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The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain 3

Juan Gomez writes…

It has been a while since my previous post, so I will begin by recapping my series on early modern Spain up to the point where we left off. This series focuses on an interesting debate between scholastics and novatores in Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a debate which revolves around natural philosophy and methodology. The origins of the debate can be found in a book by Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo, Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), where he tries to give an account of the book of Genesis which is consistent with the theory of atomism. This attempt to combine elements of the scholastic tradition with the new science was seen as a threat from the scholastic camp, which set out to criticize the book. Fransisco Palanco took advantage of this opportunity to go beyond a criticism of Alvarez’ book and set out to attack the novatores and the new science. The novatores quickly replied to Palanco, Juan de Najera and Diego Mateo Zapata responding with an attack on Aristotelianism and the scholastic ways. This exchange was the topic of our previous post, but it was not the end of the debate.

In 1717, a year after de Najera and Zapata’s comments, the response from the scholastic camp appeared. Juan Martin de Lessaca, a doctor from Toledo who was loyal to Aristotelianism, published Formas ilustradas a la luz de la razón (Forms enlightened through the light of reason [redundant as it is]). Lessaca claims that his book is a vindication of Aristotelianism in response to Najera and Zapata. The book consists of two parts: first a response to Zapata’s review, and then a response to Najera’s text. Lessaca begins his criticism by confirming a claim already made by Palanco, namely, that the novatores were guilty of heresy, based on their appeal to the new science.

Aside from the justification of the connection between heresy and new science, Lessaca offers a picture of the new philosophy that can shed some light on the way the scholastics viewed the doctrines of the novatores:

The Atomists claim that their Philosophy is the best, since it is founded on experience itself, and what the senses perceive; and so they call their Philosophy experimental, and sensible. Such is the Chemical Course, so highly praised by the Author of the Review [Zapata] who says: And so Chemistry being a demonstrative science, accepts as a foundation only what is palpable, and demonstrative. It is truly of great advantage to have such sensible principles which can be ascertained with more reason. The elevated imaginations of other Philosophers, who hold on to their Physical principles by lifting their spirits to the level of great ideas, but never prove anything demonstratively. This being so, it is why it is called Experimental Philosophy…

Here we have a clear contrast between the two movements: the scholastics found their research on ideas and the use of reason alone, while the novatores focus on experimental observation and the perception of the senses. Lessaca uses the distinction to point out that the novatores can be referred to as being “crude”, given that the senses are cruder than reason. Lessaca refers to those maxims held by the novatores to show the baseness of their methodology.

Lessaca continues to criticize the novatores‘ emphasis on experience. He accepts that they might have an adequate knowledge of the human body, thanks to their attention to sensible experience, but they cannot rely on the latter “to discern those parts that cannot be seen, or touched, or accessed through sensible experience, and of this kind is all of the internal part of man, all that concerns spirits, their movement, nutrition, augmentation, etc”. The strategy here is not to attack the novatores on grounds of the faults of their method, but rather to point out that their method falls short when it comes to the knowledge of what cannot be experienced through the senses.

Lessaca’s comments are of great interest to us because they give us specific arguments against the methodology of experimental philosophy. Beyond the charges of heresy, Lessaca does point out that experimental philosophy, though not completely useless, is too limited; the emphasis on experience and observation entails, from Lessaca’s viewpoint, that experimental philosophers were not capable of studying anything that went beyond the senses. And with this he flips the situation around: if experience and observation are our guides, then whatever we say about anything which escapes these guides becomes mere conjecture.

In our research we have found many instances of the way experimental philosophers criticize and oppose speculative philosophers and their methodology. But examples from the other side of the ESD divide attacking experimental philosophy are scarce. This is where Lessaca’s work stands out, giving us some insight into the arguments adopted and promoted by speculative philosophers to defend their movement within the ESD.

Astrology and the novatores

Juan Gomez writes…

In one of my previous posts regarding early modern Spain I referred to Martin Martinez, a physician who was an avid promoter of the experimental method. Today I want to examine a debate he had regarding the rejection of astrology. In this blog we have provided many illustrations of the methodological statements typical of those who promoted and adopted experimental philosophy. We have shown the insistence in rejecting the work of those that rely solely on speculation, but we have not yet seen any examples of the work of speculative philosophers. The case of astrology in 1720s Spain can shed some light on the kind of speculative science rejected by experimental philosophers like Feijoo and Martinez.

