Philosophy of Experiment in Early Modern England: The Case of Bacon, Boyle and Hooke


In: Early Science and Medicine

Serious philosophical reflection on the nature of experiment began in earnest in the seventeenth century. This paper expounds the most influential philosophy of experiment in seventeenth-century England, the Bacon-Boyle-Hooke view of experiment. It is argued that this can only be understood in the context of the new experimental philosophy practised according to the Baconian theory of natural history. The distinctive typology of experiments of this view is discussed, as well as its account of the relation between experiment and theory. This leads into an assessment of other recent discussions of early modern experiment, namely, those of David Gooding, Thomas Kuhn, J.E. Tiles and Peter Dear.


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    Robert Boyle“Two Essays Concerning the Unsuccessfulness of Experiments,” Certain Physiological EssaysThe Works of Robert Boyle 14 vols. eds. Michael Hunter and E.B. Davis (London 1999–2000) II: 37–82.

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  • 10

    See Peter R. Anstey and Alberto Vanzo“The Origins of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy,” Intellectual History Review22 (2012) 499–518.

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  • 12

    See David R. Oldroyd“Some Writings of Robert Hooke on Procedures for the Prosecution of Scientific Inquiry, including his ‘Lectures of Things Requisite to a Natural History’,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society41 (1987) 145–167 at 151–159; and Boyle’s “Design about Natural History” and affiliated manuscripts in The Text of Robert Boyle’s “Designe about Natural History” eds. Michael Hunter and Peter R. Anstey The Robert Boyle Project Occasional Paper No. 3 2008. For commentary on Boyle’s “Designe” see Peter R. Anstey and Michael Hunter “Robert Boyle’s ‘Designe about Natural History’” Early Science and Medicine 13 (2008) 83–126.

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  • 21

    Hooke says“until this Repository be pretty well stored with choice and sound Materials, the Work of raising new Axiomes or Theories is not to be attempted,” General SchemePosthumous Works 18.

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  • 25

    Isaac Newton to Francis Ashton 18 May 1669The Correspondence of Isaac Newton 7 vols. eds. H.W. Turnbull J.F. Scott A.R. Hall & M.B. Hall (Cambridge 1959–1977) I: 10.

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    HookeMicrographia54. See also Hooke’s An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth (London 1674) 2; Lectures and Collections (London 1678) 55; Royal Society Classified Papers xx.80 (Michael Hunter alerted me to this reference); Isaac Newton “A letter of Mr. Isaac Newton … containing his New Theory about Light and ColourPhilosophical Transactions 80 (1672) 3075–87 at 3078.

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  • 36

    Hooke“Things Requisite to a Natural History” 158. See also Hooke An Attempt for the Explication of the Phaenomena 41–42.

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    HookePhilosophical Experiments and Observations26–27.

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    Peter R. Anstey“Robert Boyle and the Heuristic Value of Mechanism,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science33 (2002) 161–174.

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  • 56

    James Tyrrell to Locke 7 January 1693The Correspondence of John Locke 8 vols ed. E.S. de Beer (Oxford 1976–1989) IV: 619.

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    Locke“Advertisement of the Publisher to the Reader,” General History of the AirWorks of Robert Boyle XII: 5. Locke’s interleaved copy is in the Bodleian Library Call Number: Locke 9.17.

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  • 64

    David Gooding“Experiment,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Scienceed. W.H. Newton-Smith (Oxford 2000) 117–126 at 117 italics added.

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  • 65

    David Gooding“Experiment,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Scienceed. W.H. Newton-Smith (Oxford 2000) 117–126 at 117 italics added.

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  • 66

    David Gooding“Experiment,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Scienceed. W.H. Newton-Smith (Oxford 2000) 117–118 italics added.

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  • 67

    David Gooding“Experiment,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Scienceed. W.H. Newton-Smith (Oxford 2000) 119.

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    Kuhn“Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions.”55.

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    Kuhn“Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions.”47.

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    Kuhn“Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions” 44. See also Gooding “Experiment” 117.

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    Kuhn“Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions” 44. See also Gooding “Experiment” 50.

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    See Peter R. Anstey“The Methodological Origins of Newton’s Queries,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science35 (2004) 247–269.

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  • 76

    J.E. Tiles“Experiment as Intervention,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science44 (1993) 463–475466.

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    J.E. Tiles“Experiment as Intervention,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science44 (1993) 469.

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    J.E. Tiles“Experiment as Intervention,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science44 (1993) 469.

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    DearDiscipline and Experience3.

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