Archive for March, 2012

David Hume opens Treatise 1.4.3, “Of the Antient Philosophy”, with a curious analogy, intended to explain why it is that he is about to investigate questions about various “unreasonable and capricious” categories prominent in what Hume is calling “antient” philosophy:

Several moralists have recommended it as an excellent method of becoming acquainted with our own hearts, and knowing our progress in virtue, to recollect our dreams in a morning, and examine them with the same rigour, that we wou’d our most serious and deliberate actions.  Our character is the same throughout, say they, and appears best where artifice, fear, and policy have no place, and men can neither be hypocrites to themselves nor others. The generosity, or baseness of our temper, our meekness or cruelty, our courage or pusilanimity, influences the fictions of the imagination with the most unbounded liberty, and discover themselves in the most flaring colours.  In like manner, I am persuaded, there might be several useful discoveries made from a criticism of the fictions of the antient philosophy, concerning substances, and substantial forms, and accidents, and occult qualities; which, however unreasonable and capricious, have a very intimate connexion with the principles of human nature.

Here, Hume is pre-emptively answering the question: “What is the point of spending time talking about the categories substance, substantial form, etc., if it is clear that they are false, unreasonable, fictions?”  While Hume’s talk of “useful discoveries” might initially suggest something like a position where the antient philosophy has some truth mixed in with its falsehood, and so, investigation of the antient philosophy will help us extract those truths (cf. what Pasnau calls the “high-road” response to the progress dilemma), I think the rest of 1.4.3 makes it clear that what Hume is really after, in investigating these philosophical fictions, is to learn about the basis in human nature for positing them.  In other words, we’re studying the fictions of false philosophy in order to learn about the minds that posit it, rather than about the subjects it attempts to explain.  And that this is Hume’s answer should not surprise us; Hume frequently directs us to change our inquiry from object- or world- oriented questions and focus instead on thinker- or mind- oriented questions.  In 1.4.2, for instance,  we are told it would be in vain to ask “whether there be body, or not?”, but can more profitably ask “what causes induce us to believe in the existence of body?”.  So, Hume’s view of what we can hope to get out of investigating antient philosophy is straightforward, and it coheres well with Hume’s strategy in the Treatise.

What remains curious, however, is the analogy Hume offers.  I can see the proposed parallel here: The “moralists” Hume references are saying that dreams, despite not being a good guide to reality, can be very informative about the person who has them, just as these false philosophical categories, despite not being a good guide to the structure of the world, can be very informative about the nature of the minds that find them so appealing.  When I first started writing this post, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the view that Hume attributes to “several moralists”, and so I thought the analogy was curious insofar as it seemed to be invoking a weird view to explain a fairly straightforward one.  Actually articulating the proposed parallel has softened me some towards the view (and thus the analogy), but I am still left with a question:  For the case of looking to dreams to learn about someone’s character, it is supposed to be the absence of “artifice, fear, and policy” in the dreams that renders them so informative about the character of the dreamer; is there something similar to be said about for the case of antient philosophy?  In other words, how strong is the analogy supposed to be?  Does it simply rest at the parallel of using products of the mind to learn about the thinker that produces them, or is there something further to the analogy, that explains why the fictions of antient philosophy are especially good sources of information about human nature?

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I just saw an announcement about this blog, “Feminist History of Philosophy”.  I haven’t had a chance to look over too much of the content there yet, but I am sure that some of our readers will find some of the discussions there of interest.

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A lot has been said about Locke’s account of substance and substratum. Robert Pasnau has recently argued (in his book Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671) that “the substratum just is the ordinary substance” (160). Pasnau says that Locke’s statements about substance become less puzzling when we put them in “the proper historical context, that of the thin metaphysical substance of the Aristotelian tradition” (167, n.9). The “ordinary substance” and the the “thin metaphysical substance of the Aristotelian tradition” are thus identified. The ‘thin’ substance is introduced (101-2) as the union of form and matter, and is then the thing in which accidents inhere. Thin substance plus accidents is the ‘thick’ substance. The thin substance is not “nothing more than a bare substratum”, but is instead “quite rich in character” (107). And “Indeed, in a very real sense, the thin substance just is the cat or dog or stone” (107).

Pasnau says, indeed, that he hopes “that enough has been said to make it seem puzzling why anyone has ever taken seriously the idea of a bare substratum, the unknowable substance beneath the substance” (167). Indeed he suggests that “modern historians have misinterpreted the seventeenth century, and so arrived at a theory of substance that philosophers never would have dreamed of putting forth as their own idea” (167).