Besides the comments he added supporting Feijoo’s work, Martinez wrote a whole essay (Juicio final de la astrologia (The final judgment of astrology)) rejecting astrology in 1727. He distinguished between astronomy and astrology: while in the former “the regular movement of the stars is observed…times are computed, lunar cycles determined, and eclipses are predicted”, in the latter astrologists “feign a volume (only intelligible to them) in the heavens where they find written mundane events, wars, famine, pests, shipwrecks, harvests, diseases, and all other fortunes of human life.”

In the comments he makes defending Feijoo’s work, Martinez clarifies that the problem with astrology is that it is not founded in observation and experience:

“Upon reflection, according to what reasoning, or experience, do the astrologists found their imagined influxes of the stars and planets? On what grounds do they know that Mars burns, and Saturn cools? They probably say, because Mars is red and Saturn grey: though according to this they should also say that carnations burn and quicklime cools; and if they say they experience heat coming from Mars, I do not understand how they know it comes from it, and not from another cause.”

Martinez goes on listing a number of claims astrologists make, in particular related to the effects the movement of the planets and stars, eclipses, and comets have on the health of individuals. But Martinez is directing his claims to one individual in particular, Diego de Torres Villaroel, a mathematician and astrologist who published yearly almanacs with predictions under the pseudonym “el gran Piscator de Salamanca”. Leaving the calendars aside, Torres also published an essay containing his ideas on the nature of the earth and the heavens. The text was first published in 1724 under the title Viaje fantastico del gran Piscator de Salamanca (The fantastic journey of the great Piscator of Salamanca), and then again in 1739 as Anatomia de todo lo visible e invisible (Anatomy of all that is visible and invisible). It is this book that Martinez targets, and will serve as our illustration of the kind of speculative philosophy the novatores rejected.

Torres’ essay gives an account of the structure and composition of the earth and the heavens, all this prompted by an eclipse which occurred on May 22, 1724. The explanation of the constitution of both spheres of the universe (heaven and earth) is given through a story where the great Piscator travels to the depths of the earth and then upwards to the heavens, illustrating to his fellow travellers all the details of both spheres. As is clear from various passages, Torres’ claims are never supported by observations, but only by the musings of his mind and astrological calculations. The opening lines of the dedicatory epistle highlight the speculative nature of the work:


“Hand over hand the soul, without resorting to the use of the external senses, and reason, in arms of a jobless idleness, let fantasy to its word, and running through the spaces of imagination it recited in their theatre the following story.”

Torres acknowledges that he writes from his imagination, but asserts that he reaches the same conclusions others (like Kepler, who studies “the cosmic machine”) have:

“With no other guide but my imagination, and sleeping like a log, I have completed the same journeys [as Kepler and Kircher].”

Although lines like the ones just quoted give the impression that Torres must be speaking metaphorically, it seems that his ‘discoveries’ had no other foundation that the inspiration he got from studying astrology. In the opening lines of the story, a character contrasts the method of astrologists like Torres to those who studied the eclipse by means of observation:

“How is it that you, Mr. Astrologist, in an eclipse whose nature and effects have excited the North and their less lazy Observers have been writing about, you do nothing other than note down in your Prediction the simple calculation of the time and the day?”

Torres defends himself, and convinces his companions to go on a journey through the earth and the heavens in order to understand the nature of eclipses and their effects on human events. In their journey through the earth the astrologist points out where hell and purgatory reside deep down where there is no influence of the heavenly bodies. Then they travel upwards to the heavens, where the astrologist explains the different levels, how all is made of ether, and its effects on the earth. He explains how when a comet is “of the nature of Saturn”, it “causes colds, leprosy, haemorrhoids, paralyses, and chronic diseases”; if it is dominated by Mars on the other hand, it causes “cruel dysentery, rotten fevers, delirium, haemorrhages…”

I could go on drawing on passages from Torres’ book, but the ones quoted above are enough to illustrate the opposition to astrology that the Spanish novatores insisted on. It is important to remember that figures like Feijoo and Martinez had a genuine worry regarding the influence of astrology. Unlike our present time, in the early decades of the eighteenth century astrology was still considered by many as a genuine science, and it was this (more than the almanacs) that motivated the novatores to call for a ban on astrology.

