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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.