From natural history to science: the emergence of experimental philosophy


Director of project:
Dana Jalobeanu

Team Members:
Mihnea Dobre
Sebastian Mateiescu
Oana Matei
Doina-Cristina Rusu
Claudia Dumitru

Associate Members:
Bogdan Deznan
Sandra Dragomir
Iovan Drehe
Laura Georgescu
Madalina Giurgea
Ioana Magureanu

Description of the project

PCE grant awarded by the CNCS, 2012-2015 ( PN-II-ID-PCE-2011-3-0719)

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This is a 3-years research grant awarded by the Romanian national agency for scientific research (CNCS) to a team of 7 researchers and students coordinated by Dana Jalobeanu at CELFIS (Center for Logic, History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest) for a project aiming to explore the ways in which observation and experiment featured in various forms of natural history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in view of reassessing the role and function played by natural historical explorations (ranging from cosmography to medical natural histories and from diverse collections of ‘individuals’ to topical investigations of natural phenomena) in the development of experimental philosophy and ultimately of the early modern science.

The project aims, on the one hand, to disentangle the discussion on the nature and function of early modern experimentation from its age-long association with questions of testimony, credibility and evidence. Without questioning the role of experimentation in the assessment of scientific theories, we intend to show on particular cases that experiments have played an equally essential role in the context of (scientific) discovery: as problem-solving devices, tools for triggering creative analogies or devices for generating or ordering works of natural history.

On the other hand, our purpose is to reconstruct a series of particular case studies and discuss them comparatively in order to show how rich and how relatively unexplored is the field of what has been labeled as ‘natural history.’ We also aim to extend the field and the label ‘natural history’ into relatively unexplored writings that defy disciplinary boundaries. Works classified as cosmographies, geographies, travel literature, medical literature, spiritual medicine etc. will be the subject of our investigation, in so far that they can be shown to contain interesting and sophisticated observations and ingenious experiments. Last but not least we aim to trace the ways in which some of these observations and experiments ‘migrated’ from works of natural history into treatises of natural (and experimental) philosophy or ‘early modern science.’

The Bucharest Graduate Conference in Early Modern Philosophy 2014 – Programme

Here is the programme for this year’s edition of the Bucharest Graduate Conference in Early Modern Philosophy, to be held at the Faculty of Philosophy (Splaiul Independentei 204) on 28-29 November 2014.

Friday, November 28

9.00-9.30: Opening address, coffee
9.30-10.30: John Henry (University of Edinburgh) – The Newtonian Moment: How Action at a Distance Became Part of Mainstream Physics (Uniquely) throughout the Long Eighteenth Century.
10.30-10.40: Coffee Break
10.40-11.20: Niels Martens (University of Oxford): Against Comparativism about Mass
11.20-12.00: Ovidiu Babes (University of Bucharest) – The Role of Demonstration in Descartes’ Early Works
12.00-13.40: Lunch
13.40-14.20: Andrei Nae (University of Bucharest) – The Therapeutic Function of Education in Bacon and Locke
14.20 – 15.00: Alexandra Bacalu (University of Bucharest) – Remedies Using the Imagination and the Passions in Early Modern Thought
15.00-15.20: Coffee Break
15.20-16.00: Anna Ortin (University of Edinburgh) – Hume, the Problem of Content, and the Idea of the Identical Self
16.00-16.40: Julieta Vivanco Undurraga (University of Navarra) – Contractualism, Representation and Natural Rights in Samuel Pufendorf
16.40-16.50: Coffee Break
16:50-17.50: Doina-Cristina Rusu (University of Bucharest) – Forms and Laws of Nature in Francis Bacon’s Natural Philosophy.

Saturday, November 29

9.30-10.30: Arianna Borrelli (Technical University Berlin) – Notions of “Spirit” and the Conceptualization of Experience in Early Modern Natural Philosophy
10.30-10.40: Coffee Break
10.40-11.20: Maike Scherhans (University of Oradea) – “What does it look like?” – Thomas Sydenham, John Locke and the Observational Method
11.20-12.00: Xinghua Wang (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) – Locke on Personal Identity
12.00-13.40: Lunch
13.40-14.20: Claudia Dumitru (University of Bucharest) – Locke and the Artificial Language Movement
14.20 – 15.00: Toth Oliver Istvan (Central European University) – The Role of Inherence in Spinoza’s Ethics
15.00-15.20: Coffee Break
15.20-16.00: Filip Buyse (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University) – Spinoza and the Laws of Parts which Adapt Themselves to the Laws or Nature of Other Parts
16.00-16.40: Sean Winkler (University of Leuven) – The Relationship between Spinoza’s Physics and his Doctrine of Conatus
16.40-16.50: Coffee Break
16:50-17:30: Andrew Sackin-Poll (University of Warwick) – A Reappraisal of the Role the Idea Idearum Doctrine Plays in Spinoza’s Metaphysics of Mind

