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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