(It’s been rather quiet around here for a long time, but perhaps some people still have this site in their RSS readers.)

Thanks to a very helpful email from Jonathan Shaheen, I just updated The Letters in the Philosophical Letters, my page that tries to say what each of the many letters is about. PL 4.23 refers, I learn, to Constantijn Huygens. As the page now says:

Number: 4.23
Topic: On assorted further questions
Reference: Includes a reference to a Mr V.Z. and his questions “concerning those glasses, one of which being held close in ones hand, and a little piece being broke of its tail, makes as great a noise as the discharging of a Gun”. Mr V.Z. here is Constantijn Huygens. One of the two letters from him to Cavendish that were published in Cavendish (1676) is on this topic (Cavendish 1676, 119-20). As published, that letter is signed “Huygens de Zulichem”; “V.Z.” would be “van Zuilichem”. Constantijn Huygens had bought the lordship of Zuilichem, and thus became the heer van Zuilichem. (Thanks to Jonathan Shaheen, who figured this reference out.)

Speaking of the Philosophical Letters, I see that Hackett are going to publish an abridged edition, edited by Deborah Boyle, in August 2021. And examination copies are free (rather than merely cheap) if you order them in April.

[Post is updated from the original—see the comments.]

Religious and political historians of 17th/18th century Britain and Ireland are well aware of the long-running conflict between the ‘latitudinarian’ and ‘high-church’ factions in the Anglican Communion. However, many historians of philosophy are entirely unfamiliar with these terms. To historians of philosophy, religious debate in Britain and Ireland in this period is a conflict between Christians and deists/atheists, in which differences among Christians are either entirely invisible or of secondary importance. This is unfortunate, first, because this internal Anglican conflict can shed light on some familiar philosophical texts and debates and, second, because there is a lot of interesting philosophy currently languishing in obscurity that is connected with this conflict.

The terms ‘latitudinarian’ and ‘high-church’ are, at least to some extent ‘actors’ categories’. That is, 17th and 18th century Anglican writers would recognize the terms and have opinions about who belonged to which categories. Both terms were often used pejoratively, but instances of self-ascription can also be found in both cases.

The conflict between these two groups grew out of the effective loss of a national church, in both England and Ireland. (Since the Church of Scotland remained Presbyterian even after the Restoration of the Monarchy, the situation was rather different there.) At an earlier stage the Church of England and Church of Ireland had been understood as national churches—that is, membership in them had been considered part of citizenship in the nation. On this conception, dissent from the church is ipso facto disloyalty to the government, and the existence of any other religious group in the nation is a threat to the national order. This conception played a role in setting up the Wars of the Three Kingdoms: it was not possible for Anglicans and Puritans (and Catholics) to “live and let live” because the unity of the nation, it was thought, required a single church to which all citizens belonged.

Following the Restoration, it came to be accepted that some degree of religious diversity was going to be a permanent feature of the landscape. However, Anglicans continued to defend their status as the established church, that is, the only church sponsored and supported by the government. (The Church of England still enjoys this status today.) The core questions are, first, why should there be an established church at all? and, second, what should be done about the other religious groups?

The latitudinarians were for the most part politically aligned with the Whigs and controlled most of the important episcopal sees from the Restoration on. They generally accepted the modern liberal idea that government is concerned with temporal goods like property and security and so forth, rather than spiritual goods like salvation. Within this scheme, state support of the church is justified because it is not enough for the good of the country that citizens refrain from evil actions; citizens must be positively virtuous. The established church serves as an arm of the state for promoting virtue among citizens. It is a kind of mirror image of the justice system: the justice system punishes people who do wrong, while the church encourages people to do good. Most latitudinarians would deny that this is all that the church is about (the church is certainly concerned with eternal salvation), but it is this benefit to the state that, according to them, justifies the state’s support of the church.

The church, on this view, will be more effective the more people are in it. To this end, the latitudinarians propose a twofold strategy in their relation to non-Anglicans: toleration and comprehension. Toleration simply means that no effort is to be made to compel people into the church. The usual justification for this is that only sincere belief is really productive of virtue and salvation, and sincere belief cannot be coerced. Comprehension means that the church is to be made as broad as possible, insisting only on the bare minimum of beliefs and practices that are necessary to virtue and salvation, so that as many people as possible can, in good conscience, join themselves to the established church. Anglican polemicists (on both sides) usually assume that belonging to the established church is the default position (even with toleration, after all, life is easier for those who belong to the dominant religious group) while dissent requires strong reasons. The idea of the latitudinarian policy of comprehension is to leave as few reasons for dissent as possible.

High-church thinkers, on the other side, were generally allied with the Tories and, while they held some positions of importance in the church, never held the see of Canterbury. They generally believed that, insofar as the end of government is the good of the people, this included their spiritual good, and this was the basis for the government’s promotion of the established church. They usually accepted toleration only reluctantly, not disavowing persecution of religious minorities in principle, but only claiming that it was not expedient at present.

In the remainder of this post, I want to outline what I see as two contrasts in terms of general philosophical approach between writers on the two sides.

