Archive for July, 2012

Berkeley’s 1712 Passive Obedience is the closest thing to a systematic work of moral theory he ever wrote, and it isn’t very close. The overarching argument can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. We have a negative moral duty of passive obedience to government.
  2. No negative moral duty admits of any exceptions – i.e. we are morally obligated to fulfill our negative duty in absolutely all cases.
  3. Therefore,

  4. We are morally obligated passively to obey the government in all cases.

The work is concerned primarily with the defense of (1) and (2).

(A few terminological clarifications. A negative duty is just a duty not to do something. Passive obedience means not doing the things the authority tells you not to do, as distinct from active obedience, which is doing the things the authority tells you to do. The doctrine of passive obedience – which was a standard Tory position at the time – is thus a predecessor of the view that non-violent resistance is sometimes justified, but violence is not.)

Passive Obedience has puzzled commentators, because in the course of defending (1) and (2) Berkeley seems to endorse two conflicting moral theories, namely, rule utilitarianism and divine command theory. Now, as far as an extensional normative ethics – that is, a theory of what sorts of things are right and what sorts of things are wrong – there is no conflict, because Berkeley is quite explicit that he thinks that God has commanded precisely those rules which, if everyone followed them, would maximize the well-being of his creatures. So Berkeley can consistently hold that the right actions are all and only those prescribed by rule utilitarianism, and also that the right actions are all and only those commanded by God, since the two coincide. The problem arises because Berkeley also sometimes seems to be making stronger claims, claims about why those rules are binding. He often seems to be supposing that the rules prescribed by rule utilitarianism are right just in virtue of their maximizing well-being (if everyone follows them), but he also explicitly says “that nothing is a [natural] law merely because it conduceth to the public good, but because it is decreed by the will of God” (sect. 31). I want to propose a simple resolution to this conflict.

Early in Passive Obedience Berkeley seems clearly to be grasping one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. Specifically, he seems to be claiming that God commanded the rules which maximize utility because they were already (independent of God’s command) right. But then in sect. 31, he says that God’s decree is the only thing that can make a rule a natural moral law. There is no contradiction between these claims unless ‘R is a morally good rule’ entails ‘R is a natural moral law.’ However, in Medieval and early modern philosophy it was often thought to be a conceptual truth that a law is a rule imposed by some authority and enforced by some system of reward and punishment. Now the fact that a rule is morally good certainly doesn’t entail that it is imposed and enforced by an authority (unless God exists necessarily and necessarily commands all the good rules). So my simple solution is just this: the utilitarian rules are morally good, and indeed obligatory, quite independent of God’s commands and his system of rewards and punishments. However, it takes God’s command and his system of rewards and punishments to make those moral rules into laws.

Let me conclude by mentioning one other odd feature of Passive Obedience that I think has not been sufficiently appreciated by its (few) commentators. It is not clear how utilitarian what I’ve been calling the ‘rule utilitarian’ theory really is. Berkeley says that what God commands is “the observation of certain, universal, determinate rules or moral precepts which, in their own nature, have a necessary tendency to promote the well-being of the sum of mankind, taking in all nations and ages, from the beginning to the end of the world” (sect. 10, emphasis added). Berkeley’s view is not that we must follow those rules which, if followed, would actually maximize human well-being. Rather, his view is that we must follow those rules which, by their own nature, have a necessary tendency to promote the general well-being. This actually makes Berkeley’s theory much more permissive than standard version of rule utilitarianism (maybe too permissive to capture his actual moral views), since there can’t possibly be very many rules like that!

(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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Locke famously defines judgment, knowledge, etc., in terms of the joining or separating of ideas. It is quite probable that Locke’s source for this is the Port-Royal Logic. There are two well-known problems with this view. First, according to this view in order to think that Peter is not living I must mentally separate the idea of Peter from the idea of living, but if I do that then its not clear how this judgment, that Peter is not living, can be a unit which can be, for instance, embedded in complex sentences. Locke makes matters worse by talking about the joining and separating of verbal signs. Taken literally, this ought to have the consequence that ‘Peter ………………………………….. living’ means ‘Peter is not living,’ since the signs are so far apart. Obviously he can’t mean anything so ridiculous as that, but he doesn’t really tell us what he does mean.

The second problem is that it seems, on this view, that the proposition is the same as the act of judging (affirming or denying) and so one cannot entertain a proposition without either affirming or denying it. This is especially a problem given the theory of language in Locke and the Port-Royalists: a sentence is conceived as a sort of recipe for constructing a certain complex mental state. In successful communication, the speaker translates her mental state into words according to the linguistic conventions, and the hearer then ‘decodes’ the words and reconstructs the mental state. But it seems to follow that you can’t understand someone without believing him, and that’s surely wrong.

