Archive for January, 2012

In his New Essays On Human Understanding, Leibniz’s mouthpiece Theophilius makes somewhat frequent reference to what he calls “blind thought” (more accurately, according to the notes in the Bennett/Remnant translation, Leibniz’s typical usage is the French phrase pensées sourdes, which would be “deaf” or “muffled” thoughts, but he equates this with the latin phrase cogitationes caecae and so Bennett/Remnant opted for translating this as “blind thought”).

This category of thought occurs when the mind manipulates symbols without having the ideas signified by those symbols present to our minds.  Leibniz’s helpful illustration (p. 186 in the Bennett/Remnant translation) is the case of “those who calculate algebraically with only intermittent attention to the geometrical figures which are being dealt with.”  Leibniz goes on to say:

Words ordinarily do the same thing, in this respect, as do the symbols of arithmetic and algebra. We often reason in words, with the object itself virtually absent from our mind. But this sort of knowledge cannot influence us—something livelier is needed if we are to be moved. Yet this is how people usually think about God, virtue, happiness; they speak and reason without explicit ideas—it is not that they cannot have the ideas, for they are there in their minds, but that they do not take the trouble to carry the analysis through. (p. 186)

This discussion, in which Leibniz first introduces blind thought, occurs in the midst of Leibniz’s commentary on Locke’s views on power and freedom.  Specifically, it appears that Leibniz introduces the notion in response to Locke’s view that the main determinant of the will is not the prospect of a greater good, but instead, some strong present unease.  After explaining blind thought, Leibniz explains that “if we prefer the worse it is because we have a sense of the good it contains, but not of the evil it contains or of the good which exists on the opposite side.”

As suggested by the initial illustration of algebraic reasoning, Leibniz’s stance on blind thought is not that it is always problematic.  In a later discussion, relating to the purpose and origins of language, Leibniz suggests that blind thought can be of great utility:

I believe that without the desire to make ourselves understood we would indeed never have created language. Once created, however, it also enables man to reason to himself, both because words provide the means for remembering abstract thoughts and because of the usefulness of symbols and blind thoughts in reasoning, since it would take too long to lay everything out and always replace terms by definitions.” (p. 275)

This category of blind thought is in some ways very much like the initial case Berkeley uses to challenge the Lockean thought that words are significant only insofar as they signify ideas (I should note that I am using the term “Lockean” because both Berkeley and Leibniz appear to conceive of themselves as rejecting something that Locke affirmed—it may be that, on careful reading, we shouldn’t think that Locke’s views rule out the sort of cases Leibniz is enumerating here).  Berkeley’s case example is the use of chips or counters while playing card games.  The counters stand for pounds and shillings even if we do not keep the ideas of pounds and shillings in mind while playing.  Further, it is easy to read a similar view about the utility of reasoning with symbols instead of ideas in Hume’s discussion of role of numerals in our complex mathematical reasonings.  While it is worth noting that Berkeley goes on to offer a much more radical rejection of the necessity of ideational signification for meaningful terms (as I have discussed before), it is quite interesting that Leibniz, Berkeley, and Hume all seems to recognize some potential for value (and some potential for error) in this sort of blind thought.

This also means that they each face the challenge of offering a basis for separating the useful/productive cases of blind thought from the harmful/error-producing cases.  Given the context of the discussion in the New Essays, it is plausible to think that the problem cases (for Leibniz) are those in which the presence of the ideas signified by the terms would have motivational relevance.  I am not, however, a Leibniz scholar, and don’t know if there are other texts which speak to his views on blind thought that would be worth investigating alongside the passages from the New Essays.


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Welcome New Readers!

Since the blog has only just recently started up, I suppose all of our readers would still qualify as “new readers”.

However, links from NewAPPs, Feminist Philosophers, and Brian Leiter seem to have helped drive a substantial amount of traffic in our direction.

I might as well take this opportunity to mention that we are still accepting new contributors.  I haven’t come up with a formal application procedure, but the unofficial procedure is to contact me and ask about becoming a contributor (and please put “Mod Squad” somewhere prominent in the subject line).