Margaret Cavendish: speculative philosopher

Peter Anstey writes …

Two years ago on this blog I addressed the ‘Straw Man Problem‘ for the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy. The apparent problem, according to some critics of the ESD, is that there were no speculative philosophers in the early modern period. In my response to that problem I listed The Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, as one of the few advocates of speculative philosophy in seventeenth-century England and in this post I want to explore her views in a little more depth.

Cavendish wrote the most sustained critique of experimental philosophy in the seventeenth century. Her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, comprising 318 pages, was first published in 1666 and went into a second edition in 1668. In this work Cavendish gives a critical reading of many works of the new experimental philosophy in order to justify her own speculative natural philosophy. Within her sights are Robert Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist (1661), Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy (1664) and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665).

Newcastle_Margaret_Cavendish-Observations_upon_experimental-Wing-N857-1532_17-p1to319 (dragged)It is interesting to compare Cavendish’s views in this work with those of the young Robert Boyle a decade earlier. As I pointed out in my last post, in his ‘Of Naturall Philosophie’ of c. 1654, Boyle claims that there are two principles of natural philosophy, the senses and reason. He plumps for the senses. Cavendish in her Observations acquiesces in the very same principles, but takes the opposing line: for her, reason trumps the senses.

What is important for our interests here is not only the direct contrast with Boyle’s embryonic experimental philosophy, but the manner in which, for Cavendish, the terms of reference for the choice are between experimental and speculative philosophy. The following extracts give a feel for her position:

I say, that sense, which is more apt to be deluded than reason, cannot be the ground of reason, no more than art can be the ground of nature: … For how can a fool order his understanding by art, if nature has made it defective? or, how can a wise man trust his senses, if either the objects be not truly presented according to their natural figure and shape, or if the senses be defective, either through age, sickness, or other accidents … And hence I conclude, that experimental and mechanic philosophy cannot be above the speculative part, by reason most experiments have their rise from the speculative, so that the artist or mechanic is but a servant to the student. (Cavendish, Observations, ed. O’Neill (Cambridge), p. 49, emphasis added)

experimental philosophy has but a brittle, inconstant, and uncertain ground. And these artificial instruments, as microscopes, telescopes, and the like, which are now so highly applauded, who knows but they may within a short time have the same fate; and upon a better and more rational enquiry, be found deluders, rather than true informers (ibid., p. 99)

And toward the end of a long discussion of chemistry and chemical principles she reiterates her conclusion:

if reason be above sense, then speculative philosophy ought to be preferred before the experimental, because there can no reason be given for anything without it (ibid., p. 241)

Cavendish’s Observations first appeared at a very sensitive time for the Royal Society, for it had been the subject of much criticism from without and was in the process of securing an apologetical History of the Royal-Society by Thomas Sprat.

Now, there is no doubt that some of the more prominent Fellows of the Society are in view in her critique. Yet, it is important that we do not over-extend the target of the Observations, for, it is very much aimed at experimental philosophy and hardly makes reference to the Royal Society at all. Within a year of its publication the Duchess was to make a famous visit to the Society and the correspondence that ensued does not suggest that Henry Oldenburg and others regarded her as a hostile critic of the Society. This reinforces the view that her focus was more specific, namely, experimental philosophy.

Interestingly, after Cavendish’s death the following lines appeared in A Collection of Letters and Poems (London, 1678) written in her honour:

Philosophers must wander in the dark;
Now they of Truth can find no certain mark;
Since She their surest Guide is gone away,
They cannot chuse but miserably stray.
All did depend on Her, but She on none,
For her Philosophy was all her own.
She never did to the poor Refuge fly
Of Occult Quality or Sympathy.
She could a Reason for each Cause present,
Not trusting wholly to Experiment,
No Principles from others she purloyn’d,
But wisely Practice she with Speculation joyn’d.
(A Collection, p. 166, emphasis added)

This poem in which these lines appear was penned by the poet Thomas Shadwell, author of The Virtuoso. Shadwell presents the Duchess as holding to a more balanced view of the relative value of practice and speculation than is warranted from her writings. But the fact that he has singled this out is indicative of just how central was this issue to thinkers of the day.

