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Tag Archives: Tennemann

Tim Mehigan on ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann’

Tim Mehigan writes…

Alberto Vanzo presented two papers for discussion at the recent Otago symposium on early modern experimental philosophy. There are two conclusions in the first paper (“Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany” [on which we’ll publish Eric Watkins’ comments next Monday]) that are important for the second paper: one, that experimental philosophy, as “observational philosophy”, was replaced in German historiography by the term “empiricism” (this occurred sometime before 1796 as a passage from an essay by Christian Garve indicates); two, as experimental/observational philosophy waned, so the historiographical distinction between rationalism and empiricism (RED) waxed. While the reasons for the waxing are not completely clear, there appear to be two ways of imagining how it occurred. The first view holds that Kant himself was responsible for legislating the RED into existence. The second argues that the distinction was not authorized by Kant but arose as a result of the way his philosophy was interpreted and explained by later Kantians such as Reinhold and Tennemann. Both explanations are considered and evaluated in Vanzo’s second paper “Empiricism vs. Rationalism.”

So this is what’s at stake: Vanzo needs to show how the RED can be read into Kant’s first Critique, even if it is not expressly established as a formal distinction on which other parts of the CPR depend. Given the strategy alluded to above – that Kant introduces a distinction under the guise of different terminology – Vanzo is obliged to consider whether we encounter a “mapping” problem when Kant’s contrasts are seen in the context of the RED. He immediately concedes that there is indeed such a mapping problem (as Gary Banham had noted here). The RED is introduced in two places in the CPR – the Antinomies of Pure Reason and the History of Pure Reason. In the first case, Kant contrasts empiricism with dogmatism (not rationalism), and in the second case, Kant contrasts empiricism with “noologism” (not rationalism). The question is: whether RED can “map onto” either or both of these contrasts and thus indicate compellingly that Kant operated with the RED in mind?

As it turns out, the occurrence of the RED in the History of Pure Reason is more readily answered than in the Antinomies. Vanzo establishes both that the contrast of “empiricism” and “noologism” in the History of Pure Reason can be regarded as a version of the RED and that the contrast established here was to become a standard part of the histories of early modern philosophy. The argument in the Antinomies follows a more circuitous route. Vanzo cannot directly show that “dogmatism” and “rationalism” are interchangeable terms, all the more so since Kant’s purpose in the Antinomies is to show that neither dogmatism nor empiricism on its own is able to offer satisfactory proofs of key statements about the world. So both dogmatism and empiricism come up short, and Kant, as a later self-identifying rationalist, is clearly not about to subscribe to the dogmatic variant of metaphysical rationalism. So a problem of mapping does appear here, and it is the more serious one for the RED distinction.

Was the RED introduced by Kant? Vanzo’s final answer is, “not really”. Kant does not have the “epistemological bias” in regard to the RED, i.e. he does not overestimate the importance of the RED on epistemological grounds. Neither does Kant have the “Kantian bias”, according to which the RED is important for his project in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant, finally, does not have the “classificatory bias” which classifies all philosophers prior to Kant into either empiricist or rationalist camps. When we consider the later Kantians, the picture is quite different. Both Reinhold and Tennemann are said to have the epistemological, the Kantian and the classificatory biases. Reinhold, I believe, did not initially have the classificatory bias, as it is not clearly in evidence in his first major work, the Essay on a New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation (1789). By the early 1790s, however, as Vanzo shows, Reinhold appears to have derived a historiographical framework based on the RED. Reinhold’s framework appears to have been important for philosophers such as Tennemann, who by the late 1790s had begun to craft a “methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy” in which the RED is amply applied to individual philosophers and where Kant takes his place as the author who successfully overcame the limits of these two schools.

In sum, Vanzo’s case for the establishment of the RED in Germany appears to ascribe great importance to the manner in which Kantian philosophy was received from the mid 1780s until the mid 1790s and how it was laid out against a background of historiographical assumptions. As happens so often, the background was to become foreground for a few brief years, and when it did so under Reinhold’s pen – this is the likely conclusion – the historiography became more important than the philosophy. Fortunately this situation has reversed itself and Kant’s philosophy has become a far more open proposition than it was taken to be in those years. This openness, in turn, makes room for different conceptualizations of the early modern period.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism: 20 Theses for Discussion

Before our recent symposium, we decided to imitate our early modern heroes by preparing a set of queries or articles of inquiry. They are a list of 20 claims that we are sharing with you below. They summarize what we take to be our main claims and findings so far in our study of early modern experimental philosophy and the genesis of empiricism.

