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Teaching experimental philosophy: the case of George Adams Jr

Peter Anstey writes…

Around 100 works were published in the eighteenth century that bore the term ‘Experimental Philosophy’ in their title. Of these more than 80 were works designed for the teaching of experimental philosophy. In my last post I examined one of the earliest of these course books, J. T. Desaguliers’ Lectures of Experimental Philosophy of 1719. In this post we turn to one of the last of the course books published in the century, namely George Adams Junior’s 5 volume Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philososphy, first published in 1794.

Before turning to the contents of this work, however, it is worth noting that 48 of the 100 works, that is nearly half of them, were published in the last 15 years of the century. So Adams’ volumes were very much part of a publishing trend and they can only be properly understood by a comparison with the spate of other publications around them.

Nevertheless, these volumes contain some interesting surprises. The first thing to note is that Adams takes a decidedly historical approach to his subject, describing the origins of, say, experiments on air pressure with Torricelli and Pascal and tracing them through Boyle and others. These historical surveys serve to highlight just how important developments in seventeenth-century experimental philosophy were to those writing toward the end of the following century.

The second thing to note is the surprisingly high profile of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. The many references to Boyle and the esteem in which Adams clearly held him is perhaps explained in part by the fact that Adams’ work has a theological agenda similar that of some of Boyle’s natural philosophical output. The subtitle to Adams’ book is ‘Describing, in a familiar and easy manner, the Principal Phenomena of Nature; and Shewing, that they all co-operate in Displaying the Goodness, Wisdom, and Power of God’. However, it’s a little over the top when Adams says of Boyle,

    He seems to have been a heavenly spirit in a human form descending from above, to survey the wonders of this lower frame … (vol. 1, p. 10)

This sort of praise is more often associated with Newton in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, Adams seems not to have acquiesced in the over-exuberant praise of Newton. In fact, his view of Newton is far more measured. He does regard Newton as the greatest practitioner of Bacon’s experimental philosophy

      Among those who have pursued the path pointed out in the

Novum Organum

    , Sir Isaac Newton holds the first rank (vol. 2, p. 133)

But when earlier warning against overdependence upon authority he criticizes those who have ‘an implicit faith in the opinions they have adopted’ (vol. 2, p. 104) providing the example of someone who had claimed ‘Newton … is henceforth to be considered as our only sure guide and instructor’.

Thirdly, and most interestingly, Adams includes a 40-page chapter on ‘On the method of reasoning in natural philosophy’ and here we find an enthusiastic endorsement of Bacon’s method of natural philosophy as developed in his Novum organum of 1620. It contains, among other things, a full exposition of the idols of the mind, though Adams shows no interest in Baconian natural history, alluding to it only once and then in passing (vol. 2, p. 136). It is interesting to note, in conclusion, his allusion to Bacon’s comments on the ‘empirical philosophers’. They are,

    those, who labour with great diligence and accuracy, in a few experiments; and then venture to deduce theories and build up systems, strangely wresting every thing else to these experiments. … the opinions produced by these are more deformed and monstrous than those of the sophistical kind.

There is no evidence of the post-Kantian rationalism–empiricism distinction here!


2 thoughts on “Teaching experimental philosophy: the case of George Adams Jr

  1. Voltaire says that Bacon was the father of experimental philosophy, Rousseau says that he was perhaps the greatest philosopher, Jefferson says that he (along with Locke and Newton) was one of the three greatest men ever. Hume wasn’t a big fan, but it’s fair to say that Bacon’s reputation was very high in the eighteenth century.

  2. Yes, thanks for reminding us of Bacon’s fame throughout the 18th century. I think that D’Alembert’s ‘Preliminary Discourse’ is a wonderful example of this. The thing that struck me about Adams, however, is just how closely he sticks to Book I of the Novum Organum in his exposition of the method of science. It’s one thing to pay lip service to Bacon as the father of experimental philosophy or to adopt his division of the sciences, but it’s quite another to adopt his theory of idols as the centrepiece of the method of reasoning in natural philosophy, especially as late as the 1790s!