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The Project

Philosophers from the early modern period (from Descartes to Hume) are normally divided into Rationalists and Empiricists. Yet this distinction was developed by post-Kantian philosophers from the late 18th century. In this research project we are exploring the hypothesis that there is a far better way of approaching early modern philosophers.

Our central thesis is that the most common and the most important distinction in early modern philosophy is that between Experimental and Speculative Philosophy. This is a distinction that many of the actors actually used, and, we claim, it can explain all that the traditional distinction can explain and more besides.

Here is how John Dunton describes philosophy in his The Young-Students-Library (1692):

Philosophy may be consider’d under these two Heads, Natural and Moral: The first of which, by Reason of the strange Alterations that have been made in it; may be again Subdivided into Speculative and Experimental. We must consider, the distinction we have made of Speculative and Experimental and, as much as possible,  Exclude the first, for an indefatigable and laborious Search into Natural Experiments, they being only the Certain, Sure Method to gather a true Body of Philosophy, for the Antient Way of clapping up an entire building of Sciences, upon pure Contemplation, may make indeed an Admirable Fabrick, but the Materials are such as can promise no lasting one.

Dunton’s comment in a student text reflects the fact that this distinction was very widespread within natural philosophy. Indeed it is to be found in the writings of almost all of the leading British philosophers in the late seventeenth century, including Locke, Boyle and Newton, and many continental philosophers as well. Moreover, by the mid-18th century this distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy had found its way into other branches of philosophy, such as moral philosophy, aesthetics and the study of the understanding. The experimental-speculative distinction thus provided the fundamental terms of reference within which some of the most important developments of early modern philosophy took shape.

2 thoughts on “The Project

  1. any chance that such distinctions “experimental” vs. “speculative” have more to do with theology (worldview) and cosmology than actual fields of learning that “split up ” from each other?
    After all, speculative and experimental were both and at the same time speculative and experimental…..i.e. how do you hypothesize without speculating? how do you experiment without a hypothesis?..A vital fact is absent from this discussion….all philosophers above were theologians……it was the only degree awarded them for a really long time. So, it must be important……let me be clear: I am not arguing in defense of religion. I am criticizing its absence since it was and it still is a great reality for all philosophers mentioned.

  2. Thanks for your comment Rhoda and sorry for the tardy reply. Actually, you have raised an interesting question because there was talk in the seventeenth century about experimental religion and speculative religion. The philosopher and historian of science Peter Harrison has written about this in his ‘Experimental religion and experimental science in early modern England’, Intellectual History Review, 21, pp. 431–33. And, yes, it’s often hard to get anywhere with experiments without hypotheses. The problem was that the early moderns were normally thinking about a particular type of hypothesis which functioned as a principle, just like an axiom or definition. It was only when a richer view of the nature of hypotheses emerged in the 19th century that philosophers and natural philosophers began to get the right balance between speculation and experiment.

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