Seminar PCE: From natural history to science: The emergence of experimental philosophy

This is the weekly seminar associated with the three year research grant “From natural history to science: the emergence of experimental philosophy” coordinated by Dana Jalobeanu and financed by CNCS.

The project

The widespread and longstanding belief that early modern science coincides with or originates in the “new” natural philosophy of the mid and late seventeenth century has been the longstanding cannon in the history and philosophy of science. More recently, this claim was refined, questioned and challenged. Natural philosophy was shown to be a loosely defined category (Lüthy 2000). It was also shown to be a general umbrella for types and kinds of diverse and dissimilar investigations of nature. Peter Anstey has convincingly shown that one should distinguish between two kinds of natural philosophy: speculative and experimental (Anstey 2005), a distinction providing the methodological framework within which natural philosophy was practiced and interpreted in the seventeenth century. Other approaches have multiplied the kinds of natural philosophy at work in the seventeenth century. Seen from this perspective, therefore, the road from natural philosophy to science is not as straightforward as once believed.

The standard story until very recently was that experimental philosophy (early modern science) developed in the second part of the seventeenth century in close connection with the establishment of scientific academies and the emergence of a new attitude towards nature. According to this direction of research, experimental philosophy was based on “facts”: theory-free units of knowledge and practice, sometimes socially constructed and essentially transferable from one theoretical context to another (Daston 1991, 1995; Dear 1995; Shapin 1995). Moreover, the study of “facts” was seen as intrinsically connected with questions of evidence, testability, credibility and witnessing (Dear 1995; Johns 1999; Costa 2002; Shapiro 2002, Yeo 2007).

Consequently, the study of the origin and development of experimental philosophy has brought into the picture a discipline rather neglected by the historians of the scientific revolution, namely natural history. More precisely, it brought into focus a particular kind of natural history: the Baconian natural history of the late seventeenth-century.

Our project aims to continue this line of research while challenging its boundaries. We aim to bring new actors in this debate about the origins of early modern science, showing that the diversity of natural historical traditions equals or even surpasses that of the natural philosophies. Unfortunately, most of these forms of natural history have escaped so far the attention of the historians and philosophers of science. Most of the philosophers of science studying the early modern thought are still working within the Kuhnian divide between the mathematical and the experimental traditions that turns natural history into a caricature (Kuhn 1977). On the other hand, if historians of science have focused on Baconian natural history, historians of the Renaissance have equated natural history with a Plinian and Humanist tradition reaching maturity in the mid sixteenth-century, or what has been recently labeled “a science of describing” (Ogilvie 2006). Moreover, there is a striking divide between these two types of historical research. For the historian of science, Humanist natural histories are irrelevant to the emergence of early modern science. For the historian of natural history, Bacon’s role in the picture is unclear (Findlen, 1995) if he is not completely left out (Ogilvie, 2006).

Our project aims to fill this gap and bridge this divide. By putting together historians of science, philosophers of science and intellectual historians, we aim to show what one can gain from a thorough investigation of the late sixteenth-century natural histories and the study of the emergence of Baconian experimental philosophy in this context. More precisely, we claim that the early modern concept of experimentation originates in some of the unexplored natural histories of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. In order to do this, we will investigate in the first instance various forms of natural history scattered in writings classified so far as cosmographies, astronomical treatises, moral and medical anatomies, treatises on the human soul etc. We will show in what way one can see, behind the apparent diversity, a common interest in a certain kind of empirical investigations of nature, which is oriented towards problem-solving strategies and built upon the creative nature of experimentation. We will especially investigate the role of empirical observations and experiments within various forms of natural history, showing their complex relations with the theoretical and methodological content. Then, we will explore the ways in which Francis Bacon transformed the meaning of experimentation within natural history and used it as a basis for natural philosophy.

Our project opens novel aspects and issues in the study of early modern experimentation. On the one hand, we will disentangle the discussion of the nature and function of experiments 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 will show that experiments play an equally essential role in the context of (scientific) discovery: experiments function as problem-solving devices and methods of triggering creative analogies. Exploratory experimentation (Steinle 1999, 2002) is doubled by the creative role of experiment in generating natural histories. From this perspective, we will offer a new assessment of the importance and novelty of Bacon’s scientific contributions, in a more general and cross-disciplinary context of the early natural histories and we will discuss a number of interesting and yet unexplored meanings of Baconianism in the mid seventeenth century. Besides offering a new way of assessing the role and importance of Bacon’s natural history and clarifying the meaning of the Baconian concept of experiment and experimentation, our project will attempt to bridge a number of gaps in the current discipline-oriented research and offer a more integrated approach to questions pertaining to the nature, emergence and development of early modern science.


General objectives:

1. Challenging the received view on the origins of experimental philosophy by:

a. Pushing the origins of the “scientific revolution” backwards towards the beginning of the seventeenth century, by showing that the major ingredients of early modern science were already at work before the formation of scientific academies in the 1660s;

b. Challenging the received view on the nature, importance and impact of Bacon’s natural histories.

