Posts Tagged ‘empiricism’

Jan Swammerdam, Bybel der Natuure . . . of, Historie de insecten, 1737-38, tadpole; frog


The division between authors into rationalist and empiricist is often deemed artificial. A frame imposed on early modern philosophers, not of their own making. That between speculative and experimental philosophy, by contrast, is one that also authors in the seventeenth century would have been able to identify with.

Such resonance makes it extra exciting that NYU is holding a conference on experimental philosophy with a historical bend, Experimental Philosophy Through History, on February 20th. Areas discussed range from intuition in Confucian ethics to neo-Kantian anti-empiricism, via Hume, Locke, and decapitation.

Here is the program:

“What Was the Neo-Kantian Backlash against Empirical Philosophy About?”
Scott Edgar (Saint Mary’s University)
discussion by John Richardson (New York University)


“The Curious Case of the Decapitated Frog: An Experimental Test of Epiphenomenalism?”
Alex Klein (California State University)
discussion by Henry Cowles (Yale University)




“Experimental Philosophy and Mad – Folk Psychology: Methodological Considerations from Locke”
Kathryn Tabb (Columbia University)
discussion by Don Garrett (New York University)


“Intuition and Experimentation in Confucian Ethics”
Hagop Sarkissian (Baruch College, CUNY)
discussion by Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University)




“The Impact of Experimental Natural Philosophy on Moral Philosophy in the Early Modern Period”
Peter Anstey (The University of Sydney)
discussion by Stephen Darwall (Yale University)


“Experimental Philosophy and Eighteenth-Century Sentimentalism: Hume, Turnbull, and Fordyce”
Alberto Vanzo (University of Warwick)
discussion by Alison McIntyre (Wellesley College)
Full conference details on the dedicated site.

Image: Jan Swammerdam, Bybel der Natuure … of, Historie der insecten, 1737-38, tadpole; frog

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As a follow-up to Lewis’s post on Early Modern Survey Courses, which has an an excellent discussion in the comments, I thought I would pose a narrower question.

How do you teach the rationalism-empiricism distinction in your survey course?

Do you structure your class around the distinction, reading the rationalists together and the empiricists together? Does Kant save the day? Do you avoid the distinction? Do you teach separate courses on rationalist and empiricist thinkers? Do you emphasize some other distinction or a network of issues?

I wonder if, even though many of us don’t find the distinction very useful in our own research, we might still find it a useful heuristic for students first encountering early modern thought.

My version of the survey course would seem, on a brief scan, to divide roughly into rationalists and empiricists, but I don’t present the class this way. In fact, about midway through I give a 10 minute talk about “rationalism vs. empiricism.” I tell them that people will expect them to be able to discuss our figures along this line after they leave this course, here are 6 or 8 different things that people sometimes mean by that distinction (each of which draws the line differently), and here are a few reasons for thinking the distinction is not particularly helpful or deep.

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