There are, however, other contexts here. Yes, we can look at Locke against the thin substance background, but we can also look at him against the background of some of Henry More’s discussions. For some of More’s discussions in The Immortality of the Soul appear to closely parallel the discussions in Essay 2.23. Thus axiom VIII of book I, chapter 2 of The Immortality of the Soul is “The Subject, or naked Essence or Substance of a thing, is utterly unconceivable to any of our Faculties” (More 1959, 10), paralleling the early sections of Essay 2.23, and chapter 3 involves arguing “That the notion of Spirit is altogether as intelligible as that of Body” (More 1659, 16), paralleling the later sections of Essay 2.23.

Moreover, in support of Axiom VIII, More argues as follows: “For the evidencing of this Truth, there needs nothing more then a silent appeal to a mans owne mind, if he doe not find it so; and that if he take away all Aptitudes, Operations, Properties and Modifications from a Subject, that his conception thereof vanishes into nothing, but into the Idea of a meer Undiversificated Substance; so that one Substance is not then distinguishable from another, but onely from Accidents or Modes, to which properly belongs no subsistence” (More 1659, pp.10-1).

Here the substance is indeed the thing distinguished frpm the accidents. But it appears not to be the thin substance of Pasnau’s discussion. On More’s understanding of the subject or substance, it is too thin, so to speak, to be the ordinary cat or horse, for the substance of the cat and the substance of the horse are not distinguishable. This notion of substance at least approaches that of a ‘bare substratum’. And that suggests, at least, that the idea of such a bare featureless underlying substance is not a mere invention of recent commentators, but something that Locke could have found being discussed in his own time and place.

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In my work on Hume’s account of cognition, I discovered that many objections to Hume depend on the (tacit) assumption of certain strong parallels between mind and language.  Specifically, the objections frequently relied on the assumption that the grammatical structure of a bit of language which describes or expresses a given mental state will mirror the psychological structure of that state.  Since Hume does not accept the view that one can simply read off a mental state’s psychological structure directly from the grammatical structure of those related bits of language, many of these objections would not be particularly worrisome to Hume.  Or at least, that is what I argued.  I’ve taken to calling this view (which is rejected by Hume, but implicitly accepted by some of his detractors) “the Mirror Thesis”.

I’ve since become interested in the more general role of this purported parallelism between mental and linguistic structures in the thinking of early modern philosophers, and was quite pleased to come across a statement in Leibniz’s New Essays on this very point:

THEO:  […]I really believe that languages are the best mirror of the human mind, and that a precise analysis of the significations of words would tell us more than anything else about the operations of the understanding. (NE, 333)

Obviously, this quote, all by itself, doesn’t really tell us what Leibniz’s views are specifically, since there are many ways of cashing out this mirror analogy.  Nevertheless, Leibniz, here, is clearly endorsing some version of a mirror thesis.

For context, this comes in Leibniz’s discussion of 3.7 of Locke’s essay (“Of Particles”), which contains a frustratingly compressed presentation of some of the most interesting elements of Locke’s philosophy of language.

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Locke makes use of Adam in a colorful explanation of how names are established for ideas of mixed modes and substances.  He writes: “Let us suppose Adam in the State of a grown Man, with a good Understanding, but in a strange Country, with all Things new, and unknown about him; and no other Faculties, to attain the Knowledge of them, but what one of this Age has now” (III.vi.44).  This is a useful trope.  It allows Locke to develop a thought experiment in which someone, uncorrupted in just the right way, invents a term and shapes the idea associated with it.  The distinction Locke illustrates with this example is as follows.  In developing his ideas of certain mixed modes (in this case jealousy and adultery albeit denominated by the names ‘Kinneah’ and ‘Niouph’), Adam “puts Ideas together, only by his own Imagination, not taken from the Existence of any thing [nor from] considering whether any such thing did exist” (III.vi.46).  Here, according to Locke, Adam “has a Standard [for what constitutes an instance of either Kinneah or Niouph] of his own making” (ibid).  In developing his idea of a certain substance (gold albeit denominated by ‘Zahab’), Adam “takes the quite contrary Course; here he has a Standard made by Nature” (ibid).

I want to ask whether anyone has come across an interesting example in which Adam, Eve, or a “person…on a sudden transported into our world” is used to illustrate a certain philosophical view (Treatise; SBN 293).  An example that uses Eve should be especially prized, since, so far as I can tell, she is mentioned far less frequently than Adam.  My favorite is an example from Joseph Glanvill’s Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661).  But the example I have in mind is best appreciated when paired with an example from Hume.

