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Empiricism vs Rationalism: The Rise of a Historiographical Narrative

Final Report Summary - EVR (Empiricism vs Rationalism: The Rise of a Historiographical Narrative)



For most of the twentieth century, Anglophone philosophers and historians held that early modern philosophy was dominated by the contrast between Descartes', Spinoza's, and Leibniz's rationalism and Locke's, Berkeley's, and Hume's empiricism. The project aimed to shed light on the history of this narrative ("the standard narrative") and to address related questions concerning the method of philosophical historiography and the teaching of early modern philosophy at high-school and university level. The Researcher was Dr Alberto Vanzo and the Scientist in Charge was Prof. Tom Sorell. Research was carried out at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Birmingham (June-December 2012) and at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Warwick (January-December 2013).

Research led to the following main conclusions. The standard narrative first emerged in late eighteenth-century Germany, in the course of the early debates on Kant's Critical philosophy. This is also the cultural context in which the new meaning of "empiricism", which is widely used in the historiography of early modern philosophy, first emerged. The narrative became standard in the English-speaking world at the turn of the twentieth century. This was not primarily due to the influence of specific philosophical movements, such as British Idealism or American Pragmatism, but to the fact that the narrative, appealing for its simplicity and suitability for pedagogical purposes, could be endorsed by philosophers of very diverse persuasions, from idealists to pragmatists, early analytic philosophers, or Thomists.

Other topics that were studied include Leibniz Kant's relation to innatism, early modern experimental philosophy, methodological issues in the historiography of ancient philosophy, and their relation to problems arising in the historiography of early modern thought.

Research on the project led to:

- A forthcoming journal article and book chapter
- An article which is currently under review
- Work toward three more papers, a collection of essays on methodological problems raised by the historiography of ancient philosophy, and a journal symposium on teaching early modern philosophy (planned for publication in 2015).

The research was presented at conferences in Italy, Romania, and the United Kingdom. A panel on notions of experience in the history and historiography of early modern natural philosophy was held within the 2012 Reading Early Modern Studies Conference. The symposium "Analytic Philosophy and Ancient Philosophy" took place at St Anne's College, University of Oxford, on on 25-27 October 2013.

Dissemination of the research results was achieved through:

1) The publication of posts on a project weblog, called "Empiricism et cetera" (http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/empiricism_etc/). Several posts were also published on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy Blog (https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/emxphi).

2) A lecture-seminar on early modern philosophy for high-school students.

3) Informal discussions with colleagues.

4) The supervision of an Undergraduate Research Scholar at the University of Birmingham.

Additionally, the project made it possible to work toward the organization of an online conference on teaching early modern philosophy for teachers of philosophy in British high schools. This workshop aims to bring the teaching of early modern philosophy in line with current scholarship, enriching young Europeans’ understanding of their past.