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Experimental natural philosophy

The powerpoint slides for this week's lecture are available for download here

Many natural philosophers in the seventeenth century -- and especially the members of the Royal Society of London and the Paris Academy of Sciences -- saw themselves as practitioners of a new kind of natural philosophy, one that was 'experimental' and not just 'speculative.' They stressed the importance of carrying out extensive experiments and observations to support their theories; some insisted that experiment and observation on a topic should come before all theorising on the topic. Experimental philosophers aimed to interfere with nature -- often with the help of instruments such as the air pump and electrostatic generator -- as well as observing nature passively. The experimental philosophy was widely adopted and enjoyed many successes, especially in the second half of the seventeenth century. However it was not all smooth sailing. Experimenters disagreed about how to follow through on the general principles of the experimental philosophy, and they encountered opposition from some followers of Aristotle (who had a distinctive notion of experience) and Descartes (who was nothing if not speculative). Moreover, the practice of doing experiments could not succeed without changes in the way research was communicated and the way it was organised socially. Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society of London presented an idealised vision of what experimental research should be. The minutes taken at the Society's weekly meetings, as well as other sources, allow us to compare this ideal to the reality.


Read the Dear piece to get an overview of experimentation in the seventeenth century. Then read the Sprat extract to see how what was supposed to happen at the weekly meetings of the Royal Society of London. Finally, browse the minutes of the Society's meetings - I suggest that you choose a single calendar month and read the records for all the meetings in that month. Consider these questions:

According to Sprat, what was the ideal way of acquiring knowledge about nature? Think about the social and institutional aspects of this as well as the intellectual aspects.

Based on your reading of the minutes, to what extent did the Royal Society realise this ideal?

Essential reading

Dear, Peter, 'Experiment: How to Learn Things About Nature in the Seventeenth Century' (Chapter 7), in Revolutionizing the Sciences

Sprat, Thomas, The History of the Royal Society of London, first edition (London, 1667), pages 91-116

Minutes of the Society's meetings, held in the 'Journal Book' of the Society. These survive for the early years of the Royal Society and are digitised on the RSL website. Good records survive for the period 18 Nov 1663 to 6 April 1664, and these are available here.

Further reading


Anstey, Peter, ‘Experimental Versus Speculative Natural Philosophy’, in The Science of Nature in the Seventeenth Century Patterns of Change in Early Modern Natural Philosophy (Springer, 2005), pp. 215–42

Anstey, Peter, and Alberto Vanzo1, ‘The Origins of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy’, Intellectual History Review, 22 (2012), 499–518

Dear, Peter, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Dear, Peter, ‘The Meanings of Experience’, in CHS3

McMullin, Ernan, ‘Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Butterfield’, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. by David C Lindberg and Robert S Westman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 1–26

Wootton, David, ‘Experiment’, in The Invention of Science (London: Penguin, 2015)

Francis Bacon's method of science

Hesse, Mary B, ‘Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Science’, in Essential Articles for the Study of Francis Bacon., ed. by Brian Vickers (Hamden Conn.: Archon Books, 1968)

Malherbe, Michael, ‘Bacon’s Method of Science’, in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, ed. by Markku Peltonen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 75–98

Merchant, Carolyn, ‘“The Violence of Impediments”: Francis Bacon and the Origins of Experimentation’, Isis, 99 (2008), 731–60

Merchant, Carolyn, ‘Francis Bacon and the “Vexations of Art”: Experimentation as Intervention’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 46 (2013), 551–99

Urbach, Peter, ‘Francis Bacon as a Precursor to Popper’, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 33 (1982), 113–32

Robert Boyle's method of science

Anstey, Peter, and Michael Hunter, ‘Robert Boyle’s “Designe about Natural History”’, Early Science and Medicine, 13 (2008), 83–12

Hunter, Michael, ‘Robert Boyle and the Early Royal Society : A Reciprocal Exchange in the Making of Baconian Science’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 40 (2007), 1–23

Hunter, Michael, 'Robert Boyle's 'Heads' and 'Inquiries'', Robert Boyle Occasional Papers Number 1

Hunter, Michael, 'Robert Boyle: an Introduction,'

Kargon, Robert H., ‘The Testimony of Nature: Boyle, Hooke and Experimental Philosophy’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 3 (1971), 72–81

Knight, Harriet, and Michael Hunter, ‘Robert Boyle’s Memoirs for the Natural History of Human Blood (1684): Print, Manuscript and the Impact of Baconianism in Seventeenth-Century Medical Science’, Medical History, 51 (2007), 145–64

Laudan, Larry, ‘The Clock Metaphor and Probabilism: The Impact of Descartes on English Methodological Thought, 1650–65’, Annals of Science, 22 (1966), 73

Sargent, Rose-Mary, ‘Robert Boyle’s Baconian Inheritance: A Response to Laudan’s Cartesian Thesis’, Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 17 (1986), 469–86

Sargent, Rose-Mary, The Diffident Naturalist: Robert Boyle and the Philosophy of Experiment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Shapin, Steven, ‘Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology’, Social Studies of Science, 14 (1984), 481–520

Shapin, Steven, ‘Robert Boyle and Mathematics: Reality, Representation, and Experimental Practice’, Science in Context, 2 (1988), 23–58

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1985)

Other English experimenters; Royal Society of London

Hall, Marie Boas, Promoting Experimental Learning: Experiment and the Royal Society 1660-1727 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Lynch, William, ‘A Society of Baconians? The Collective Development of Francis Bacon’s Thought’, in Francis Bacon and the Refiguring of Early Modern Thought: Essays to Commemorate The Advancement of Learning (1605-2005), ed. by Julie Robin Solomon and Catherine Gimelli Martin (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), pp. 173–202

Lynch, William, Solomon’s Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001)

Sargent, Rose-Mary, ‘Legal Expertise: The Way of Experience in Seventeenth-Century England’, Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 20 (1989), 19–45

Experiment on the continent

Dear, Peter, ‘Jesuit Mathematical Science and the Reconstitution of Experience in the Early Seventeenth Century’, Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 18 (1987), 133–75

Dear, Peter, ‘Miracles, Experiments, and the Ordinary Course of Nature’, Isis, 81 (1990), 663–83

Dear, Peter, ‘Narratives, Anecdotes, and Experiments: Turning Experience into Science in the Seventeenth Century’, in The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies, ed. by Peter Dear (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 135–63

Findlen, Paula, ‘Controlling the Experiment: Rhetoric, Court Patronage and the Experimental Method of Francesco Redi’, History of Science, 31 IS - 1 (1993), 35–64 – 64

Holmes, Frederic L., ‘Argument and Narrative in Scientific Writing’, in The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies, ed. by Peter Dear (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 164–81

Schickore, Jutta, ‘Trying Again and Again: Multiple Repetitions in Early Modern Reports of Experiments on Snake Bites’, Early Science and Medicine, 15 (2010), 567–617

Tribby, Jay, ‘Cooking (with) Clio and Cleo: Eloquence and Experiment in Seventeenth-Century Florence’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 52 (1991), 417–39


A drawing of the air pump used by the English experimenter (and member of the Royal Society of London) Robert Boyle to investigate the properties of air in the 1660s.