I want to suggest, briefly, that the Port-Royalists can answer these objections. The first problem is actually quite simple, and here Locke may simply be less than explicit because most of his audience had read the Logic. In their treatment of judgment, the Port-Royalists sound most like Locke when they write, “After conceiving things by our ideas, we compare these ideas and, finding that some belong together and others do not, we unite or separate them. This is called affirming or denying, and in general judging” (Buroker, p. 82). However, when they first introduce judging as one of “four principal operations of the mind,” they define it as “the action in which the mind, bringing together different ideas, affirms of one that it is the other, or denies of one that it is the other. This occurs when, for example, having the idea of the earth and the idea of round, I affirm or deny that the earth is round’ (Buroker, p. 23). Here it is said that in both affirmation and denial the subject idea and the predicate idea are ‘brought together.’ Also, affirmation and denial are clearly not being explained or analyzed in terms of uniting or separating. In fact, the Port-Royalists take these ‘principal operations’ as primitive and known by introspection. What we should really understand them as claiming is that affirming involves thinking of the ideas as united (or: as going together), and denying involves thinking of the ideas as separated (or: as not going together). Thus the mental act, thinking of the idea of Peter and the idea of living as not going together does form a unit that can be embedded in larger complexes, although the idea of Peter and the idea of living are in some sense ‘separated in thought’ by the act. They are separated in thought only in the sense of being thought of as separated.

In the case of this first problem, I think this is probably what Locke intended as well. However, it’s not clear to me that Locke is even aware of the second problem or has any inkling of an answer. The answer is found mostly in the Port-Royal Grammar, which Locke may never have read, rather than the Logic which he seems to have studied carefully. The long and short of it is that affirmation and denial are not the only mental operations for putting ideas together. In particular, according to the Grammar, there are different mental operations which can be signified by different moods of the verb, or by specialized particles, depending on the language. So, for instance, the Grammar mentions the Latin particle ‘utinam’, the French idiom ‘plut a Dieu’ and the Greek optative mood as signifying wishing, and imperatives and so forth as signifying various stronger dispositions of the will toward the connection of the ideas (Rieux and Rollins, pp. 137-138). The subjunctive is treated as signifying ‘modified affirmations,’ such as those that occur in conditionals (Rieux and Rollins, p. 136). Now the Port-Royalists treat the antecedent of a conditional as a sort of supposition from which we reason (Buroker, pp. 99-101), and the fact that the antecedent is merely supposed is what is (sometimes, in some languages) being explicitly flagged by the subjunctive mood of the verb. Sometimes the subjunctive can play the same role standing alone, as in the Greek deliberative subjunctive (the Port-Royalists don’t mention this example).

In other words, the long and short of it is, I think, that for the Port-Royalists thinking of two ideas as perhaps going together, is a different mental operation upon them than either affirmation or denial, and this is what goes on when we merely entertain a proposition. Indeed, just such a thing also happens, according to the Port-Royalists, in certain subordinate clauses. For instance, they say that in the sentence ‘people who are pious are charitable,’ “the mind judges that the idea ‘pious’ is not incompatible with the idea ‘people,’ and so we can consider them as joined together and then examine what belongs to them as unified” (Buroker, p. 90). In other words, we first have a modified affirmation, something like, ‘perhaps some people are pious,’ and then we affirm (simply) of those (hypothetical) people that they are (would be) charitable.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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One of my long-held convictions is that the formation of our canon of philosophers, both more generally and of early modern philosophers in particular, involved enough enshrinement of silly prejudice to ensure that it should not be trusted as a guide to who was actually important and who wasn’t. Naturally, this conviction leads me to wonder occasionally about how one might identify the unjustly neglected philosophers of the past.

I won’t proffer a full account of what it means to be an important philosopher. No doubt one key criterion, perhaps the most important one, is the quality of their philosophical work. But it comes with some difficulties. First, directly determining the quality of some philosopher or other is hard work. A quick read may suffice to weed out the obviously third-rate, but I think serious engagement with a philosopher’s thought is required once we’re dealing with serious candidates. It’s not at all clear to me, for example, that I would have judged Aristotle’s work to be of top quality on a first read if I didn’t already know his reputation. But if serious engagement is required to determine the quality of work, then this criterion is impractical if one is trying to compare large numbers of philosophers. Second, I would expect a lot of disagreement about judgements of overall quality. I would expect more convergence if evaluating more specific qualities that help comprise the overall judgement, but how to balance those specific qualities? Even if we all agree that Aquinas is really good at clearly and concisely setting out his arguments and that Nietzsche is really good at being creative and provocative, I expect there will be plenty of disagreement about who’s the better philosopher. So for present purposes I’m going to set this criterion to the side, at least as a direct test.

