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Who invented the Experimental Philosophy?

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes the question ‘Who invented X?’ has no determinate answer, in spite of claims of particular individuals. One thinks of questions like ‘Who invented the internet?’ and the various dubious claims to this honour. Christoph Lüthy has argued quite convincingly that ‘the microscope was never invented’ (Early Science and Medicine, 1, 1996, p. 2). I suggest that the same probably goes for the experimental philosophy: there is no single person or group of people who created it, rather it somehow ‘emerged’ in Europe sometime between the death of Francis Bacon in 1626 and the founding of the Royal Society in 1660. One place to look for answers is to trace the early uses of the term ‘experimental philosophy’.

Here is the evidence that I am aware of for the emergence of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in early modern England. The first English work  to use the term ‘experimental philosophy’ according to EEBO was Robert Boyle’s Spring of the Air in 1660. Interestingly, the term philosophia experimentalis had already appeared in the title of Nicola Cabeo’s Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology of 1646 and Boyle cites Cabeo’s book twice in Spring of the Air. The first English book to use the term in its title was Abraham Cowley’s A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy of 1661. From then on, however, books about experimental philosophy start to roll off the presses of England. Boyle’s Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy and Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy, both published in 1663, got the ball rolling. (Incidentally, Cabeo’s book was reprinted in Rome in 1686 under the title Philosophia experimentalis.) As for manuscript sources, the earliest use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ that I have found is in Samuel Hartlib’s Ephemerides in 1635.

Another place to look for evidence for the inventor of the experimental philosophy is in discussions of natural philosophy and of experiment. It appears that Francis Bacon never used the term ‘experimental philosophy’, but he did develop a conception of experientia literata (learned experience), which might be thought to be a precursor of the experimental philosophy. This appears in Book 5 of his De augmentis scientiarum of 1623, where it is distinguished from interpretatio naturae (interpretation of nature). The experientia literata is a method of discovery proceeding from one experiment to another, whereas interpretatio naturae involves the transition from experiments to theory. But this doesn’t resemble the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy very closely. For example, the experimental philosophy was, on the whole, opposed to speculation and hypotheses and there is no sense of opposition or tension in Bacon’s distinction.

Furthermore, a distinction between operative (or practical) and speculative philosophy was commonplace in scholastic divisions of knowledge in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and this, no doubt provided the basic dichotomy on which the experimental/speculative distinction was based. But the operative/speculative distinction doesn’t map very well onto the experimental/speculative distinction, not least because by ‘operative sciences’ the scholastics meant ethics, politics and oeconomy (that is, management of society) and not observation and experiment.

Who invented the experimental philosophy? I don’t think that there is a determinate answer to this question, but I’m happy to be corrected and am keen for suggestions as to where to look for more evidence.

6 thoughts on “Who invented the Experimental Philosophy?

  1. A bit late of course, Hume might not count as a good candidate for the inventor of experimental philosophy. But if Robert Boyle or Francis Bacon is XPHI’s Copernicus, then maybe Hume is its Galileo. It’s amazing when you read the Treatise to note the relevant similarities to the methods and attitudes of the current experimental movement.

    This final passage of the introduction regarding the new science of human nature is especially striking, perhaps even the 18th century equivalent to the slogan now known as the XPHI anthem, out of the armchair and into the streets. After suggesting that “the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, to leave the tedious lingering method, which we have hitherto followed” he closes with a charge, “We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.”

  2. Hume was indeed one of the most important representatives of early modern experimental philosophy, especially when it came to following this methodology in moral philosophy, but this was the standard attitude among Scottish moral philosophers of the time. Claims like those you quote from the introduction to Hume’s Treatise can be found in texts on moral philosophy by authors before and after Hume. The first explicit demonstration of the way the ‘new science of human nature’ should be carried out can be found in a graduation oration by George Turnbull for the 1723 graduating class, entitled De scientiae naturalis cum philosophia morali conjunctione (On the unity of natural science and moral philosophy). Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy, published the same year than book three of Hume’s Treatise is full of such statements, as I have shown in a previous post. Besides Turnbull’s texts, you can find similar statements in the work of David Fordyce, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, David Hartley, Lord Kames and many others. The paper I’m giving in our upcoming symposium gives an overview of the role of the experimental method in the ‘science of man,’ where you can see that Hume was not alone in adopting and promoting the attitude of the experimental method. I can send this to you if you are interested.

