Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Speculative vs experimental philosophy

There is a new Otago-based blog centered on a fun, timely, and interesting HPS project:
With the rise of experimental philosophy, renewed interest in earlier attempts at experimental philosophy are timely, and I wish the Otago group much luck!
One of the main conceits behind the Otago project is that the Empiricism-Rationalism distinction is a construct of Kantian philosophy and misdescribes Early modern philosophy. This view is widespread among Early modern scholars, although I wouldn't be surprised if a majority of practitioners still buy into some version of the distinction. The Otago group proposes another distinction, that between speculative and experimental philosophers. And that framework drives the project. This has three virtues: 1. The distinction can be mapped onto debates within contemporary philosophy; 2. It's a distinction that does justice to much 17th century thought (it is an actor's category) 3. It allows the group to have a coherence and economies of scale (to use grant-speak).
Now as the wording of my second virtue suggests, I have some qualms. It ignores at least one other group of philosophers, namely those that believed in (mathematical) theory mediated measurement. I am thinking of Galileo, Huygens, and Newton, among the best known. These are not best described as experimental, although all were accomplished experimentalists (and Newton's oOptics is often assimilated to experimental traditions), but their work has very different character from say, Bacon or Boyle. (They are also not best described as speculative, because all three practiced a self-restraint on published speculation.) Certainly after the Principia this approach created standing challenge to all other forms of philosophizing. So the Otago framework will run into big trouble in 18th century.
I have argued that a better contrast can be drawn between those who thought that inspecting ideas (whatever the source--so this includes rationalists and empiricists) was the way forward and those who advocated theory mediated measurement. Moreover, it turns out that this distinction maps onto a related one: between system-building philosophers and the piecemeal approach, and I think better clarifies the predicaments of our philosophic times. But about these matters some other time.

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