Margaret D. Wilson

Margaret D. Wilson

Jeff McDonough has retrieved a crisp general audience talk by Margaret Wilson on Pascal and Spinoza, titled “Pascal and Spinoza on Salvation:  Two Views on the Thinking Reed”. The lecture was published in the Harvard Graduate Society Newsletter (Fall 1992: 8-13). Framing her lecture as addressing ‘a central humanistic issue’, Wilson surveys Pascal’s and Spinoza’s views on reason, passion and how to achieve salvation.

Some excerpts:

‘Both Pascal and Spinoza express in their writings a strong sense of urgency about finding the correct values and commitment in life, about being saved, together with an implicit conviction that there is a unique and universal right answer to be found.’ (p. 9)

‘At the heart of both Pascal’s and Spinoza’s conceptions of the situation of man in nature is the contrast between man as a finite being with strong egoistic drives, but brief duration and limited powers, and nature as vast, all powerful, limitless, infinite, and completely incommensurable with human purposes.’ (p. 10)

‘Both philosophers also stress that as finite and dependent beings, we are subject to endless external emotional influences and disturbances. These perturb our reason and constantly affect our state of mind, our sense of pleasure and misery, in ways we may be powerless to control or even to understand. To this extent, it is part of human nature to be “wretched”, as Pascal often puts it, or to be subject to the “bondage” of the emotions and of inadequate understanding, in the terminology favored by Spinoza.’ (p. 10)

Wilson observes three key differences between Pascal and Spinoza’s attitudes. These concern: (1) their view on reason’s power (or lack of it) to ‘remove us from the state of wretchedness or bondage’; (2) their respective conceptions of happiness or salvation; and (3) their account of the role and appropriateness of fear—in particular the fear of death. Wilson states:

‘Pascal believes that a correct and reasonable perception of our position in the universe naturally and appropriately produces terror. (…) Spinoza would regard Pascal’s outlook as unenlightened, morbid, and weak.’ (p. 12)

The talk ends with a number of evaluations, including the following:

‘The central problem for Spinoza’s position is that he does not provide a clear or persuasive account of the notion of absolute rational insight on which it depends. (…) In some respects, Pascal’s position seems the more accessible and believable. True, Pascal may have exaggerated the impossibility of human beings fathoming by sense and reason the infinities of nature. Our powers of extending our knowledge have not proved so easily daunted or radically hedged as Pascal apparently imagined. But it seems to me, he still looks to be more nearly right than Spinoza and some other seventeenth-century rationalists in his claims about reason.’ (p. 13)

Read the full lecture here.


Three things

Markku Roinila has updated his Leibnizian Resources page, which links to Leibniz texts and all sorts of other online material. That link goes to the front page, which lists the many updates. I notice that the Texts page includes links to all the online Academy edition volumes, including the preliminary Vorausedition and transcription files.

Secondly, it’s amazing what you find when you type ‘Spinoza’ into the youtube search box. Among other things, this video of a talk by Susan James, “Why Should We Read Spinoza?”, in which she talks about Spinoza’s theory of emotions, and uses that to think about the emotions of the historian of philosophy.

Thirdly, this post by Miriam Burstein, Updated Advice to Graduate Students on the Fine Art of Buying Books (in the Age of Digitization), is certainly relevant to the history of philosophy.

Lest you think that Plato and Monty Python were alone in imagining the philosophers drinking, I’ve presented below (for your amusement) a poem by James Beattie in which he jokingly attributes modern philosophers’ shortcomings to their fondness for drink. (James Beattie is not the English footballer but the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who mostly sides with Reid against Hume and wrote the Essay on Truth.) The poem can be found in a collection of his poetry, dialogues, and miscellaneous writings, which is available here and elsewhere in various editions. I’ve identified elided authors in brackets.

If you want the highlights, I recommend the verses on Descartes, Mandeville, and Huygens.

“The Modern Tippling Philosophers”

Father Hodge had his pipe and dram,
And at night, his cloy thirst to awaken,He was served with a rasher of ham,
Which procured him the surname of Bacon.
He has shown, that, though logical science
And dry theory oft prove unhandy,
Honest truth will ne’er set at distance
Experiment aided by brandy.