Old vs New

One characteristic of latitudinarianism that was recognized early was their friendliness to the ‘new philosophy’. By the turn of the 18th century, this meant primarily the philosophy of Locke and Newton. (Newton’s friend Samuel Clarke was one of the leading latitudinarians in this period, and every one of the early Boyle lecturers was both a personal friend of Newton and a latitudinarian.) High-church writers, on the other hand, favored ancient and Medieval sources.

As is always the case with general characterizations of parties, sects, or schools of thought, there is a serious danger of oversimplification here, but the contrast can be brought out by contrasting the latitudinarian philosopher George Berkeley* with the high-church philosopher Peter Browne. In the manuscript version of the Introduction to the Principles, Berkeley twice quotes Aristotle in the original Greek (!) and also compares his view to that of certain ‘School-men’, but these references are scrubbed from the published version and Locke is the only author quoted. In the later works Alciphron and Siris, Berkeley makes plenty of references to ancient and Medieval philosophy, but he is careful not to treat these as authorities. The approach is thoroughly modern and if any ancient or Medieval ideas are taken up, they are taken up as insights to be incorporated within a modern framework.

Browne is just the reverse. He agrees with Locke on a number of points, and sometimes uses language similar to Locke’s, but he is quite clear that his intention is to reject Locke’s modern ‘ideist’ framework. He says, in fact, that “the University … [has been] unhappily poysoned by an Essay concerning Human Understanding” (Divine Analogy, p. 127). His position is really a neo-Thomist one, though sometimes framed in Lockean language, and, especially in his last work Divine Analogy (1733), Browne clearly treats ancient and Medieval Christian writers as authorities in preference to modern writers whom he rejects.

As another complicating factor we should add that many high-church philosophers, including John Norris and Mary Astell, have a very favorable attitude to Descartes. However, like many theologically conservative Cartesians (e.g., Malebranche and Arnauld), these philosophers tend to like Cartesianism precisely because they see it as bringing Augustinianism forward into the modern age. So, as a rough characterization of the ‘feel’ of high-church vs. latitudinarian polemics, it seems to me to be correct to say that the latitudinarian writers are modern and high-church writers are anti-modern in their approach to philosophy.** Within the high-church party, Browne is an extremist while Astell is a moderate, and one of the many places where this is manifest is in their attitudes to modern philosophy.

Authority and Individualism

A second contrast we can draw, which is more directly connected to the political implications of the views, regards authority and individualism. Latitudinarians, as I indicated above, accept at least some parts of the modern liberal political picture. They tended to be moderate Whigs. (Berkeley, though a latitudinarian in his religion, was a moderate Tory in his politics—a combination that was almost unheard of in England, but less unusual in Ireland.) The natural tendency of Locke’s political philosophy was toward disestablishment of the church, and some radical Whigs in the early 18th century did go so far as to advocate this. Obviously the latitudinarians needed to oppose this tendency, and they did so by means of their argument about the utility of religion for promoting civic virtue. Still, latitudinarian thought was strongly individualistic in both religion and politics. Following Locke, many latitudinarians thought that one key reason in favor of toleration was the (alleged) fact that it is impossible to believe on command. I can only believe something insofar as it appears to me to be true. (This idea receives a lot of emphasis from Edward Synge, the leading Irish latitudinarian.) Religious belief is then seen as the product of an individual following his or her reason where it leads. This means that latitudinarian philosophy needs to focus on providing direct arguments in favor of particular doctrines so that the reader’s own reason will lead her to the truth.

High-church writers typically take the notion of authority much more seriously, and are more inclined to defend their positions by arguing that the reader ought to accept certain authorities. Many, including Browne, do insist that it is possible to believe on command and that political or religious authorities may legitimately issue such commands. Again, Astell’s position is moderate. Nevertheless, the question of the scope of such authority is a central question in her philosophy. She is moderate insofar as she restricts its scope and insofar as she emphasizes the role of individual judgment in determining when to submit to which authorities. Still, despite the rhetoric of individual judgment, much of The Christian Religion is about how to distinguish between just and unjust authorities, so that we may submit to the just authorities (who derive their authority from God) while rejecting the unjust. Authority, including authority over belief, remains a major theme.

Putting these two contrast together, I think, points to one reason why it’s worth caring about the way philosophy emerges in this conflict. It can seem that the high-church faction, insofar as they are conservative and anti-modern, are ‘on the wrong side of history’ and irrelevant to philosophical progress. But this is not so, for a variety of reasons. In the first place, well-known modern philosophers like Locke often endorse pretty extreme forms of epistemological individualism and write as if they can’t conceive of alternatives. The move today toward social epistemology, with worries about testimony, expertise, and the knowledge possessed by groups or institutions is a reaction against this. But the fact is, Locke and friends can conceive of alternatives. Indeed, many of their contemporaries, drawing on Medieval sources, advocated alternatives. Furthermore, these high-church thinkers were in no position to just take authority for granted. After all, they had to argue against Locke and friends and they also had to justify the Reformation. So the question of which authorities we should follow when and why were very much alive for them.

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


  • Philosophers who are aware of this dispute have sometimes mischaracterized Berkeley as belonging to the high-church faction. I am currently working on a book interpreting Berkeley as a latitudinarian. This was the occasion for this post.

** Anti-modern approaches can never be the same as pre-modern approaches. To say that a philosophers, like Peter Browne, is anti-modern is to say that he is reacting against modern philosophy by trying to bring back Aquinas and friends in the age of Locke. Browne, however, is acutely aware that he’s living in the age of Locke.