I’m hoping to get together a collection of contributors whose interests jointly cover wide swaths of the geographical, chronological, methodological, and topical spectrums, and enough contributors that there are frequently new posts to the blog without any one person individually having the responsibility to post frequently.

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Archbishop William King’s De Origine Mali (1702; translated into English as An Essay on the Origin of Evil by Edmund Law in 1731) was a philosophical bestseller in the 18th century, but is today remembered, if at all, only because it is criticized in an appendix to Leibniz’s Theodicy. In fact, as Leibniz notes (sect. 1), King’s account of natural evil is basically identical to Leibniz’s. King is less interesting than Leibniz (at least to me) because he doesn’t really provide a metaphysical foundation for his claims about the impossibility of perfect creatures (and so forth), as Leibniz does. However, I did find something quite interesting in King’s book: his account of a faculty he calls ‘election’. This faculty, it seems to me, has important analogies to things Kant and Korsgaard say about the selection of ends, and things Frankfurt says about caring, and I don’t know of any similar theories from this period. I won’t explore these analogies in any detail in this post (I certainly don’t mean to claim that King’s account is identical to any of the mentioned theories); I’ll just try to explain how the theory is motivated and how it is supposed to work.

Chapter 5 of King’s book is concerned with moral evil. In the first two subsections of section 1 he surveys simplistic forms of compatibilism and libertarianism, respectively, and finds them wanting. The basic tenet of compatibilism, as King describes it, is that our freedom is freedom only from compulsion, not from necessity. The compatibilist theory in question says that

he that can follow his own judgment in matters is free. For example, he that is sound in body, and has his faculties and limbs entire, if all external impediments be removed, is at liberty to walk: for he can if he will and nothing but his will is wanting to exert that action (

The following paragraph is a very short summary of Locke’s account of uneasiness, and Locke’s denial of that we can be “free … with regard to the immediate acts of the will” ( In the English translation, Law includes a note stating that “The most remarkable defenders of this opinion, among the Moderns, seem to be Hobbs [sic], Locke, (if he be made consistent with himself) Leibnitz [sic], Bayle, Norris, the Authors of the Philosophical Enquiry Concerning Human Liberty, and of Cato’s Letters.” I am not familiar with the last two books.

King’s characterization of libertarianism is fairly straightforward (5.1.2).

King finds both of these views unsatisfactory: the sort of freedom proposed by the compatibilists is not sufficient for moral responsibility and, as a result, won’t get God off the hook for moral evil. Libertarianism would be great if it could be made to work, but it has a number of problems, and the solutions to those problems which have so far been proposed are “such as are so subtle, so obscure, and so much above the comprehension of the vulgar, that most persons have taken a distaste to them, [and] given up the cause of liberty as desperate” ( The main problem is that the freedom described by libertarians doesn’t seem like a kind of freedom worth wanting, since it is, essentially, the ability to choose something other than what we judge best (

King proposes a middle path. He admits, with the compatibilists, that we have various appetites, and that objects capable of satisfying these appetites are on that account judged to be good. He further admits that it is desirable that our will should be constantly directed toward the best or most desirable objects ( The only way, according to King, that genuine freedom, of the sort required for moral responsibility, can consist with these admissions is if the agent has a power which King calls ‘election’ ( An agent with this power makes objects good/desirable by ‘electing’ them. This is supposed, according to King, to be the difference between humans and animals: all animal appetites are directed in advance toward particular objects suited to them. Humans have these kinds of appetites as well. However, humans also have a sort of generic appetite, which can be directed toward any object the agent ‘elects’. A consequence of this view, when combined with the view about the relationship between desire and goodness, is that some things are desired by humans because they are good, but other things are good because they are desired by humans (

King’s theory also gives a neat account of divine action and the relation between God’s will and the good. King holds, with the theological tradition, that God has no animal appetites. This means, according to King, that the only sort of appetite/desire God has is the generic one involved in the faculty of election. By ‘electing’ this particular possible world, God made it the object of his appetite, and thereby made it good. King argues that only his view can reconcile God’s utter self-sufficiency with his decision to create the world and, therefore, that if the faculty of election were not actually possessed by God, the world would not exist (5.1.4). Since the faculty of election is actual, it is possible. King takes himself to have thereby shown that he has identified a possible type of freedom from necessity which is worth wanting.