Des Cartes bore a musquet, they tell us,
Ere he wish’d, or was able, to write,
And was noted among the brave fellows,
Who are bolder to tipple than fight.
Of his system the cause and design
We can no more be posed to explain:—
The materia subtilis was wine,
And the vortices whirl’d in his brain.

Old Hobbes, as his name plainly shows,
At a hob-nob was frequently tried:
That all virtue from selfishness rose
He believed, and all laughter from pride.
The truth of this creed he would brag on,
Smoke his pipe, murder Homer, and quaff;
Then staring, as drunk as a dragon,
In the pride of his heart he would laugh.

Sir Isaac discovered, it seems,
The nature of colours and light,
In remarking the tremulous beams
That swom on his wandering sight.Ever sapient, sober though seldom,
From experience attraction he found,
By observing, when no one upheld him,
That his wise head fell souse on the ground.

As to Berkeley’s philosophy—he has
Left his poor pupils nought to inherit,
But a swarm of deceitful ideas
Kept, like other monsters, in spirit.
Tar-drinkers can’t think what’s the matter,
That their health does not mend, but decline;
Why, they take but some wine with their water,
He took but some water to wine.

One Mandeville once, or Man-devil,
(Either name you may give as you please)
By a brain ever brooding on evil,
Hatch’d a monster call’d Fable of Bees.
Vice, said he, aggrandizes a people;
By this light, let my conduct be view’d;
I swagger, swear, guzzle, and tipple;
And d——— ye, ’tis all for your good.

———[David Hume] ate a swinging great dinner,
And grew every day fatter and fatter;
And yet the huge hulk of a sinner
Said there was neither spirit nor matter.
Now there’s no sober man in the nation,
Who such nonsense could write, think, or speak:
It follows, by fair demonstration,
That he philosophized in his drink.

As a smuggler even P——[Priestly] could sin,
Who, in hopes the poor gauger of frightening,
While he fill’d his case-bottles with gin,
Swore he fill’d them with thunder and lightning.
In his cups, (when Locke’s laid on the shelf)
Could he speak, he would frankly confess it t’ye,
That, unable to manage himself,
He puts his whole trust in Necessity.

If they young in rash folly engage,
How closely continues the evil!
Old Franklin retains, as a sage,
The thrift he acquired when a devil.
That charging drives fire from a phial,
It was natural for him to think,
After finding from many a trial,
That drought may be kindled by drink.

A certain high priest could explain,
How the soul is but nerve at the most;
And how Milton his glands in his brain,
That secreted the Paradise Lost.
And sure, it is what they deserve,
Of such theories if I aver it,
They are not even dictates of nerve,
But merely muddy suggestions of claret.

Our Holland philosophers say, Gin
Is the true philosophical drink,
As it made Doctor H———[Huygens] imagine
That to shake is the same as to think.
For, while drunkenness throb’d in his brain,
The sturdy materialist chose (O fye!)
To believe its vibrations not pain,
But wisdom, and downright philosophy.

Ye sages, who shine in my verse,
On my labours with gratitude think,
Which condemn not the faults they rehearse,
But impute all your sins to your drink.
In drink, poets, philosophers, mob, err;
Then excuse, if my satire e’er nips ye:
When I praise, think me prudent and sober,
If I blame, be assured I am tipsy.

According to the Port-Royal Logic, “words are distinct and articulated sounds that people have made into signs to indicate what takes place in the mind” (Buroker 74). Similarly, according to Locke, the use of language requires that one “be able to use [articulate] Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another” (EHU 3.1.2). Passages like these support Berkeley’s interpretation of his predecessors as holding that, in the proper use of words, the speaker “design[s] them for marks of ideas in his own, which he would have them raise in the mind of the hearer” (PHK, Intro 20). This in turn implies that “significant names, every time they are used, excite in the understanding the ideas they are made to stand for” (PHK, Intro 19). In other words, Berkeley understands his opponents to hold that “communication of ideas,” which his opponents take to be “the chief and only end of language” (PHK, Intro 20), requires that the hearer ends up having the same mental state as the speaker.

