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Tag Archives: Wolff

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 The Baconian method of natural history was superseded by an approach to natural philosophy that emulated Newton’s mathematical experimental philosophy.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”)

Symposium on Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism

St Margaret’s College, University of Otago, 18-19 April 2011

Monday 18 April

9.00 Introductory Session (Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo)

9.30 Discussion of Peter Anstey, The Origins of the Experimental/Speculative Distinction
Discussant: Gideon Manning
Chair: Alberto Vanzo

11:30 Discussion of Juan Gomez, The Experimental Method and Moral Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment
Discussant: Charles Pigden
Chair: Kirsten Walsh

14:30 Discussion of Kirsten Walsh, De Gravitatione and Newton’s Mathematical Method
Discussant: Keith Hutchison
Chair: Philip Catton

20:00 European Panel of Experts (video conference)
Chair: Peter Anstey

Tuesday 19 April

9:30 Discussion of Peter Anstey, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and the Experimental Philosophy
Discussant: Anik Waldow
Chair: Juan Gomez

11:30 Discussion of Alberto Vanzo, Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann
Discussant: Tim Mehigan
Chair: Philip Catton

14:30 Discussion of Alberto Vanzo, Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany
Discussant: Eric Watkins
Chair: Peter Anstey

16:30 Final plenary session, led by Gideon Manning

17:00 Conclusion

Attendance at the symposium is free. However, space is limited, so we advise you to register early. To register and for information, please email

Abstracts of all papers are available here. If you cannot attend, but would like to read some of the papers, send us an email.

Experiment and Hypothesis, Theory and Observation: Wolff vs Newton

Alberto Vanzo writes…

Looking for sources for knowledge of experimental philosophy in eighteenth century Germany, I found some interesting texts by relatively unknown authors (at least beyond the circle of specialists). Christian Wolff is one of them. He was the most famous German philosopher in the first half of the eighteenth century. His philosophy was taught in many universities and his works were very popular. For instance, his German Logic knew no less than 14 editions during Wolff’s life.

Wolff knew several British experimental philosophers. He cited works by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, he was the Locke reviewer for an important journal (the Acta eruditorum), and he polemized with the Newtonian John Keill on the existence of the vacuum. He is a good example of the fact that German thinkers were acquainted with the works and the methodological views of British experimental philosophers in the first half of the eighteenth century.

A number of Wolff’s statements might make us think that he was himself an adherent to the early modern version of x-phi. Like British experimental philosophers, Wolff criticizes Descartes’ attempt to explain a great variety of natural phenomena in the light of few general principles that he established a priori. Like Hume and Hutcheson, Wolff is eager to extend the dominion of experimental philosophy beyond the boundaries of physics. He projects the disciplines of experimental cosmology, experimental teleology, experimental theology, experimental politics, and even experimental ontology. For his philosophical system as a whole, he chooses the name of “universal experimental philosophy” (philosophia experimentalis universalis). How could Wolff have been a more enthusiastic adherent to the program of experimental philosophy?

Yet contrary to the appearances, Wolff’s views were quite different from those of his British counterparts. This can be seen by comparing him with Newton. Newton, like virtually every other early modern experimental philosopher, claimed that he did not feign any hypothesis (his famous hypotheses non fingo). Wolff rebuts that Newton

    indulges in hypotheses in those very areas in which they think he abstained from employing them […] In fact, what else is universal attraction or gravity, which is represented by a measure of attraction, if not a hypothesis which is assumed because of certain phenomena and then is extended to all matter?

According to Wolff, not only did Newton feign hypotheses, but he did well to do so. This is because natural philosophers must proceed like astronomers:

Christian Wolff

Christian Wolff

From some present events, they infer what they have to assume, in order for [the events] to follow [from it], and they posit that their hypothesis applies to all [similar] events […] To determine whether they did well to assume the hypothesis, they infer what follows from it on the basis of a correct reasoning, in order to compare it with the remaining events that they have either observed, or that they derive from observations. [They do this] in order to see whether what has been observed agrees with the hypothesis. If they find that [observations and hypothesis] are in contrast with one another, then they improve the hypothesis, and in this way they constantly move closer to the truth.

Wolff holds that there is a circular relationship between observation or experiment on the one hand, and theory on the other hand. He stresses

    how much theory owes to observations and how much, on the other hand, observations owe to theory, since observations perfect theory and theory in turn continuously perfects observations. He who is ignorant of any theory and does not have much ability to use the faculty of knowing will only discover obvious and mostly imprecise [truths] on the basis of observations. There would not be much progress, unless one could presuppose some theory; and the more [a theory] is developed, the more discoveries one will make by means of observation[s].

Unlike Newton, Wolff was no great scientist. However, the quotes above suggest that his methodology of science is worth a serious reading. His acknowledgments of the interaction between theory and observation sound modern. They sketch a version of the hypothetico-deductive method that might provide an interesting alternative to Newton’s strict inductivism.

In summary, Wolff is a good example of the Germans’ knowledge of British experimental philosophy in the first half of the eighteenth century. His views are also interesting in their own right. So are Johann Nicolaus Tetens’ comments on observational vs speculative philosophy or Johann Heinrich Lambert’s distinction between theory-testing experiments and experiments that have a life of their own – two hundred years before Ian Hacking. More on this another time.

In the next post, Kirsten will discuss Newton’s method, in particular his rejection of hypotheses and his use of queries. See you next Monday!