The Culture of Experimentalism in the Holy Roman Empire: Johann Christoph Sturm (1635-1703) and the Collegium Experimentale

Ahnert, Thomas (2002) The Culture of Experimentalism in the Holy Roman Empire: Johann Christoph Sturm (1635-1703) and the Collegium Experimentale. UNSPECIFIED. (Unpublished)

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From the second half of the seventeenth century systematic experimentation had increasingly come to be seen as a crucial means of producing and testing natural philosophical theories. The institutions, that are most famous for applying this experimental method, are societies such as the Royal Society in London or the Accademia del Cimento in Florence. In my paper I focus on an important example of experimentalist culture and its context in the Holy Roman Empire which has received little attention so far. This is the Collegium Experimentale of the mathematician, natural philosopher and theologian Johann Christoph Sturm (1635-1703) at the university of Altdorf.
In this Collegium Experimentale Sturm put forward a mechanistic natural philosophy based on a series of experiments. Sturm performed these experiments before an audience of twenty men, naturae scrutatores, to whose judgement he subjected the phenomena produced by his experiments and on whose testimony he relied to guarantee the truthfulness and probity of his published account, the Collegium Experimentale sive Curiosum of 1679.
The aim of my paper is to examine the broader philosophical and theological beliefs on which Sturm"s experimentalism was based. Sturm regarded experimentalism as an example of a more general method of philosophical inquiry, eclecticism (philosophia eclectica or electiva). It is my contention that Sturm's "eclecticist" experimentalist method was intended as a means of solving disagreements among natural philosophers. This eclecticism, it will be argued, was also related to particular theological beliefs on the nature of God and his relationship to creation.
In 1679 Sturm published a disputation "De Philosophia Sectaria et Electiva", in which he explained his conception of eclecticism. Sturm wrote that the phenomena which human reason could examine were too numerous and too complex for one person alone to enjoy absolute authority as a philosopher:

[S]o great is, on the one hand the multitude, and, on the other, the complexity, which could never be overcome even by many centuries, let alone the age or ingenuity of a single man...[I]t is necessary that we all together try to drain the Ocean of knowable things which is too large for us as individuals, by tasting it and lapping it up, so to speak, drop by drop, one taking up this, the other that particle of the sciences, which then must be cultivated according to his capacities...[F]inally, it is well-known that if the powers of the more select minds were closely joined, they would nevertheless be torn in different directions by the diversity of their passions and their studies and would be very much impeded in their investigation of the truth.

