Archive for January, 2013

Early Modern Philosophy in the Media

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is apparently going to be organizing/running an online reading group for Hobbes’s Leviathan (additional link).

I thought this might be of interest to some of us.

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Prompted by Lewis’s mention of Cudworth, a post or two on Cudworth’s most famous argument.

Book 1 of Cudworth’s Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality [TEIM] contains a relatively short, and apparently free-standing, argument that morality cannot arise merely from decisions, either human or divine. Hobbes is among Cudworth’s targets, but so are Descartes and others. But some commentators have thought the the crucial passage in Cudworth’s text fails to do what he thinks it does, because it is merely tautological. Thus Zagorin (1992, 131-2): “As John Tulloch pointed out in his classic study of the Cambridge Platonists, Cudworth failed to realize that he was guilty of a tautology” (cf. Passmore 1990, 41-2).

The central passage in Cudworth’s argument is the following:


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I received this query from Sandrine Berges (who blogs at Feminist History of Philosophy):

I’m trying to trace a quote I found in Sophie de Grouchy’s Lettres sur la sympathie, a piece she wrote as a comment on her translation of Smith’s TMA in 1798. There’s not much written about her, and my quebecois edition of the letters is missing the relevant page (dodgy university press).

The quote is this:

“Les fautes des femmes sont l’ouvrage des hommes, comme les vices des peuples sont le crime de leurs tyrans” (The faults of women are the work of men, just as the vices of a people are the crime of their tyrant) – VII Letter on Sympathy.

She attributes it to a philosopher ‘even more wise than famous’. I suspect Voltaire but cannot trace it.

If any readers have any thoughts or leads, please share them in the comments here.

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I am very excited to announce a conference that I am organizing at UB for next spring: “Sentiment and Reason in Early Modern Ethics”.

The conference will take place on March 21 and 22nd, 2014, here at UB (this does not conflict with either Spring 2014 APA meeting, based on the information available at the APA site).

The Keynote/Invited Speakers are (in alphabetical order):
Kate Abramson (Indiana University)
Rachel Cohon (SUNY, Albany)
Geoff Sayre-McCord (UNC-Chapel Hill)

The conference will likely feature 5 submitted papers in addition to talks by the three invited speakers (details are still being settled).

I probably won’t distribute a CFP for some time yet, but I was very excited to get these details sorted out, and want to make sure the conference is on people’s radar.

For additional information (as it becomes available), feel free to check the Phil Events page for the conference, which I will be updating periodically.

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In a footnote to chapter 6 (“Of Probability”) of the first Enquiry, Hume writes,

Mr. Locke divides all arguments into demonstrative and probable. In this view, we must say, that it is only probable all men must die, or that the sun will rise to-morrow. But to conform our language more to common use, we ought to divide arguments into demonstrationsproofs, and probabilities. By proofs meaning such arguments from experience as leave no room for doubt or opposition.

This echoes a similar passage in the Treatise (T, where Hume divides “the several degrees of evidence” into knowledge, proof, and probability.

These passages, as well as letters such as the anonymously penned Letter from a Gentleman seem to suggest that Hume divides probable arguments into those that do not produce certainty (probabilities) and those that can or do (proofs). Presumably, proofs produce “moral certainty” in the early modern sense. (Hume appeals to “moral certainty” in the Letter to counter accusations that he undermines demonstrations of the existence of God and is therefore a skeptic and atheist).

I find Hume’s defense in the Letter less than convincing for a number of reasons, but let me offer two here. Hume’s opponents were correct to recognize that Hume doesn’t really have a place for “proofs” in this technical sense. First, Hume is clear in T 1.3.1 that knowledge comes from intuition and demonstration. Other than the passages mentioned, Hume only talks about certainty in connection to knowledge. Furthermore, the reason given in T 1.3.1 for why we can be certain is that intuition and demonstration rely on unalterable relations. (See also T The argument isn’t terribly clear, but it seems that if the relations between our ideas are alterable (“so long as the ideas remain the same”) then we couldn’t be certain on the matter. Because probable arguments (presumably; I don’t see him argue that they must) rely on alterable relations, they could not produce certainty, even moral certainty.

Second, Hume is careful in the Treatise and again in the Enquiry to note that philosophers should only distinguish demonstrations and probable arguments. It is only “to conform our language more to common use” (Enquiry) or when “in common discourse” (Treatise) to separate out a third category of evidence. (Note: he makes no effort to fix the potential misreading in the Enquiry.) Philosophers do and should recognize two categories of arguments. This might disturb the common folk, so we should speak of very high probabilities as “proofs,” but this is only for common use, not when doing philosophy.