2. Refining the clear-cut divide between speculative and experimental natural philosophy by showing the diversity of natural historical approaches building up empirical and experimental elements.

3. Offering a more integrated approach to the history and philosophy of early modern science by focusing on the specific problem-solving and creative character of experimentation and experiment in the seventeenth century.

4. Integrating young researchers and students in an independent research team through active research and the work of editing and translating some of the major works of early modern experimental philosophy.


Specific objectives and stages of research:

1. Exploring the diversity of natural histories and exploring natural historical works that escaped so far to the attention of scholars: cosmographies and travel literature; natural history of the heavens; the transformation of the scientia de anima and the emergence of natural histories of the soul, mind and passions; mixed -mathematics and mechanics.

2. Showing that Francis Bacon worked with a multi-layered concept of natural history and emphasizing the creative and productive character of Baconian experiments by:

2.1. Investigating Bacon’s conception on experiment and experimentation

2.2. Critical discussions of the received views on the nature of experimentation and the relation between experiment and theory

3. Exploring the natural historical elements in the works of Galileo, Beeckman, Mersenne, Descartes and Gassendi by:

3.1. Investigating the concept of experiment in the “scientific circles” of the early seventeenth century and its Baconian origins

3.2. Assessing the relation between natural philosophy and natural history.


Method and approach of research

Our project proposes an essentially inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approach to the questions and objectives listed above. The team will comprise researchers coming from philosophy of science, history of science and intellectual history as well as a number of PhD students. The members of the team will both work to individual research tasks and communicate and discuss with the others in the weekly research seminars and during the workshops. By using the expertise of researchers with different backgrounds but focusing on common questions, we intend to offer a more in-depth investigation of essential texts, paratexts and contexts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century works on the investigation of nature.


Work plan

Our project will be structured on three stages, each stage of research planned for a 12 months period. All the members of the project will work full-time in this enterprise.

Year 1: Forms of natural history in the sixteenth and seventeenth century: cosmographies, travel literature, natural history of the heavens, scientia de anima, mixed-mathematics and mechanics

In the first year, the team will investigate specific forms of natural history that have escaped so far the attention of researchers. We will especially focus on be the role of empirical investigation and experimental research in works dealing with the study of natural world that were not so far classified as natural histories. Dana Jalobeanu and two of the research students will devote year 1 to the investigation of a number of sixteenth-century cosmographies and books on travel literature (Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, Pierre de la Primaudaye, Academie Françoise, Samuel Purchas’s larger project of Pilgrimage (1613), Pilgrime (1619) and Pilgrimes (1625)) showing the similarities of projects and objectives between such works and Bacon’s natural historical approach. Sorana Corneanu, together with one of the PhD students will study the development of sixteenth-century scientia de anima and the occurrence of early modern natural histories of the soul/mind. Mihnea Dobre and Grigore Vida will investigate the evolution and transformation of mixed mathematical sciences and the way a conception of empirical research and experimentation gets incorporated into mechanics and parts of astronomy. A special attention will be devoted to Galileo’s early natural historical works Sidereus nuncius and letters on sunspots (1611, 1613) and the redefinition of mathematics operated by John Dee and other early English mathematicians. At the end of the year 1, the team will organize an international workshop on forms of natural history.

In parallel with this research, the team will start the project of editing and translating two major works on natural history: Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum and Descartes’ Meteorology. A sub-team conducted by Dana Jalobeanu will work on the first and another team conducted by Mihnea Dobre will take care of the second. The work of editing will proceed with the help of a translation and editing weekly seminar. At the end of the year we will organize a 4-days workshop where the two teams will join in the work of editing, cross-referencing and discussing the two translations.

Year 2: The creative and problem-solving role of experiment in Francis Bacon’s natural history, and in early seventeenth-century scientific treatises

The second year of our project will be devoted to a thorough study of Bacon’s works on natural history. We will explore both his philosophical and methodological prefaces and summaries and his actual natural historical works (the Latin natural histories). We will especially focus on the way a new conception of experiment and experimentation emerged in the late natural histories through what Bacon called the literate experience. Our team will examine how this notion of Baconian literate experience was carried into the early-seventeenth century natural philosophy, following the especially its traces in the scientific treatises of Rene Descartes. This will produce a bridge between the investigation of the first-year research and what we aim to achieve in the third year of the project. All advanced researchers will be involved in this exploration of the transformation of the natural history, supervising the works of the young researchers, who, in turn, will focus on various case studies. At the end of the second year we will organize an international workshop on Bacon and Descartes on natural history, as well as the yearly translation and editing workshop. The work on translating and editing Descartes’ Meteorology will be brought to an end and the volume will be prepared for publication. We will also edit a collective volume issued from the first years’ research and international workshops.