Feijoo and his ‘Magisterio de la experiencia’ (lessons of experience), Part II

In my previous post I introduced a text by the Spanish priest Beníto Jerónimo Feijoo. We saw Feijoo giving his picture of the history of philosophy by telling a story of two ladies, Solidína (experience) and Ideária (Imagination), who attempt to conquer the kingdom named Cosmósia (the world). Feijoo sides with Solidína (experience) and in the rest of the essay he gives an argument for the adoption and promotion of the experimental method and the rejection of speculation unaided by experience.

The first thing he points out is

    … the little or no progress, which natural reason, unaided by experience, has made in the examination of the affairs of nature in the course of so many ages…What utility has the labours of so many men of excellent ingenuity, as have cultivated philosophy in the reasonable and speculative way, produced to the world? What art, either liberal or mechanical, of the many that are necessary for the service of man, or the good of the public, do we owe to speculative invention; and I might even say, what small advancement in any such art, has been derived from it?

Feijoo focuses on natural philosophy and medicine to show the errors of the way of philosophizing the schoolmen adhere to and teach by in the universities in Early Modern Spain. I will only consider here one of the examples he gives regarding natural philosophy. Feijoo comments on the discovery of the ‘pointing of the magnetic needle to the pole.’ His intention is to show that experience always needs to accompany all our reasonings. He tells us that the discovery of this property of the magnetic needle was first discovered in the thirteenth century, but the traditional way of philosophizing has prevented us from understanding how this property works:

    This admirable property [the pointing of the magnetic needle to the pole], which was totally unknown to the antients, was discovered in the thirteenth century, and immediately applied to the improvement of navigation. Upon its first discovery, the philosophers, according to their wonted custom of pretending to discern the causes of things, imputed this effect, as derived from an occult sympathy with the pole, contained in the very essence, form, and substance of the loadstone; and as this is supposed to be invariable, they concluded, that the direction must infallibly be invariable also.

However, experience proved them wrong and with time navigators noticed that the direction does vary and not always points directly to the pole. The philosophers had to reluctantly accept this even though they tried to discredit the observations of reliable navigators. But this didn’t deter them from making further speculations. Once it was discovered that at some places there is no variation of the direction of the needle, ‘under the meridian of the Azores,’

    … astronomers and geographers thought they had found out a fixed station, whereat to commence the first meridian… But this idea soon vanished, for a little while afterwards, they discovered two other meridians, where there was no variation… Upon this, they thought they had found out a certain principle, whereon to ground a compleat system for calculating or computing variations, by graduating them for the intermediate stations, in proportion to their greater or less distance from the mean space between the two places where there was no variation.

But once again a new discovery through experience disproved their speculations

    … they discovered, that this declination of the magnetic needle, varied more or less at the same place at different times, and that this change of variation was perpetual… In this instance, may be seen the fallibility of the most plausible reasonings unaccompanied by experiments.

Feijoo’s comments are very interesting. Notice that he is not saying that speculations themselves are the source of error, but rather he points out that they most certainly lead to error when unaided by experience. In the compass case the rules were at one instance deduced from experience, but once the speculative philosophers left experience aside they fell into error. Feijoo clarifies this thought in the following passage

    If the rules deduced from experimental observations are so fallible, that it is absolutely necessary in order to avoid all error, to pursue the thread of them so scrupulously, that reason should not venture to advance a step, without the light of an experiment appropriated to the business it is in search of; I say, if these rules are not to be relied on, what confidence can we place in those maxims, which derive their origin from our arbitrary ideas?

Feijoo is being very cautious here; he admits that even rules deduced from experience might be falsified, so we need to constantly check them with experiments and observations. Feijoo clearly prefers the method of experience, but he is also aware that experience sometimes can lead us astray. In the compass example shown above Feijoo tells us that our reasoning always needs to be aided by experimental observation. Further in the essay, as we will examine in a future post, he tells us that our senses alone are not enough for the acquisition of true knowledge, which can only be reached through reasoning and experience used together.