I am convinced by these two reasons (and some other, less important ones) that Hume does not have a distinct category of proofs (probable arguments which produce moral certainty) when speaking philosophically; such use is only an accommodation to those common folk worried that it is not certain that the sun will rise tomorrow.

However, this seems to cut against a currently popular reading of Hume, which claims that Hume considers certain many things (such as the causal maxim) that are not established via intuition or demonstration. Often these readers appeal to Hume’s unpublished letters, which I find problematic. On my opponents’ behalf, I wonder if something could be made using different kinds of certainty (epistemic vs. psychological, say), which has some traction in the texts. Hume’s use of the terms is frustratingly inconsistent, so it is difficult to know how to proceed on this point. (One starting point could be Of the Passions, where he separates out two kinds of probability.) Until we have a fuller working out of the notions of certainty and probability, I think we should follow Hume’s suggestion and take talk of “proofs” as an accommodation to common use.

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In Aristotelian physics, natural objects are characterized by their teleology, i.e. their tending toward certain ends. According to St. Thomas, what makes an event a voluntary action is that the subject of the event has knowledge of the end toward which the action is directed.

Post-Galileo, physics is not about teleology in this way. Instead, physics is about laws, rules according to which events unfold. Accordingly, many early modern philosophers hold that a voluntary action is an event which unfolds according to a rule which has been adopted by the subject of the event. The clearest statement of this idea I know of is at the beginning of section 3 of Kant’s Groundwork, but I think it can be found as well in Samuel Clarke and Thomas Reid, and maybe also Leibniz. I think it might also be implicit in Berkeley, which is why I’ve been thinking about it. So there’s a shift from regarding a voluntary action as one pursuant to an end adopted by the agent, to regarding a voluntary action as one pursuant to a rule adopted by the agent. Of course, for anyone who believes in free will of any robust sort (even a compatibilism of Leibniz’s sort), teleology can’t drop out entirely, the way it does for Spinoza, but rules of action acquire a new importance, and in many cases they seem to become more important than ends. For Reid and Kant, at least, this is also connected to deontologism in ethics.*

Interestingly, for many early modern philosophers, the connection between rules and voluntary action goes the other direction as well. The view that the notion of a rule or law only makes sense if there is someone who prescribes the rule, either to himself or to some other agent capable of following it voluntarily, is behind a key argument for occasionalism with respect to the movements of bodies in Malebranche, Clarke, Berkeley, and Reid.

In the title of this post, I said I was going to give a hypothesis. I’m pretty confident about the basic facts here (though the statement of them is a little rough; this is, after all, only a blog post). The hypothesis is the explanatory connection between the facts: i.e. the claim that it was due to the shift in thinking in physics that the shift in thinking in action theory occurred. True or false?

* Reid emphasizes virtue a lot more than most deontologists, but for Reid a virtue is by definition a character trait formed by the conscious and intentional adoption of a rule of conduct (I defend this view in sect. 2 of “Thomas Reid on Character and Freedom”), so the rules are prior to either virtues or ends, which makes Reid, at least on some definitions, a deontologist.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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a new book on Locke


Lewis, this has something of a reply to your last two long posts, but not a complete one.

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Since Antonia and Stewart are apparently too classy to self-promote via the weblog, I figured I would post about their new text for them.

Debates in Modern Philosophy“, edited by Steward Duncan and Antonia LoLordo, through Routledge, is an introduction to major issues in modern philosophy.


The format of the book is to couple an older, well-known article on a particular debate with a newly commissioned piece responding to the classic article. Each of these article pairings is preceded by an editorial introduction to the debate.

My exam copy arrived just recently, so I haven’t had a chance to look through it just yet, but I am excited about the format the book takes, in terms of helping students understand the nature of interpretive debates.

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Calls for papers

We don’t post many calls for papers here. And even if we did, we’d struggle to keep up with Stephen Daniel’s Early Modern Philosophy Calendar. But here are a couple of interesting recent CFPs.

