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Cartesianism, Baconianism and the new science: Henry Power’s "Experimental Philosophy"

Tuesday, November 15, 2022, 3:40 pm – 5:20 pm

This colloquium talk is planned as an in-person event. Registration by email is only required for non-CEU members. Please check the COVID safety rules here to enter the building.


History of philosophy pictures much of the seventeenth century in terms of the spreading tides of Baconianism and Cartesianism; one permeating from France into England, the other from England to the Continent. Two parallel movements that had nothing in common: one was either a Baconian, experimental philosopher, or a Cartesian, speculative thinker. I am going to challenge this canonical interpretation by reconstructing the views of a Baconian-Cartesian (or Cartesian-Baconian) natural philosopher: Henry Power (1623-1688). Trained as a medical practitioner, in Cambridge, dr. Power had a longstanding interest in Cartesian natural philosophy. At the same time, as I am going to show, he was very much a Baconian in his methodological approaches to experimentation, and – at least sometimes – in his matter-theoretically informed hypotheses. In the late 1650s and the beginning of the 1660s, Dr. Power was engaged in microscopical observations, pneumatic experiments, inquiries into gravitation and magnetism. He experimented with optical glasses and prisms and inquired into the nature of colors (earlier than Hooke and Boyle, and much earlier than Newton). All these topics are discussed in the only book he managed to publish, Experimental philosophy (London, 1664). As I am going to show in this talk, this book is but the tip of a very large iceberg. Henry Power’s unpublished manuscripts tell a fascinating story in which the two tides of Cartesianism and Baconiansm intersect, leading to new ideas and methods of research. In my talk, I trace the outline of Power’s project to build “Baconian sciences” on carefully chosen experiments (borrowed from Bacon’s Novum Organum and the Sylva Sylvarum). I show that, for Power, “experimental philosophy” means an organized investigation into the ways in which experiments can correct, amend and direct our hypotheses. More generally, my talk invites reflection upon the limits of our received historiographic categories. Henry Power can serve as a meaningful example for why we need to reconsider some parts of our standard story of the emergence of (early modern) science.


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