Archive for July, 2014

'Speech ballon' by Marc Wathieu

Speech balloon by Marc Wathieu

Rest assured: the humanities are not in crisis. But, suggests Gideon Rosen in a recent article, they do suffer from a PR problem. Where the sciences have hoards of journalists eager to help their findings permeate wider intellectual culture—think: climate change, the Higgs boson, DNA—much of the work of humanistic scholars remains stuck within a community of experts. As current disciplinary classifications go, this concerns us too, historians of modern philosophy.

Rosen recommends some strategies to mitigate the perceived problem, and I encourage everyone to read his full article. Here, however, I want to consider a more specific question: What would an ideal PR system for the domain of history of modern philosophy aim to achieve, anyway?

One shape it might take is a dedicated effort to fill gaps in communication of what we do. Perhaps we must do more to explicate to the non-initiates the significance of the first systematic reading of Cavendish’s metaphysics of body, the revisionary analysis of Leibniz’s views on the expression of desire, or a new comparison of various proofs of plastic natures. Do it well, and these contributions of contemporary scholars become anchor points for an interested wider audience. PR challenge met.

At the same time there seems to be something fishy about a situation in which the findings of contemporary researchers take center stage. A dissenting voice may say that when we do our work well, we as scholars become transparent. Our work lets the reader see the polemics, letters, and lines of thought from the periods that we’re discussing—Cavendish’s metaphysics of body, Leibniz’s views on the expression of desire, and the various proofs of plastic natures. It’s about those dead people, their long running disputes, their resonating arguments. Such transparency sits rather uncomfortably with a well-functioning PR machine as just sketched, even when there’s no strict contradiction. What’s there to market about something unseen? Choose this route, and the PR problem is bound to persist.

So we’re left with a dilemma. Would scholars working on the history of modern philosophy do good to intensify efforts to make a wider audience see their own and colleagues’ specific contributions? Or is becoming increasingly transparent our best goal?

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One of the main topics of the Leibniz-Arnauld correspondence is the question how, on Leibniz’s theory, it can be true that Arnauld might have had children and been a physician rather than being a celibate theologian (see Arnauld’s letter of May 13, 1686). One of the curious things that happens in this discussion is that both Leibniz and Arnauld start talking about the many Adams and many Judases and many Arnaulds in the various possible worlds, with Leibniz insisting that none of them is identical to the actual Adam/Judas/Arnauld. In that May 13 letter, Arnauld even speaks of ‘several mes’, pluralizing the first-person pronoun.

In my view, what’s going on here is that Leibniz holds that as long as we use ‘Arnauld’ as a genuine proper name, the sentence ‘Arnauld is a celibate theologian’ is in fact a necessary truth. This is because, when ‘Arnauld’ is used as a genuine proper name, it picks out the actual Arnauld by means of his Complete Individual Concept (CIC) which includes everything about him and, indeed, everything about the world he inhabits. Of course, we don’t actually possess such a concept (at least not consciously); only God does. But somehow or other, in Leibniz’s view, we manage to use the name ‘Arnauld’ in such a way that this concept is its meaning.

However, there are other, looser contexts in which we use ‘Arnauld’ in such a way that its meaning is given not by Arnauld’s CIC but rather by some concept we actually do possess. In this kind of case, ‘Arnauld’ could be seen as abbreviating some definite description which is sufficiently detailed to identify Arnauld uniquely among actual creatures, but not including all of his characteristics, and hence not uniquely identifying him among all possible creatures. For instance, the description might be, ‘the youngest child of Antoine and Catherine Arnauld, born February 8, 1612, assigned the given name “Antoine”, who went on to become a famous Jansenist theologian.’ When we talk about alternate possibilities (‘Arnauld might have been a married physician’) or evaluate counterfactuals (‘if Arnauld had been married, he would have become a physician rather than a theologian’) we are using ‘Arnauld’, not as a proper name, but as a common name standing for such a definite description. It is for this reason that we can pluralize ‘Arnauld’ in this usage and speak of the other Arnaulds, in other possible worlds, who are married physicians. These are merely possible creatures, distinct from the actual Arnauld, who nevertheless satisfy the description which, in this context, ‘Arnauld’ abbreviates.

Today, I came across some support for this interpretation from a surprising source. It turns out there is actually a discussion of the practice of pluralizing proper nouns in the Port-Royal Grammar which Arnauld co-wrote with Claude Lancelot:

if [proper nouns] are sometimes put in the plural, as when one says the Caesars, the Alexanders, the Platos, it is done figuratively by including in the proper name all the persons who resemble them, as one would speak of kings as brave as Alexander, of philosophers as wise as Plato, etc. (part 2, ch. 4, tr. Rieux and Rollin)

This, it seems to me, is good evidence that Arnauld understood Leibniz’s view in more or less the way I have described. Of course a more careful analysis of the correspondence would be required to show that Arnauld understood Leibniz correctly.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

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The following remarks are a revised version of Martha Bolton’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.

