the former was sometimes referred to by the latter name. For example, Descartes was commonly regarded as a new philosopher, but not so much as an experimental philosopher.)

People like the teachers described above have spread throughout Spain a disdain for ‘the new’, the second cause identified by Feijoo. They think that, since every sacred doctrine labelled ‘new’ is rejected immediately for being suspicious, the same rule applies for theories about the natural world. So they must reject the teachings of Galileo, Huygens, and Harvey, as well as all the new instruments and machines developed in the seventeenth century, holding on to their scholastic and Aristotelian science as the one true system. Feijoo comments that this attitude backfires, since rejecting anything because it has been labelled ‘new’ entails that there could never have been any progress in natural science (the Aristotelian system was also ‘new’ at some point).

But aside from rejecting the new philosophy because it is ‘suspicious’, the Spanish scholastics also reject it because all it presents is “a few useless curiosities.” (This is the third cause given by Feijoo.) What the scholastics do not realize, Feijoo tells us, is that under this criterion their theories lose against those of the modern: “Which would be more useful: to explore in the physical world the works of the Author of Nature, or to investigate through large treatises derived from the Entity of Reason, and logical and metaphysical abstractions, the fictions of human understanding?” Feijoo also contrasts between the method of learning in the confines of the classroom of the scholastic, and that of the modern, based on experiments and observations.

The fourth cause rests on the mistaken notion held by the scholastics that the new philosophy is identical to Cartesian philosophy. Feijoo comments that although Cartesian philosophy might be new philosophy, new philosophy is not Cartesian philosophy, the same way men are animals but animals are not men. Highlighting the ESD, Feijoo goes on to divide philosophy into two kinds:

“Philosophy, taken in all its extension, can be divided into Systematic and Experimental. The Systematic has many different members, e.g. Pythagoric, Platonic, Peripatetic, Parascelsistic, or Chemical, that of Campanella, that of Descartes, that of Gassendi, etc.”

Feijoo clarifies that he advocates not that the Spaniards embrace one of the former systems, but rather that they do not close their eyes to “Experimental Physics”, which:

“without regard for any system, investigates the causes through the sensible effects; and where it cannot investigate the causes, it settles for the experimental knowledge of the effects… This is the physics that reigns in Nations: the one cultivated by many distinguished Academies as soon as it emerged in France, England, Holland, Etc.”

The achievements of this experimental physics are illustrated by the discoveries regarding our knowledge of the properties of air, of fluids and mechanics, all of them unattainable by relying on the physics of the schools.

Feijoo identifies as the last two causes the mistaken idea that the new philosophy clashes with religion, and the jealousy and pride of the scholastics in Spain that prevented them from accepting the triumphs of other men of science from different European nations. I will not examine them here. Instead I want to conclude the post by pointing out that, not only there is enough evidence to confirm the presence of the ESD (at least in some form) in early modern Spain, but also that it can provide us with an interesting framework to interpret the development of natural philosophy and science in early modern Spain.

Defending the Scholastics

One of the features of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy was the rejection of the ‘old ways,’ the Scholastic system of philosophy in particular. We have shown in this blog ample evidence of the attack on the Scholastics by those who promoted Experimental Philosophy. We have been showing how the ESD plays an important role in the early modern period, but we have focused mainly on the work of experimental philosophers. In this post I want to present a text that defends the usefulness of the logic of the Scholastics (the use of syllogistic logic in particular). The text is by Edward Bentham (1707-1776), a teacher of divinity in Oxford for twenty years. In 1740 he published Reflections upon the nature and usefulnes of logick as it has been commonly taught in the schools.

In this text, Bentham does not explicitly attack the “new philosophy.” In fact, at some points he recognizes some of the flaws that the promoters of experimental philosophy found in the Scholastics. But his general claim is that those who reject Scholastic logic are making a huge mistake. In the first couple of pages Bentham tells us that most of the treatises in Logic were “wrote in abstruse Scholastic Language,” and these lead the “moderns” to reject “the dry Systematical method of delivering rules.” But these thinkers end up doing more damage by their rejection of Scholastic logic:

    They launch out into various disquisitions upon abstruse subjects; and often draw the illustration of their rules from the depth of other sciences. And by this means, while they seem to enrich the mind with new discoveries, and therefore entertain the Fancy, they perplex the Judgment; While they promise to give the understanding more activity and freedom, they really rob it of that balast, by which in prudence it should be kept steady, and be prevented from being hasty and precipitant in its determinations. Thus enquiries into the nature of our Souls, our Sensations, our Passions and Prejudices, with other springs of wring judgment, make a part of the natural History of Man, rather than a part of Logick, and are of too mixed a nature to fall under general rules.

Bentham seems to be arguing that Scholastic logic should be learnt before exploring any of the other sciences, but this is not to say that the former is all that is needed and the rest of the sciences are useless. On the contrary, they are at the same level: “At the same time that we admire the ingenuity and great learning of later Philosophers, let the exact method and accuracy of the Scholastick Systematical Logicians be entitled to our praise and imitation.” Bentham does admit that there are some flaws in the Scholastic system, but they have nothing to do with the logic. He goes over the different parts of Scholastic logic, and when discussing syllogisms he tells us:

    Now it must be own’d, that in discourse upon ordinary matters, we have no occasion, either to put ourselves to the trouble of continually applying a common standard, or to tie ourselves up to the strictness of Scholastick form, in order to perceive the agreement or disagreement above mentioned [Syllogisms]: Nor can it be any great edification to an inquisitive Student to be told in such variety of form, as sometimes he is in treatises of Scholastick Logick, that Man is Animal. But yet he may find his account in learning those general rules, which are applicable, as a test, to all reasoning, however varied or disguised by the advantage of witty turns and good Language.

Bentham considers Syllogisms to be of great use, and in the final pages of his text he confirms the importance of Scholastic Logic and attacks the moderns who reject it:

    Since the decline of Scholastick learning, though Science of every kind has received prodigious improvements by the labour and sagacity of exalted Genius’s, yet we find the common run of reasoners as bad as ever; –not more knowing, but much more conceited; –not so ambitious as to improve their knowledge, as to conceal their ignorance; –determining magisterially upon points, without knowing or considering the first principles, of what they are discoursing of; –taking themselves to be masters of every subject, upon which they can raise an objection…

In a previous post, Peter Anstey commented on the Straw Man problem for the ESD. But this text by Bentham shows that there was still some appreciation for Scholastic Logic, especially the use of syllogism. Despite all the criticisms of the Scholastic system made by the promoters of experimental philosophy Bentham defended their logic. As Kenneth Winkler points out in his chapter (Lockean logic) in The Philosophy of John Locke: New Perspectives, Bentham was one of the thinkers who attempted to adopt a kind of Lockean logic but without giving up syllogistic. Determining if Bentham was after all (beyond logic) a speculative philosopher requires a lot more than a blog post, but I will keep working on it and follow up on this issue in the near future.