It is pretty widely accepted, among those scholars who have considered the matter, that Berkeley endorses a univocal account of theological language. That is, Berkeley holds—contrary to traditional philosophical theology—that the word ‘wise’ is applied to God and to Socrates in the same sense, although with an infinite difference of degree. Philosophers who hold such a view are often said to anthropomorphize God (see, e.g., O’Higgins). However, comparing Berkeley’s account with the prior tradition, it would be more accurate to say that Berkeley divinizes the human being than that he anthropomorphizes God.

The strongest indication in this direction is found in two notebook entries in which Berkeley uses the Latin phrase ‘purus actus’ (pure act)—a traditional definition of God—in connection with the human spirit. The entries are as follows:

701 The Substance of Body we know. The Substance of Spirit we do not know it not being knowable. it being purus Actus.

828 The Will is purus actus or rather pure Spirit not imaginable, not sensible, not intelligible. in now wise the object of ye Understanding, no wise perceivable.

In a subsequent entry, 870, Berkeley resolves not to use this language in print: “I must not give the Soul or Mind the Scholastique Name pure act, but rather pure Spirit or active Being.” This, however, does not sound like a change of view, but rather a resolution to avoid Scholastic jargon. The version of this thought that makes it into the published text of the Principles looks like this: “Such is the nature of spirit, or that which acts, that it cannot be of itself perceived, but only by the effects which it produceth” (§27). This too was something said of God in the tradition: we cannot know what God is in Godself, and instead we approach the knowledge of God through the effects of God’s action in the world (see, e.g., book 1, chapters 54 and 58 of Maimonides’ Guide).

We can even go a step further than this. According to the (strong) doctrine of divine simplicity, God’s activity just is God’s essence which just is God’s existence which just is God. This too Berkeley says of created spirits: “Existere is percipi or percipere [or velle i.e. agere]” (notebook entry 429; bracketed text added above a caret). Clearly in Berkeley’s system ideas are those things whose existence consists in being perceived, while spirits are those things whose existence consists in perceiving or willing, i.e., acting. Further, Berkeley seems to reject the notion that spirit has some other unknown essence distinct from its existence/activity.

In a sense, then, Berkeley’s philosophical theology may be somewhat more traditional than I have suggested in previous work (see, e.g., here). Berkeley holds that God is pure act, that God’s essence, existence, and activity are all one, and that God is knowable only through the effects of God’s activity. Berkeley’s radical departure from the tradition lies in his claim that in all of this God is just like you and me.

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

In a recent paper, Juan Garcia has argued that Leibniz is, in an important sense, “a friend of Molinism.”1 For those who are familiar with contemporary versions of Molinism (e.g., Flint), this suggestion is rather surprising, since Leibniz is clearly a theological determinist: he holds that God chooses every detail of the actual world. Further, a key feature of Molinism (particularly as it is understood in recent analytic philosophy) is the idea that God’s options for creation are limited by contingent but prevolitional counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. The contrary assumption, that God could have actualized any possible world, was dubbed by Plantinga, ‘Leibniz’s Lapse’. Now, Plantinga is clearly unfair in calling this a ‘lapse’: it’s a theoretical commitment Leibniz embraces clear-sightedly, with awareness that there are alternatives to it and that it has some implausible-looking consequences. Nevertheless, Leibniz does embrace this view. As a result, Leibniz surrenders the two main advantages typically assigned to Molinism in recent analytic philosophy: the ability to combine theological libertarianism with strong providence, and any Plantinga-style free will defence.

Still, Leibniz’s view does have significant similarities with Molinism and seem to employ some Molinist strategies. The main burden of Garcia’s article is to argue that Leibniz holds that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are contingent and that God knows them prevolitionally. This seems right in a certain sense or to a certain extent, but the key issue (which Garcia does not discuss) is how Leibniz can maintain this, and here Leibniz’s notoriously weak notion of contingency is doing real work.

According to traditional Molinism, an agent’s essence or character does not include all the facts about what the agent would do in hypothetical situations, because this would render the agent’s actions in those situations necessary. Nevertheless, God ‘supercomprehends’ this essence or character in order to know facts that go beyond what is included in it. It is in this way that God knows what the agent would do.2

This doctrine is rather obscure. It leaves unexplained how or why these facts could be true of this essence. (This is, of course, a version of the ‘grounding objection’.) It also seems to have God seeing in the essence something that isn’t there.

Leibniz, however, is able to give an account of how this works. In the Arnauld correspondence, Leibniz says that, in deciding to create Adam, God employs a ‘complete individual concept’ (CIC) of Adam which includes, essentially, an entire possible world. This is because the CIC must include everything that can be truly predicated of Adam, and there are true propositions such as Adam lived before I wrote this blog post. Hence, my writing this post is included in Adam’s CIC.