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What Bugs Hume Folks about Reid?

I’ve been asked to give a talk this spring to the Hume Society at the Pacific APA on Hume’s early critics.  Given my area of expertise, I’ll be talking about Reid.  But I don’t want to just go through the litany of criticisms that Reid launches against Hume.  Reid’s criticisms of Hume are very misleading.  First, he often uses Hume as a name for a wider set of philosophical views and methods to which Reid is opposed, and of which Hume is probably not guilty.  Second, his critical project is so brief and sketchy because he is not interested in criticizing the consequences of what he calls the ‘theory of ideas.’  The consequences of that broad philosophical project are unacceptable, Reid thinks, but he is more interested in replacing the assumptions and methods that lead to those consequences.  And what he replaces it with is an alternative to which Humeans broadly construed, should be friendly.  It is, after all, intended as a naturalist, empiricist science of man.

So I’d like to think about this differently.  My sense is that Hume folks who know something about Reid really, really do not like him.  Now, on the one hand, Reid can be both sloppy and snide in his remarks about Hume.  On the other hand, these are not philosophically interesting.  So what I am wondering is this: what is it about Reid (other than his rudeness) that Humeans don’t like?  I’m asking this because I’d like to address those antipathies in the hopes of bringing these two figures into closer conversation among historians of philosophy and among contemporary folks who take themselves to be philosophical descendants of Hume.  Any ideas?

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… but is anyone doing grad admissions right now?  We have 16% female applicants – this is lower than I would’ve expected, but I don’t have data from past years.

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I’ve been thinking recently about Berkeley’s views on language.  I just taught the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous last term, and felt like Berkeley was pulling some philosophical sleight of hand in Philonous’s reply to Hylas’s parity argument against spirit (in dialogue three).  Regardless of what is going on with the challenge to material substance and Hylas’s parity argument against spirit, it is clear that Berkeley thinks we do not have an idea of spirit.  And yet, Berkeley holds that the term “spirit” is significant, and does not appear to think we should avoid using it.  One place to look for some illumination on how Berkeley thinks this could be comes from the dialogues “Alciphron, or the minute Philosopher”.

In Alciphron VII, Berkeley has Euphranor explains that we should “see if we an make sense of our daily practice” in using words as signs, and so says to Alciphron:

Words, it is agreed, are signs: It may not, therefore, be amiss to examine the use of other signs, in order to know that of words.  Counters, for instance at a card-table are used, not for their own sake, but only as signs substituted for money, as words are for ideas. Say now, Alciphron, is it necessary every time these counters are used, throughout the whole progress of a game, to frame an idea of the distinct sum or value that each represents?

Alciphron concedes that poker chips work fine as signs, as long as there is a settled agreement as to how to turn the counters back into money at the end of the game.  Euphranor then pushes the point, asking whether we need to think about pounds, shillings and pence when we are tabulating a sum.  Alciphron agrees that the important thing is whether, “in the conclusion, those figures direct our actions with respect to things”.  This leads Euphranor to conclude:

From Hence, it seems to follow, that words may not be insignificant, although they should not every time they are used, excite the ideas they signify in our minds, it being sufficient, that we have it in our power to substitute things or ideas for their signs when there is occasion. It seems also to follow, that there may be another use of words, besides that of marking and suggesting distinct ideas, to wit, the influencing our conduct and actions; which may be done, either by forming rules for us to act by, or by raising certain passions, dispositions, and emotions in our minds.  A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act, or excite 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. (emphasis mine)

What I find fascinating about this exchange is the degree to which it rejects the (broadly Lockean) cognitivist paradigm of language.