Year 3: Experimental natural history in mid-seventeenth century science

One of the most heated debates in the current scholarship is about the circulation of knowledge in the early modern period. Very important in this respect is how the first scientific communities emerged and what was the type of knowledge produced. Informal circles gathered around figures such as Mersenne or Peiresc and acted upon the formulation of new practices. In this last year of the project, we shall focus on the first scientific circles, discussing the influence of “Baconian experimentation.” The team will try to join the two main branches developed so far, the Baconian method of natural history and the experimental approach of the new natural philosophy. Our working hypothesis is that the first influenced and shaped the formation of the new science. The third year of our research project will be devoted to an attempt to integrate various threads and research directions investigated so far. An important emphasis will be on the dissemination of results through publication, participation in conferences and editing collective volumes of papers. At the end of the third year, the team will submit to publication a second volume of collected papers and the two scholarly editions of Bacon’s Sylva and Descartes’ Meteorology.


Impact, relevance, applications

The research theme is centered on a relevant number of questions of which many are central for any study of the early modern period in various fields of research (history of philosophy, philosophy of science, intellectual history, history and philosophy of science and history of science). Therefore, it is expected that our planned research (workshops and colloquia, volumes and papers) will draw the attention of students coming from history and philosophy of science, history of philosophy, history of science and intellectual history. Our integrative methodology of research will allow students coming from different fields to engage in debates over primary texts, avoiding some of the pitfalls of secondary bibliography.

Putting this methodology into practice, we will organize 3 of international workshops and colloquia and we will publish 2 collective volumes containing papers by the team members and other collaborators. In addition to that, project members will publish research papers in peer-reviewed journals.

In addition to all this, the project will produce the first Romanian scholarly editions of Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum and Descartes’ Meterology. This editorial work is directed both towards the students and more general public and to the scientific formation of the students involved in our project.


Selective bibliography

1. Anstey, Peter R., “Experimental versus Speculative Natural Philosophy” in Anstey, Peter R. and Schuster, John A. (eds.), The Science of Nature in the Seventeenth Century: Patterns of Change in Early Modern Natural Philosophy (Springer, Dordrecht, 2005), pp. 215–242

2. Blair, Ann, “Historia in Theodor Zwinger’s Theatrum humanae vitae” in Pomata, Gianna and Siraisi, Nancy (eds.), Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (MIT Press, Cambridge/MA, 2005), pp. 269-296

3. Costa, Fontes da, “The Culture of Curiosity at the Royal Society in the first half of the Eighteenth Century”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 56 (2002): 147-166

4. Daston, Lorraine, “Baconian facts, Academic Civility, and the Prehistory of Objectivity”, Annals of Scholarship 8 (1991): 337-363

5. Daston, Lorraine, “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe”, Critical Inquiry 11 (1991): 93-124

6. Dear, Peter, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995)

7. Dear, Peter (1991), “Narratives, Anecdotes, and Experiments: Turning Experience into Science in the Seventeenth Century”, in Peter Dear (ed.), The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

8. Findlen, Paula, “Francis Bacon and the Reform of Natural History in the Seventeenth Century”, in History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe ,ed. Donald R. Kelley (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 239-260

9. Hanson, Elizabeth, Discovering the Subject in Renaissance England (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998)

10. Johnes, Adrian, “Identity, Practice, and Trust in Early Modern Natural Philosophy”, Historical Journal 42 (1999): 1125-1145

11. Kuhn, Thomas S., “Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions in the Development of Physical Science” in The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977), pp. 31–65

12. Lüthy, Christoph, “What To Do With Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy? A Taxonomic Problem”, Perspectives on Science 8 (2000): 164-195

13. Manzo, Silvia, “Probability, Certainty, and Facts in Francis Bacon’s Natural Histories. A Double Attitude towards Skepticism” in Maia Neto, José R., Paganini, Gianni and Laursen, John C. (eds.): Skepticism in the Modern Age: Building on the Work of Richard Popkin (Brill, Leiden, 2009), pp. 123-138

14. McAllister, James, “Thougth experiments and the belief in phenomena”, Philosophy of Science, 2004, 1164-1175.

15. Ogilvie, Brian, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006)

16. Poovey, Mary, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998)

17. Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985)

18. Shapiro, Barbara, A Culture of Fact: England, 1550 – 1720 (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2000)

19. Shapiro, Barbara J. Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

20. Shapiro, Barbara, “Testimony and Probability in seventeenth-century English natural philosophy: Legal origins and early development”, Studies in history and philosophy of science, 33 (2002) 243-263.

21. Steinle, Friedrich, “Experiments in History and Philosophy of Science”, Perspectives on Science, 10 (2002) 408 – 432

22. Steinle, Friedrich, “Entering new fields: exploratory role of experimentation”, Philosophy of Science, 64 (1997) 74-90