Nevertheless, philosophy was divided into hostile sects, the members of which believed in the absolute authority of their own sect's founding figure. Sectarian philosophy "in this treatise we call that philosophy, which usually derives all its doctrines, often even the order of teaching them, from the mouth or the writings of one teacher or doctor, so that it seems to their followers that nothing will ever be found to have been said more truthfully and correctly". At present the main sects were the Aristotelians (both scholastic and humanist), the Cartesians, Gassendists (who had revived Democritean and Epicurean atomism, respectively) and Neo-Platonists, like Henry More. The adherence to sects lead to disputes, which failed to be resolved because the members of each sect did not follow truth but the authority of a particular philosopher. Eclectic philosophy was opposed to all philosophical sectarianism. Eclectics realised that it was impossible for a single philosopher or sect of philosophers to be right in every respect. They therefore considered all philosophical doctrines to be provisional and open to modification.
Sturm related these eclecticist arguments explicitly to his experimental natural philosophy. The title of his Physica Eclectica of 1697, for example, reflected the significance of Sturm's eclecticism for his experimentalist natural philosophy. Sturm also explained that he was following the example of scientific societies throughout Europe, especially the Royal Society in London, the Scrutatorum Naturae Regium Concilium in Paris and the Collegia Eruditorum in Rome, Florence and elsewhere. The experimental method applied by them was an example of undogmatic eclecticism, which was meant to end fruitless verbal contests about questions of natural philosophy and allow them to be resolved by the organised and institutionalized observation of nature. As Sturm wrote in his Programma Invitatorium to the Collegium Experimentale: "All scholars, however, justly acknowledge the source and single cause of this most fortunate progress to be the singular philosophical method peculiar to this age, which it is common to call the experimental method, because it is no longer based on the subtleties of empty quarrels and disputes, but searches the recondite recesses of nature itself and rests on experiments which are not conducted according to chance, but are planned".
There are, in particular, remarkable similarities between Sturm's philosophy and the ideas of Robert Boyle, arguably one of the leading members of the Royal Society in London. Sturm was a professed admirer of Boyle's natural philosophy and defended Boyle's Tractatus de Ipsa Natura in the Leipzig Acta Eruditorum in the course of a debate with Leibniz. Boyle and Sturm also shared a similar reluctance to enter into speculative arguments, which could not be verified by experimental evidence.
Both believed that this form of speculative argument inevitably led to disagreements among natural philosophers, because its conclusions were not verifiable by experiments conducted before an audience of witnesses. Both Boyle and Sturm considered the experimental method to be a means of resolving conflict among natural philosophers and a limit to what natural philosophy should concern itself with. What could not be verified by observation belonged to a different category of knowledge, which Boyle often labelled "metaphysical". Any attempt to move beyond establishing consensus on strictly observable phenomena violated the limits of natural philosophical explanation. In one of his essays in the Leipzig Acta Eruditorum of 1697 Sturm argued in a very similar fashion that it does not "pertain to the physicist as such" to inquire into metaphysical principles beyond the visible structure of matter.
Another indication that both thinkers shared a similar concern with avoiding dogmatism is provided by the Royal Society's motto "Nullius [addictus] in verba [iurare magistri]", which is almost identical to Sturm's definition of the central principle of eclecticist philosophy. It has been argued that this motto (a quotation from Horace's Epistles I, I, 14), referred to the status of testimony in early experimental culture. The motto, it has been argued in the case of the Royal Society, "crystallized members' insistence upon the problematic status of testimony and the epistemic virtues of direct individual experience and individual reason in the constitution of genuine knowledge". This is related to the more general thesis that the definition of reliable testimony was central to the experimental programme of the Royal Society. The ability to give reliable testimony required a particular social status, that of the gentleman. It can be argued, however, that the motto Nullius in verba reflected the anti-sectarian aims of the Royal Society rather than its concern with the definition of reliable testimony. The motto need not refer to the problematic nature of testimony, especially as the refusal to swear by anyone's words did not distinguish between reliable, "gentlemanly" testimony and unreliable testimony, but reflected a reluctance to trust the authority of any particular person blindly.
The emphasis, which Boyle and Sturm placed on the limited and provisional nature of philosophical theories, reflected their shared belief in the limits of human reason. Boyle argued that human reason was finite and incapable of drawing universally true conclusions. Boyle's reasons for assuming these limitations of human reason were theological. If the human mind were capable of understanding universal truths, it would also be able to understand divine nature and the reasons for God's actions. God and his actions, however, were inscrutable to human understanding. These actions included natural phenomena, because God acted directly on the natural world.
The limited understanding of humans implied that the so-called laws of nature, which humans formulated and according to which natural phenomena usually occurred, were not absolutely necessary and therefore did not bind the divine will. God was free to act contrary to them, if he wished. Any restriction of this freedom would contradict the principle of divine omnipotence. This meant that all laws of nature, formulated by natural philosophers, were provisional, because they were subject to exceptions and contradictions.
There is a very similar emphasis on the limits of human understanding and on divine omnipotence in the writings of Sturm. Like Boyle, Sturm argues that it is impossible for finite human reason to discover universal laws of nature. Such laws also cannot exist, because they would restrict God's omnipotence and freedom of will. This theological emphasis on the limits of human understanding is particularly clear from Sturm's debate with Leibniz in the Acta Eruditorum around 1700, in which Sturm criticized Leibniz for assuming that God acted according to rules set up by finite human reason.
Sturm's experimentalism illustrates the importance of the relationship between scientific and non-scientific discourse in the history of early modern science. His experimentalist method is only one example of this close relationship between natural philosophical discourse and non-scientific arguments around 1700. The disputes between the mechanistic and the "organicist" schools of medicine at the university of Halle at the same time concerned questions of faith as much as purely medical problems. The disagreements between Leibniz and Newtonians such as Samuel Clarke were as much about free will and religion as natural philosophy. The examples of Sturm and Boyle suggest that a certain intellectual context may be particularly important to understanding early modern experimentalist culture: the theological preoccupation with the limits of reason and the harmful effects of philosophical sectarianism and dogmatism.

Item Type: Other
Uncontrolled Keywords: Kulturwissenschaft, Graduiertenkonferenz
Subjects: Kulturwissenschaften, cultural studies > Graduiertenkonferenz: Wissenschaftskulturen - Experimentalkulturen - Gelehrtenkulturen
Depositing User: Caroline Gay
Date Deposited: 06 Dec 2020 12:32
Last Modified: 06 Dec 2020 12:32

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