Electricity: A Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science?

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In his book, Franklin and Newton, I. Bernard Cohen described Franklin’s work on electricity as an example of “Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science”.  The central thesis of our project is that the most common and the most important distinction in early modern philosophy is that between Experimental and Speculative Philosophy.  So ‘speculative experimental science’ sounds like a contradiction in terms.  Today, I’ll consider whether this label is appropriate.

Cohen describes electricity as a Newtonian science that only took off after Newton’s death.  While Newton was fascinated with electrical phenomena, he, like his contemporaries, didn’t really understand it.  However, his discussions of electricity, especially the queries of the Opticks, provided a useful starting point for Franklin’s electrical research.  So we can see why Cohen wants to call Franklin’s electrical research a ‘Newtonian science’.

Newton’s discussions of electrical phenomena are always found in speculative contexts, but they usually have an experimental tone.  For example, Newton first mentioned electrical phenomena in 1675 in his paper on his ‘hypothesis of light’ – which is explicitly a speculative paper.  He specified six hypotheses concerning light and colour.  Hypothesis 1 states that “there is an æthereall Medium much of the same constitution with air, but far rarer, subtiler & more strongly Elastic”.  In the discussion, he suggested that everything is made of æther.  To support this suggestion, he described an experiment involving glass and little pieces of paper.  Using friction, he created static electricity in the glass, and caused the paper to dance around.  He concluded that: “At least the electric effluvia seem to instruct us, that there is something of an æthereall Nature condens’d in bodies.”

Moreover, at various times, Newton speculated that electricity could provide an explanation for gravity.  Again, he discussed this idea in explicitly speculative contexts, and drew on experiments performed by Francis Hauksbee to support his speculations.  For example, in query 31 of the Opticks he asked:

    Have not the small Particles of Bodies certain Powers, Virtues, or Forces, by which they act at a distance, not only upon the Rays of Light for reflecting, refracting, and inflecting them, but also upon one another for producing a great Part of the Phænomena of Nature?

He argued that we have observational and experimental evidence that bodies attract one another by gravity, magnetism and electricity: “and these Instances shew the Tenor and Course of Nature, and make it not improbable but that there may be more attractive Powers than these.”

Despite all this speculating, Newton displayed epistemic caution:

    For we must learn from the Phænomena of Nature what Bodies attract one another, and what are the Laws and Properties of the Attraction, before we enquire the Cause by which the Attraction is perform’d.  The Attractions of Gravity, Magnetism, and Electricity, reach to very sensible distances, and so have been observed by vulgar Eyes, and there may be others which reach to so small distances as hitherto escape Observation; and perhaps electrical Attraction may reach to such small distances, even without being excited by Friction.

The final paragraph of the General Scholium of the Principia echoes these ideas:

    A few things could now be added concerning a certain very subtle spirit pervading gross bodies and lying hidden in them; by its force and actions, the particles of bodies attract one another at very small distances and cohere when they become contiguous; and electrical bodies act at greater distances, repelling as well as attracting neighbouring corpuscles… [However,] there is not a sufficient number of experiments to determine and demonstrate accurately the laws governing the actions of this spirit.

From these passages, it’s easy to see why Cohen calls Newton’s electicity ‘speculative experimental science’: Newton’s discussions of electricity are speculative in tone, and yet they can be considered experimental, since they draw on experimental and observational evidence.  However, there is a sense in which this label isn’t appropriate.  I have previously argued that this kind of speculation has a role within Newton’s experimental philosophy.  The epistemic caution displayed by Newton suggests that he is indeed following his methodology and that these discussions of electrical phenomena are taking place within his experimental philosophy.  So Newton’s electrical work shouldn’t be taken as an example of ‘speculative philosophy’.  Taken in this sense, the label ‘speculative experimental’ is indeed an oxymoron.

Tracking Terms in the Encyclopædia Britannica: Part II

Juan Gomez writes…

In my previous post I explored the use of the terms ‘experimental philosophy’ and ’empiricism’ in the Encyclopædia Britannica. Today I will look at the terms ‘speculative’ and ‘rationalism’ throughout the first nine editions of the Encyclopædia.