How, then, can any of Adam’s actions be contingent? In a certain sense they can’t, and Leibniz makes important use of this in his discussions of the problem of evil. (See the discussion of Judas in the Discourse on Metaphysics and the discussion of Sextus at the end of Theodicy.) Arnauld, therefore, objects that Leibniz’s view falsely implies that he (Arnauld) is necessarily a celibate theologian. In fact (Arnauld says) he could instead have been a married physician. Leibniz responds by diagnosing a kind of ambiguity: this Arnauld (the one in the actual world) is necessarily a celibate theologian, but there are other Arnaulds, in other possible worlds, who are married physicians. (I’ve written about this before.) This, according to Leibniz, gives us enough contingency for moral responsibility and so forth.

This ambiguity, it seems to me, is what allows Leibniz to combine these Molinist principles with theological determinism. God knows precisely what will happen if God creates this Arnauld. At the same time, it is contingent that Arnauld, in these circumstances, becomes a celibate theologian.

On the other hand, Leibniz’s strategy does not make what is perhaps the most characteristic move of both historical and contemporary Molinism: he does not open up any middle ground between natural knowledge and free knowledge. That Arnauld, placed in these circumstances, would freely decide to become a celibate theologian is true (on the interpretation on which it is contingent) because God decided to create this Arnauld, rather than one of those other Arnaulds. Hence this is part of God’s free knowledge. That this Arnauld freely so decides is necessary, since it follows from his CIC. (Leibniz often seems like he wants to wriggle out of the conclusion that this is necessary, even when we specify this Arnauld, but the comments about Judas and Sextus and so forth seem to push the other direction.) Thus it is Leibniz’s view that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are systematically ambiguous, and on one interpretation they are part of God’s natural knowledge while on another they are part of God’s free knowledge.

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


  1. A while back, Brandon Watson also suggested, in a blog comment, that Leibniz can be understood as endorsing a kind of ‘modified Molinism’.
  2. I rely on Adams for this characterization of ‘supercomprehension’.

At the beginning of the final (and by far the longest) chapter of his 1733 Divine Analogy, Peter Browne reports that “JUST as this Treatise was finished and sent away to the Press, I was very accidentaly surprised with a threatning Appearance of a powerful Attack upon the Doctrine of Divine Analogy, from an anonymous Author under the Disguise of a Minute Philosopher” (p. 374). The reference is, of course, to Berkeley’s 1732 Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher. Browne proceeds to offer a lengthy critique of the account of religious language found in Berkeley’s fourth and seventh dialogues.

Browne correctly recognizes that Berkeley’s key thesis in the seventh dialogue is that “words may be significant although they do not stand for ideas” (Alciphron, §7.8). Browne interprets Berkeley as subsequently strengthening this thesis ultimately to arrive at the claim “that Words may be Significant, tho’ they signify Nothing” (Divine Analogy, 534). Browne’s reading of Berkeley here is, I believe, correct.

Browne further notes, again correctly, that Berkeley aims to secure the meaningfulness of words by means of their ability to influence our lives. As Berkeley puts it, “A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act or excites to the doing or forbearance of an action may, it seems, be useful and significant, although the words whereof it is composed should not bring each a distinct idea into our minds” (Alciphron, §7.8).

Browne finds this notion, and particularly its application to religion, so shocking that he often seems to be sputtering with rage. (Actually, it seems that “sputtering with rage” is Browne’s normal literary persona; Berkeley is far from being the only object of his ire.) The hastily written chapter, added in response to Berkeley, goes on for some 180 pages (more than a third of the book) and runs from one objection to another in a rather disorganized pattern. Further, Browne never spends so much as a moment contemplating how Berkeley might respond to his objections, or indeed whether Berkeley might have already anticipated and responded to the objection. Nevertheless, Browne’s remarks are occasionally insightful.

I discovered today, in the ‘insightful’ category, an objection of Browne’s that passes rather quickly which I hadn’t noticed before:

Surely if there be any common Sence remaining it will inform us, that it is some Idea or Conception or Notion in the Mind, affixed to the Word or excited by it, which gives it all its Significancy[,] Life and Activity; and which renders it a Ruling Principle, as he calls it [Alciphron, §7.4], for the Conduct of Men’s Faith and Practice … where [people] have [no ideas] annexed to [words] or excited by them, they are downright Nonsence; and of no real Influence, Use, or Signification. But if it were true, as this Author asserts, that Words without any Ideas or Conceptions belonging to them could realy affect and move us; such Emotions would be merely Mechanical: At Best Men must be affected as mere Animals only; they would be moved when there was nothing but Wind or Sound to move them; they must be wrought upon and disposed without any Concurrence of Thinking or Reason; and they would be intirely under the Guidance and Direction of Tones and Accents of the Voice, without any Rational, Moral, or Religious Influence and Meaning. (Divine Analogy, 536-537)

A. D. Woozley characterized Berkeley as holding “that not only does intelligent and intelligible handling of [words and other signs] not require a concomitant shadow sequence of images in the stream of consciousness, but it does not require any accompaniment at all” (pp. 431-432). Browne’s objection is that such a view leaves no room for rational agency. If I, as an agent, am to respond to the words I hear, this response must be mediated by some kind of cognitive process. In the absence of such a cognitive process, my response to the words would be merely ‘mechanical’, like a response to a posthypnotic suggestion. This would be particularly disastrous in the case of religious language which is meant (according to both Berkeley and Browne) to be productive of moral virtue.

