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  • Introduction
  • Alberto Vanzo

The papers collected in this special issue of Perspectives on Science discuss the roles and notions of experience in the works of a range of early modern natural philosophers and physicians, including Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, the Dutch atomist David Gorlaeus, William Harvey, and Christian Wolff.

There are three reasons for considering medicine in connection with natural philosophy when studying early modern views on experience. First, influential discussions of experience since antiquity, including those of Aristotle (e.g., Metaphysics, 981 a 9–21) and his authoritative medieval commentators (Agrimi and Crisciani 1990, p. 24), make reference to medicine and employ medical examples. Second, early modern vocabulary relating to experience contains several terms and distinctions that emerged in medical circles following the recovery of ancient medical texts and then entered philosophical contexts. They include “observation,” “phenomenon,” and the contrast between first-hand and vicarious observation, autopsia and historia (Pomata 2011a, pp. 23–4; Pomata 2011b, pp. 65, 69). Third, looking at medical writings allows scholars to weaken or correct a number of general claims on the transformations of the notion of experience in the early modern period. Consider two examples.

The first is the shift from experiential to experimental empiricism (Koyré 1953, p. 222). It is often stated that the early modern period witnessed a shift from the reliance on mere experience to the reliance on experiment (e.g., Henry 2008, p. 34). Those who follow this narrative acknowledge that some experiments were performed in the late antiquity and Middle Ages. However, they typically add that the significance of [End Page 255] experimentation only started to be acknowledged in the seventeenth century, first within mixed mathematics and then more generally (Dear 1995, 2006; Garber 2002). A recent study of sixteenth-century medical texts has shown that this reconstruction of the emergence of experimentation is incorrect (Ragland, unpublished). Decades before experimentation rose to prominence within mixed mathematics, anatomists were performing experimental trials, recognized their significance, and regarded them as being capable of proving or disproving general claims.

The second example concerns a related, but more encompassing narrative that identifies a shift from a historical to an autoptic notion (Baroncini 1992) or, as Peter Dear (1995, p. 21) puts it, from a pre-modern to a modern notion of experience.1 According to the historical, pre-modern notion, experience is a body of self-evident, ordinary, commonly accepted knowledge of what happens “always or for the most part” (Judson 1991, pp. 82–9). Experience in this pre-modern sense is referred to in the singular form, as an experientia longa, formed over an extended period of time from the accumulation of numerous perceptual events in memory. It can be apprehended vicariously, through books and oral reports, and it can be relied upon without first-person verification (autopsia), in virtue of its being generally accepted. It does not typically serve as a testing ground for theories and hypotheses, but rather, as the basis for deriving natural-philosophical principles that are the starting point of scientia. By contrast, the modern notion of experience is of a singular event personally witnessed in a specific place and time, perhaps brought about as a result of experiments, and which establishes (or concurs to establish) matters of fact that can be used to infer, confirm, or refute theories and hypotheses. It is tempting to suppose, and it is sometimes claimed, that the pre-modern, historical notion of experience was distinctive of the Aristotelians, whereas the modern, autoptic notion was peculiar to the novatores.

A survey of medical texts is sufficient to disprove this supposition and to rule out any sharp contrast between Aristotelian and modern attitudes toward experience. On the one hand, conservative Aristotelian anatomists like Laurentius acknowledged the importance of first-person, autoptic experience (Wear 1983, pp. 227–30). On the other hand, novatores like Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon employed a rather traditional notion of experience, as being built slowly in the course of time, as the basis of their views on the preservation of health. However, they emphasized the personal dimension of this process, combining aspects of the historical and autoptic notions of experience (Pender 2006). More generally, an understanding of [End...


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