Four Methods of Empirical Inquiry in the Aftermath of Newton’s Challenge

  • Eric SchliesserEmail author
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 331)


In this paper I distinguish four methods of empirical inquiry in eighteenth century natural philosophy. In particular, I distinguish among what I call, (i) the mathematical-experimental method; (ii) the method of experimental series; (iii) the method of inspecting ideas; (iv) the method of natural history. While such a list is not exhaustive of the methods of inquiry available, even so, focusing on these four methods will help in diagnosing a set of debates within what has come to be known as ‘empiricism’; throughout the eighteenth century there was a methodological reaction against the hegemonic aspirations of mathematical natural philosophy associated with the authority of Newton.

In particular, I argue that the methods of inspecting ideas and natural history remained attractive to ‘empiricist’ thinkers with reservations about aspects of Newtonianism. Moreover, I show that the language of experimentalism meant different things to researchers with different attitudes toward Newton’s legacy. In order to illustrate and make more precise these claims, I embed my taxonomic treatment of the four methods within a narrative in which I primarily focus on Colin Maclaurin, Isaac Newton, David Hume, and Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon.


Empiricism Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon David Hume Colin Maclaurin Isaac Newton 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Moral SciencesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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