Browne’s concerns would only have been heightened if he had seen the discussion of ‘reward’ talk in Berkeley’s unpublished Manuscript Introduction (see folios 22-25). As David Berman has suggested (p. 162), this sounds a lot like Pavlovian conditioning: frequent association between the word ‘reward’ and positive outcomes, beginning from childhood, has made us habitually respond to it in a certain way. What Berkeley really needs to counter Browne here is an account of agency that allows that these sorts of responses directly to words, unmediated by ideas, could really count as actions of mine. I have previously tried to gather such an account from Berkeley’s works. (Browne is a little puzzled by Berkeley’s insistence in this context on the inactivity of ideas, but this is what guarantees that, even in the case of a habitual response to ideas the mind must be understood as acting rather than being acted upon.) However, when the issue is raised by Alciphron, immediately following the discussion of religious mysteries, Euphranor gives a rather deflationary account of moral agency, with which Browne could hardly be expected to be satisfied (Alciphron, §§7.19-20).

This observation also mustn’t be separated from the broader context of the debate about religious mysteries. Toland and other religious radicals had been arguing that these mysterious doctrines, though strictly speaking meaningless, operated as tools of oppression, used by the clergy to produce blind obedience in the laity. Berkeley is arguing in Alciphron that these doctrines are meaningful precisely insofar as they shape feeling and action. The question is, if words can shape our actions without the mediation of ideas, are the actions really still ours? Are we not being operated upon, as by a hypnotist? And if we are being operated upon in this way, then aren’t the ‘hypnotists’ who wield these words (i.e., the clergy) guilty of just the kind of tyrannical domination alleged by Toland?

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Thus, a body is such an entity that, if one posits a longitude on it, another longitude will be found intersecting it at a right angle, and a third longitude of these two lengths will stand as a perpendicular on the point of the previous intersection. Whatever can be placed under these three magnitudes in the aforesaid manner and is also a substance is called a body … But that which is in a body, such as length, width, and depth, is known to exist not in the form of the body, but as an accident to it. For instance, one can take a piece of wax and elongate it to make it one hand longer, two fingers wider, one finger deeper. Thereafter one can modify it so that its length width and depth vary. Under such circumstances its bodily form will always persist, whereas these three dimensions do not persist. Thus, these three dimensions are accidents to the wax, while its form is another attribute. Bodies differ not with respect to form because, by belonging to one kind of category, all bodies are identical with respect to the possibility of being described by these three dimensions in the aforesaid manner.

The Metaphysica of Avicenna (ibn Sīnā), tr. Morewedge (1973), ch. 4

In a famous passage of the Second Meditation, Descartes asks us to consider a piece of wax melting on a stove. According to Descartes, as the wax undergoes this process of melting, every feature of the wax detectable by the senses changes, but the wax continues to exist. At this stage in the Meditations, we are still in doubt about whether the wax really exists. However, whether it exists or not, Descartes argues, the fact that I am capable of thinking of the wax as persisting through these changes shows that I have a concept of the wax itself which cannot be identified with anything revealed by the senses. Descartes ultimately argues that this conception of the wax itself is nothing but the concept of extended substance, i.e., of a thing which has some length, width, and breadth or other. This notion is linked to geometry, a science undertaken by the pure intellect and not by the senses.

For Descartes, this argument is a step on the way to a defence of mechanism, the thesis that bodies have no intrinsic features other than the modes of extension (ways of being extended) and interact only by collision.1

Ibn Sīnā’s discussion of the nature of body at the beginning of Metaphysica2 is, in a number of respects, interesting to set alongside Descartes. It is not so surprising that ibn Sīnā and Descartes both make the argument for distinguishing a substance from its modes/accidents by treating the substance as that which persists through a change in the accidents—presumably they both got this from Aristotle’s Categories. It is more striking that ibn Sīnā, like Descartes, uses a piece of wax as his example. It would be interesting to trace the chain of influence here. Morewedge (the translator) notes some sort of similar uses in Plato’s Theatetus and Aristotle’s Physics. To me, however, the most interesting feature of the discussion is that ibn Sīnā, like Descartes, holds that extension alone constitutes the essence/nature/form of body. Furthermore, ibn Sīnā goes on to argue that this form is identical with the body itself:

the substratum of a material form is not an actuality without a material form. It is an actual substance due to the material form. In reality, therefore, the material form is the substance … Furthermore, the material substratum is by itself not a thing without a material form. It is impossible for reason to understand the description of the substance without this necessary accident. (ch. 8)

This seems to me to mirror Descartes’s doctrine that there is only a conceptual distinction, and not a real distinction, between a substance and its principal attribute (e.g., between a body and extension).