A Cartesian challenge to the early modern philosophy of experiment

Much has been written about seventeenth-century experiments and experimental philosophy. My paper for the CELFIS seminar of October 8 aimed at engaging with that tradition. In particular, I was concerned with the recent discussion by Peter Anstey of the so called BBH model of the experimental philosophy (BBH stands for the name of Bacon, Boyle, and Hooke). As a reaction to Thomas Kuhn and Peter Dear, Peter Anstey’s article provides a very nice introduction into the Baconian experimentation and its main developments in the second half of the seventeenth century. Both Boyle and Hooke engage with a form of experimentation that is labelled here “Baconian.” It is not, however, the purpose of this small blog post to engage with the details of Anstey’s article, but rather to try to complement his analysis with a new example of experimentalism that can be found in a completely different source. This is the case of the experimental work of the Cartesian natural philosopher, Jacques Rohault.

In my lecture, I’ve referred to two experiments that were performed by Rohault: with pneumatic devices, on the one hand, and with glass drops, on the other hand. It is well known that Boyle was the main contributor to the pneumatic or baroscopic experiments of the 1660s. Hooke was among the first to examine glass drops and to provide an explanation for both the production of the small glass objects and for the curious phenomena produced by those. Interestingly, Rohault deals with both of these issues in experimental terms.

Now, one might very well wonder why is important that a Cartesian philosopher was providing an explanation for some intriguing experiments; after all, he is a Cartesian, therefore a speculative philosopher (see the Otago blog here and here), and he would explain all phenomena according to the principles of Cartesian physics. Yet, this classification of seventeenth-century philosophers into “experimental” and “speculative” should not be an impediment in searching for explanations in one’s writings. But there is more than that and I argued in my paper that it is precisely Rohault’s experimental approach to the study of the two phenomena that would make difficult to draw a clear boundary between his work and the works of the most representative experimenters of the BBH model.

I have argued elsewhere that Rohault treats the study of the properties of the air in experimental terms. He does not simply jump from the conclusions derived in the general part of Cartesian physics (which is most often claimed that he does), but actively engage in experiments and observations.

With respect to the study of glass drops, Rohault is also concerned to perform all the needed observations before providing an explanation. This is also what Hooke did in his Micrographia.

As a tentative conclusion for this very sketchy blog-post, I claim that based on these two experiments, Rohault should be placed in the same context with Boyle and Hooke, so as a representative of the BBH model. If, on the contrary, one would like to point to his “Cartesianism,” then, one simply overlooks his experiments and this would raise new worries for the use of historical categories: if one dismisses some experimental practices only on the basis of placing the practitioner to one or another camp, then, the problem is not any more with the use of experiment in natural philosophy, but with the way various natural philosophies of the period were classified in our histories.

CELFIS Seminar

1 October: Miklos Redei (London School of Economics),John von Neumann: the power of mathematics and the moral responsibility of scientists’

8 October: Mihnea Dobre (Universitatea din Bucuresti), ‘Filosofia experimentala a secolului al XVII-lea si experimentalismul cartezian’

15 October: Radu Ioanicioiu (Departamentul de Fizica Teoretica,
Institutul de fizica si inginerie nucleara Horia Hulubei)
, ‘Complementarity: from wave-particle duality to delayed-choice experiments’

22 October: Iordan Avramov (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences & NEC) ‘Rivers of Letters and Oceans of Print: The Many Book Roles of Henry Oldenburg, 1641-1677′

29 October: Angus Vine (University of Stirling), ‘Bacon and the Management of Knowledge

5 November: Charles Wolfe (University of Ghent), ‘From medicina mentis to materialist philosophy of mind: a problem of naturalization?’