Hume takes our judgments about causal relations to depend entirely on the customary associations formed on the basis of repeated experience.  And there is a passage in the Abstract in which Hume draws upon Adam to persuade his reader of the truth of this view.  Hume writes: “Were a man, such as Adam, created in full vigour of understanding, without experience, he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first” (A 11; SBN 651).  Hume draws two conclusions from this consideration of Adam.  The first is that “It is not any thing that reason sees in the cause, which makes us infer the effect” (ibid).  The second conclusion concerns what must be the case in order for Adam to judge two objects or events to be causally related.  Hume states: “It would have been necessary…for Adam (if he was not inspired) to have had experience of the effect, which followed upon the impulse of these two balls.  He must have seen, in several instances, that when the one ball struck upon the other, the second always acquired motion” (ibid).  In a slightly different example in the Enquiry, Hume says of Adam that “though his rational faculties be supposed, at the very first, entirely perfect, [he] could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water, that it would suffocate him, or from the light and warmth of fire, that it would consume him” (4.6; SBN 27).

What is interesting about Glanvill’s use of Adam is that he takes an uncorrupted mind, such as is possessed by Adam, to involve a remarkably rich engagement with causal relations.  Glanvill gives us an Adam who is “inspired” in a way that is excluded from Hume’s example in the Abstract.  He writes of Adam:

the accuracy of his knowledge of natural effects, might probably arise from his sensible perception of their causes.  What the experiences of many ages will scarce afford us at this distance from perfection, his quicker senses could teach in a moment.  And whereas we patch up a piece of Philosophy from a few industriously gather’d, and yet scarce well observ’d or digested experiments, his knowledge was compleatly built, upon the certain, extemporary notice of his comprehensive, unerring faculties.  His sight could inform him whether the Loadstone doth attract by Atomical Effluviums; which may gain the more credit by the consideration of what some affirm; that by the help of Microscopes they have beheld the subtile streams issuing from the beloved Minerall.  It may be he saw the motion of the bloud and spirits through the transparent skin, as we do the workings of those little industrious Animals through a hive of glasse.  The Mysterious influence of the Moon, and its causality on the seas motion, was no question in his Philosophy, no more then a Clocks motion is in ours, where our senses may inform us of its cause.  Sympathies and Antipathies were to him no occult qualities.  Causes are hid in night and obscurity from us, which were all Sun to him.  (1661: 6-7)

This list might pass for a compendium of contemporary philosophical and scientific mysteries.  What is important about such instances of causation is that thinkers in the seventeenth century had made little progress in explaining them at the same time as some thinkers made rather bold claims to certainty and clarity in matters of investigating causal relations.  As it seems to me, the Adam we find here may have been intended to represent the epistemic ideal to which such metaphysical thinkers are committed.  It is an ideal, according to Glanvill, which is as easily parodied as it is shown to be unachievable.  Hence Glanvill opens his argument with this cutting methodological statement:  “I’le not move beyond our selves, and the most ordinary and trivial Phanomena in nature, in which we shall finde enough to shame confidence, and unplume Dogmatizing” (16).

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(This is part of an ongoing series on logic and theories of judgment in modern philosophy)

In an earlier post I discussed Kant on the normativity of Logic. In this post I want to examine whether Hume can allow for a non-psychological notion of logical consequence.

The worry is rather simple–indeed, call this the “simple argument”.

  1. Hume denies that there are necessary connections between distinct existences (I.iii.vi.1).
  2. The notion of logical consequence requires that there be a necessary connection between distinct propositions.
  3. So, according to Hume, there could not be such necessary connections between propositions.
  4. Hence, the cannot be any form of genuine logical consequence.


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I first heard about Ippolito Desideri a few years ago, during an APA meeting, at a Hune Society session.  Alison Gopnik, known best for her work in developmental psychology, was presenting an absolutely fascinating paper about the possibility that Hume’s account of personal identity/the self was influenced (indirectly) by Buddhist thought.

Ippolito Desideri was an Italian Jesuit, hoping to establish a mission in Tibet and convert the Buddhists there to Christianity.  According to Gopnik, “When he arrived at Lhasa, the Khan and the Dalai Lama welcomed him enthusiastically. The welcome did not diminish when he announced that he was a lama himself and intended to convert them all to Catholicism. Instead, in a typically Buddhist response, they suggested that, in that case, it would be a good idea if he learned Tibetan and studied the Tibetan religion. If he could actually explain why his religion was superior, they would convert” (p. 13-14).