However, despite this robust agreement on foundational issues regarding the nature of body, ibn Sīnā does not turn out to be a mechanist, and this reveals that Descartes needs an additional premise which is much less explicit in Meditations than his claims about the nature of body. Ibn Sīnā avoids drawing the mechanist conclusion because he accepts the Aristotelian doctrine of real accidents distinct from, but residing in and depending on, the substance:

If we suppose that quality, such as whiteness or blackness … stood by itself, and did not depend on anything else, and did not partake of division, then neither blackness nor whiteness could exist … A body is that which is divisible since this receptivity to division is the meaning of a body. Hence, it can be both white and black (i.e. at different times it can contain contrary characteristics).3 The peculiarity of whiteness or blackness is different from the meaning of being a body, which admits no contrary. Being black is something other than being receptive to divisibility. Whereas being receptive to divisibility is the mark of a body, blackness is nothing but blackness itself. Consequently, blackness is dependent on the body, not independent of the body. (ch. 10)

The view here is that color cannot be reduced to anything in the nature of body (i.e., extension), but nevertheless cannot exist apart from body, since only an extended thing can be colored. This is clearly an anti-mechanist color realism. This, however, does not in any way contradict the view that extension constitutes the nature of body, unless one adds the further premise that there must be an intelligible relation between the nature of a substance and its modes/accidents. This further premise (which Donald Rutherford, discussing Leibniz’s version, dubbed the Principle of Intelligibility) is indeed a core principle of Cartesian philosophy. Thus we can see that it is really Descartes’s commitment to the thoroughgoing intelligibility of nature—and in particular to the idea that all states of substances can be explicated through their natures, which can be grasped by the pure intellect—is a central plank of his argument for mechanism, and is in fact the place where at least some Medieval Aristotelians want to get off the boat.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)


  1. Although I won’t go into the evidence for this here, it seems to me that the overt agenda of the Meditations—securing our knowledge of the existence of God and the natural immortality of the soul—conceals a hidden agenda—selling mechanistic physics to the Catholic Church. Further, it seems to me that Descartes cares a great deal more about this hidden agenda than he does about the overt agenda. That’s not necessarily to say he’s insincere in his religious/theological assertions, but I don’t think these are among his core interests or motivations the way they are for some other early modern philosophers.
  2. I am not an expert on Medieval philosophy in general or Medieval Islamic philosophy in particular and am reading this work for the first time, in translation. Metaphysica appears to be a title given by the translator to the first (metaphysical) part of work called Dānish Nāma-i’alā’ī, a summary of Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy written in the vernacular Persian language rather than the scholarly Arabic of his other works.
  3. I think these parentheticals are the translator’s additions.

This is Part 3 in an exploration of Leibniz’s complaint about “Locke and his followers” in his letter to Caroline (part of the “Leibniz-Clarke” correspondence). What is the problem that Leibniz sees with British philosophy circa 1714? In addition to the problems raised against Newton and his followers, what goes mostly unexplored in the Leibniz-Clarke-Caroline correspondence is the problem with the materiality and natural mortality of the soul because Clarke, too, is opposed to both the materiality and natural mortality of the soul.

Part 1: Henry Dodwell and Anthony Collins

Part 2: Catherine Trotter Cockburn

In 1696, John Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious, raising both his international profile and his notoriety. This was followed by multiple tracts—including, importantly, defenses of republicanism, of the Hanoverian succession, and of the importance of securing Protestant rule in England—before his 1704 Letters to Serena. His pamphlets in support of the Hanoverian succession secured him a spot in the envoy to welcome Frederick, Sophie, Sophie Charlotte, and Caroline. This greatly developed his international network and resulted in a series of debates with Leibniz, which may have served as a basis for Letters to Serena (where Sophie Charlotte is a plausible candidate for the pseudonymous “Serena”).

This is important for our purposes in that it gave Leibniz an opportunity to meet a British philosopher in whom he saw the destructive elements left open by Locke’s failure to condemn thinking matter. Leibniz held a very low opinion of Toland’s philosophical and historical abilities. (He told Sophie that Toland “likes to make grand discourses; in a word, he wants to be an author. … Instead of dabbling in philosophy, which is not his forte, he would do better to restrict himself to the search for facts.” [Strickland, Leibniz and the Two Sophies, 291]) Leibniz, though, took Toland’s views to be important enough that he wrote down multiple lengthy letters for Sophie Charlotte refuting Toland’s views even after he had debated the points in her presence previously. His “Letter on what is independent of sense and matter” went through multiple drafts and culminated in an argument that there are immaterial substances that are outside of matter. (See Strickland’s Leibniz and the Two Sophies, 220ff, esp. 233-236 and 245-247.) Sophie Charlotte passed Leibniz’s letter to Toland, who responded, partly by side-stepping the issue of immortality of the soul by saying he only ever meant to discuss the “present state.” Leibniz again goes through multiple drafts in composing a response. Leibniz and Toland also corresponded directly, including Leibniz’s essay known as “Reflections on the doctrine of a single universal spirit,” which emphasizes the importance of individual souls.

Toland should certainly be included among “Locke and his followers,” despite Locke’s desire to be disassociated from Toland’s notorious religious and political views. Leibniz certainly was distressed by Toland’s views and perhaps also Sophie Charlotte’s openness to his views.

Yesterday I wrote about Henry Dodwell and Anthony Collins as potential candidates for Locke’s “followers.” These posts are an exploration of the problem that Leibniz sees with British philosophy circa 1714 but that goes mostly unexplored in the Leibniz-Clarke-Caroline correspondence because Clarke, too, is opposed to both the materiality and natural mortality of the soul.

Let’s review Leibniz’s charge, originally written to Caroline as part of a longer letter, as it gets excerpted in editions of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence.

1. Natural religion itself seems to decay very much. Many will have human souls to be material; others make God himself a corporeal being.