12 November: Adriana Sora (University of Bucharest),  ‘Explicatia constiintei. Clarificări conceptuale’

17 noiembrie (seminar CELFIS exceptional): Sam Fletcher (MCMP) ‘The Topology of Intertheoretic Reduction’

19 November: Slobodan Perovic (University of Belgrade)  ‘Niels Bohr’s Complementarity and the Experimental Method’

26 November: Arianna Borelli (Technical Univ. Berlin), TBA

3 December: Richard David-Rus (Insitutul de Antropologie) ‘Explanation and simulation’

10 December: Vlad Alexandrescu (Universitatea din Bucuresti), TBA

17 December: Mihaela Miroiu (SNSPA), TBA

15 ianuarie: Enrico Pasini (University of Pisa) TBA

21 ianuarie: Constantin C. Brîncuș (Romanian Academy, Iasi Branch) ‘The Epistemic Significance of Valid Inference – A Model-Theoretic Approach’

Francis Bacon on the acceleration of time

This is a discussion of the notion of acceleration of time in different natural processes, as occurring in Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, Century IV, experiments [301-354].

Keywords: acceleration of time: of liquors, of putrefaction, of growth, of stature, vivification, spirits.

Among the inter magnalia naturae which Bacon discusses in his works, the acceleration of time is one of the most important, for Bacon places it next to the creation of matter in divine miracles (introduction to century IV). The Verulam presents a twofold motivation for pursuing the acceleration of time in nature: “it is a spur to nature” and “of good use”. From the first observation one can infer that Bacon seems to do nothing than to present a process which takes place inside the boundaries of nature and which normally would develop in a larger period of time. Here is a presentation of some of Bacon’s most important examples of acceleration of time: acceleration of liquor’s clarification, of maturation, of putrefaction, of birth and of growth and stature.

1. Acceleration of liquors’ clarification.

Bacon talks about different types of accelerations and starts with discussing at some length the acceleration of liquors’ clarification. Here is, in a word, the strategy for achieving this task: “to know the means of accelerating clarification, we must first know the causes of clarification” [301]. And among the causes listed, the first one can be called mechanical (weight, motion, activity, percolation, etc): the separation between grosser and finer parts of the liquor; the second cause is the settlement of equal equilibrium between tangible and pneumatic and the third cause is the refining of the spirit itself.

After Bacon lists the causes, he moves to proposing some trails, which can be classified under three categories of experiments, as follows:

▪ instances of separation: [305], [307], [308], – percolation [311]

▪ instances of equilibrium: [309], [310]

▪ instances of the refining of the spirit [306], [309], [310]


2. Acceleration of maturation [312].

Bacon talks of several types of accelerations of maturation: of drinks, fruits, impostures and ulcers, metals; he also mentions that the one on “impostures and ulcers” will be tackled throughout the section “experiments medicinal”, but this has never appeared among Sylva’s entries.

a) maturation of drinks takes place by the congregation of spirits together and so it looks similar with clarification of liquors: “is effected partly by the same means that clarification is…” [312]. Examples of maturation of drinks are seen in must, wine and vinegar [313]. It is worth to note here that Bacon is plain here that spirits are endowed with motions, as the following examples suggest: “enforcing the motion of the spirit” [314]… “enforce the spirits by some mixtures” [314]. As in general for Bacon, the spirit seems to be here a more fundamental concept as motion. The question that opens up is what is the relationship between spirit and motion and the readers of this post are invited to express their opinion on this issue, too.

b) maturation of fruits is done by “calling forth of the spirits of the body outward…”, by digestion of the grosser parts – by heat, motion, attraction, putrefaction. Putrefaction therefore starts with maturation [317].

During his talk of maturation, Bacon also makes an interesting remark on the possibility to perform transmutations on bodies: “But we, when we shall come to handle the version and transmutation of bodies, and the experiments concerning metals and minerals, will lay open the true ways and passages of nature, which may lead to this great effect” [326]. One important question to ask here is: are those transmutations done within the boundaries of nature or not? Later on in the same entry, Bacon seems to be saying yes to the first option and contrasts it with the alchemist interpretation: “The sixth is, that you give time enough for the work; not to prolong hopes (as the alchemists do), but indeed to give nature a convenient space to work in”.


3. (Inducing and) Acceleration of putrefaction.

Putrefaction precedes generation, both being taken as the true boundaries of nature “or the guides to life and death” (introduction before [329]). Putrefaction is defined as being caused by a motion “confused and inordinate”, while on the contrary, vivification appears when the motion “has a certain order” [344].