One problem with this, to which Berkeley does not call attention in his critique, is what happens when one hears and understands a sentence. Although this is disputed by Walter Ott, the standard view, which I take to be well-supported by the texts, is that for both the Port-Royalists and Locke, the mental proposition (i.e., the mental state signified by a complete sentence) carries assertive force. In the mental propositions signified by simple declarative sentences that aren’t negated, the subject idea and the predicate idea are joined by an act of affirmation. To have the mental state signified by ‘Melampus is an animal’ (Berkeley’s example in the Manuscript Introduction) just is to believe (occurrently) that Melampus is an animal. But this apparently implies that one cannot understand that sentence without believing it, and that’s absurd.

In a recent paper, Jennifer Smalligan Marušić proposes an interesting and plausible solution to this problem (see ppp. 273-277). Marušić’s suggestion is that, when communication succeeds, the hearer may form an idea of the speaker’s mental state, rather than having that mental state herself. Since the Port-Royalists explicitly distinguish between the act of affirming and the idea of that act, and say that you can have one without the other (Buroker 79), this allows us to understand sentences without affirming them. Since Locke also has ideas of reflection, it seems that he can make a similar move.

A nice feature of this approach, which Marušić does not mention, is that it helps to reconcile the Port-Royalists’ claim that “for an uttered or written sound to signify is nothing other than to prompt an idea connected to this sound in the mind by striking our ears or eyes” (Buroker 66) with their claim that the verb signifies the act of affirmation, and not the idea of that act. On this reading, the verb signifies the speaker’s act of affirmation by prompting the idea of that act in the hearer. What it doesn’t signify is that the speaker has (occurrently) an idea of affirmation.

If this is right, then the Port-Royalists may not hold quite the view of language Berkeley has in mind in his critique in the Introduction to the Principles. I don’t think, though, that this has far-reaching consequences for Berkeley’s critique. For one thing, Berkeley is arguing against the very existence of the mental states (abstract ideas) the words are thought to signify; to say that only speakers need to have these ideas, while hearers may have only ideas of ideas is not a way of escape. Furthermore, the attribution of the view that understanding involves ideas of speakers’ mental states to the Port-Royalists is better supported than its attribution to Locke. Now, I do think we need to take very seriously all the things that Berkeley says indicating the breadth of his targets (using phrases like ‘received opinion’, ‘common opinion of the philosophers’, etc.). I also think it’s pretty likely that Berkeley had read the Port-Royal Logic, simply on grounds that the book was extremely widely read in the period. However, we don’t have evidence that Berkeley gave to Port-Royal the kind of sustained attention we know he gave to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. So the Port-Royal Logic‘s direct impact on Berkeley’s conception of the ‘received opinion’ was probably modest at best. (The Logic‘s indirect impact, via Locke, was enormous.)

In sum, if our project is understanding Port-Royal or Locke on their own terms, Berkeley’s presentation may be misleading, because he may well be wrong to think that understanding involves simulating what goes on in the mind of the speaker, rather than just conceiving of what goes on in the mind of the speaker. On the other hand, from Berkeley’s own perspective, this is an irrelevant, hair-splitting distinction. Since abstract ideas are impossible, and we can’t conceive of impossibilities, we can’t have ideas of abstract ideas. So regardless of which interpretation we take, Locke and Port-Royal have both speakers and hearers doing things that are (according to Berkeley) impossible.

Let me conclude with some controversial assertions about the relationship between Locke’s Essay and the Port-Royal Logic. (After all, what are blogs for?) Much of Locke’s Essay can be read as an empiricist, radical Protestant rewrite of the (Cartesian, Catholic) Port-Royal Logic. (Compare, for instance, the subtle differences in the two works’ accounts of faith and the practical upshots derived from them – Buroker 260-272; EHU 4.18-19.) But Locke does not always seem to be aware of the ways in which his own anti-Cartesian polemics undermine the Port-Royal theory of mind and language. This fact is responsible for many of Locke’s well-known inconsistencies and unclarities, as for instance on the topic of whether (and in what sense) all ideas are images.

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

Scientiae 2015

I have storified this year’s Scientiae conference on emergent Early Modern knowledge practices, held in Toronto, May 27-29. The full report can be found here.