My reflections on this topic take the form of remarks about how work in the history of modern philosophy has changed in the course of my experience. The observations are impressionistic, but in an effort to provide some objective basis for them, I collected a little information. The endeavor consisted mainly of a literature search. It yielded a list of articles on history of modern published in The Philosophical Review over the past fifty years. Because this is a non-specialized journal widely thought to publish some of the very best work in philosophy, it seems an appropriate barometer of changes in the history of modern in relation to philosophy more generally.

The survey covers issues spanning the fifty years from 1953 through 2013. Articles on Kant are counted as in the field, because during much of this time German idealism was not a separate and active area of research as it is now.   A couple of articles on Newton are on the list, as well as several on the political philosophy of Hobbes, which was much discussed in the early decades of this period. Let me repeat that my observations are from a personal perspective; don’t mistake them for a history of the development of the field during the last fifty years.


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The following remarks are a revised version of Don Rutherford’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.

When Lewis Powell announced the formation of the Society for Modern Philosophy, I must admit my initial reaction was to ask myself, “Do we really need another organization of historians of modern philosophy?” We have societies, conferences and journals dedicated to major individual thinkers, as well as a host of meetings, venues and publications that feature work focusing on broader topics in seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy. So what more do we need?

Then Lewis invited me to make this presentation, and I was forced to give the question more careful consideration. I couldn’t accept the invitation if I was going to argue that the plan for the Society was ill-conceived or without point. On reflection, I decided that this was far from my view. In fact, I have come to see the Society’s formation as a very good idea. In these remarks I want to explain why I think this is so and also share some more far-reaching thoughts on the discipline of the history of philosophy. I apologize in advance if the latter seem tangential to the immediate business of the Society. In my mind, they address—in a preliminary and abstract way—some of the larger issues about our enterprise that warrant greater discussion. I look forward to your comments on them.


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This past spring, at the Pacific Division meeting of the APA, we held the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy.  After some brief introductory rambling by me about the society’s goals and aims, Don Rutherford and Martha Bolton each spoke, giving reflections and considerations about scholarship in modern philosophy.  The session was extremely interesting, and led to some very lively discussion afterwards.  The turnout was fantastic, but I also know that many people who wanted to attend were unable to make it.

Don and Martha have made some revisions to their remarks, and they have been kind enough to allow me to post their remarks here on the Mod Squad blog, so that people who were not able to make it to the session can see what they missed, and hopefully, spark some more lively discussion about the issues they raise.

Those posts will be appearing next week on the blog, probably Monday and Thursday.

So right now, I will just briefly recap a bit about the society, and encourage people to join via the mailing list link on the website:

Society for Modern Philosophy

The purpose of the society is to provide some structures and opportunities that will benefit scholarship and teaching of modern philosophy.  The first step is to create more opportunities for people to present their work, and for those opportunities to be diverse in terms of the topics and figures covered.  Membership in the society puts you on a very very low volume mailing list (maybe one message every month?), and carries no requirements for dues or active involvement.  Society activities are organized by people volunteering more or less as a labor of love.  Apart from organizing group sessions at APAs, other short term goals include assembling some helpful information for teaching survey early modern classes (e.g. syllabi reflecting various approaches and focuses, etc.), facilitating long-distance reading groups, and expanding the group meetings to additional APAs.  Of course, we don’t want to get in over our heads too quickly, so we are pacing ourselves with these goals.

Some longer term goals that have been discussed and sound awesome, but which are very much longer term goals, are: a modern philosophy podcast (or should I say…Modcast?), standalone conference activities, and a journal dedicated to shorter note-length articles (like Analysis, but for modern philosophy).

We currently have over 130 members.  Your involvement level is pretty much determined by your interest, time, and energy.  So, sign up!

And check back next week Monday and Thursday to see Don and Martha’s excellent remarks.

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When I read early modern authors, I regularly come across passages that make me smile.  Some of these are, I assume, intentionally humorous, others unintentionally. I thought it would be a fun summer activity on this blog to collect some such passages. So, which passages make you smile?

Here is one passage from Leibniz that I love:

If geometry conflicted with our passions and our present concerns as much as morality does, we would dispute it and transgress it almost as much–in spite of all Euclid’s and Archimedes’ demonstrations, which would be treated as fantasies and deemed to be full of fallacies. (Leibniz, New Essays, p. 95)

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