4. Experiment solitary touching the acceleration of birth.

Bacon gives here two causes for the acceleration of birth: the rapid development of the embryo and the expulsion of it from the mother [353]. He altogether rejects the old thesis that this acceleration might suffer decisively from astral influences.


5. Experiment solitary touching the accelerating of growth and stature (of children) [354]

Bacon lists here three causes for speeding up growth and stature.

  1. Plenty of nourishment
  2. Nature of nourishment
  3. Exciting natural heat

The first one is not always recommended for it can be hurtful for the child. The second warns us not to feed the children with over-dry nourishment for this impedes growth. And finally, cold nourishment should be avoided in childhood for generally “heat [and not cold] is requisite for growth”, though a mature man should be more open to cold for it helps with condensing and preserving the spirit.




Vegetable Philosophy – Three Different Stages in the Mid-Seventeenth Century Hartlib Circle

According to the Hartlib Circle members’ interest for vegetable philosophy, I have been able to identify three different approaches associated with three different stages.

The first stage (the period until 1650) is dominated by the figure of Gabriel Plattes. [1] He is the first member of the Hartlib Circle expressing his vision upon vegetable philosophy and husbandry regarded as projects of ameliorating the material of Creation (soil, plants, human beings). Inspired from Bacon’s natural philosophy and sharing the general ideas animating the Circle, he considers amelioration a process of experimentation and technological improvement of the material of Creation. Plattes reformulates the view on husbandry, promoting a new type of ‘integrated science’ able to cultivate the land and the human soul as well. Apart from other tracts on husbandry published before,[2] Plattes used the alchemical tradition but committed the application of chemistry to a moral end. He developed his own experimental view on vegetable philosophy, placing at the very core of amelioration the idea of technological advancement (a project based on transmutation experiments and cyclical chemical change). Plattes’ contribution rests in providing a number of ‘technologies of amelioration’ for the material of Creation (soil, plants, human beings), technologies of salvation compatible with both economic advancement and religious salvation.

The second stage (1650-1660) is influenced in a great deal by the figure of Gabriel Plattes. All the writers on vegetable philosophy and husbandry (Austen, Blith, Dymock, Child, Beale, Weston and, later, Evelyn)[3] mention Plattes in their works and his contribution to the field. Writers of this stage express strong millenaristic beliefs due to their association with the Hartlib Circle and Samuel Hartlib. They continue the line imposed by Plattes, of technological experimentation and amelioration of the material of Creation but add grafting experiments. In this stage we can spot a shift of attention from alchemical transmutation to gardening, from experiments with minerals and metals to experiments with plants. The Virgilian influence is evident in this stage. We can include in this stage a part of Evelyn’s activity, the one chronologically associated with the Civil War. Due to his aristocratic affiliation, Evelyn experienced social isolation and he imagined different hortulan societies, living in perfect harmony with nature, sharing interest for the study of nature and for exploring the practical and spiritual possibilities of vegetable philosophy.

The third stage (the period after 1660), associated with the beginning of the Royal Society is characterized by amelioration accents only in a small deal.[4] If Evelyn’s Elysium Britanicum (started in the late 1650s) begins with his personal interpretations of the Genesis, the accent embedded in his 1660 works (such as Sylva and Pomona) is more scientific than religious. Austen, for instance, republished his treatise of Fruit-Trees and rededicated it to Royal Society Fellow Robert Boyle (see Austen Treatise, 3rd edition Oxford, 1665; Treatise of Fruit Trees, with the Spiritual Use of and Orchard (1653 – first edition). The first edition had been dedicated to Samuel Hartlib. The Royal Society revealed the so called closely guarded secrets and the spiritual reformed, so much embraced by Hartlib, was downplayed. [5]

[1] Plattes, G., A Discovery of Infinite Treasure, London, 1639.

Plattes, G., A Discovery of Subterraneall Treasure, London, 1639.

[2] Such as Sir Hugh Plat’s Jewell House of Art and Nature, London, 1594. Although he had a deep interest in chemistry, medical chemistry and ways to improve the barren soil, Sir Hugh Plat was more influenced by the alchemical tradition (Paracelsus, John Hester, Bernard Palissy) than the desire to ameliorate the human estate.