2. Mr. Locke and his followers are uncertain at least whether the soul is not material and naturally perishable.

The next candidate for “Locke and his followers” is Catherine Trotter (later Catherine Trotter Cockburn). Notice Leibniz’s language: these folks “are uncertain at least whether…” For Leibniz, it matters not just that the soul is not material and naturally perishable but that we know this to be the case with certainty.

In a 1706 letter to his primary British correspondent/gossipmonger, Leibniz thanks Thomas Burnett for sending him a “defence of Mr Locke written by a very spirited young lady…” (Side note: Thank you to Lloyd Strickland for not only his excellent book that makes available Leibniz’s correspondence with Sophie and Sophie Charlotte, but also the website where he provides important translations like this one.) The timing of this letter, its topic, and its use of “defence” make it overwhelmingly likely that Leibniz is discussing Cockburn’s A Defence of the Essay of Human Understanding (1702).

Her defense of Locke is focused on arguing that Locke relies on a distinction between what is available by the “light of nature” (unaided or amplified but not supplemented human reason) and what is available through special revelation. She finds it obvious that the soul is immortal and all agree on this.

That the immortality of the soul is only highly probable by the light of nature, none can deny, who believe that Apostle, by whom we are told, that life and immortality is brought to light by Jesus Christ through the gospel. Why then is it objected against Mr. Locke’s principles, that they give us no certainty of the immortality of the soul without revelation? By what other way can we be certain of anything, that is only highly probably by the light of nature? (From p53 in Patricia Sheridan’s very useful edition for Broadview).

3D16DF2F-7515-42C4-9ACE-B87F27BE7920We do not have demonstrative knowledge, without revelation, that the soul is immortal, according to Cockburn’s reading of Locke. She is critical of attempts in natural theology to arrive at the immortality of the soul through routes such as arguing for the soul’s immateriality. It “may be dangerous” to require the soul’s immortality to depend on its immateriality because some people will fail to follow a good proof; arguments (even very good ones) affect people differently. Putting the argument for the soul’s immortality on “false or uncertain grounds” is an aid to those who oppose the soul’s immortality (Sheridan 63-64). Those who want to defend “the future state” (which many worried was necessary to keep people doing good in this life) ought not require demonstrations of immortality of the soul that require immateriality.

This is just one of her lines of argument, nestled in other questions about whether a thinking substance must be always thinking and other abstruse questions. One of her key points, though, is that by reason alone we can establish with high probability that the soul is immortal and special revelation gives us certainty. Leibniz, remember, is concerned about those who are “uncertain at least whether the soul is not material and naturally perishable.” By denying that immateriality and natural imperishability are required to establish immortality and by furthermore arguing that, by the light of nature alone, it is “highly probable” (rather than certain) that the soul is immortal, Leibniz would have seen her “spirited” defense as not going far enough in establishing what can be known through natural theology (without special revelation).

It seems likely, then, that Trotter (Cockburn) is included in “Locke and his followers,” who fall short of guaranteeing demonstrative certainty of the soul’s immateriality without the aid of revelation.

When Leibniz writes to Caroline to express his concern over the dangerous thinking in England he specifically names “Locke and his followers” and “Newton and his followers.” But who exactly were Locke’s “followers,” and why don’t we talk about them more in the context of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence?

First, some context. Sophie Charlotte and her husband, King Frederick I of Prussia, were (for a while) guardians to Princess Caroline of Ansbach. Sophie Charlotte frequently hosted Leibniz in Berlin and elsewhere (while Leibniz was supposed to be working on his history of the Brunswick family), and it is in her court that he met Caroline and eventually became her tutor. Caroline would become the central (but hidden) figure in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, passing the letters between them with her own observations stated in accompanying letters. In addition to the broader public and the official correspondent, Caroline is the unstated audience for both Leibniz and Clarke. (See Meli 1999 for more on Caroline’s role in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence.)

Leibniz’s initial letter to Caroline (printed as the first letter in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence) is an attempt to keep Caroline from straying from his views and toward the (to Leibniz) dangerous views in England. He specifically mentions “Locke and his followers” and “Newton and his followers” in his opening salvo.

Because Clarke, who takes up the cause of English “natural religion,” is clearly a member of “Newton and his followers” and defends (half-heartedly) Newton’s use of sensorium and defends (very well) Newton’s “very odd opinion concerning God’s workmanship,” scholarship has focused on the letters as a debate between Leibniz on the one side and Newton-Clarke (with various weightings assigned to Newton and Clarke as author) on the other. Partly this is because Clarke is clearly opposed to the position ascribed to “Locke and his followers” that they “aren’t sure whether the soul is material and naturally perishable.” In asking who “Locke and his followers” are, we can look to those who think the soul is “material and naturally perishable.”

The debate about a “naturally perishable” soul focused in early eighteenth century Britain on Henry Dodwell, who had argued that the soul only became immortal at baptism. Clarke opposes this view in a typically public letter. Anthony Collins responds, and the two men’s subsequent correspondence (1707-1708) on the immateriality and natural immortality of the soul is a fascinating example of a substance dualist (who unlike Cartesian dualists is open to the soul being extended) and someone working towards an emergentist view long before such views became popular. Collins holds the sort of view that Leibniz sees as following from Locke’s openness to thinking matter in the later editions of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, while Clarke defends a thinking, immaterial soul. Leibniz is aware of Dodwell as early as 1706, due perhaps to his primary British correspondent Thomas Burnett. Dodwell, then, is the first candidate for “Locke and his followers,” with Collins worth consideration, as well.

