Archive for January, 2012

One of the most useful sites I know of for people working in modern philosophy is Stephen Daniel’s Early Modern Philosophy Calendar.

Daniel monitors a number of list-servs and various other sources, collating data about upcoming conferences, workshops, CFPs, etc.  Additionally, he goes through the schedule for upcoming APA meetings and extracts all the early modern sessions that are going on.  This is an invaluable service, as I regularly find things to send material to on his calendar that I wouldn’t have spotted otherwise.


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The other day I was reading Stephen Gaukroger’s book on Francis Bacon, and he said something that struck me. He said

just how one goes about writing philosophical works seems to become problematic (outside the Scholastic tradition) in the early decades of the seventeenth century (55–6)

Now, of course, Gaukroger is right about this. One need only look at Descartes’s works to seem him experimenting with all sorts of formats (the confessional, the textbook, the essay). But what I’m interested in is how this experimentation with the format of philosophical writing seems to track large revolutions in thought. So, for example, we have not only the early moderns, but also the transition to post-Kantian idealism (e.g Novalis’s fragments, and Hegel’s progressive narrative in the Phenomenology), continental reactions to German idealism (Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are the obvious choices here), British Island reaction to idealism (Moore and Russell), the reaction to British analytic philosophy (Late Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy), and post-structuralism (Derrida and company).

In between each of these periods there is some stretch of time in which philosophical writing is fairly static in it’s structure (this is analogous to Kuhnian “normal science”). We seem to be in one of those periods now, in fact.

So I’m curious about a few things. First, whether anyone thinks that there is anything more than a superficial connection between writing form and these revolutionary periods in thought. Second, whether – in the early modern era in particular – change of (or at least experimentation with) writing form was an integral component of the philosophical (and not just the polemical) break with scholasticism and Aristotelianism. Analytic philosophers tend to think of good writing style as one which is concise and transparent with respect to its arguments (e.g. see the Leiter discussion here). Since it’s the content that’s valued this means that style can pretty much only negatively affect one’s argument. But this, or so it seems to me, is a flat-footed way of looking at writing, and separates styles rather narrowly into easy-to-read vs. hard-to-read.

There is likely a library full of books and papers on this topic but it strikes me that the typical early-modern survey (and presumably also the more in-depth courses on rationalism or empiricism) doesn’t spend all that much time on why it is that the early moderns wrote the ways that they did, and whether this had much effect on their arguments (or itself was part of their argument). In terms of early modern scholarship, Descartes’s Meditations seems to get the lion’s share of attention in this regard. I’d be interested in hearing otherwise.

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For the first few years after receiving my PhD, I largely followed what I perceived to be the “canon” when teaching the history of modern philosophy: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant — with the emphases on Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Since then, however, I’ve tried in various ways to challenge that canon in my teaching, but I have found it to be difficult to do well. In this post I’d like to share my current strategy toward this goal. My purpose here is not to condemn those who teach in that (usually epistemology focused) style, but only to provide a picture of what I am doing currently, in the hopes that it might be useful for others — and to get some feedback on how to improve it!When I first sat down to rethink my modern syllabus, I made a list of thinkers I would like to include, if time were not a factor. The list was over 20 thinkers long. Given that I also like to focus in some depth on at least a few texts, I knew that I couldn’t devote class time or assignments to nearly that many. I couldn’t find a principled way to narrow the list in a way that would at the same time present some of the important philosophical developments of the period while also providing debates that hung together thematically in some sense. I also didn’t want to fall back into a narrative that pretends the conversation was all and only about the mind-body problem, or the problem of knowledge, or even just the nature of state sovereignty, to name a few themes around one which could structure such a course.

I realized that what I wanted to do most was to convey all of it — the richness, diversity, and, at times, strangeness of the philosophical discussions that developed in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was that diversity and richness of thought, above all, that I resented having to exclude from my previous courses. So here’s what I’m trying now.

I have a fairly standard series of thinkers and texts assigned that will serve as the basis for essays and discussion, but, in addition, each student is assigned one of those 20 or so “secondary” thinkers. The student then has the responsibility to serve as the advocate for that thinker in our class.

At the beginning of the term, I ask the student to complete a lighthearted survey of their opinions on a variety of relevant issues, from their thoughts on the nature of the mind-body relation to their preferred vacation spot — Paris or London? Or Connecticut? They also indicate their majors and other interests. I take these results and try to match up the students with the thinkers.

Sometimes the matching is easy — a student interested in feminism? How about Wollstonecraft? A chemistry major? Boyle. And so on. Other times the matches are looser, but I allow students to swap or plead for a different thinker, and so on. The point, really, is to get them invested in their thinker.