New England Colloquium (at Yale)

Abstracts of papers on topics in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy are invited for the annual conference of the New England Colloquium in Early Modern Philosophy, to be held on May 13-15, 2013 at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Conference speakers will include Lilli Alanen (University of Uppsala) and Alan Nelson (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Abstracts should be no longer than four pages; finished papers should have a reading time of 45 minutes or less. The deadline for the submission of abstracts is February 15, 2013; authors will be notified by March 15 of the program committee’s decision. Please send abstracts, preferably as e- mail attachments, to Kenneth P. Winkler, Department of Philosophy, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, kenneth.winkler@yale.edu.

Scottish Seminar (at Aberdeen)

Scottish Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy IV (SSEMP IV)
The Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen
2-3 May 2013

Key Note Speakers:
Dr. James Harris (St. Andrews)
Dr. Leo Catana (Copenhagen)

The SSEMP IV is the fourth edition of a yearly event that brings together established scholars, young researchers and advanced graduate students working in the field of Early Modern Philosophy. The aim is to foster scholarly exchange among the different generations of academics in the UK and to strengthen international collaboration. We welcome abstracts on any topic in pre-Kantian early modern philosophy (broadly defined, ranging from late Renaissance philosophy to the Enlightenment.) We particularly encourage proposals which consider early modern philosophy in relation to other related disciplines, such as theology, intellectual history and/or the history of science. Scholars abroad are strongly encouraged to submit abstracts. Presentations should be in English and approximately 45 minutes in reading length. We make an effort to assure a reasonable gender balance.

The event is organized by Beth Lord and Mogens Lærke. Abstracts (approx. 150 words) should be sent by email to Mogens Lærke on m.laerke@abdn.ac.uk. Deadline for submission of abstracts is 1 February 2013.

Please note that the SSEMP cannot provide funding for travel or accommodation.

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This is part two of a two-part post. In this part, I try to resolve the worry raised in the previous post for Locke’s view that moral rules are never self-evident, and thus, always demand explanation/justification.

In the previous post, I outlined a worry for Locke’s stance on moral rules in Essay 1.3.4. Locke’s position is that no moral rules are self-evident, and so all moral rules stand in need of derivation or deduction. The worry that I presented was that it seems we can derive moral rules only from the conjunction of a) a prior moral rule, and b) a separate premise that establishes the derived rule as an instance or sub-category of the former.

In the comments on the first part of this post, Antonia LoLordo pressed me on one avenue for avoiding this worry: why think that the deriving the target rule requires a prior or more general moral rule? After all, some of the things that Locke says seem to suggest that morality requires a lawmaker, lawmaking requires the power of punishment and reward, and thus, morality winds up derivative on prudence. The prudential rule, “One should always act in the way that maximizes their own expected happiness”, combined with the claim that the way to maximize your own happiness is to obey God’s desires/instructions/laws, would be a fine derivation, and the rule that one should obey God is the moral rule we’re interested in. My reply to Antonia was two-pronged. On the one hand, we have to ask, what makes a proposed rule moral vs. prudential in the first place. We could either maintain that the moral vs. prudential character of a rule is determined by what the rule says, or we could maintain that “should” is ambiguous between a prudential relation, a moral relation, (and likely other relations), so that for a given sentence, like, “One should act in one’s own best interests” there is a moral reading of the rule, a prudential reading of the rule, etc. If we go with the latter option, then it looks like we could only derive the rule “Morally speaking, one should obey God’s law” from the rule, “Morally speaking, one should do whatever is one’s own best interests” and the claim that obeying God’s law is in one’s own best interests, so we are still stuck with moral rules on both ends. If we go with the former option, there is a mysterious question about why the former is a rule of prudence, while the latter is a rule of morality, and crucially, what makes the proposed derivation any good?

The second prong of my reply pertains to a deeper issue. Locke seems to be writing the section as though “practical principle” and “moral rule” are roughly equivalent. After all, his argument is supposed to establish that there are no innate practical principles. The fact that no moral rule is self-evident only bears on that conclusion if we take “moral rule” to encompass any practical principles. For if some practical principle is self-evident (like: “one should do whatever maximizes one’s own happiness”), then Locke’s argument about moral rules hasn’t done anything to make the case that there are no innate practical principles.

There is another way of taking LoLordo’s question, which I think winds up looking more charitable, but I can’t articulate that way of reading her question until after I lay out the approach for resolving the worry that I have in mind. So, I’ll do that now: I think the real issue is not whether we can derive a moral rule from some non-moral rule, but whether we can we derive a moral rule from things that aren’t rules at all. Now, I didn’t give a real argument for the claim that all moral rules will be explained by appeal to prior moral rules. But to really resolve the worry, we will want a positive story about moral explanation that diverges from this picture in the relevant way. Also, we’ll want to figure out how amenable to such a story Locke would be, independent of the need for it as a resolution to this worry.