What I mean by “cognitivist” concerns the relationship between language and mind.  The broadly Lockean paradigm is cognitivist insofar as the central account of the meaningfulness of terms is given in terms of ideas in the understanding, and the central account of the significance of sentences is given in terms of the cognitive activity of judgment.  Various features of verbal propositions are explained in terms of (and had derivative from) the features of the mental states they express, and those mental states are, by and large, from the cognitive side of things.

Berkeley, through Euphranor, is offering a pretty hefty overhaul of this picture, though he does not deny that in many cases words are used in that broadly Lockean fashion.  First, Euphranor got Alciphron to concede that there are individual uses of significant terms that are not, on that occasion of use, backed by an idea in the understanding of the speaker.  This is not, by itself, a deep difficulty for the cognitivist paradigm, as the cognitivist could simply account for the phenomenon as a sort of derivative use, only possible if there have been directly significant uses previously (or only if that use stands in the right relationship to directly significant uses).  Nothing yet is distinctively non-cognitive, because so far, we are just talking about cases in which you use words without the ideas that they stand for.  Since the words still stand for ideas, though, this is not a major break from the basic picture.

The break comes in the second of the two passages I quoted, where Euphranor suggests that the broader lesson to draw from such cases is that words have a use, other than marking and suggesting ideas: influencing our conduct and actions.  Here we get a picture on which a term is significant, despite there being no corresponding idea, provided that the term influences our conduct and actions (either by being the formation of a rule of action, or by raising passions/dispositions/emotions to mind).  This is precisely the sort of view of the workings of language that one needs in place for some of the traditional versions of non-cognitivism about ethics.  On those views, the word “wrong” is meaningful because its use is connected with the non-cognitive state of disapproval (in some way).

Some of Berkeley’s examples of terms which require this distinctive apparatus are: self, number, force, grace, trinity, substance, personality. Further, Berkeley (through Euphranor) offers a non-cognitivist account of the doctrine of the trinity, saying:

[A] man may believe the doctrine of the trinity, if he finds it revealed in Holy Scripture, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are God, and that there is but one God? Although he doth not frame in his mind, any abstract, or distinct ideas of trinity, substance, or personality, provided, that this doctrine of a Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier makes proper impressions on his mind, producing therein, love, hope, gratitude and obedience, and thereby becomes a lively operative principle, influencing his conduct and actions, agreeably to that notion of a saving faith which is required in a christian. (p. 348 of the text linked above).

I’ve become pretty fascinated by this thread of thinking in Berkeley recently, though I haven’t had a chance to start digging into the secondary literature on it yet.  What I am most interested in determining is whether or not Berkeley can address the concern that non-cognitivism requires anti- or quasi- realism about the domain in question.

When Locke defines truth for a verbal proposition, he does so in a way that makes it dependent on the mental proposition expressed.  This model, on which linguistic activity inherits many of its interesting features from mental activity, produces a relatively short argument for the non-truth-evaluability of verbal propositions which receive a non-cognitivist treatment.  If a sentence/utterance/assertion can only be true or false insofar as the mental state that it expresses is true or false, then a sentence which expresses a non-cognitive state like desire would not be true or false.  I take it that this conclusion is anti-realist about the domain in question.  One approach that is popular as of late is to go minimalist about truth, a maneuver which yields quasi-realism about the domain in question.  I take it though, that there is good reason to suspect that Berkeley is not a mere quasi-realist about the existence of God or the self.  His non-cognitivisms appear to be bred out of facts about limitations of mental representation, and not out of a suspicion about the reality of God or the self.  It would be nice figure out if there is some way to capture this difference between the sorts of non-cognitivist views which are motivated by (or coupled with) a rejection of the metaphysical reality of the categories in question, and those which seem to, at the end of the day, want to say something more like, “oh, they’re real all right, we just aren’t equipped to think about those things”.

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Philosophy’s Mod Squad

Welcome to “The Mod Squad”, a group blog in the history of modern philosophy.

Though there are already a few history of modern philosophy blogs out there (Early Modern Thought Online, Early Modern Experimental Philosophy), it seems clear that there is room for more history of modern blogging to be done.

There is no particular plan or agenda for the blog, except to create a community for scholars to more easily exchange ideas about history of modern philosophy.

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