There is no entry for ‘speculative philosophy’ in any of the eighteenth and nineteenth century editions. However,the term ‘speculative’ on its own appears in the first seven editions (1771-1827). It is a very short entry, it was never expanded or modified and it disappears entirely from the 1853 edition onwards.

We can see Bacon’s contrast between speculative and practical present in this definition which remained in the exact same form in all the editions it appeared. It seems to be more of a dictionary definition pertaining to the standard meaning of the word at the time. This is also the case for the term ‘rational’ that appears only in the first edition (1771) of the Encyclopædia.


Although there was no entry for ‘rationalism’ until the 1853(8th) edition, we do find a brief entry for ‘rational’ in the first edition:

This is the only entry for ‘rational’ in any edition of the Encyclopædia. We can see that it does not have any connotation other than its specific use in mathematics and its use as an adjective meaning ‘reasonable.’

On the other hand, ‘rationalism’ appears for the first time in the same edition where the terms ’empiric’ and ‘experimental philosophy’ disappear, and there is no entry for ’empiricism’ yet (it first appeared in the 11th edition in 1910). We can see here that even by the mid-nineteenth century the term still had a restricted meaning that pertained specifically to religion.

As it was the case with ’empiricism,’ ‘rationalism’ only appears in its modern sense in the twentieth century, where two definitions if the term are given: one referring to it’s use regarding religion present in the quote above, and the second one regarding its use in philosophy:

It is not until the first decades of the twentieth century that we see the terms ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism’ being used to refer to early modern philosophy, showing that the ESD framework has some considerable advantages over the RED for interpreting the Early Modern period.

Teaching Moral Philosophy: Bentham and the Speculative Method

Juan Gomez writes…

In my last post I commented on a text by Edward Bentham that defended the use if the syllogistic in logic, in particular for education. Following Peter Anstey’s interesting posts on teaching experimental philosophy (one on Desaguilers, one on Adams) I will focus on a text by Bentham regarding the teaching of moral philosophy.

I have already posted on this blog regarding the teaching of moral education, in particular in eighteenth century Aberdeen under George Turnbull and David Fordyce. However, they both were promoters of the use of the experimental method within moral philosophy. It appears that Edward Bentham had a different opinion. His An Introduction to Moral Philosophy was published in 1745, five years after Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy and Hume’s Treatise, and three years before the first version of Fordyce’s Elements of Moral Philosophy. The texts by the Scottish thinkers all explicitly claimed to be attempts to apply the experimental method of natural philosophy to moral inquiries. Bentham, on the other hand, objected to this method for moral philosophy and prefers the scholastic method:

    I have had a general regard to the Plan usually received in the Schools, because I think it the most commodious; and because the new, and seemingly more scientifical, method attended with all the Mathematical formalities of Definitions, Postulatums, Axioms, Lemmas, Theorems, and Corollaries (all very astonishing to a young Reader) seems to me forced and affected upon this subject; and not so likely to answer the good purpose of clearing up any doubtful proposition, as to perplex Him in the apprehension of those that are confessedly true.

This is the opposite of what the experimental moral philosophers (Turnbull, Hume, Fordyce, etc.) claim! They specifically choose to apply the experimental method because morality is a part of human nature, it is an inquiry into fact just like any other science and therefore the same method should be applied. Bentham seems to be alluding in the passage to a more Newtonian experimental method referring only to the mathematical side of the method and not on the emphasis on facts and observation.

In the paragraph following the passage quoted above Bentham seems to go against Scholastic philosophy, but he only manages to go half-way about it. He tells us that he is discarding “many of the Scholastick terms of Art and Distinction,” because they are misleadings and characterizes them as “the husks of Science.” Simultaneously, he has also decided to keep “several of them” (!) since they are “very useful to those, whose studies are likely to carry them into the reading of philosophical treatises and moral discourses.”

Confusing as this may be, his condition as a speculative philosopher is clear from the text itself. It consists in a definition of human nature, our faculties, and virtue all relating to God. However, there is no sort of proof for the concept of human nature and morality he is proposing. It is just a collection of statements of what he thinks morality amounts to, of course in accordance to Christianity and revelation.