So, the rest of this post concerns two complementary lines of thought. The first emerges from the fact that I have assumed, but have not really argued for, the claim that all explanations of moral rules of the form “One should do F” take the form: “One should do F because doing F is a way of doing G, and one should do G”. If that assumption is correct, then, to avoid skepticism, circularity, or infinite regress, we would require some unexplained/unexplainable moral rules. And Locke seems to have ruled that out, in virtue of saying that every moral rule is one against which we are capable of raising a legitimate demand for reason/explanation. The second is to focus on remarks against syllogism that Locke makes in 4.17.4, when giving his views on the nature of reasoning. In that section, Locke suggests that it is a mistake to understand human reasoning as governed by syllogisms. This line of reply involves the suggestion that the explanation “Because God, who has the power of eternal life and death, requires it of you” is neither a non-sequitur, nor is it omitting reference to an additional rule, but rather, is a perfectly good bit of reasoning, by Locke’s lights.

In his paper discussing Ralph Cudworth’s “authority” challenge to divine voluntarism in ethics, Mark Schroeder brings out a number of similar/related points to the ones I am raising here. Schroeder dubs the model of moral explanation I have been assuming as “The Standard Model of Normative Explanation.” In his words:

The explanation that X ought to do A because P follows the Standard Model just in case it works because there is (1) some further action B such that X ought to do B and (2) not just because P and (3) P explains why doing A is a way for X to do B.

Schroeder defines the “standard model theory” as the view that all normative explanations of the form “X ought to do A because P” follow the standard model. So, as should be clear from Schroeder’s statement of it, the only way to avoid a regress problem on the Standard Model is to have some statements of the form “X ought to do A” which are not explained/explainable. There have to be one or more ought claims that cannot be explained (through subsumption under a more basic/general ought claim, or any other way). To avoid the regress problem when we don’t limit ourselves to the standard model is to appeal to a different structure of moral explanation. Schroeder helpfully articulates an alternative to the standard model: the constitutive model. On this model, some explanations are given in terms of a reduction of ought claims to some other properties. So if I explain your obligation to do A on the constitutive model, I do not offer some antecedent obligation to do B, and tell you why doing A is a way of doing B. Rather, I give you an account of what it is to have an obligation. Here’s Schroeder again:

On this picture [i.e. the constitutive model], though many normative explanations may follow the Standard Model, Standard Model explanations eventually run out, and when they do, the only further explanation of why it is the case that someone ought to do something, is to point to what it is for it to be the case that she ought to do it, and to point out that this, in fact, holds.

So, it looks like this might be a way to help Locke avoid my worry. We can consider answers that work like Schroeder’s alternative model and see if this helps solve Locke’s problem. In fact, we can even consider what the original answer given by the Christian looks like on this alternative model of normative explanation. Recall C:

  • C: [You should keep your compacts] because God (who has the power of eternal life and death) requires it of you.

Q’s question in reply to this above, presupposed that this answer implicitly committed C to another rule, “One should do what God requires of them”, which, combined with facts about what God requires of us, made it the case that keeping your compacts was a way of obeying that other rule. Schroeder’s alternative model is to say that C’s answer should really be understood as proposing that what it is for an action to be something that you should do, is for God (who has the power of eternal life and death) to require it of you. Does this help with Locke’s problem?

Structurally, it is clear that this helps. It gives us a clear path to go from a principle that is not a rule “What it is to be obligated to do something just is for God to require it of you”, to the moral rule in question. However, what is less clear is that this is the best way to understand C’s answer. Fortunately, nothing in the text we’ve been looking at requires us to take C’s answer in particular as going against the standard model. We focused on C’s answer before because the point was general: if all explanations work like we were taking C’s to work, there would be trouble. The point is this, there will be some rule, perhaps the rule, “one should do what God requires of them”, or perhaps the rule “one should do what is in one’s own best interest” which will have to be derived in this alternative way. Where if I ask, “why should I do X?” the answer will be, “Because that’s just what it is to be obligated.”

So, I think we have good reason to think that something like this approach could help Locke avoid the worry. But how plausible is it for us to read this into Locke’s thought?