That way, some of the diversity of the period gets represented, each of the students get to attain some expertise (she’ll be the resident expert on her thinker), and it will also invest the student in the period — she’ll have a horse in the race, so to speak. I find that this helps to enliven the material for the students.

First I have the students write a short assignment simply summarizing some of the main arguments of their thinker. They then take that knowledge into their encounters with the “primary” thinkers for the class — Descartes and the canonical gang. In their later essay assignments, I ask them not only to present and evaluate, say, the Cartesian method of doubt, but also invite them to speculate as to what their thinker might say in response to the method. Next, after having created this dialectic between primary and secondary thinker, I ask them to weigh in on the debate. That way, they not only get an idea of the argument of the primary thinker, but they also have to think about that argument in dialogue with other philosophers of the period. Finally, they engage the arguments from their own perspective, offering critiques, rebuttals, or whatever.

With each major unit, I include lectures and readings on both the M&E and the value theory from the thinkers in question. Students are asked to choose one or the other to address in their essays; that way they usually have little trouble finding some point of agreement or disagreement between their secondary thinkers and the primary thinker in question.

I’ve tried this once so far and the students loved it. It may be that his kind of approach works well here at Wellesley College but may not elsewhere — I don’t know. In any event, I’m excited to try it again this term.

I’ll end with two questions. First, how do those of you who teach modern philosophy deal with the “problem of the canon,” if you take it to be a problem at all? Second, what are your thoughts on my solution?

Finally, for your enjoyment, here is the list of secondary thinkers my students represented last term (the primary thinkers are the canonical seven listed above). Feel free to comment on my selection as well. Who am I missing?

1. Mary Astell
2. Francis Bacon
3. Robert Boyle
4. Joseph Butler
5. Margaret Cavendish
6. Catherine Trotter Cockburn
7. Anne Conway
8. Jonathan Edwards
9. Thomas Hobbes
10. Julien La Mettrie
11. Nicolas Malebranche
12. Damaris Masham
13. Isaac Newton
14. Blaise Pascal
15. Thomas Reid
16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
17. Adam Smith
18. Henry Thiry, Baron D’Holbach
19. Voltaire
20. Mary Wollstonecraft


ADDENDUM:  To be clear, I do not take the list above to be a comprehensive account of the significant thinkers in the period.  Indeed, many of the noticeable omissions from my original list were left off simply because there are no easily accessible and representative e-texts or reliable encyclopedia entries that I knew of.  Student accessibility was my aim, not some kind of historical comprehensiveness — I was shooting for a pedagogical tool, not an exclusively scholarly one.  For those kinds of things, I’d recommend Nadler’s Companion to Early Modern Philosophy from Blackwell, Atherton’s Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, and similar works.

Finally, in order to allow students to become familiar with their assigned thinker as easily as possible, I provide to them a  short introductory document that contains a brief overview of each thinker, excerpted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or if there is no entry there, then from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and in one case I fall back on Wikipedia).  In addition to links to the encyclopedia entries, I also include links to some web accessible and somewhat representative e-texts.  Usually those links are to Bennett’s earlymoderntexts.com or the electronic edition of Atherton’s text, which is available to my students through the Wellesley library’s website.  That way the students do not need to do research or library work on their own to find their texts, nor do they need to purchase anything.  Again, I want the students to get engaged with the relevant concepts and arguments as quickly and easily as possible, which is why I do it this way.

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Spinoza Symposium at UW

Spinoza Symposium at the University of Washington

March 2 -3


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I think many of us are familiar with a sentiment expressed by Thomas Hobbes, namely, that it is possible for philosophers to be “deceived by the idiom of their own language” (1839-45: VII 81).  Francis Hutcheson expresses the same concern in his Nature and Conduct of the Passions when he issues the following warning: “The Nature of any Language has considerable Influence upon Mens Reasonings on all Subjects” (1728: 39).  Furthermore, we find this claim in Francis Bacon’s New Organon: “Plainly words do violence to the understanding” (2000: I xliii 41).  Here Bacon has in mind what he refers to as the “illusions which are imposed on the understanding by words” (2000: I lx 49).  I believe several other instances can be produced in which an early modern thinker expresses a similar view.

This seems like a fairly reasonable view to hold.  We should not take for granted that a term is meaningful.  And we should not conclude from the fact that a certain term is commonly used that it actually picks out something in the world.  One response to this worry about meaning is to devise a philosophical method for interrogating and evaluating the significance of a given term.  Such a method is employed by John Locke and David Hume.