[3] Here is a short list including treaties on husbandry and vegetable philosophy issued in the 1650s inside the Hartlib Circle :

Dymock, C., An Invention of Engines of Motion Lately Brought to perfection. … London, 1651;

[Hartlib], S., Dymock, C., An Essay for the Advancement of Husbandry –Learning: or Propositions For the Erecting a College of Husbandry … London, Printed by Henry Hills, 1651.

Hartlib, S., Samuel Hartlib his Legacy: or an Enlargement of the Discourse of Husbandry used in Brabant and Flandres … London, 1651.

Child, R., A Large Letter concerning the Defects and Remedies of English Husbandry written to Samuel Hartlib by Sir Richard Child (part of Samuel Hartlib his Legacy).

Blith, W., The English Improver Improved, The Third Impression, London, 1652.

[Virginia Ferrar, et al.], A Rare and New Discoverie of a Speedy Way, and Easie Means … for the Feeding of Silk-Worms, London, 1652.

Boate, G., Irelands Naturall History. Being a true and ample Description of its Situation, Greatnes, Shape and Nature, London, 1652.

[Hartlib] Cressey Dymock, A Discoverie For Division o Setting out of Land, as to the best Form. … London, Printed for Richard Wodenothe in Leaden-hall-street, 1653.

Austen, R., A Treatise of Fruit-Trees shewing the manner of grafting, setting, pruning, and ordering of them in all respects… with the alimentall, and physical use of fruits. Togeather with the spirituall use of an orchard: held forth in divers similitudes, etc., Oxford, For Tho. Robinson, 1653.

Blith, W.,The English Improver Improved or the Survey of Husbandry Surveyed. … the Third Impression much Augmented, London, 1653.

Plattes, G., The Profitable Intelligencer, Included in Samuel Hartlib his Legacy, 3rd edition 1655 as Mercurius Lætificans.

Austen, R., The Spiritual Use of an Orchard; or Garden of Fruit-Trees. … Oxford, 1657.

Beale, J., Herefordshire Orchards, A Pattern For all England. Written in an Epistolary Address to Samuel Hartlib Esq., London, printed by Roger Daniel, 1657.

Austen, R., Observations upon some part of Sr F. Bacon’s Naturall History, as it concernes fruit-trees, fruits, and flowers, H. Hall for T. Robinson, Oxford, 1658.

Hartlib, S., The Compleat Husbandman: or, A discourse of the whole Art of Husbandry, London, 1659, (reissue of the second edition of Hartlib’s Legacy).

[4] Evelyn, J., Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions … Printers to the Royal Society, and are to be sold at their Shop at the Bell in S. Paul’s Church yard, 1664.

Austen, R., A Treatise of Fruit-Trees…Whereunto is annexed Observations upon Sr F. Bacon’s Natural History…The third impression, revised, with additions, etc., William Hall for Amos Curteyne, 1665.

Austen, R., A dialogue, or familiar discourse, and conference betweene the husbandman, and fruit-trees; in his nurseries, orchards, and gardens, etc., Oxford, printed by Hen. Hall for Thomas Bowman, 167[6].

Dymock, C., The New and Better Art of Agriculture, 1670.

Evelyn, J., Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions London, Printed by Jo. Martyn, Printer to the Royal Society, and are to be sold at their Shop at the Bell in S. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1679.

[5] Di Palma, V., “Drinking Cider in Paradise: Science, Improvement, and the Politics of Fruit Trees” in A. Smyth (ed.), A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in the Seventeenth Century England, Cambridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2004, 161-80, 165.

Naturalism: Cardano, Telesio, and Bacon


Some notes on the reading group Naturalism: Cardano, Telesio, and Bacon (Bucharest-Princeton Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, Bran 8-13 July 2014).


Proponents: Daniel Garber, Mihnea Dobre, Doina-Cristina Rusu.

The reading group examined some of the views of Girolamo Cardano, Bernardino Telesio, and Francis Bacon. We selected passages from Cardano’s De subtilitate (book II), Telesio’s On the nature of things (chaps. 8-16), and Bacon’s Sylva (experiments 30-32, 800-830) and the Novum Organum II. From the point of view of our research project, From Natural History to Science: the emergence of experimental philosophy, this was very important as it put in comparison Bacon’s views with some of his sources. We were especially interested in exploring the views of the three philosophers with respect to spirits, qualities, principles, and elements. We discussed the relation between heat, fire, and motion. Further, we compared the nature of air and the notion of “perception” in the three philosophers, asking how this would entail more experimental possibilities.

