Experiment, Speculation and Religion in Early Modern Philosophy

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Alberto Vanzo, Peter R. Anstey
Routledge Studies in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
    , March
     308 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The papers collected in Experiment, Speculation and Religion in Early Modern Philosophy, a volume edited by Alberto Vanzo and Peter R. Anstey, address the role of experimentation in the intellectual life of the early modern period, and in particular in the early modern Anglosphere. They mainly serve to reexamine previous assumptions that not only did the experimental philosophy that arose in the period do so in opposition to speculative philosophy’s dominance, but that the opposition between experimental and speculative philosophy in that period maps neatly onto the opposition between empiricism and rationalism in modern philosophy. The chapters likely to hold immediate interest for those interested in religion, however, are those that discuss the religious implications and justifications of both speculation and experimentation.

Catherine Wilson’s “What (Else) Was Behind the Newtonian Rejection of ‘’Hypotheses’?” questions the continuity between the experimental-speculative and rationalist-empiricist oppositions most directly. She also comments on the role of religion in the Newtonian rejection of hypothesis (and its bearing on a possible Newtonian endorsement of experimentation or rejection of speculation). She argues that physico-theology was a central factor in Isaac Newton’s rejection of hypothesis in favor of argument from phenomena, suggesting that he and his followers, rather than favoring strict experimentalism and rejecting speculation entirely (and doing so on purely epistemological grounds), instead resisted hypothesis due to the possibly atheist implications of the Cartesian “theory of self-sufficient nature,” dismissing the theory as mere hypothesis on theological grounds (161). In support of this argument, she cites a number of contemporary theological (and/or polemical) sources that rejected philosophy’s apparent dependence on hypothesis as a response to natural philosophers’ reduction of religion to “meer [sic] philosophical speculation” (166; emphasis original).

Against this backdrop, Wilson argues that Newton’s rejection of Cartesian conclusions served to defend his (and other Royal Society natural philosophers’) experimental projects from the charges of atheism leveled against natural philosophy (both experimental and speculative) by some of their contemporaries. This leads her to suggest that the experimental-speculative and empiricist-rationalist oppositions did not primarily originate in methodological commitments but instead in their differing responses to religious anxieties, provoked by certain philosophical conclusions. Such conclusions were most prominently voiced by thinkers associated with speculative (and subsequently, rationalist) philosophy.

Elliot Rossiter’s “From Experimental Natural Philosophy to Natural Religion: Action and Contemplation in the Early Royal Society” and Alberto Vanzo’s “Experimental Philosophy and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Italy” address religion most directly. Their central arguments regarding the role of religion in early modern accounts of experimental philosophy, moreover, strike an informative contrast, with Rossiter arguing that the theological justifications of experimental philosophy presented by members of the Royal Society contributed to an inversion of the hierarchical relationship between contemplation and action in medieval theology. This inversion privileged the vita contemplativa (contemplative life) and speculative philosophy over the vita activa (active life). In Rossiter’s account, however, defenses that presented experimental philosophy as a practical route to knowledge of divine providence led to a valorization of the vita activa that in turn laid the groundwork for the later triumph of ethics over moral theology among 18th-century Anglican philosophers.

The implications of the inversion of the contemplation-action hierarchy on questions of faith and works could serve as one avenue of future research, especially outside the Anglican milieu of the Royal Society. For example, how, if at all, did endorsements of the vita activa interact with the notion of salvation by works (which was also a form of acting in the world) in a Catholic context? Did one endorsement of acting in the world entail another? Vanzo’s chapter may represent the first steps in such an inquiry within a Catholic context.

Vanzo argues that the writing of the period’s Italian experimental philosophers indicates that links between experimental philosophy and theological concerns were not intrinsic. He attends specifically to the sectarian dimensions of such concerns, concluding that Catholic Italian experimentalists’ sympathies with their Anglican Royal Society counterparts suggest that 17th-century experimental philosophy as a whole was not a project with exclusively theological motivations, despite the theological appeals that appear in the rhetoric of some of its English practitioners.

While this volume has much to offer scholars of European intellectual history and the history of Western philosophy, most of the papers it contains focus specifically on the English-speaking world. The book’s final chapter, “Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: a Non-Anglocentric Overview,” by Dmitiri Levitin, highlights these limits and offers an attempt to overcome them by discussing developments in sources composed in languages other than English. Vanzo’s chapter, which immediately precedes it, offers a more specific view from outside the Anglosphere. Even the sources discussed in these contributions, however, are still European. This Eurocentricity may be unavoidable, given the editors’ disciplinary backgrounds, but given the volume’s title, which suggests a more broadly early modern focus, it would have benefited from a more global focus.

To cite one Islamic example that a volume with such a global focus could have included, given the growth of Safavid studies in recent decades, the inclusion of some sources that discuss the position of experience within the epistemology of the early modern Iranian philosophers of the school of Isfahan could have enriched the volume. One could, of course, fairly contend that theories of knowledge-by-experience as they developed in Iran are not immediately comparable to European experimental philosophy. Even so, they merit discussion, as the very question of their comparability could inform ongoing debates as to the limits of the early modern as a global category.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Ames is an adjunct assistant professor of liberal studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alberto Vanzo is an independent scholar based in the United Kingdom. He has been a Marie Curie fellow at the universities of Birmingham and Warwick. His research in early modern philosophy ranges from Kant to experimental philosophy.

Peter Anstey FAHA is Professor of Philosophy in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney. He specializes in early modern philosophy with a focus on John Locke, Robert Boyle and the French Philosophes. He is the author of John Locke and Natural Philosophy (2011) and editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century (2013).


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