Desideri took them up on that suggestion, and spent five years studying the language and religion in Buddhist monasteries and universities.  I won’t spend too much more time rehashing and abridging the information Gopnik covers in her article, but the connection of Desideri to Hume comes from the fact that, after a territorial dispute regarding Tibet was resolved in favor of the Capuchins over the Jesuits, Desideri was ordered back to Europe and his path home involved an extended stay at the college of La Flèche (where Hume would later stay while composing the Treatise).

I found a google pdf of (an abridged translation of) Desideri’s account of his travels.  I haven’t had  a chance to carefully look through it—it is quite thorough—but in my skimming, I came across a very interesting passage.  Before I share it, I’ll give a bit of context.  The account is divided into four books: Book 1 concerns Desideri’s journey to Tibet and the mission he established there,  book 2 is his description of the culture and civil government in Tibet, book 3 is Desideri’s description of what he calls “the false and peculiar Religion prevailing in Thibet”, and book 4 concerns Desideri’s return to Europe.  While it is correct to say that Desideri thought the Tibetan religion was a false and erroneous form of atheism, such a description obscures some of the nuance in his stance. In describing the reception of his first attempts to convert the Tibetans, Desideri explained his view of the two components for a religion, and indicated where he felt the substantive divergence was between his religion and the religion of Tibet:

Moved by Divine Grace, far more powerful than any words of mine, they inquired over and over again whether there was any great difference between our Holy Faith and their sect or Religion. Partly not to diverge in any way from Truth, and partly not to discourage them, I explained that in every religion there were two principal facts; firstly, principles, maxims, or dogmas, to be believed, and secondly, precepts, counsels, or instructions as to what to do or not to do. As regards the first our Religion and theirs were absolutely different but in the second the difference was very slight. This explanation consoled and encouraged them greatly, and they showed in many ways that Divine Grace was gradually animating and inciting them. (p. 99)

The majority of Desideri’s concerns and objections, then, relate to points of doctrine or dogma, rather than differences in respect of practical guidelines or ethical rules.  One of the questions Desideri takes up is the issue of whether or not the Tibetan religion was truly atheist, given that the Tibetan religion incorporated a variety of what we would term supernatural entities.  The passage that caught my attention comes from discussion that touches on this point.  Desideri says:

16. THE Thibettans acknowledge no Supreme Judge who rewards the good and punishes evildoers. They assert that good men are rewarded according to their merits and evildoers punished according to their sins, without the intervention of a Supreme Ruler of the world. Merit and demerit have an innate power over rewards and punishments that can never fail. Thus the Thibettans illustrate the weight or lightness of bodies by the example of fire. If fire is restricted or stifled it dies down, but when the obstacle is removed it forth anew; in like manner when the life of a virtuous man is ended, although no controlling Providence exists to aid him in obtaining reward, he obtains it by the sheer power of his merits. Likewise, if all impediments are removed, a stone will roll downhill by its own weight, and needs no helping hand. In the same way, when a sinful man dies, although there is no judge to pass sentence, the mere force of his own demerits condemns him to the punishment he deserves for his wickedness. (p. 238)

I don’t have anything especially insightful or interesting to share regarding this quote, but I did find the view described rather striking.

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In an earlier post I talked about some arguments in Bayle’s Dictionary. In notes to the article ‘Dicaearchus’ Bayle argues against the view that certain material things can think because of the way their parts are arranged. I suggested at the end of that post, rather hesitantly, that one might gloss the conclusion as ‘the only way to be a materialist is to be Spinoza’. That still strikes me as not quite right. But Bayle does provide the materials to construct an argument for a somewhat Spinozistic sort of materialism, one that does not rely on the arrangement of material things to explain why some material things can think.


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At this most recent Central APA, there was a session called “Learning from the Past: Why Study the History of Philosophy?” which I was, unfortunately, unable to attend.  Fortunately, Robert Pasnau’s contribution to that session, “Philosophical Beauty“, is available on his website.  I am fairly sure that everyone I know who works in historical philosophy has, at some point, wrestled with the question of what it is that we are up to when we do historical philosophy, and how our projects are related to a) philosophy, more generally, and b) history, more generally.  I was originally planning to summarize Pasnau’s article and then also discuss my views on the question, but I think I’ll have to save sharing my views for later, and this post is just going to highlight some things that I found interesting in Pasnau’s paper.

Pasnau opens his paper with a puzzle about progress and historical philosophy:

Here is a dilemma for the historian of philosophy: Either philosophy has progressed over the centuries or it has not. If it has not, then what good is philosophy? If it has, then what good is its history? Of course, there are many ways around, or through, this dilemma, but still it will serve as a useful starting point for considering the different sorts of reasons one might have for studying philosophy’s history.