Another criterion is influence. I think the very fact that a philosopher was or is very influential gives them at least some importance. But presumably influence is also an indicator, albeit a fallible one, of philosophical quality. Thinking about this criterion, I started wondering if there would be some way to get a sense for philosophers’ influence without investing the time to read the Western corpus and seeing whose ideas are discussed most often.

Might one be able to make use of the fact that massive amounts of books have now been digitized? If a philosopher’s name shows up in a lot of books, that’s presumably some indication of influence. Playing with the Google Books NGram Viewer is addictively fun, so I started there. But serious limitations quickly became obvious. Here’s a graph of the appearances of ‘Suarez’ and ‘Descartes’ between 1600 and 1900 from the English One Million corpus which has approximately 6000 books for each year:

Judging by this graph, it looks like Suarez has the edge on Descartes until the end of the 18th century, when the latter’s popularity takes off. But wait a minute: Descartes’s popularity only took off at the end of the 18th century? No. Rather, it’s a story of the medial ‘s’ losing popularity. Google Books’ software reads a medial ‘s’ as an ‘f’. Adding ‘Defcartes’ to the graph tells a more accurate story:

Now Descartes has the edge in the English corpus from the end of the 17th century, which is a good deal more plausible. But this isn’t the end of it. Let’s add a variant form of Descartes’s name that was common earlier on, Des Cartes:

And that’s not the end of alternative forms of Descartes’s name. Suarez’s name also comes in multiple forms. Not to mention that the Suarez I’m interested in, the Jesuit philosopher who wrote the Disputationes metaphysicae, was not the only Suarez writing books in the early modern period. And then there are the limitations with Google’s NGram Viewer. The results for non-English languages prior to 1800 are dubious, there is no combined corpus that includes all the languages, and, worst of all, there is no Latin corpus. So, fun and easy to use as the NGram Viewer may be, I think its limitations leave it of little value for present purposes.

My thoughts then turned to library catalogues. They don’t allow one to search for appearances of a term in a text, but, I thought, the number of editions a work goes through presumably is some indication of its influence. And library catalogues have the great virtue of providing uniform names and titles, at least for items that have been properly catalogued. So why not search a good union catalogue, i.e., a catalogue combining records from multiple libraries, and count the number of distinct editions of a work to be found? As its name indicates, Worldcat attempts to be a global union catalogue. As a matter of fact, however, it is biased towards English-speaking countries in general and to libraries in the USA in particular. Of course, since libraries in all English-speaking countries other than the UK failed to amass large collections back in the 17th and 18th centuries, they have collections that tend to reflect recent assumptions about which philosophical figures and traditions are important and which ones aren’t. Gabriel Vazquez’s commentary on Aquinas’s Summa theologiae was a big deal in the seventeenth-century and one can still find plenty of copies of it in European libraries, but copies are scarce in American libraries. Since I’m precisely trying to escape recent judgements about who is important, this is a problem. The problem is mitigated, however, by the fact that Worldcat does incorporate records from at least some of the European libraries and by the fact that for counting editions it doesn’t matter whether the libraries hold a hundred copies of a given edition or merely one copy.

[UPDATED] Here are some results:

  • 19 – Wolff, Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott (wolff, gott, 1719-1768)
  • 18 – Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (descartes, meditationes, 1640-1689)
  • 17 – Malebranche, Search after Truth (malebranche, recherche, 1674-1723)
  • 16 – Pufendorf, On the Law of Nature and of Nations (pufendorf, gentium, 1672-1721)
  • 15 – Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (locke, understanding, 1690-1739)
  • 11 – Leibniz, Theodicy (leibniz, theodicee, 1710-1759)
  • 11 – Suarez, Disputationes metaphysicae (suarez, disputationes, 1597-1646)
  • 8 – Arriaga, Cursus philosophicus (arriaga, cursus, 1632-1681)
  • 8 – Hobbes, Leviathan (hobbes, leviathan, 1651-1700)
  • 7 – Spinoza, Tractatus theologico-politicus (spinoza, tractatus, 1670-1719)
  • 6 – Rubio, Logica mexicana (rubio, logica, 1605-1654)
  • 6 – Sanderson, Logicae artis compendium (Stewart Duncan)
  • 5 – Gassendi, Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus aristoteleos (gassendi, exercitationes, 1624-1673)
  • 4 – Mastri de Meldola and Belluto, Philosophiae ad mentem Scoti cursus integer (mastri, integer, 1678-1727)
  • 4 – More, Antidote against Atheism (Stewart Duncan)
  • 4 – Wolff, Psychologia rationalis (wolff, psychologia, 1734-1783)
  • 3 – Oviedo, Integer cursus philosophicus (oviedo, integer, 1640-1689)
  • 2 – Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (conway, principles, 1690-1739)
  • 1 – Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (cavendish, observations, 1668-1717)
  • 1 – Cudworth, True Intellectual System (Stewart Duncan)
  • 1 – Spinoza, Ethics (spinoza, ethica, 1677-1726)