  3. I think something like ESD–thought without a single signifier such as ‘experimental philosophy’–emerges in the debate in the Low Countries over the action of the heart. In brief, Descartes’ supporters, especially Cornelis van Hogelande, present the Cartesian model of the heart’s action as indubitably true, and grounded in reason alone:
    Hogelande, Cogitationes (1646), p. 195-6: “Noeterici verò, autore Clariss. Hervejô [sic] (cujus benignae liberalitati hanc cognitionem debemus) non solum secundam manifestas mechanicae leges, ex dictae venae cavae amplitudine, auriculaeque capacitate, ac crebra sanguinis in cor ex citata auricula injectione, solidè firmiterque rationcinantes; verum etiam in gratiam ratiocinationi non satis fidentium, ad investigationes vel disquisitiones reales & sensuales sese accingentes, easdémque aggredientes, omnis generis animialia viva dissecando: Tantam sanguinis copiam in variorum animalium corda infundi notarunt, ut comparatione secundum magnitudinem & constitutionem eorum cum homine factâ, facilè dimidiam unciam sanguinis singulis auriculae aperturis in cor humanum infundi, probabili conjecturâ aestimaverint.”
    Van Hogelande even goes so far as to present his own experiment as a mere afterthought, performed “while the printer hurries”:
    Hogelande, Cogitationes, pp. 147-149: “Licet quilibet ex supra dictis clarè satis intelligat, citatas cordis particulas à fermentatione sanguinis, per arteriam coronariam ejusdem parenchymati immissi, motum suum recipere; in gratiam tamen omni ratiocinationi diffidentium, solique experientiae credentium, sequens hoc & satis quidem facile experimentum, in praedictae veritatis confirmationem hisce adjungere non gravabor. A corde itaque anguillae majoris bisecto, atque in aqua aliquamdiu detento, omnem sanguinem mediocri pressione ita separavi, ut partes ejus orbi ligneo (secundum eam superficiem quâ laesae sive bisectae erant) satis diu impositae, nullum amplius ederent motum; donec eôdem à sanguine ei infuso madentem collocatae, paulatim, i.e. prius aliquamdiu null, deinde lentissimô, posteà [149] verò velocissimô moverentur motu: atque hoc experimentum eisdem particulis simili etiam successu iteravi; dum typograhpus festinat. quod ideo addo, ne quis existimet, me praecedentes rationes à posteriori (scilicet praedictô experimentô prius factô) collegisse. Eôdem modô, uti his particulis motus convulsivus, à fumis sive ventiformi materiâ, mediante fermentatione à sanguine separata, imprimitur; ita etiam totius cordis, quas in vivis sectionibus notamus convulsiones, simili fumorum sive ventiformis materiae motui tribuendas existimamus.”
    For Van Hogelande, Harvey’s followers ask for experiments, so he gives them one. But Descartes’ account–which always included the erroneous coincidence of ventricular diastole and arterial dilation–is proven only by ratiocination.
    On the other side, those physicians who explicitly followed Harvey–Johannes Walaeus, Franciscus Sylvius, and others–present a similar distinction but endorse the experimental approach.

    Here’s a clear passage from Walaeus, contrasting Descartes’ openly speculative account of the heart’s action with his own, explicitly experimental (and messy!) account:

    Walaeus, Epistola de Motu Sanguinis in Institutiones (1645), pp. 465-466: “Protrudi sanguinem viri quidam ingenio praeclari arbitrantur, quod calore cordis immensum rarescens, majorem locum exposcat, ideoque eum cor dilatare & attolere; cumque nec in dilatato corde contineri queat, in venam arteriosam arteriamque aortam tali effundi impetu, ut omnes distendat arterias & faciat pulsare. Suae autem opinionis hoc argumentum adferunt, quod cor anguillae alteriusve animalis, ubi pulsare desinit, si à substrato calefiat igne denuo pulsum edere conspiciatur. Sed an is pulsus fieri non posset, quod spiritus à calore vegetior factus, melius ei causae possit inserviere quae in corde pulsum facit? non aliter ac calefactis in vivorum sectione intestinis, musculisque, in quibus tamen nulla ebullitio est, restitui motus videtur. Omnino enim levis tantum quaedam rarefactio à tepore quodam in corde est, nulla ebullitio, aut diffusio subita. Et revera ob rarefactionem sanguinem è corde non exilire, in validis saepe canibus conspeximus, quorum cor discisso mucrone; cum ob effluxum sanguinis dimidia parte non repleretur, id erectum, à rarefactione repletum non fuit: sed accedente constrictione, portio illa sanguinis quae in corde reliqua erat, ultra quatuor pedes fuit ejecta, ut in magna frequentia nos & vicini conspurcaremur. Vnde evidens est, sanguinem à parte propelli.”

    Sylvius, in a medical disputation he wrote, “Disp. med. de febribus prima,” held Leiden, 9 July 1661, endorsed a similar view, contrasting the empirical observability and experimental demonstration of Harvey’s account–namely, that the ventricles contract as the arteries dilate, and cause the dilation–to Descartes’ fantasies, built from his laws of mechanics:

    prop. 19: “Docuit autem Harvejus, Medicorum, utpote Sensilium Philosophorum, sequutus morem ac Sensuum externorum testimonium, Arteriaq Dilatari, quando Cordis contrahuntur Ventriculi! & vice verâ, Contrahi easdem Arterias, quando Dilatantur Cordis Ventriculi.”

    prop. 20: “Cartesius verò, Mechanicae suae legibus, quàm Sensibus suis externis magis fidens, suspicatus est & opinatus, Dilatari simul, & Contrahi simul Cordis Ventriculos & Arterias.”

