Cover 'The Divine Order'

Two historical papers made it into the Philosopher’s Annual 2014, as reported on Leiter:

Congratulations to the selected authors!

A quick glance at previous editions of PA suggests that this result is fairly standard. Papers in history of philosophy—not restricted to the modern period—have made up between zero and two items per issue, with texts on Kant and Frege doing especially well (respectively, eight and five papers in total over the 32 years surveyed). But does that mean that typically only a maximum of two historical works is among the ten ‘best papers’ published each year?

That is debatable. Meena Krishnamurthy at Philosop-her has raised questions about the methodology used in selecting the papers (here, and also last year here), and Eric Schliesser noted last year that for modern philosophy, inclusion in this list does not particularly reflect what is going on in the field. For good reason, then, on its website PA is characterized as ‘an attempt to pick the ten best articles of the year’, not as a final judgment on what work will push a field forward. Further, we may even wonder whether we should keep on ranking ‘best’ papers in the first place? Best in what respect anyway—persuasiveness, style, urgency?

More optimally, we view Philosopher’s Annual as a list of recommended reading from the papers published in the previous year. Stuff that you would do good to pay attention to, in case you had not yet gotten round to studying it. Viewing this list as recommended reading brings out that there is a specific group of philosophers doing the recommending, possibly even with a specific group of philosophers they are recommending the work to.

In the spirit of viewing these lists as ‘recommended reading’, are there any papers in modern philosophy published in 2013 you would suggest to a general philosophical audience?

Eric Schliesser has some remarks about the role of Jonathan Bennett’s translations at Earlymoderntexts.org in scholarship:


First, all translation is an interpretation. Translating complex philosophical texts is much, much harder than figuring out ‘gavagai.’ This is so, even if you have written the text yourself and are fluent in both languages. You should try translating some time; even if you are not a meaning holist, you’ll discover that a lot of philosophical jargon is not stable and uniform across cultural and temporal contexts. (Surprisingly enough, this is even  true of works in the history of physics.) So, leaving aside honest mistakes, all translations involve non-trivial judgments and trade-offs with a complex interplay among style, content, jargon, sentence structure, and even argumentative structure (this list is not exhaustive).

In earlymoderntexts.org, Jonathan Bennett, who is one of the greatest historians of philosophy of his generation and who should be praised for his dedication to the field and pedagogy, is refreshingly forthright that in his translations the aim is to make “the original thought more accessible than it is on the original page.” He uses many more ‘tricks of the trade’* than any other translator known to me to achieve this and he is refreshingly and admirably transparent about how he deploys them.


See the whole post here

The 2015 John Locke Workshop
to be held at
The Rotman Institute of Philosophy
at The University of Western Ontario
May 1-2, 2015
Keynote Speaker: Peter Anstey (Sydney)
“Locke on Measurement”
The aim of this workshop is to foster interactions among Locke scholars, encourage the development and creation of new scholarship, and further the pursuit of new ideas regarding Locke’s philosophy, its context, and its continuing significance.  Please submit a title and abstract of no more than 750 words by NOV 1, 2014 to johnlockesociety@uwo.ca.  Final papers should be no longer than 5000 words.  The full program will be made available by DEC 15, 2014.  Further information regarding the workshop, accommodation options, and other practical matters will be available at that time.  Submissions on any topic of Locke’s philosophy will be considered, but we would especially welcome submissions regarding Locke’s natural philosophy and/or philosophy of science, broadly construed.

The John Locke Society
Jessica Gordon-Roth (CUNY-Lehman)
Benjamin Hill (Western Ontario)


'Speech ballon' by Marc Wathieu

Speech ballon by Marc Wathieu

Rest assured: the humanities are not in crisis. But, suggests Gideon Rosen in a recent article, they do suffer from a PR problem. Where the sciences have hoards of journalists eager to help their findings permeate wider intellectual culture—think: climate change, the Higgs boson, DNA—much of the work of humanistic scholars remains stuck within a community of experts. As current disciplinary classifications go, this concerns us too, historians of modern philosophy.

Rosen recommends some strategies to mitigate the perceived problem, and I encourage everyone to read his full article. Here, however, I want to consider a more specific question: What would an ideal PR system for the domain of history of modern philosophy aim to achieve, anyway?

One shape it might take is a dedicated effort to fill gaps in communication of what we do. Perhaps we must do more to explicate to the non-initiates the significance of the first systematic reading of Cavendish’s metaphysics of body, the revisionary analysis of Leibniz’s views on the expression of desire, or a new comparison of various proofs of plastic natures. Do it well, and these contributions of contemporary scholars become anchor points for an interested wider audience. PR challenge met.

At the same time there seems to be something fishy about a situation in which the findings of contemporary researchers take center stage. A dissenting voice may say that when we do our work well, we as scholars become transparent. Our work lets the reader see the polemics, letters, and lines of thought from the periods that we’re discussing—Cavendish’s metaphysics of body, Leibniz’s views on the expression of desire, and the various proofs of plastic natures. It’s about those dead people, their long running disputes, their resonating arguments. Such transparency sits rather uncomfortably with a well-functioning PR machine as just sketched, even when there’s no strict contradiction. What’s there to market about something unseen? Choose this route, and the PR problem is bound to persist.