Most experimental moral philosophers appealed to some form of natural religion, and in specific cases (like Turnbull) allowed revelation to play a very minor role. Bentham once again represents the opposite position, placing revealed religion in centre stage:

    Christianity contains a revelation of a particular dispensation of things not at all discoverable by reason…And in consequence of this revelation being made, several obligations of duty, unknown before, are revealed.

Our moral duties are not something that we can discover by reason and experience alone. Natural religion only plays a role in confirming the morality discovered through revelation.

It seems that from this text, and in particular from the methodological statement quoted at the beginning of the post, we can safely infer that Edward Bentham was on the speculative side of the ESD, at least as far as moral philosophy is concerned. Not only did he claim that the “new” method was not appropriate for morals, but as we explored in the post on his thoughts on logic, he was not very comfortable with the idea of giving way to experimental philosophy, especially not in education.

Peter Anstey posted here last year on one of the main objections our project has faced, known as the Straw-man problem. Bentham’s texts can help us reply to such objection by showing that speculative philosophers were not just a creation of the promoters of experimental philosophy, but there were some who made the claim that the method of experimental philosophy was not the appropriate method, at least not outside natural philosophy.

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.

Experimental Philosophy and the Straw Man Problem

Peter Anstey writes …

One common objection against the experimental–speculative distinction (ESD) as an alternative historiographical framework for understanding early modern philosophy is the Straw Man Problem. Our interlocutors are prepared to admit the importance of the emergence of the experimental philosophy in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century and its subsequent uptake across the Continent. However, they object that, in spite of all the experimental philosophers’ rhetoric, there were few, if any, speculative philosophers. The speculative philosopher, in their view, is merely a straw man, a creation of the experimental philosophers who needed someone or something to define themselves against. The claim, then, is that there was not really any substantive experimental–speculative distinction because there were not really any speculative philosophers.

In my view this objection is based upon a superficial understanding of the ESD. Moreover, I believe that providing an adequate response to the Straw Man Problem is a good way to highlight what is at the core of the ESD framework.

A weakness of the Straw Man objection is the presumption of parity: it is assumed that if we have an actual distinction then we have practitioners of, more or less, equal number on both sides of the distinction. This presumption may derive from the Kantian rationalism–empiricism historiography with its two triumvirates of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza versus Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that there were very few advocates of speculative philosophy after the 1660s. In Britain, Thomas Hobbes, Margaret Cavendish and John Sergeant were all opponents of the experimental philosophy and so might be classed as speculative philosophers, but it’s hard to name any others.

Nevertheless, this lack of parity does nothing to undermine the ESD. For, what is important is that it is the method, content and characteristics of speculative philosophy that were the focus of experimental philosophers’ attacks and disdain and not, on the whole, the practitioners themselves.

The ESD is, therefore, in the first instance a distinction that pertains to natural philosophical (and later philosophical) methodology and only secondarily to individuals. A nice analogue here is found in twentieth-century philosophy of mind. From the 1970s most philosophers were materialists or physicalists about the mind and it became hard to name any substance dualists. And yet physicalists about the mind defined their position, in large part, as being distinct from and opposed to dualism. Anyone who has done even the most cursory reading in the philosophy of mind knows that there is an historical explanation of this phenomenon. The Identity Theory emerged in the 1960s on the back of the attack on the ‘ghost in the machine’ by Gilbert Ryle and others. Early materialist theories of the mind were new and radical in so far as they defined themselves against dualism, even if within a few decades there were hardly any dualists to be found.

A similar situation is to be found with the emergence and growth of early modern experimental philosophy. There had been a long tradition in philosophy of distinguishing between speculative and operative philosophy, between speculative and operative knowledge and even speculative and operative intellects. Natural philosophy had almost invariably been classified as a speculative science. The conceit of the Fellows of the early Royal Society (among others) was to claim not only that natural philosophy could also be an operative (that is, experimental) science, but that the operative method of natural philosophy is far superior to the old speculative approach.

Thus, in order to explain the nature of the ESD, we shouldn’t look forward from the mid-seventeenth century for parity among practitioners from either side, rather we should look back to the origins of the distinction. In so doing it becomes clear that the speculative philosopher is no straw man.