This is where the text from 4.17.4 comes in. In these passages, Locke is harsh on the role of syllogisms in reasoning:

There is one thing more, which I shall desire to be considered concerning Reason; and that is, whether Syllogism, as is generally thought, be the proper instrument of it, and the usefullest way of exercising this Faculty. The Causes I have to doubt, are these. First, Because Syllogism serves our Reason, but in one only of the forementioned parts of it; and that is, to shew the connexion of the Proofs in any one instance, and no more: but in this, it is of no great use, since the Mind can perceive such Connexion where it really is, as easily, nay, perhaps, better without it. If we will observe the Actings of our own Minds, we shall find, that we reason best and clearest, when we only observe the connexion of the Proofs, without reducing our Thoughts to any Rule of Syllogism. And therefore we may take notice, that there are many Men that Reason exceeding clear and rightly, who know not how to make a Syllogism.

And then, a bit later, Locke gives an example of good reasoning that he thinks would be impaired by trying to recast it syllogistically, the conclusion that humans can determine themselves, from the starting point that humans shall be punished in the afterlife:

In the instance above mentioned, what is it shews the force of the Inference, and consequently the reasonableness of it, but a view of the connexion of all the intermediate Ideas that draw in the Conclusion, or Proposition inferr’d. v.g. Men shall be punished, — God the punisher, — just Punishment, — the Punished guilty — could have done otherwise — Freedom — self-determination, by which Chain of Ideas thus visibly link’d together in train, i.e. each intermediate Idea agreeing on each side with those two it is immediately placed between, the Ideas of Men and self-determination appear to be connected, i.e. this Proposition Men can determine themselves is drawn in, or inferr’d from this that they shall be punished in the other World. […] Now I ask whether the connexion of the Extremes be not more clearly seen in this simple and natural Disposition, than in the perplexed Repetitions, and jumble of five or six Syllogisms. I must beg Pardon for calling it Jumble, till some Body shall put these Ideas into so many Syllogisms, and then say, that they are less jumbled, and their connexion more visible, when they are transposed and repeated, and spun out to a greater length in artificial Forms; than in that short natural plain order, they are laid down in here, wherein every one may see it; and wherein they must be seen, before they can be put into a Train of Syllogisms.

Locke’s preference for non-syllogistic modes of reasoning is particularly helpful for this issue, because, in a sense, I’ve been framing the problem in terms of forms of explanation. I’ve been taking rules and explanations, irrespective of their truth, and examining questions that attend to the structure of those explanations. And that is all well and good for certain purposes. There’s nothing wrong with observing that if one should do B, and doing A is a way of doing B, then one should do B, and thus coming up with a sort of “explanation form” for certain rules. But that can’t be at the heart of our actual derivations of our most basic moral rules or practical principles, for Locke, because whether some argument “P, therefore one should do A” is any good won’t depend on the form of that argument for Locke, but rather, on the content of premise P.

To put this more concretely, the sort of moral explanations I’ve been focusing on are just as good with made up, implausible examples, because what matters is the form of the explanation: One should eat jellybeans every day, because one has a prior obligation to amuse the Greek God of candy, and eating jellybeans every day is a way to amuse the Greek god of candy. That explanation is clearly defective in terms of the truth of any of its premises, but is formally compelling. On the other hand, if one tries to explain a moral rule by examining the claim that being obligated to do something just is for it to amuse the Greek god of candy, that isn’t going to help us assess anything besides one very particular theory about the nature of obligation. As Locke’s example of non-syllogistic reasoning shows, according to him, the sort of reasoning we actually/normally engage in is a less formal, content based approach. So, Locke would have no reason to object to the idea that we examine our idea of obligation, and, from that, infer some basic practical principles. They are derived from our understanding of the nature of obligation, not from some antecedent rule.

So, this leads to the other way of understanding LoLordo’s question (and the end of my overly verbose post). Plausibly, for an action to be prudent just is for it to stand in the right relation to one’s prospects for future happiness or misery. That theoretical principle is what allows us to derive the practical principle that we should pursue our own happiness. This, combined with Locke’s commitment to the analyticity of certain claims about how obligation relates to punishment, make it plausible that Locke would think some principle about the relationship of obligation to our prospects for happiness and misery is a potentially self-evident, though not innate, theoretical principle. From this theoretical principle, and the aforementioned practical principle of prudence, would allow us to derive some basic practical principle of morality, without violating his requirement that all practical principles be derived/explained.

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