[UPDATED] The number at the beginning of each line indicates the number of editions found. In brackets you’ll either find the search terms and year range I used or the name of the person who provided me with the number. It’s of course the case that issues of methodological variation are more likely to creep in if the data is not collected by the same person.

The methodology is quite simple. I use the advanced search page to enter a title term, an author term, and a 50-year date range starting with the year of the first edition of the work. I then go through the results, discarding irrelevant and duplicate records. While not a perfectly accurate way to individuate editions, I counted any distinct publishing city and year pair as a distinct edition. The list of works is obviously far from comprehensive. Basically, I selected, in an entirely unsystematic fashion, some canonical works, some works that I expected to show pitfalls of the method, and some less well-known works of which I knew and which I thought had some possibility of being more influential than one might have expected.

So what are the limitations of this method? Here are some that I can think of:

1. Persecuted and otherwise marginalized figures don’t get their due. Spinoza and Cavendish are two examples.

2. All else being equal, an author with two books that went through ten editions likely had more influence than an author with one book that went through ten editions. Counting editions of a single work rather than editions of all an author’s works fails to capture this. On the other hand, counting the editions of all an author’s works would be even more misleading (think of a prolific author none of whose works ever go into a second edition because no one cares to read any of the works). Not to mention that this would be a good deal more time-consuming. Malebranche and Suarez are two people about whom this limitation might cause worry.

3. This method fails to capture influence that doesn’t come via published books. Socrates would do very badly by this test. In our period, Leibniz fails to get his due.

4. Influence via textbooks inspired by but not written by an author is not captured. For example, some of Suarez’s influence came via Protestant textbooks that were in large part inspired by him but left out the unpalatable Catholic bits.

5. The influence of schools that had many members but no clear dominant figure is underestimated. For example, it is clear that Suarez is the dominant figure for Jesuits. I’m not sure there is any comparable figure for the Scotists. Mastri da Meldola and Belluto’s Philosophiae ad mentem Scoti cursus integer is as prominent a Scotist work as I can think of, but I think its four editions fail to show the influence of Scotist, give the sheer number of works ad mentem Scoti that you can dig up in rare book libraries.

6. I’m not sure how to compare academic versus more popular influence. That is, how do you compare massive works with a forbidding professional vocabulary published only in Latin to much shorter, more accessible works translated into a variety of vernacular languages? The latter tend to get more editions, but is that a good indication of greater influence? I’m not sure how to think about this.

7. I’m also not sure how to deal with abridged editions. In Locke’s case, for example, the number of editions would nearly double if I counted abridged editions.

Those are some worries I have about this method of counting editions in library catalogues. I’d be curious to hear any other concerns that people have with these results. I’d also be interested in hearing suggestions about other ways of getting a quick and dirty sense of an author’s influence that’s not beholden to currently prevalent historical narratives. Finally, if there is some work that you’d really like to see added to my list, let me know. I’m happy to add some more data.

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At a recent conference I gave a paper on Leibniz’s correspondence with Thomas Burnett of Kemnay. Among my questions was how Locke appeared to Leibniz. Did he look like a Socinian, or similar sort of religiously dubious character? In answering that, it would be good to have some idea of how Leibniz thought about Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity. But Leibniz said relatively little explicitly about that text. There is, however, an argument in Leibniz’s correspondence with Burnett that seems to bear on the issue.

It seems to me that too many books aiming to prove the truth of religion are written in your country. That’s a bad sign, and is something that doesn’t always have a good effect … I have often thought, and others have come to agree with me, that preachers should usually avoid this issue, because instead of relieving doubts, they give rise to them. Books in vernacular languages have this effect most often … I’d prefer that we concentrated on making the wisdom of God known through physics and mathematics, by revealing more and more of the wonders of nature. That’s the real way to convince the profane, and should be the goal of philosophy (Leibniz to Burnett, 18 July 1701, A 1.20.185, pp.286-7).


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