Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Barry Allen's "Empiricisms"

Barry Allen studied philosophy at the University of Lethbridge and Princeton University, and is Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario. He has held visiting appointments at universities in Jerusalem, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Hong Kong, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Allen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Empiricisms: Experience and Experiment from Antiquity to the Anthropocene, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes from near the end of the first chapter, which is entitled "Empiricisms of Antiquity," from the section subtitled "Empiricism in Islam." The setting is Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo, ninth to twelfth centuries. The page discusses the value for the physician of personal experience and paying attention to it, even writing it down. All of the physicians quoted on this page trained and worked in hospitals that were close to how we suppose a hospital should be organized, unlike in Europe at the same time, where there were no hospitals until Islamic models were discovered and imitated.

Though these physicians encouraged observation they did not want to be called “empiricists.” Islamic physicians wanted to understand texts of ancient Greek medicine, and on page 99 they are discussing the famous text of Hippocrates that says, “Life is short, art [i.e., medical knowledge] long,” and which includes the admonition that “empiricism is treacherous.” What, they wonder, is “empiricism,” and why is it treacherous? They found their answer by associating “empiricism” with the attitude of experimenters who test hypotheses. This the physician must not do. Physician should know and do what is best for health. There is no place for experiments with patients.

Still on this page I suggest that these physicians make trouble for themselves by assuming that Hippocrates must be consistent with Aristotle even though he is not. They assumed that what Aristotle said about experience would explain what Hippocrates said about “empiricism,” but these ideas were not made for each other, and trying to put them together creates problems.
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I love browsing in bookstores, especially used-book stores. I think Empiricisms is a good book for picking up from the shelf and browsing, though you’ll have to take more than one crack at it.

If you opened to page 99 you would I am afraid get a poor idea of the whole work. The book ranges widely in space and time, from ancient Greek medicine to the experiments of Galileo and Newton and the epistemology of Gassendi and Carnap. There is no hint of this greater context on page 99. Nor is there indication of the extensive discussion of the philosophy of the Radical Empiricists, my collective name for William James, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze. And page 99 would give a browser no idea of the book’s comparative analysis of European and Chinese empiricisms.

Yet page 99 is interesting on its own. It describes a discussion among medieval Islamic physicians of a text of ancient Greek medicine, which they are trying to understand through their peculiar philosophical perspective of Neo-Platonic Aristotelianism. The philosophers of Islam did not contribute much to the history of empirical philosophy despite the great achievements of Islamic science. Much of the philosophical interest I find in empiricism is as an alternative to the rationalism of Plato and Aristotle, but that was not something Islamic tradition was looking for, and empiricism held no interest for their philosophers.
Learn more about Empiricisms: Experience and Experiment from Antiquity to the Anthropocene at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue