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Hume Studies Volume XXIII, Number 2, November 1997, pp. 337-344 A Note on Newton, Boyle, and Hume's "Experimental Method" EUGENE SAPADIN It has long been accepted that when Hume speaks of "the experimental [read 'scientific'] method" he is referring to Newton. Kemp Smith, Mossner, and Capaldi, none of whom are noted for "carelessness and inattention," find it unnecessary to argue the point.1 But recently, as Jane Mclntyre has observed, [t]he nature of the relationship of Hume's work to Newtonianism [has become] a matter of ongoing debate. The "experimental method" referred to in the subtitle was certainly not unique to Newton.2 The debate is due to a revisionist interpretation largely led by Peter Jones and Michael Barfoot, who says "the textual evidence for Hume's so-called 'Newtonianism' has recently been re-examined and found to be both limited and ambiguous;"3 and that "so-called," along with the scare-quotes around "Newtonianism," show a confident position. It has rapidly reached the point where a standard interpreter like Penelhum can say that Jones has not merely argued but "argued persuasively, that the influence of Newton on Hume has been overrated."4 I would like to make a brief defense of the standard interpretation. Hume may have had little formal contact with Newton's work; his fascination with Newton may have originally exceeded his grasp, as is consistent for an Eugene Sapadin is at Wolfson College, Oxford, and the Humanities Dept., Johnson State College, Johnson, Vermont 05656 USA. 338 Eugene Sapadin (admittedly brilliant) eleven-to-thirteen year old thrown into a Newtonian atmosphere; and his idea of what it is to be Newtonian may have developed over time. But the most likely way for Hume's "science of human nature" to become the "foundation entirely new" that he claims for it—and for its deep anti-Cartesianism to be consistent both with what he does in Books II and III of the Treatise and with his increasingly recognized status as a true precursor of those who say that to be a rational animal is not only to be a logicalCartesian one—was for him to come off Boyle and be Newtonized.5 Boyle at first seems to fit, but finally is the model for the end of the seventeenth century, not for Hume's new beginning for the eighteenth (and beyond). The idea behind the standard interpretation comes from the previously generally accepted fact that all the eighteenth century "empirical philosophers" (except Berkeley) claimed to be Newtonian. We are all familiar with the passage in Locke in which he says that he is merely a humble "Under-Labourer," engaged "in clearing Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way" of "the incomparable Mr. Newton."6 Clarke carried the Newtonian banner in his correspondence with Leibniz; and Hume did, after all, refer to his desire to be "the Newton of the moral sciences." So behind the identification of Hume's "experimental method" with Newton is at least the idea that the literary-intellectual world of the early eighteenth century was Newton-obsessed but had only a general knowledge of science, and that the young Hume, who was part of that world, would have had about the same background as everyone else. What would that background have been? A nineteenth century history of the University of Edinburgh points out that it was normal in the early eighteenth century for a student to leave the University after two years of classical education, before arriving at the Natural Philosophy and Mathematics of the last two years.7 Hume followed this pattern, arriving at age eleven and leaving during his third year, at thirteen or fourteen.8 Later in life, as he became Joint Secretary to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh and, with Alexander Munro, edited two volumes of papers in the sciences,9 he would have come to read much of the detail of science, including optics, medicine, biology, meteorology, astronomy, and electricity.10 But we can assume that the scientific reading of the young Hume, who left the university without a degree, probably was concentrated on those that aroused popular controversy, were popular...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 337-344
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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