The highroad through the progress dilemma – the road more traveled – holds that philosophy progresses, but only fitfully, and that often the traces of true progress can be discerned only retrospectively, sometimes after a great many years have passed. The historian of philosophy then plays the role of a peasant following behind the harvester, gleaning from the field any stray truths that happen to have been missed by the onrushing course of philosophical inquiry.

I myself have sometimes thought of the history of philosophy in this sort of way – except that it has often seemed to me that the portion of truth left unreaped amounts to more than just a few scattered remnants – that row upon row of choice philosophy has been left unharvested, and that those of us who linger in the past have the luxury of wandering these verdant fields in unhurried peace, plucking from whatever tender stalk strikes our fancy.

Pasnau goes on to note that the highroad approach dictates that the value of historical philosophy is dependent (entirely) on the contributions it winds up producing for contemporary philosophical inquiry.  This makes it a contingent matter whether historical philosophy is worth doing:

For it certainly is possible that our discipline’s respect for the history of its subject amounts to nothing more than a bad case of idol worship – that we are wasting our time propping up these edifices from the past when we should just let them quietly crumble to dust on their library shelves. The noble path through the progress dilemma demands that we take this possibility seriously, because it pins the worth of historical scholarship to the contingent question of whether such research in fact yields philosophical insights. If we had some accurate way of assessing this question, and if it turned out that in fact historical research is not productive in that way, then the noble path would push us toward reforming the philosophical curriculum along the lines of mathematics or physics. Now I think, as I have indicated, that this is a challenge the historian can meet, but even so there seems something deeply worrisome about the noble path. For it strikes me as just absurd to treat the study of philosophy’s history as contingent on whether such study contributes to progress in philosophy today. As confident as I am that such contributions regularly occur, I do not think philosophical historians need to justify their studies in this way. The noble path misses something important about the value of the history of philosophy, and about the value of philosophy in general. What it misses, I now want to argue, is that philosophy possesses a kind of beauty that makes its study intrinsically valuable quite apart from whatever claims to truth it might possess.

The remainder of the article concerns this “philosophical beauty”, which Pasnau regards as a source of value for historical philosophy independent of potential contributions to contemporary debates:

To praise philosophy for its beauty is not to praise it for the pleasure it brings us; on the contrary, it brings us pleasure because it is beautiful. Nor is the beauty of philosophy a function of its capacity to uncover the truth – what we might call its scientific mission. Good philosophy certainly is well suited to that scientific mission, and that mission of course has tremendous value. But good philosophy also has a further kind of intrinsic value, a goodness, even in cases where the truth lies many miles away.

And Pasnau goes on to note that his approach is a way of sidestepping the progress dilemma:

This is not, to be sure, the highroad through the progress dilemma. It is a road less traveled; indeed, philosophers have paid astonishingly little attention to the question of whether philosophy might have some value apart from its scientific mission. Once we embrace this idea, however, we can understand why the progress dilemma should have little grip on the historian of philosophy. Let philosophy progress as much as you like; let the ideas of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke be as superannuated and superseded as you please. Still, they are beautiful, and worthy of study for that reason alone.

I am going to stop summarizing the paper at this point, because it is becoming apparent that if I continue in this vein, I’ll simply be posting an abridged version of his paper on this blog.  It is a really interesting paper, and while I am not at all sure I agree with Pasnau’s central claims, I do think the stance he takes is well worth discussing.  It, if nothing else, reflects a strikingly different conception of the field of philosophy from some other, frequently discussed, outlooks.

At any rate, I am curious what other people think of Pasnau’s paper/conception of the value of (historical) philosophy.

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“The being of God may be argued from the desirableness and need of it.  This we see in all nature everywhere, that great necessities are supplied.  We should be miserably off without our light in the night, and we have the moon and stars.  In Egypt and India they are very much without rain, and they have the floods of Ganges and Nile and great deserts.  In Greenland the sun’s rays are exceeding oblique, and he is above the horizon so much the longer to make it up.  Moles have poor eyes, and they have little occasion for them.  Beasts are without reason, and they are guided by instinct that supplies its place as well.  Men are without natural weapon to fight, and they have reason and hands to make weapons.  The young of insects are not able to provide for themselves nor do their dams take care of them, but they, by instinct, are laid where they have their food round about them.  Camels are forced, being in dry countries, to go long without water, and they have a long vessel within them which, being filled, supplies them a long time.  And so it is in everything.”

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