The debate between Clarke and Leibniz quickly focuses on Leibniz’s objections to Newton and Clarke rather than on the thinking matter views entertained by Locke and Collins because Clarke is the clear opponent of both Dodwell and Collins. This is part of why, I think, we think today of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence as about Leibniz’s problems with Newtonian natural philosophy and Clarkean natural theology rather than with post-Lockean concerns about whether all souls are immortal. Because it was Clarke who, at Caroline’s request, answered Leibniz’s charge, the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence focuses on the immortality question only insofar as it is connected to questions like the nature of the sensorium and God’s relationship to space (e.g., as a world-soul).

NB: I found this in my drafts folder for this site from October, 2014(!). I reiterate now my desire to see more discussion of Watts. I didn’t recheck the texts, but my complaints align with what I remember of my worries from the time. (A poor confirmation.) I generally find Watts to be interesting, although I find his writing on space to be especially obscure, as his style of writing, strongly shaped by reactions to other writers, does not always make clear when we are getting his glosses on others and when we are getting his own vies..

You cannot make Space think, or will, or act, as a Spirit does; for, join Thinking and Space, which are two distinct Ideas, as near as possible in your Mind, yet you cannot unite them into one Being, nor conceive of Space as having any Share in thinking, or as exerting a Thought. So you may join Iron and Joy together in your Mind as two neighbouring Ideas, but they will be two Ideas for ever distinct: No Force can squeeze, melt or weld them together, and make them unite in one; you can never make Iron become joyful: There is an utter Inconsistency in their Ideas, and they are eternally incompatible. Space can no more exert a Thought, than Iron can exert Joy. (Isaac Watts, Philosophical Essays, 2nd Ed., Essay 1.9, p. 31)

Having given reasons for thinking that space is a real being (either God or a property of God, as many British philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries thought), Isaac Watts turns to arguing that space is not a real being. His argument often appeals to parallels with darkness, which serves as an example of how we could come to form an idea that is really a privation of something else (body or light). The passage excerpted above is part of a section in which he is giving his first set of arguments that space is not real because real beings either act or are acted upon and space neither acts nor is acted upon (that is, it has no active powers or passive capacities).

I find this particular passage perplexing. The argument perhaps owes some debt to Descartes’ conceivability argument, but it is not obviously identical to it. It also might remind readers of Locke’s thinking matter hypothesis, but since the topic is mere spatial extension and not appropriately disposed body, it is not quite the same point (although perhaps the discussion of iron suggests that Watts wants to extend the argument to body, but this still falls short of complex material systems).

What I find perplexing, though, is what it means for the two ideas to remain distinct. Watts seems to be denying that there is an unrestricted combinatorial ability in the mind (of the sort that Hume endorses for the imagination). I can’t just put any two ideas together and make a new complex idea. But why not? Does he think that if two ideas are capable of being joined it must be because they aren’t truly distinct? (E.g., I can weld my idea of the beer in the glass to the idea of the glass because they were never really distinct.) This seems oddly restrictive and at least not clear in the text. Does he think that only ideas of the same sort (e.g., regarding extension, regarding thought) can be combined? (E.g., I can combine my idea of the table and the beer into a complex idea of the beer on the table because they are not just consistent but I can “weld” them into a new idea.) This might be question-begging (or at least not an interesting argument). Does he think that there is some inconsistency in conceiving of thinking space? This wouldn’t be surprising for the time, especially for someone like Watts who wants to maintain certain orthodox religious positions. But I take this to be an argument for why they are inconsistent (if we can’t join two distinct ideas, then they are inconsistent), and I’m trying to understand the initial claim.

We can turn to his much-read logic textbook for some help. If we have two ideas, we can “join them by Affirmation, or disjoin them by Negation, according as we find them to agree or disagree” (Logick, 9th Ed., 1751, p. 142). He denies that this judgment is a “mere Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of Ideas“; judgment also includes an act of the will. In some ways, this helps explain the earlier case, since we now see that he may be thinking of “space” and “thinking” in terms of our ability to form propositions (which always involve a judgment of two ideas for Watts) and thus while “This iron is joyful” or “Space is thinking” are presumably grammatically correct they do not form actual propositions. However, this also complicates the problem because (1) we now need to address Watts on judgment and on propositions to make sense of this passage about distinct ideas, (2) by adding in the will to these judgments it is clear that he is not only restricting our ability to form new ideas without an act of the will, we also cannot form them with an act of the will, and (3) saying that we can’t will them together is no clearer than saying we can’t join distinct ideas. Even more worryingly, he claims that mathematical parts (which includes physical parts like the limbs of a human body) are really distinct but can

I apologize for not being able to pose a nice solution to this problem, and perhaps it wasn’t the best introduction to his thought. (I do think he’s worth reading, and his influence in his lifetime has not been matched by discussion of him in ours.)

Addendum: If anyone knows of work on Watts’ philosophy, I’d appreciate being made aware. Watts appears occasionally in footnotes, but I don’t know of any article-length work on his philosophical thought (rather than his hymnody).