Our discussion was framed by the cosmological views of Cardano and Telesio. In Cardano, we were interested in his tripartite division of the elements (earth, air, and water) and what would be the status of fire (seen as a quality) in this new cosmological image. Cardano’s investigation of fire and his attempt to provide new experimental techniques for studying it allowed us to raise one of the main questions of the Bucharest-Princeton Seminar; namely, what “naturalization” means? Is this a worthy concept to describe the various attempts of early modern philosophers to pursue a more systematic empirical investigation of nature?

With Telesio we turned to explore the nature of air as the intermediate medium between the sky and the earth. We addressed the problem of how heat and cold act in the world and cause all the phenomena, and we opened the question of subtlety in experimental context. This question was further addressed in the case of the passages selected from Francis Bacon. His use of the weather-glass for exploring the effects of air and heat was discussed in the selected passages. The issue of measurement and how to perform accurate observations with the instruments was singled out in our discussion.

CFP: Bucharest Graduate Conference in Early Modern Philosophy

Bucharest Graduate Conference in Early Modern Philosophy


Fifth Edition: 28-29 November 2014

Keynote speakers:

John Henry (University of Edinburgh)
Arianna Borrelli (Technical University of Berlin)


The Center for Logic and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Bucharest is organizing its fifth graduate conference for advanced master and PhD students working on early modern philosophy. The event will be held on November 28-29, 2014 at the University of Bucharest, Romania.


We cordially invite graduate students to submit abstracts on any topic related to early modern philosophy at by August 20, 2014. Abstracts should not exceed 500 words and should be prepared for blind review. Papers will be given 40 minutes (30 minutes talk, 10 minutes open discussion). The Program Committee will notify authors of its decision by September 10.


Conference fee: € 40.

For any further questions, you can get in touch with us via email or on Facebook at


New Publications

Just a quick update on some of our recent publications.

For anyone interested in reading Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius as a natural history, Dana Jalobeanu’s recent article can offer a very useful introduction. The article was published by the Revue Roumaine de Philosophie.

Mihnea Dobre published a book review of Gideon Manning’s edited volume Matter and Form in Early Modern Science and Philosophy. The review can be found in the British Journal form the History of Science.


In the mid-seventeenth century, the problem of vegetable philosophy was very much debated inside the Hartlib Circle. Samuel Hartlib, the center of a wide circle of correspondents, acted as a publicizer, sharing, printing, and even budgeting a significant number of interesting and novel ideas, and in this way helping the wider dissemination of inventions and ideas. In 1650 Hartlib turned his attention from ecclesiastical and pedagogical projects to husbandry and vegetable philosophy.

What exactly is vegetable philosophy? And what is its relation with the tradition of husbandry? This field of study does not have a place in today’s classification of knowledge. It is not botanic, because its objectives are diverse (metals, stones, natural ores). It is not just agriculture, because it has a manifested inclination for alchemical experiments. And, to complicate things even further, it is not simply natural philosophy, because it has a practical and operative side, concerned with technological advancement and amelioration.

Vegetable philosophy emerged inside the Hartlib Circle and has been used to define a new field of interest, which could connect alchemical interests, extraction of metals, natural magic, cultivation of the land, the Baconian tradition of experimentation and dedication to the open character of knowledge and benefit of mankind. Vegetable philosophy is essentially technological and anti-speculative, experimental and operational, orientated towards production of specific results, recipes, and technologies transferable form one situation to another and even from one domain to another.

The concept of vegetable philosophy has been first used by Ralph Austen:

‘The Learned, and incomparable Author Sr Francis Bacon hath left unto men such Rules, and helps in all kinds of Learning, that they will be much wanting to themselves, if Arts, and Sciences improve not, very much above what they have been in former ages: And as the foresaid worthy Author was eminently seen in all Arts and Sciences, so his delight was especially (as is recorded of him) in Vegetable Philosophy, which was as it were, his darling delight, having left unto us much upon Record in his Naturall History; some part whereof referring to Fruit-trees, Fruits, and Flowers, I have, (by encouragement from himself) endeavoured to improve unto publique profit, according to what understanding, and experience I have therein … And seeing I perceive (since you have been pleased to honour me with your acquaintance) that your Genius is towards things in nature, to promote them, in order to the Common good, and that I have encouragements in my labours thereabout, (both as to the Theory and Practise) I humbly, present these following Observations into your hands, and am (for all your favours).’[1]

Which is the relation between husbandry and vegetable philosophy? Is vegetable philosophy just a sub-domain of husbandry (along with other sub-domains such as botanic, agriculture, metallurgy)? Or knowledge of husbandry is a prerequisite for vegetable philosophy?

