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.