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The ESP distinction in the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh

Juan Gomez writes…

One of my areas of interest centres on Scottish Philosophical Societies of the Enlightenment. It is a shame that there hasn’t been much research on them, despite the fact that most of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were members of at least one of the many learned societies that emerged in the eighteenth century. Not only were many of their members prominent figures, but the societies played a role in the intellectual development of the Scottish literati and the development of Scotland as a nation. Such is the case of the Philosophical Society of Aberdeen where Thomas Reid, Alexander Gerard, James Beattie, George Campbell and John Gregory, among others, discussed early drafts of their most important works before they saw the light of day. But in this post I want to focus on the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh (PSE) and show the role that the experimental-speculative distinction (ESP) played in the society.

The PSE emerged from Alexander Monro’s Medical Society, when his good friend Colin MacLaurin proposed to him to expand it to include the discussion of natural philosophy. The Society was thus born in 1737 and in 1783 was granted a Royal charter and became the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In those 46 years the society held among its members the most influential figures of Edinburgh society. Besides Monro and MacLaurin we can count among its members Adam Smith, David Hume, Lord Kames, William Cullen, Hugh Blair, John Pringle, Andrew Plummer and Joseph Black. The PSE published three volumes of collected essays, and in them we find statements that show that the ESP distinction played an important role in the society.

The founding members wrote a document entitled ‘Proposals for the Regulation of a Society for Improving Arts and Sciences and particularly Natural Knowledge’. One passage shows their commitment to the experimental method and of course the rejection of speculation:

    Authority is to be held of no weight in their reasonings. The shew of Learning, and Quotation of Authors sparingly used in their Papers. Things to be minded not words. Arguments to be chiefly drawn from proper Experiments and clear Consequences deduced from them or from evident Propositions. Metaphysical Subtilties not be insisted on.

Twenty years after the founding of the society we find in the preface to the first volume of collection of essays a restatement of their attitude:

    The object of this society is the same with that of the other academies, which have been established in other parts of Europe, the promoting of natural philosophy, and of literature, by communicating to the public such dissertations as shall be transmitted to them, either by their own members or by others. ´Tis allowed, that these two branches of learning, especially the former, are more promoted by the observation of facts than by the most ingenious reasonings and disputations.

Not only do we find this sort of statement in the preface, but a number of essays mention at some point that the only way to proceed in philosophy is following the experimental method. Lord Kames wrote an essay on the laws of motion and in it he complains about speculative philosophy. It is a lengthy quote, but it shows clearly the anti-speculative attitude of the experimental philosophers:

    Nothing has more perplexed philosophy, than an unlucky propensity, which makes us grasp at principles, without due regard to facts and experiments… This bent of the mind is productive of manifold errors. Prepossessed once by a favourite principle, we are no longer open to conviction. Every phenomenon must be accommodated to that principle, and every opposite fact, however obstinate, must go for nothing.
    Even in Natural Philosophy, theory was introduced before experiment, and every philosopher urged his own notions, without regard to truth or reality. This produced a mass of undigested and contradictory theory; which at length could not fail to bring on the discovery, that the whole was a little better than a fancy and chimera.

Throughout the essay Kames goes on contrasting facts and observation with false hypotheses, constantly reminding us that his comments are based only on the former. Andrew Plummer also referred to the laws of motion in an essay on neutral salts. He concludes his essay with a clear example of use of the ESP distinction:

    These principles of motion in matter, are not the vain fictions of men merely speculative in philosophy, but evidently deduced from observations and experiments on a great variety of bodies in many different circumstances.

As I have mentioned, most of the essays show in some way their rejection of speculation and the commitment to the experimental method, but space has only allowed me to give the few examples here, however I would be happy to expand on the evidence if any reader is interested (contact me). A detailed look at the Scottish Philosophical Societies not only confirms the widespread use of the ESP distinction, but it can also help us shed light on the intellectual development and relations of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.

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