    To Sylvius, Descartes chimerical conclusions and method are so reprehensible, the “philosopher and mathematician” could not be considered an anatomist or physician:

    prop. 29: “Absit autem, ut inter legitimos Medicorum Filios aliquis reperiatur tam socors, cui (repugnante licet cum Aegrotorum nonnunquam damno Experientiâ) suis, alienisve adhaerere lubeat figmentis ac Chimaeris, quoniam malè sanae placuerunt Menti, aliquando & saepenumerò serò cum Medeâ exclamaturae, —Video meliora proboque; / Deteriora sequor.” The lamentation of Medea is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, bk. VII, l. 20.

    In Sylvius’ view, with a perspective conditioned by medical tradition and decades of experimentation and practice, Descartes could not be considered an anatomist and physician. Drawing the lines of discipline and identity so that Descartes remained a successful mathematician and philosopher was the gentlest criticism, but one that barricaded him from a place among the “Sons of Physicians.” For Sylvius, as for Walaeus and other leading Dutch anatomist-physicians, their investigative discipline was founded on close sensory observation and experimentation.
    They positioned experimentation, the explicit mainstay of the new anatomy and medicine, in opposition to speculative mechanism.
    In attacking Descartes’ ability to attend to the witness of his senses, Sylvius was attacking his credibility as an anatomist and physician. In his own categories, Harvey and Sylvius worked according to the custom of the physicians and anatomists, while Descartes thought as a philosopher blinded by the fantasies generated from his own laws of mechanics.

    This is not a full-fledged ESD, of course, but it seems structurally similar in key aspects. The focus is on method, and experimental methods are distinguished from imagination or ratiocination. Moreover, it is significant that this distinction is not created by partisans of one faction only, but is reinforced by influential figures on both sides of the controversy. Where Van Hogelande deprecated experiment and privileged imaginative ratiocination (speculation granted at least moral certainty by remarks at the end of Descartes’ _Principia_), Walaeus, Sylvius, and a host of other Dutch physicians celebrated an experimental, observational approach. In this case, the locus of the debate was the action of the heart and blood. There are other examples, and the distinction seems to grow throughout the 1640s and 1650s. This may parallel the English case in significant respects.

  4. This case study concerning Dutch disputes over the motion of the heart appears to me to be a very important piece of additional evidence for the emergence of the experimental/speculative distinction in the period before the founding of the Royal Society. It is interesting to compare it with the reception of Descartes’ vortex theory of planetary motions, which later in the century was also accused of being speculative and lacking in experimental confirmation.

    There is, however, an ironic twist to the dispute over the motion of the heart in the 1640s and that is that Harvey himself, the great English experimental physiologist, ended up conceding ground to the Cartesian theory by positing a limited ebullition theory in his _Second Essay to Jean Riolan_ of 1649. Harvey claimed there that there is an ebullition not in the ventricles but in the auricles of the heart!

  5. The reception of the vortex theory would be a great case study. In the controversy over the heart’s motion in the Low Countries, it seems especially important that the distinction between the speculative and experimental approaches was a boundary constructed from partisans on both sides. For Van Hogelande, the speculative nature of the Cartesian account was a virtue. It was quite the opposite for Walaeus and Sylvius! There was also an issue of disciplinary identity and bounding here. Van Hogelande was a physician as well, and Descartes was involved in his practice to some degree. But for Walaeus and Sylvius, Descartes’ speculative approach was not good medicine–it certainly wasn’t proper anatomy. I think this strong experimentalist strain comes in part from their joint work defending the circulation of the blood experimentally. It would be interesting to see if the SED maps at all onto disciplinary identities over time.

    The point about Harvey coming to take on something of the ebullition theory is an excellent one. Would you be able to point me to a reference for the locus in that essay to Riolan? I’ve found a very similar passage in his work on generation (p. 302 of the 1651 Latin edition and p. 276 of the 1653 English edition), but I’ve missed it in the essays. In the passage I did find, Harvey of course gives credit for the ebullition theory to Aristotle. Perhaps Harvey was thinking of a discussion from On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration (around 479b27 to 480b4), where Aristotle asserts the innate heat of the heart and explains that the heart distends when the fluid in the heart is heated and expands. Harvey’s similar suggestion might be a concession to Descartes and his followers, and this might be an Aristotelian gloss, but he might also have Aristotle’s explanation in mind as the primary source. After all, many contemporary physicians thought Descartes was merely borrowing from Aristotle, Galen, Fernel, and Erasistratus and adding ‘mathematical’ elaborations.

    Thanks for the reply and thanks for a great blog. This is important work and resonates very strongly with the evidence from early modern Dutch medicine.

  6. Harvey discuses the rarefaction of the blood and consequent dilatation of the auricle in the ‘Second Essay to Jean Riolan’ in his Exercitatio anatomica de circulatione sanguinis, London, 1649, pp. 101–2. Unlike the passage you mention in De generatione, Harvey does not mention Aristotle here, though there are close parallels between the two passages. My claim that this development in his theory of the movement of the blood and heart is a concession to the Cartesian view is based on the polemical context, rather than on an explicit reference to Descartes. It may be that the reference to Aristotle’s opinion as being ‘in some sort true’ in the account in the later De generatione, is an argument from authority aimed at mitigating any suggestion that Harvey had moved closer to the Cartesian position.