After many posts on rather specific points, hopefully our 20 theses will give you an idea of the big picture within which all the topics we blog about fit together, from Baconian natural histories and optical experiments to moral inquiries or long-forgotten historians of philosophy.

Most importantly, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you find any of our claims unconvincing, inaccurate, or plainly wrong? Do let us know in the comments!

Is there some important piece of evidence that you’d like to point our attention to? Please get in touch!

Are you working on any of these areas and you’d like to share your thoughts? We’d like to hear from you (our contacts are listed here).

Would you like to know more on some of our 20 claims? Please tell us, we might write a post on that (or see if there’s anything hidden in the archives that may satisfy your curiosity).

Here are our articles, divided into six handy categories:


1. The distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESD) provided the most widespread terms of reference for philosophy from the 1660s until Kant.

2. The ESD emerged in England in the late 1650s, and while a practical/speculative distinction in philosophy can be traced back to Aristotle, the ESD cannot be found in the late Renaissance or the early seventeenth century.

3. The main way in which the experimental philosophy was practised from the 1660s until the 1690s was according to the Baconian method of natural history.

4. The Baconian method of natural history fell into serious decline in the 1690s and is all but absent in the eighteenth century. The Baconian method of natural history was superseded by an approach to natural philosophy that emulated Newton’s mathematical experimental philosophy.


5. The ESD is operative in Newton’s early optical papers.

6. In his early optical papers, Newton’s use of queries represents both a Baconian influence and (conversely) a break with Baconian experimental philosophy.

7. While Newton’s anti-hypothetical stance was typical of Fellows of the early Royal Society and consistent with their methodology, his mathematisation of optics and claims to absolute certainty were not.

8. The development of Newton’s method from 1672 to 1687 appears to display a shift in emphasis from experiment to mathematics.


9. Unlike natural philosophy, where a Baconian methodology was supplanted by a Newtonian one, moral philosophers borrowed their methods from both traditions. This is revealed in the range of different approaches to moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment, approaches that were all unified under the banner of experimental philosophy.

10. Two distinctive features of the texts on moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment are: first, the appeal to the experimental method; and second, the explicit rejection of conjectures and unfounded hypotheses.

11. Experimental philosophy provided learned societies (like the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh) with an approach to knowledge that placed an emphasis on the practical outcomes of science.


12. The ESD is prominent in the methodological writings of the French philosophes associated with Diderot’s Encyclopédie project, including the writings of Condillac, d’Alembert, Helvétius and Diderot himself.


13. German philosophers in the first decades of the eighteenth century knew the main works of British experimental philosophers, including Boyle, Hooke, other members of the Royal Society, Locke, Newton, and the Newtonians.

14. Christian Wolff emphasized the importance of experiments and placed limitations on the use of hypotheses. Yet unlike British experimental philosophers, Wolff held that data collection and theory building are simultaneous and interdependent and he stressed the importance of a priori principles for natural philosophy.

15. Most German philosophers between 1770 and 1790 regarded themselves as experimental philosophers (in their terms, “observational philosophers”). They regarded experimental philosophy as a tradition initiated by Bacon, extended to the study of the mind by Locke, and developed by Hume and Reid.

16. Friends and foes of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies in the 1780s and 1790s saw them as examples of speculative philosophy, in competition with the experimental tradition.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism

17. Kant coined the now-standard epistemological definitions of empiricism and rationalism, but he did not regard them as purely epistemological positions. He saw them as comprehensive philosophical options, with a core rooted in epistemology and philosophy of mind and consequences for natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics.

18. Karl Leonhard Reinhold was the first philosopher to outline a schema for the interpretation of early modern philosophy based (a) on the opposition between Lockean empiricism (leading to Humean scepticism) and Leibnizian rationalism, and (b) Kant’s Critical synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.

19. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann was the first historian to craft a detailed, historically accurate, and methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy based on Reinhold’s schema. [Possibly with the exception of Johann Gottlieb Buhle.]

20. Tennemann’s direct and indirect influence is partially responsible for the popularity of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy based on the conflict between empiricism and rationalism.

That’s it for now. Come back next Monday for Gideon Manning‘s comments on the origins of the experimental-speculative distinction.

(in their terms, “observational philosophers”)

Tennemann on Empiricism and Rationalism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann was a very influential Kantian historian of philosophy. His textbook on the history of philosophy had five German editions. Its two English translations were reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. As a result, many of Tennemann’s judgements and historiographical classifications ended up being accepted, more or less consciously, by generations of students, philosophers, and historians.

One of Tennemann’s classifications that became standard is the distinction of most early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists (RED). Tennemann’s lists of early modern empiricists and rationalists are now standard. His reading of Hume as bringing Locke’s empiricism to its sceptical consequences, or of Kant as synthesizing empiricism and rationalism, are still widely accepted.

At the basis of Tennemann’ historiography is an outlook that few, if any, would agree with today. Tennemann asks: what should the history of philosophy be, over and above the history of ideas? He answers:

    Wilhelm Gottlieb TennemannHistory of Philosophy […] can be neither history of philosophers, nor history of ideas [Philosopheme]. It includes both, but it subordinates them to a higher purpose and point of view. This is the exposition of the formation and development of philosophy as science.

According to Tennemann, Kant laid the foundations for philosophy as science. Thanks to the Kantian revolution, we know the one true philosophy.

Kant did not create this true philosophy ex nihilo. Kantian philosophy is the crowning of endless attempts to develop a true science. It is the synthesis of the best insights of Kant’s predecessors. According to Tennemann, historians of philosophy should trace the gradual development of those insights from ancient Greece to their Kantian epilogue.

This Kantian stance has several interesting consequences. Let me focus on two of them.

1. Kant’s philosophy sharply distinguishes a priori questions belonging to metaphysics and (what we now call) epistemology from the empirical inquiries of natural science. It focuses on the former and leaves the latter to (what we now call) working scientists. Consistent with his intent to trace the ancestry of philosophy in the Kantian sense, Tennemann makes only passing remarks on the development of natural philosophy. He repeats several times that Descartes was mainly interested in natural philosophy. However, Tennemann’s Descartes comes across as the “philosopher of pure inquiry” because, for Tennemann, “pure inquiry” was the truly philosophical part of his thought – philosophical in Kant’s sense of the term.

2. A history of early modern philosophy can be organized on the basis of various criteria: chronological and geographical factors, actor categories like experimental philosophy, or later notions like those of empiricism and rationalism. What criteria are the best? Tennemann answers as follows. History of philosophy should describe reason’s progress towards Kantian philosophy. To this end, it is best to group early modern authors on the basis of their views on two typically Kantian themes: whether there are non-empirical concepts and whether we can have substantive a priori knowledge. The results of these groupings are Tennemann’s accounts of the evolution of empiricism and rationalism, converging in Kant’s final synthesis.

Tennemann is conscious that the results of this choice are somewhat arbitrary. While he places Berkeley between Locke and Hume in his parade of empiricist philosophers, he acknowledges that Berkeley was also influenced by the rationalists Descartes and Malebranche.

Since the early 1980s, the fact that Descartes was more interested in natural philosophy than in “pure inquiry”, or the affinities between Berkeley and Malebranche, are adduced to claim that the narratives of early modern philosophy based on the RED are broken-backed. Tennemann, probably the first historian to develop such a narrative in detail, openly acknowledged those facts. Yet he based his historiography on the RED nevertheless. This is because that distinction was the most functional to his views on what philosophy is and what its history should accomplish.

Tennemann’s case teaches us that no amount of detailed historical excavations or textual analyses will suffice to tell us whether we should accept the RED, reform it, or replace it with some other master narrative of early modern philosophy. To make such a choice, we should have clear ideas on what we should identify this philosophy that we are studying with, and on what we take our tasks as historians of philosophy to be. Tennemann gave fully explicit answers and he was coherent with them in developing a historiography based on the RED. How should we answer those questions?