So we’re left with a dilemma. Would scholars working on the history of modern philosophy do good to intensify efforts to make a wider audience see their own and colleagues’ specific contributions? Or is becoming increasingly transparent our best goal?

One of the main topics of the Leibniz-Arnauld correspondence is the question how, on Leibniz’s theory, it can be true that Arnauld might have had children and been a physician rather than being a celibate theologian (see Arnauld’s letter of May 13, 1686). One of the curious things that happens in this discussion is that both Leibniz and Arnauld start talking about the many Adams and many Judases and many Arnaulds in the various possible worlds, with Leibniz insisting that none of them is identical to the actual Adam/Judas/Arnauld. In that May 13 letter, Arnauld even speaks of ‘several mes’, pluralizing the first-person pronoun.

In my view, what’s going on here is that Leibniz holds that as long as we use ‘Arnauld’ as a genuine proper name, the sentence ‘Arnauld is a celibate theologian’ is in fact a necessary truth. This is because, when ‘Arnauld’ is used as a genuine proper name, it picks out the actual Arnauld by means of his Complete Individual Concept (CIC) which includes everything about him and, indeed, everything about the world he inhabits. Of course, we don’t actually possess such a concept (at least not consciously); only God does. But somehow or other, in Leibniz’s view, we manage to use the name ‘Arnauld’ in such a way that this concept is its meaning.

However, there are other, looser contexts in which we use ‘Arnauld’ in such a way that its meaning is given not by Arnauld’s CIC but rather by some concept we actually do possess. In this kind of case, ‘Arnauld’ could be seen as abbreviating some definite description which is sufficiently detailed to identify Arnauld uniquely among actual creatures, but not including all of his characteristics, and hence not uniquely identifying him among all possible creatures. For instance, the description might be, ‘the youngest child of Antoine and Catherine Arnauld, born February 8, 1612, assigned the given name “Antoine”, who went on to become a famous Jansenist theologian.’ When we talk about alternate possibilities (‘Arnauld might have been a married physician’) or evaluate counterfactuals (‘if Arnauld had been married, he would have become a physician rather than a theologian’) we are using ‘Arnauld’, not as a proper name, but as a common name standing for such a definite description. It is for this reason that we can pluralize ‘Arnauld’ in this usage and speak of the other Arnaulds, in other possible worlds, who are married physicians. These are merely possible creatures, distinct from the actual Arnauld, who nevertheless satisfy the description which, in this context, ‘Arnauld’ abbreviates.

Today, I came across some support for this interpretation from a surprising source. It turns out there is actually a discussion of the practice of pluralizing proper nouns in the Port-Royal Grammar which Arnauld co-wrote with Claude Lancelot:

if [proper nouns] are sometimes put in the plural, as when one says the Caesars, the Alexanders, the Platos, it is done figuratively by including in the proper name all the persons who resemble them, as one would speak of kings as brave as Alexander, of philosophers as wise as Plato, etc. (part 2, ch. 4, tr. Rieux and Rollin)

This, it seems to me, is good evidence that Arnauld understood Leibniz’s view in more or less the way I have described. Of course a more careful analysis of the correspondence would be required to show that Arnauld understood Leibniz correctly.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

The following remarks are a revised version of Martha Bolton’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.

My reflections on this topic take the form of remarks about how work in the history of modern philosophy has changed in the course of my experience. The observations are impressionistic, but in an effort to provide some objective basis for them, I collected a little information. The endeavor consisted mainly of a literature search. It yielded a list of articles on history of modern published in The Philosophical Review over the past fifty years. Because this is a non-specialized journal widely thought to publish some of the very best work in philosophy, it seems an appropriate barometer of changes in the history of modern in relation to philosophy more generally.

The survey covers issues spanning the fifty years from 1953 through 2013. Articles on Kant are counted as in the field, because during much of this time German idealism was not a separate and active area of research as it is now.   A couple of articles on Newton are on the list, as well as several on the political philosophy of Hobbes, which was much discussed in the early decades of this period. Let me repeat that my observations are from a personal perspective; don’t mistake them for a history of the development of the field during the last fifty years.

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The following remarks are a revised version of Don Rutherford’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.

When Lewis Powell announced the formation of the Society for Modern Philosophy, I must admit my initial reaction was to ask myself, “Do we really need another organization of historians of modern philosophy?” We have societies, conferences and journals dedicated to major individual thinkers, as well as a host of meetings, venues and publications that feature work focusing on broader topics in seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy. So what more do we need?

Then Lewis invited me to make this presentation, and I was forced to give the question more careful consideration. I couldn’t accept the invitation if I was going to argue that the plan for the Society was ill-conceived or without point. On reflection, I decided that this was far from my view. In fact, I have come to see the Society’s formation as a very good idea. In these remarks I want to explain why I think this is so and also share some more far-reaching thoughts on the discipline of the history of philosophy. I apologize in advance if the latter seem tangential to the immediate business of the Society. In my mind, they address—in a preliminary and abstract way—some of the larger issues about our enterprise that warrant greater discussion. I look forward to your comments on them.

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