[Abstract submitted for the volume Philosophy and Its History: Methods and Aims of Research in the History of Philosophy (eds. Mogens Laerke, Eric Schliesser, and Justin E. H. Smith), under consideration at Oxford University Press.]
Many advocates of the new experimental philosophy claim to be returning to an older, forgotten conception of philosophical inquiry. Thus Appiah writes that “experimental philosophy, rather than being something new, is as old as the term ‘philosophy’” (Experiments in Ethics, Oxford UP, 2008). If this is correct, what does it tell us about the relationship of current philosophy as generally conceived (that is, as ‘non-experimental’) to its history? I will argue that Appiah’s identification of a long tradition of experimental philosophy is indeed thoroughly confirmed by the historical evidence, particularly as regards the early modern period. From the Renaissance until sometime in the 18th century, philosophy included the study of everything, or at least everything that involved “inquiring into things below the earth and in the sky,” to cite the famous accusation against Socrates in the Apology. This is the meaning implied in the title of the journal of the Royal Society of London, the Philosophical Transactions, founded in 1666, and it is the meaning of ‘philosophy’ as understood by Margaret Cavendish in her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy of the same year. If we understand ‘experiment’, as Cavendish does, to include what we today would think of as ‘experience’ or ‘field science’, then a survey of a wide variety of texts from the period, which I propose to undertake here, will show that for early modern thinkers, ‘experimental philosophy’ was not simply a branch or wing of some more basic activity, but indeed carried the primary signification of the term ‘philosophy’ itself. While there was of course a parallel understanding of philosophy as a priori reflection on foundational truths, in general this conception was associated with the fruitless School philosophy so many 17th-century novatores sought to overcome. The contrary conception of philosophy, as inquiring into the things of the earth and the sky, had its immediate antecedent in the practical endeavors of the so-called ‘chemical philosophers’ and other figures who were, to draw on Robert Boyle’s distinction, as interested in lucriferous undertakings as luciferous ones.
But if philosophy was conceived as any inquiry whatever, and de facto most often as natural-scientific inquiry, what does this mean for the current interest of the historian of philosophy in entering into conversation with the discipline’s past representatives? I will argue that a proper understanding of the history of the concept of philosophy prevents us from supposing that there exists a distinct activity at all, which emerged in Greek antiquity, was passed on to the Romans, moved by the high middle ages, after a brief detour through the Muslim world, into Western Europe, and matured there until being transferred, for the final stage of its unfolding, into the academic philosophy departments of the English-speaking world. It is the supposed continuity of this tradition that, in much scholarship in the history of philosophy, is supposed to justify treating past philosophers as if they were current philosophers: they are our disciplinary colleagues, as Jonathan Bennett famously put it, with the one difference being that they are dead.
But this presentism imposes on past figures a job description they could not have recognized as their own. We cannot, I argue, establish that both they and we are philosophers in view of a certain specified list of shared questions, since it is just as important to pay attention to the genre of writing, and to the overall systematic ends of a given work in which a question arises that appears to be of transhistorical interest. And here, again, what we see is that the questions that are of supposed transhistorical interest to philosophers tend most often to appear in the course of the sort of investigation that we today would have difficulty calling ‘philosophical’. Instead, philosophical questions are engaged more or less en passant in the course of treatises on optics, dynamics, generation, medicine, chemistry and alchemy, astronomy and astrology, and so on.
So far, this all sounds like fodder for the new experimentalists’ argument in favor of recovering a richer self-conception of philosophers. Yet, as I argue in conclusion, there is an important difference between the project of early modern philosophers on the one hand, who wrote on the generation of maggots, the causes of comets, and whatever else interested them, and on the other the experimental philosophers today who wish to set up their experimental project as a sort of offshoot or branch of philosophy departments in their present form. To recover the early modern conception of philosophy today would be to simply allow all varieties of scientific research, conducted within or beyond universities, to count as philosophy, rather than to modify the conception of academic philosophy, in its current state, to allow for the running of a limited number of ‒ mostly psychological ‒ experiments. This is an end that even the most ardent advocates of the new experimental philosophy do not consider desirable. The sociological reasons for this need not detain us here. Instead we will be content to show simply that the new experimentalists are quite correct to argue that they are recovering an important and forgotten conception of the project of philosophy, one that thoroughly dominated in the 17th century, and to show, moreover, that this conception's predominance precludes any possibility of thinking of history-of-philosophy scholarship as a transhistorical discussion of the core problems of a discipline with sharp and unchanging boundaries.