[1] Austen, R., Observations upon some part of Sr Francis Bacon’s Naturall History, as it concernes fruit-trees, fruits, and flowers …, Oxford, Hall for Thomas Robinson, 1658, Dedication To the honourable Robert Boyle Esq. sonne to the Lord Boyle of Corke.

From Natural History to Natural Magic: Francis Bacon’s “Sylva sylvarum” – PhD dissertation

My dissertation “From Natural History to Natural Magic: Francis Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum,” draws attention to a posthumously published and neglected book by Francis Bacon, Sylva sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries. Because of its title, this work has generally been taken as belonging to the genre of natural history. This dissertation shows that Sylva mixes elements of natural history with those of physics, mechanics, metaphysics and 1466315_10200784446793912_901050667_nnatural magic. Moreover, Sylva sylvarum has often been regarded as an imperfect natural history, because it looked like an amalgam of observations, experiments and theoretical considerations on very different topics. Arguing once more against the prevalent view, this thesis tries to show that this work reflects Bacon’s model of how nature can and should be manipulated by the naturalist.
According to Bacon, the reform of the natural sciences must start with collecting natural histories, that is, with collecting facts about nature, through observing and experimenting. Natural philosophy has the task to theorize upon these histories in order to arrive at the principles behind the unity of nature. Physics – the first science of natural philosophy – begins to theorize upon them so as to discover the hidden processes of nature, which lie behind the visible phenomena. As for metaphysics – the second speculative discipline – it seeks a higher degree of abstraction. Mechanics and magic, the two operative sciences, in turn, apply the knowledge thus obtained and modify natural bodies, mechanics using the knowledge of physics and magic that of metaphysics. Physics investigates the hidden structures of bodies, from the viewpoint of their material and efficient causes. Metaphysics studies the formal causes of these schematisms, which are also called “forms.” As this dissertation proves, Bacon’s science works through a continuous interplay between theory formation and its verification in practice. This means that while speculative philosophy is composed by provisional rules and axioms, there are also different types of experiments, functioning at different levels of knowledge. It also means that magic can be performed before metaphysics has been completed, by testing its provisional axioms.
Chapter one offers an overview of the existing scholarship on Bacon’s natural philosophy. The aim of this chapter is to understand the status quaestionis and to show where further research is needed. The analysis of Sylva’s contents starting in chapter 2 shows that some of the negative judgements that have led to its general neglect are not warranted. Sure enough, its use of the vernacular, its lack of order, and the dispersion of its subject matters over many disciplines are certainly puzzling. This thesis argues that there is a methodological purpose behind these puzzles. Bacon used the vernacular and his method of presentation as a way of selecting his readers, in the sense that he aimed to reach those who could discern the unity behind the apparent diversity of nature reflected in separate experiments, and who could connect the instances presented in Sylva both with each other and with the theory and experiments provided in Bacon’s other works. While this viewpoint does not yield a possible secret order of the experiments, it does connect the lack of order with Bacon’s method for the transmission of knowledge.
By means of a comparison with the Latin natural histories that Bacon had published during his lifetime, we find in Sylva falls only in a small part under the definition of a natural history: we find descriptions of facts, interventionist experiments, advice for further experimentation, pieces of theoretical considerations, axioms, medical receipts, and instances of natural divination or spiritual magic. All these instances are also found in the Latin natural histories, under their proper designations and they rise Sylva at the level of those histories he “kept for himself” and wrote for the Instauratio magna.
Chapter three focuses on a specific group of experiments, namely those used in the production of knowledge. It proposes a classification of these experiments into six classes. The accent is put on the last three classes of experiments, which are are proper “experiments of light.” The first of them studies the changes a body undergoes during a process. These experiments not only provide the basis for further experimentation, but they can be tabulated, just like the famous experiments reported in the Novum organum or in the Historia densi et rari. Because some of these changes cannot be observed directly by the experimenter, and the only way in which they can be made observable is with the help of specially designed instruments, another type of experiments is needed. They are particularly important, as they provide insight into what is happening at the level of the hidden activity of matter. The last class of experiments, finally, uses simplified models and then transfers the knowledge obtained to modify more complex classes of objects. In order for this transfer to be done, very strong metaphysical assumptions are needed. Bacon bases this transfer upon his matter theory, considering that there exists a fundamental set of entities and of activities that are everywhere the same.
