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Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: Aristotelian Views (III) - Chrysostomus Javellus

This third post of a series on the concept of experience in early modern metaphysics  is dedicated to Chrysostomus Javellus and his view of the role of experience in the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Javellus was born in the Italian city of Casale at c. 1470, and died in Bologna at around 1538. He graduated as bachelor of theology in 1513 and as master in 1515. A student of Cajetan, he gained some notoriety for his controversy with Pomponazzi concerning the status of the rational soul (cf. Jacob Schmutz’s article at Scholasticon and the electronic edition of Thomas Uecker, “Javelli, Chrysostomos” in: Biografisch-Bibliografisches Kirchenlexikon vol. 2, Hamm 1990, col. 1581 sq.).

In the second post of this series, I have analysed the “orthodox” view on the role of experience put forward by the Scotist Antonius Andreas. According to him, experience may pave the way to knowledge, because it is a partial cause for it. And it may be regarded as the efficient cause for the beginnings of philosophy. But having experiences is no necessary precondition for attaining knowledge. In his In omnibus metaphysicae libris quaesita, Javellus agrees with Andreas that experience is only a partial cause for complete scientific knowledge. But he regards it as an essential prerequisite for such knowledge (I quote the 1563 Venice edition, references lead to the page quoted).

1. The decisive role of experience

Andreas states that the intellect can connect the concepts used in a principle on its own (propria virtute). Javellus suspects that this leads to the unwelcome consequence that in this case the intellect may proceed arbitrarily. In scholastic terminology: As Javellus understands Andreas (and I believe he is correct in this), the intellect is a so-called potentia absoluta: It is entirely free in its decision to give or withhold assent to a given propositional content. Such a potentia absoluta is not bound by any general rules of operation (then it would be a potentia ordinata). But even a potentia absoluta still has to be a potentia determinata: Even if it is not bound by general rules, there must be a factor determining its activity in particular cases in order to refute the objection of arbitrariness. Therefore, we are bound to assume that principles of a science are known by the cognitive capabilities of the intellect (the natural light) and experiential input (fol. 15 v).

So experience is a determinant factor in deciding whether to assent to a given proposition, because we must be aware of the fact that the concepts of the proposition (to be more precise, the objects falling under the concepts of the proposition) are in fact connected with each other in the manner stated by the proposition. In order to assent to the proposition “rhubarb purges bile”, our knowledge of the concepts “rhubarb” and “bile” does not suffice to determine our intellect to assent to this proposition. We must confirm that rhurbarb, bile and purging are connected to each other so that it is true that rhubarb purges bile (fol. 15 r). Thus, experience is not merely a stimulus for science, as Andreas holds. It is the basis of “beginning science” (scientia inchoativa) or “inquisitive science” (scientia inquisitiva). Javellus adds a third role. After having found general truths e. g. about rhubarb, bile, and purging, we must again appeal to experience in order to confirm our findings. Thus experience is also a part of scientia confirmativa (fol. 16 r).

2. Experience and learning

And it is not just new knowledge that must depend on such experiential input. Doctrina, knowledge we acquire by learning, may presuppose experience as well. There may be situations, where the student needs experiential input in order to assent to a proposition of the teacher. For Javellus, the criterion for that seems to be the level of generality of the principle in question. General principles of a theory of temperaments (“Hot and dry stuff perfects the phlegmatic, cold and wet stuff perfects the choleric”) can be learned without any appeal to experience. But this is not true for principles like  “black pepper in high doses is obstipative, black pepper in low doses is laxative”. The less general a statement or principle is, the more the student must depend on experience in order to know these principles with certainty (fol. 17 r).

These disagreements between Javellus and Andreas are based on a different assessment of what experience is. This leads to a different view of the role of experience in the constitution of scientific knowledge. Javellus, like Andreas, distinguishes  non-complex knowledge of concepts from complex knowledge of propositions.

3. Experience and knowledge of concepts

Andreas states that the concepts we use in science depend on input from the senses. But this input need not be experiential. Javellus agrees that conceptual knowledge presupposes input from the senses (fol. 14 r). But he holds that this input cannot be experiential: experiences are representations of relations between objects (fol. 14 v f.). Concepts, however, refer to one (species of) object(s).

Experience thus is a precondition only for complex (i. e. propositional) knowledge. Even a repeated apprehension of one object (or of different objects belonging to the same species) thus cannout count as experience. It is similiar to a so called cognitio quid nominis, the kind of awareness we need to refer to an object. As such, repeated apprehensions still must be regarded as “confused” (fol. 15 r).

4. Experience and knowledge of propositions

For Andreas, experience can be helpful in acquiring propositional knowledge, but again it is no requirement. Again, Javellus disagrees. Experience conveys awareness of the fact that concepts (or the objects falling under concepts) do stand in the relation towards each other that is stated in the proposition. It is more difficult to assent to a proposition that does not contain easily verifiable facts (fol. 14 r). This does not speak against the assumption that experience is not the principal cause of propositional knowledge and science: In order to have scientific knowledge of the purgative powers of rhurbarb we still need to find an “inner principle” for it. Unless the purgative power of rhubarb is deduced from more general principles, awareness of purgative effects of rhubarb makes us an experimentator rather than a sciens. Experience thus does not cause knowledge: But it serves as the indispensable starting point for scientific inquiry, and it is required in order to confirm the conclusions drawn in this inquiry (fol. 14 v).

5. Objections

Javellus discusses two interesting objections to his account of experience, namely that  experience may be error-prone, and mathematical truths can be understood even if their objects have been apprehended only once. The fallibility of experience can be accepted by Javellus: He replies that he does not state that experience in itself is the basis for the universal claims of science. And it is only those claims belonging to ‘perfect or essential science’ that must be infallible. Beginning science need not be free from error (fol. 16 v).

In order to come to terms with the special status of mathematical truths, Javellus distinguishes ‘virtual’ and ‘formal’ experience. Virtual experience is acquired in one apprehensive act, because the object of this apprehension is immutable (virtual experience thus seems to consist in the apprehension of the object and the simultaneous apprehension of its immutability). Objects in the sublunar world are apprehended as mutable, so we need repeated perception of them in order to have a (formal) experience of them (fol. 17 r).

6. Conclusion

For Javellus, experience is indispensable for knowledge, because at times the intellect cannot decide on its own (propria virtute) whether or not to assent to a given proposition: Experience conveys awareness whether a proposition states a matter of fact. This insight is not available to the intellect on its own. Experience may not to be identified with repeated apprehensions, because we apprehend objects, but we experience facts. Experience as a kind of “proto-knowledge” thus serves as the base of “beginning science”. This does not dispense us from the search for “inner principles” causing the observed facts: Therefore, experience is only a partial cause of science, because it must be complemented by the appropriate deductions which do not depend on experiential input, but the laws of logic.