This past spring at the Pacific division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, the Society for Modern Philosophy hosted a panel about the Modern Canon featuring Lisa Shapiro and Justin E. H. Smith.  Despite the panel occurring at dinner time on the final evening of the program, it was well attended, and led to some lively discussion during the Q&A.  I am pleased to share the following documents with anyone who wasn’t able to attend the session.*

Lisa Shapiro: What is a Philosophical Canon

Justin Smith: The ‘Two Libraries Problem’: Poetry, ‘Fancy’, and the Philosophical Canon

The session and subsequent discussion were extremely interesting, and I hope that future SMP panels continue to be as fascinating and thought-provoking.  Joining the society is free, and means receiving a handful of e-mails from me over the course of the year, as well as giving you the opportunity to help plan society events or projects.


*The piece by Smith shared here is a different—but related—work to the one presented at the session.

I have just finished teaching the survey of early modern philosophy for the first time. Here at Valpo, this course is required for philosophy majors and minors and is offered at the 200 (sophomore) level. There are a lot of ways to teach a class like this, and a lot of opinions about which ways are better, so I wanted to offer here a description of what I did and how I think it worked. (If there’s anything really surprising in my evaluations when I get them at the end of this week, I may come back and revisit some of these issues.)

Scope and Themes: Life After Teleology

The standard early modern course (the ‘textbook’ version) is Descartes to Kant with emphasis on rationalism vs. empiricism in epistemology. It seems to me that specialists in early modern philosophy by now agree that this narrative distorts a lot of the historical facts and philosophical debates under discussion. Furthermore, this approach leaves unclear just what makes a philosopher ‘modern’, and raises the question, why are we starting with Descartes? It is also problematic insofar as none of these philosophers was fundamentally motivated by epistemological concerns. So here’s one of my starting assumptions: certainly rationalism vs. empiricism is one debate that goes on in early modern philosophy, but it’s not what early modern philosophy is about and I didn’t want to organize my course around it.

What makes a philosopher ‘modern’? By the end of the 17th century, the moderns were regarded as an identifiable school both by themselves and by their opponents. The fact that they had opponents means that modern philosophy can’t be merely a chronological thing – after all, there is an unbroken chain of Scholastic philosophy (mostly in Jesuit universities) stretching all the way up to the present! In my view, what makes a philosopher modern is that he or she regards the Medieval philosophical/theological worldview as having been in some sense overthrown by the scientific revolution. (Of course, only the moderns would say that there was such a thing as the Medieval worldview – this is a kind of self-serving historiography that shows up once the moderns start looking like a self-conscious school. But there are some points on which Medieval philosophers mostly agreed and which moderns, almost by definition, rejected.) Most modern philosophers want some new intellectual synthesis to rise from the ashes of Scholasticism, but some, like Pierre Bayle, thought that no such system was possible.

Now the question this raises is, exactly how did thinkers like Galileo and Bacon (allegedly) overthrow an entire worldview with their scientific methods and discoveries? The key here is the rejection of immanent natural teleology, and its replacement with the mechanistic picture. This upset Aristotelian views about how we gain knowledge of nature. Far more importantly, it upset traditional views about God, God’s relation to nature, and human freedom. Naturally, these become key questions for the moderns.

Now this story – life after teleology, if you want to call it that – is not only much closer to the early modern philosophers’ own self-conception, it’s also much easier for students to engage. Here we have the sort of basic problems that get people into philosophy in the first place, questions about the world and our place in it, about free action and moral responsibility, about God. It was because the epistemology questions connected with these issues that the early modern philosophers themselves cared about epistemology.

Additionally, this allows for nice ‘bookending’: we start with Descartes who is trying to show that the ‘new’ (mechanistic, anti-teleological, anti-Aristotelian) philosophy can do what the Catholic Church says philosophy is supposed to do, namely, prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. We end with Kant’s Canon of Pure Reason in which it is argued that these very same claims are totally beyond the reach of theoretical reason, and that’s okay; we have to accept them as a matter of moral faith.