This use of simplified models is analysed at length in chapter four: plants are simplified models of animals and human beings. Many of these experiments are taken from Della Porta’s Magia naturalis and this has incidentally been taken as proofs that the Sylva sylvarum is above all a collection of experiments copied from literary sources. A detailed comparison of the reports on plants in the Sylva and the Magia naturalis shows, however, how critical, original and creative Bacon was in using his sources. The major changes Bacon introduces into Della Porta’s instances are the generalisation according to his matter theory and the addition of explanatory causes also in terms of matter theory. This dissertation also brings into light a new source of Sylva – Hugh Platt’s Floraes Paradise. Platt’s book is in fact Bacon’s second major source for the experiments with plants. In more than one case, Platt’s experimental reports are used to reject Della Porta’s “fantastical” theories. While Della Porta remains the most important source for Bacon, the latter’s willingness to reject certain experiments or theories reported in the Magia naturalis on the basis of Platt’s reports demonstrates that Bacon did not blindly copy his sources, but made a philosophically and experimentally informed choice.
Chapter five continues the comparison between Della Porta’s Magia naturalis and Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum, with an examination of their respective understanding of natural magic and the manipulation of nature. As is shown in this chapter, Bacon took Della Porta’s book to be about physics and mechanics (according to his own definition of these sciences), because they are bound to the knowledge and the modification of individual bodies. Bacon wished to take these experiments further in the service of the construction of a metaphysical theory and a truly magical manipulation of bodies, which required the knowledge and manipulation of “forms.”
The first part of this chapter deals with the redefinition of Bacon’s form of heat as given in the second book of the Novum organum. The form of heat can be influenced and induced on a given body by manipulating the basic appetites of matter. What the natural magician must do is to understand which appetite must be activated to which effect and how this can be achieved, so that in collaboration with the existing forms naturally occurring in a given body, a certain motion will be produced, which will induce the change of a simple nature in that body. Though mechanics and magic may sometimes produce the same changes in the bodies; magic, can, however, go further and create new things. This is possible because magic manipulates more fundamental entities of matter and the changes produced upon a body are greater. It is precisely in this understanding of the natural magician and the type of knowledge and of operations of which he is capable that the difference between Bacon and Della Porta lies. The latter possesses, at least in Bacon’s view, a superficial knowledge of the natural phenomena as well as of the artificial ones he produces. The implications of this difference show up not only in the central concept of magic itself, but also in Bacon’s and Della Porta’s respective understanding of the fundamental processes of nature, such vivification, transmutation or new species, analysed in the second part of the last chapter.
When one connects the features of magic, discussed in this chapter, with the evidence produced in the other chapters, the specific feature of Sylva becomes evident. As mentioned earlier, not all the “experiments” in Sylva are experiments of metaphysics or magic. Many of them remain at the level of descriptions of facts or simple experiments of natural history. Others are experiments of physics and mechanics. They contain explanations in terms of material and efficient causes or else superficial manipulations of bodies. However, a great number of experiments involve areas that for Bacon belong to metaphysics and magic. Sometimes it is necessary to connect different experiments in order to discover the profound knowledge they contain when combined. This intelligence and labour required for this combination was – or so I claim in this dissertation – how Bacon selected the readers by which he wished to be understood. With respect to our classification of experiments, provided in Chapter three, it is in the transit from the experiments studying changes of bodies during a process to those experiments rendering invisible processes visible that the experimenter enters the realm of natural philosophy. Depending on how deep he will delve in the process of his investigations, he can arrive at a provisional knowledge of forms. In the verification of these provisional rules – these axioms become rules once they are put in practice – if they turn out to work, natural magic is performed. An even clearer confirmation of these axioms is to be found when the rule is applied to objects not previously studied, as happens in the transfer from simple models to the complex subjects.
All in all, then, Sylva sylvarum can be read as an instruction booklet which provides models and instructions of how nature has to be investigated and transformed. Bacon saw his project as being far from complete. Still, he believed that science could advance if his investigations were imitated and advanced by others.

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