Rationalism in Modern Science: D’Alembert and the Esprit Simpliste

  • Graham Solomon
Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 65)


In the comparison of methods reputed to yield reliable knowledge, it is fashionable to point out that scientific method is the only universally acceptable method of getting knowledge, because scientific claims can always be confronted with the “facts, ” can be checked against “experience. ” Every schoolboy knows this is true because he has been taught it many times. It is likely too that he will never forget the other part of the lesson: knowledge gained from experience yields the power to transform the world. As the mountain of technologically engineered objects grows higher and higher the evidence is incontrovertible that science, by sticking to the facts of experience, “produces the goods. ” And ever since the genuinely remarkable John Dewey fused the Puritan notion of “work-to-beat-hell ” with the value hierarchy associated with Yankee ingenuity, we in this country have been content “to buy ” (note the pragmatic ring of the phrase) the method which produces the goods. In addition to this widespread contemporary stress on engineering in science, there are prominent philosophies of science that overemphasize the empirical, the inductive, and the pragmatic sides of science.2


Scientific Method Modern Science Metaphysical System Prominent Philosophy Cartesian Method 
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  1. 2.
    See, for example, the logical empiricism of Carnap, Reichenbach and Bergmann; the varieties of pragmatism and operationalism; and the doctrines of Ayer’s positivism, of the American naturalisms that operate under the influence of nineteenth-century British Utilitarianism, and of the Vienna Circle.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See also E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York, 1954); A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, 1949); and Adventures of Ideas (New York, 1955); Philipp Frank, Philosophy of Science (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1957), chs. 1, 2, 13, 15; and George de Santillana, “Aspects of Scientific Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century, ” in International Encyclopedia of Unifiied Science, Vol. II, No. 8 (Chicago, 1950).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Alexandre Koyré, “Galileo and Plato. ” Roots of Scientifiic Thought, ed. P. Wiener and A. Noland (New York, 1957). p. 150.Google Scholar
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    Karl Pearson. The Grammar of Science (New York, 1957), p. 91.Google Scholar
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    A. N. Whitehead, Adventures ofIdeas (New York, 1955), p. 94.Google Scholar
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    de Santillana, op. cit., p. 3.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Quoted in Paul Hazard, European Thought in the 18th Century (New Haven, 1954), p. 206.Google Scholar
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    Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1821–22), XV.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Ibid. , I, 31.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., XV, 778.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    For example, Sur le système du monde, and Essai d’une nouvelle théorie de la resistance des fluides. Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Quoted in de Santillana, op. cit., p. 8; citing Essai d’une nouvelle théorie de la resistance des fluides. Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Emile Cailliet, La tradition littéraire des idéologues (Philadelphia, 1943), p. 101. Author’s translation.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    D’Alembert, Oeuvres, I, 77. Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Aram Vartanian, Diderot and Descartes, A Study of Scientifiic Naturalism in the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1953), p. 139. The reference is to Oeuvres, I, 73. Vartanian’s study shows mpressively the extent to which the thought of the philosophes derives from the esprit simpliste of Cartesian method. The present paper owes much to Vartanian’s extensive knowledge of eighteenthcentury thought and his perceptive disclosure of its largely rationalist sources.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Quoted in Joseph Bertrand, D’Alembert (Paris, 1889), p. 32.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    D’Alembert, Oeuvres, I, 34.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. I, pp. 27–28.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., I, 33. Google Scholar
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    Traité de dynamique (1758), p. xxiv; quoted in de Santillana, op. cit., p. 10.Google Scholar
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    Gustav Bergmann, Philosophy of Science (Madison, Wis., 1957), p. 3.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Graham Solomon
    • 1
  1. 1.Wilfrid Laurier UniversityWaterlooCanada

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