If a historical course is going to have any kind of unity or coherence, one is going to have to select themes and tell a story. This will necessarily involve narrative shaping and selectivity, and the story will necessarily be a simplification of the facts and ignore a lot of nuances. In this respect, the story I’ve just told is no different than the standard rationalist vs. empiricist narrative. But I claim that the early modern philosophers would be more likely to recognize themselves in this story and that it better represents their fundamental motivations. I also think it has the advantage of being more closely connected to issues students are likely to understand and care about.

Selecting Readings: A Modestly Revisionary Approach to the ‘Canon’

Selecting readings is hard. There’s a lot of material out there, and the selection of narrative and themes only partly determines what makes sense to include. In addition, one must confront the problem of the canon. I understand the problem of the canon, and the tension it creates for selection of readings, as follows. There are certain early modern philosophers who are frequently referenced in later philosophical literature, up to the present day, and students who have taken a survey of early modern philosophy would generally be expected to have some familiarity with these figures. On the other hand, there are at least four problems with which philosophers have gotten into this club:

  1. Some philosophers were so enormously influential in the early modern period that it is difficult to understand the ‘canonical’ figures without them, yet they were not widely read in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  2. Some philosophers have very intrinsically interesting and illuminating arguments and ideas, and it seems like sheer historical accident that they didn’t have a bigger influence.
  3. Some philosophers failed to obtain ‘canonical’ status simply because they don’t fit neatly into the ‘epistemology from Descartes to Kant’ narrative.
  4. Some philosophers were excluded from obtaining ‘canonical’ status due to systemic social injustices such as sexism.

I’m sure every scholar of early modern philosophy will have his or her own list of figures to put in each of these four categories. To give just a few examples, I’d put Malebranche and Bayle in category 1 (yes, I’m a Berkeley scholar, how did you guess?), Arnauld and William King in category 2 (a case could be made for putting both of them in 1, but they were not nearly as philosophically influential as Malebranche or Bayle), and Hobbes and Reid in category 3. The list of philosophers belonging to category 4 is, of course, quite long (Elisabeth of Bohemia, Anne Conway, Damaris Cudworth Masham, Catherine Trotter Cockburn, etc. etc. etc.)

If students are to have an accurate understanding of early modern philosophy (even if it’s just an introductory level understanding) they had better know that there are other philosophers besides the canonical ones. Furthermore, insofar as the canon leads to misunderstanding of the historical and philosophical issues and also involves both accidental injustices and systemic (non-accidental) injustices, we don’t want to perpetuate it unchanged to the next generation of scholars. So I don’t think we can just go along with the canon.

On the other hand, students do have to be equipped to grasp the references to early modern philosophy they are likely to actually see in other philosophy classes and readings, so we can’t throw out the canon utterly. Besides this, let’s be clear on our criticism of the canon: the canonical philosophers surely are among the greatest philosophers of the period, it’s just that there are lots of other philosophers with equal claim (in terms of the philosophical interest of their writings) who have been excluded for a variety of bad reasons. So given unlimited time, we would read all of the canonical philosophers and also a bunch of other people. But given one semester with lower-division students who can’t process reams of philosophical material per week, what do we do?

I haven’t come up with a fully satisfactory answer to that question, but it seems to me that three things have to be taken into account. First, it really is important to teach the material necessary for students to catch references to early modern philosophy in contemporary philosophical writings. Probably the three most important figures from this perspective are Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Second, though, it’s important to put these thinkers in their context by showing both the figures who influenced them and the sorts of debates they had with their contemporaries. Third, we want to form a coherent overall narrative that gives students something not-too-complicated to latch onto, rather than a bunch of random disconnected trivia about who said what. The first consideration means that we just can’t throw out the canon entirely: until the currently non-canonical philosophers get to be as influential as Hume, Hume gets priority. On the other hand, I said earlier that we don’t want to just perpetuate the canon unchanged. It’s not that we want to displace Hume, but we want to show the diversity of great philosophers who wrote in the early modern period. This of course goes under the second heading, but it’s in tension with the third.

So here’s the not-totally-happy compromise I came up with. I have three ‘tiers’ of philosophers. The first tier consisted of those philosophers whose systems we focused on understanding in detail (well, the level of detail appropriate to a lower division undergraduate course). The second tier consisted of philosophers whose systems we overviewed by way of background to the tier one philosophers. The third tier consisted of those philosophers we considered as interlocutors of the tier one philosophers, but whose systems we didn’t delve into. I didn’t make this system of tiers explicit to the students. I did try to emphasize that the selection of readings was not solely a judgment of philosophical merit, but also considered matters of historical influence, etc.

Here’s my list of philosophers:

  1. Tier One: Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant
  2. Tier Two: Spinoza, Locke
  3. Tier Three: Galileo, Elisabeth, Malebranche, Berkeley, Reid, Mary Shepherd

Again, I’m not totally happy with this. There are plenty more people I’d like to squeeze in.

One thing that worked really well was reading the mind-body portion of the Descartes-Elisabeth correspondence and a selection from Malebranche’s Search After Truth when we were covering Leibniz’s “New System of Nature”. Leibniz’s summary of the dialectic here is admirably clear and the students got it:

I could not find any way of explaining how the body makes anything happen in the soul, or vice versa, or how one substance can communicate with another created substance. Descartes had given up the game at this point, as far as we can determine from his writings. But his disciples … judged that we sense the qualities of bodies because God causes thoughts to arise in the soul on the occasion of motions of matter, and that when our soul, in turn, wishes to move the body, it is God who moves the body for it … That is what they call the system of occasional causes, which has been made very fashionable by the beautiful reflections of the author of the Search After Truth (Ariew and Garber 142-143).

This was one place where I was very glad that I included readings outside the canon.

(Digression: Elisabeth’s letters to Descartes were, at her insistence, withheld from publication in the 17th century. Does anyone know of any evidence bearing on the question whether Leibniz might have discussed the issue with Elisabeth, or whether she (or someone else) might have showed him her letters? Everything in this quote could have been inferred from Descartes’s side of the correspondence.)

The Historical and the Philosophical

Another challenge in teaching history of philosophy is responsibly balancing the historical and the philosophical. (This is also an issue in research in the history of philosophy, of course.) I was a little less worried about being adequately philosophical in this class because all of the students had taken at least one philosophy class before and were likely to take more. Some students who take a historical course as their only philosophy course come away with misunderstandings of what philosophy is, or not seeing it’s point. Even with students taking other philosophy classes, there is still a concern with helping them understand what’s philosophical about history of philosophy.

To this end, I emphasize that our main aim is to consider whether we should be convinced by the philosophers’ arguments, or suitably updated/improved versions. On each of my exams, I include a long essay question asking students to take sides in one of the philosophical debates under discussion. I also make them evaluate arguments for their papers. We also read a little bit of more recent philosophy influenced by the figures under discussion. I would have liked to do more of this but, again, you can only include so much. But the little bit was, I hope, enough to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of the ideas and arguments.

I think I may have overbalanced in this direction a bit this time around. One thing that happened was this: at the beginning of the semester, my students really struggled with extracting arguments from texts. Accordingly, I started putting even more emphasis on this than I ordinarily would (and it’s one of the main things I like to emphasize to begin with). So almost every class, we would put a paragraph of text up on the projector and work as a class to identify the premises and get a valid argument. Then we think about which premise an opponent might attack.

The students really did get pretty good at this task. The problem is, you can’t actually do this together in class unless the argument is found all at once in one paragraph. As a result, it became clear later in the semester that the students were having a lot of trouble getting the ‘big picture’ from the texts that they were reading, and perhaps even understanding why they were being told to read 20 pages when we were going to spend over half of our class time picking apart one paragraph. When I found this out, I had to rearrange to put more emphasis on big picture. (This is absolutely essential when dealing with Kant anyway.)

Next time, I think that, at least for reading Descartes’s Meditations at the beginning, I’ll assign the text in slightly bigger chunks (2 or 3 meditations at a time) and spend one whole class on an overview of that bigger chunk and then for the next class have no new reading and spend our time picking apart a few well-chosen paragraphs. That way we could (hopefully) get the foundation for both things right at the beginning.

Those are my thoughts so far. I’d be very interested to hear more about how others have done this, and whether my experience lines up with theirs.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)


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