However, some early modern philosophers hold the opposite assumption about the relationship between ordinary language and the understanding.  Accordingly, these philosophers soundly reject the prospect of evaluating the significance of a term by any means other than consulting ordinary language itself.  John Sergeant, for example, claims in his Method to Science that any other method must “fall infinitely short of that Certainty and Plainness which the Common and Constant Use of the Generality of Mankind, or the Vulgar, affords us” (1696: 104).  And in his Solid Philosophy he writes of “that Solid Maxim, that The true Signification or Sense of the Words is to be taken from the Common Usage of them” (1697: 188).

We find the following remarkable passage in Kenelm Digby’s Two Treasises: “it is the indisciplined multitude that must furnish learned men with naturall apprehensions, and notions to exercise upon them as they please; but they must first receive them in that plaine and naked forme, as mankind in general pictureth them out in their imaginations.  And therefore the first work of schollers, is to learne of the people…what is the true meaning and signification of these primary names, and what notions they beget in the generality of mankind of the things they designe” (1644: 8).  Here Digby appears to suggest that the components of ordinary language constitute the basic materials from which philosophical discourse is built.

The emphasis on the importance of ordinary language for our understanding of a given term, and for the discipline of philosophy in particular, carries over to at least one member of the Scottish Enlightenment.  George Turnbull, among whose students was Thomas Reid, claims the following in his Principles of Moral Philosophy: “Language, not being invented by philosophers, but contrived to express common sentiments, or what every one perceives, we may be morally sure, that where universally all languages make a distinction, there is really in nature a difference” (1740: 118).  Hence Turnbull takes it to be “an absurdity” to claim that some words “have no meaning at all” despite the fact that they are commonly used (1740: 15).

It is not obvious to me that this assumption about the importance of ordinary language is implausible.  It may have some methodological virtues.  But I am curious about whether those who hold this assumption are able to consistently adhere to it in matters of philosophy.  I am also curious about the extent to which this assumption may have pressured some early moderns to “speak with the vulgar.”

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I’m posting this in the hopes of starting some discussion on the questions:

1) What are some good approaches to teaching history of philosophy?

2) What are some distinctive potential challenges associated with teaching history of philosophy?

3) What are some of the distinctive potential benefits for students of taking history of philosophy courses?

While those questions aren’t specifically about teaching the history of modern philosophy, my views (which, I should add, are still in the process of forming) are based only on experience teaching history of modern, and I imagine that, say, Medieval and Ancient philosophy, have some of their own distinctive challenges and benefits.  I should also note that I don’t really regard anything I am about to say as especially novel or inventive, but I am hoping that it can be a good starting point for some discussion.

I tend to like the metaphor of the philosopher’s toolbox.  These tools include things like formulating deductively valid arguments, engaging with thought experiments, coming up with counter-examples, and so on.  One tool that I think sometimes does not get the attention it deserves, and which classes in historical philosophy are especially suited to help students develop, is that of charitable interpretation.

I don’t think that there is anything shocking or revolutionary in the observation that historical texts are a good training ground for developing one’s skill at being a charitable interpreter.  It is not uncommon for views we encounter in such texts to strike us as prima facie ridiculous or absurd.  But that sets us up to ask a) whether our first glance understanding of the views is correct in the first place and, perhaps more importantly, b) what aims/objectives and background assumptions would make these views look appealing.

So, apart from gaining familiarity with the views of whatever figures we are covering, and getting a sense of the philosophical debates that were going on, one of my main goals is to help students develop their skill at viewing various issues from some seemingly alien perspectives, and developing an understanding of how to best spell out the positions and arguments adopted by figures with those perspectives.

The associated challenge is to get students who are disposed to react to the texts with dismissiveness or confused frustration past those initial reactions, so that they can engage with the text and start building their interpretive muscles; to get them to see the oddities of the texts as footholds for helping them figure out what questions they should be asking about the text, rather than as barriers to understanding the text.

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In thinking about early modern materialism, I’ve repeatedly come across the view that materialism implies panpsychism. This claim has some current resonance, in that Galen Strawson has been arguing for a version of it. And it has several early modern sources. Thomas Hobbes worried that his materialist account of perception would lead him to a sort of panpsychism. Henry More argued that the changes Hobbes made to his view to avoid this did not solve the problem. Margaret Cavendish was a panpsychist materialist, and thought that non-panpsychist materialists, such as Hobbes aimed to be, could not adequately explain the workings of the world. There’s also, I believe, a version of the claim that materialism implies panpsychism in John Locke’s Essay (in 4.10.10). And there’s another version — the one I describe below — in Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary. This being, at least, a curiously persistent theme, it seems to be worth some investigation.

In note C to the article “Dicaearchus”, Bayle argues against the view (Dicaearchus’s view, as he has it) that body can think. Bayle’s argument works in something like the following way.


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