Archive for January, 2018

Again, your lordship [Stillingfleet] charges me, that I do not place certainty in syllogism; I crave leave to ask again, and does your lordship? … And if you do, I know nothing so requisite, as that you should advise all people, women and all, to betake themselves immediately to the universities, and to the learning of logic, to put themselves out of the dangerous state of scepticism: for there young lads, by being taught syllogism, arrive at certainty; whereas, without mode and figure, the world is in perfect ignorance and uncertainty, and is sure of nothing. The merchant cannot be certain that his account is right cast up, nor the lady that her coach is not a wheelbarrow, nor her dairymaid that one and one pound of butter are two pounds of butter, and two and two four; and all for want of mode and figure; nay, according to this rule, whoever lived before Aristotle, or him, whoever it was, that first introduced syllogism, could not be certain of any thing; no, not that there was a God, which will be the present state of the far greatest part of mankind (to pass by whole nations of the East, as China and Indostan, &c.) even in the Christian world, who to this day have not the syllogistical methods of demonstration, and so cannot be certain of any thing.

John Locke, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter: Wherein, besides other incident Matters, what his Lordship has said concerning Certainty by Reason, Certainty by Ideas, and Certainty by Faith; the Resurrection of the Body; the Immateriality of the Soul; the Inconsistency of Mr. Locke’s Notions with the Articles of the Christian Faith, and their Tendency to Scepticism; is examined (1699), vol. 4, pp. 386-387 in the 1823 edition of Locke’s Works.

To post-Fregean ears, it is perhaps strange to hear that Locke’s Essay was, in the decades following its publication, regarded as a logic manual. Not only does the Essay (obviously) lack any treatment of symbolic logic, it doesn’t even give much attention to the question of validity or proper syllogistic form. At this time, however, logic was understood (as the subtitle of the Port-Royal Logic has it) as “the art of thinking.” Logic in this sense was something more like what philosophers today call normative or regulative epistemology: it was the study of how to use our cognitive faculties in such a way as to gain knowledge, or at least (perhaps especially, in Locke’s case) a degree of belief that is appropriately proportioned to the evidence.

Stillingfleet clearly reads Locke this way, for he is forever speaking of Locke’s method or way of certainty by ideas. He presents Locke as claiming to have discovered a new method of employing our cognitive faculties to gain knowledge (certainty), in a fashion that is inconsistent with what people had been doing before.

Locke, however, strenuously objects to this characterization in many places (including the quotation above). Locke repeatedly insists that, although the modern use of the word ‘idea’ may be due to Descartes and so (relatively) new, there is nothing new about the path to certainty he describes in the Essay. Back in his reply to Stillingfleet’s first answer, Locke insists that “if [the account given in the Essay] be new, it is but a new history of an old thing. For I think it will not be doubted, that men always performed the actions of thinking, reasoning, believing, and knowing, just after the same manner that they do now; though whether the same account has heretofore been given of the way how they performed these actions, or wherein they consisted, I do not know” (p. 135). This ‘history’, Locke says, is a description of the actions of his own mind, and his justification for publishing it lies in the assumption that other minds perform similar actions to his (pp. 138-9 and 143-5).

However, Locke’s own description of the Essay as a work of (natural) history—i.e., a mere description—is not inconsistent with its status as a logic—i.e., a work aimed at improving our thinking. The model for taking these things together is the Port-Royal Logic (1662), a work whose influence on Locke is well-documented. In the Preface to that work, the authors (Arnauld and Nicole) give the following account of the aims of logic:

… this art [of thinking, i.e. logic] does not consist in finding the means to perform [mental] operations, since nature alone furnishes them in giving us reason, but in reflecting on what nature makes us do, which serves three purposes.

The first is to assure us that we are using reason well, since thinking about the rule makes us pay new attention to it.

The second is to reveal and explain more easily the errors or defects that can occur in mental operations. For we frequently discover by the natural light of reason alone that some reasoning is fallacious without, however, knowing why it is so…

The third purpose is to make us better acquainted with the nature of the mind by reflecting on its actions (p. 23 of Buroker’s translation).

Arnauld and Nicole hold, as Locke does, that logic is in the first place descriptive because the ability to perform various cognitive operations is part of our natural endowment. The procedure, then, is to examine the functioning of human minds in order to understand the errors to which they are liable and, ultimately, to improve cognitive performance. To use an analogy, studying logic is more like athletic training than it is like learning to cook. It’s not a matter of learning to follow a new set of recipes, algorithms, or procedures, it’s a matter of practicing and training to hone a set of abilities naturally possessed by human beings.

To this end, Locke claims (still following Port-Royal, and both of them following Descartes), syllogisms and logical axioms are almost totally useless. As Arnauld and Nicole suggest, “those who could not recognize a fallacy by the light of reason alone would usually not be able to understand the rules behind it, much less to apply them” (Buroker, p. 135), and (as we saw in my last post) Locke makes basically the same case regarding maxims/axioms.

There is, however, a further line of argument, which is quite explicit in the quote at the top of this post, and is my reason for using the word ‘populist’ in the title: ordinary people, who haven’t been given a ‘Scholastic’ education and have never heard of Aristotelian syllogisms or maxims/axioms are perfectly capable of reasoning and gaining knowledge. It follows from that explicit awareness and employment of this method is not the primary or only basis for reasoning or knowledge. Of course, particular self-evident truths fall under universal maxims, and particular instances of good reasoning fall under syllogistic rules. But these are descriptive generalizations drawn by the philosopher trying to understand the human mind; they are not (or at least not ordinarily) tools employed in reasoning. This can be seen as a kind of externalism, holding that one can follow a rule of reasoning without having knowledge of the rule (see “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree”). This kind of externalism has a populist basis: it is supported (in part) by Locke’s insistence that the dairymaid needs no help from Aristotle in order to be capable of reasoning and knowledge.

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


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The Rules established in the Schools … seem to lay the foundation of all other Knowledge in these Maxims … [but in fact] where our Ideas are determined in our Minds, and have annexed to them by us known and steady, Names under those settled Determinations, there is little need, or no use at all of these Maxims … he that needs any proof to make him certain, and give his Assent to this Proposition, that Two are equal to two, will also have need of proof to make him admit that What is, is.

John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), §§4.7.8, 19

herein lies the fundamental Mistake, that you presume that we are not to judge of things by the general Principles of Reason, but by particular Ideas.

Edward Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester’s ANSWER to Mr. Locke‘s Second Letter; Wherein his NOTION of IDEAS Is prov’d to be Inconsistent with it self, And with the ARTICLES of the CHRISTIAN FAITH (1698), 156

It is typically assumed (primarily, I suppose, due to the influence of Reid) that critics of the ‘Way of Ideas’ are mainly concerned with its (alleged) introduction of a veil of ideas. Some early critics are indeed concerned about this. For instance, John Sergeant writes, “when a Gentleman bids his Servant fetch him a Pint of Wine; he does not mean to bid him to fetch the Idea of Wine in his own head, but the Wine it self which is in the Cellar” (p. 33). Sergeant’s book was published in 1697, the same year as Stillingfleet’s Vindication, and the two of them are the earliest writers I know to use the phrase “Way of Ideas.”

Stillingfleet, however, does not seem particularly concerned with the veil of ideas. Stillingfleet flails around a bit trying to locate what’s actually wrong with the Way of Ideas, and he frequently misunderstands Locke’s theory. However, in his second reply to Locke he finally clearly and explicitly indicates a principle of the Way of Ideas to which he objects.

As I documented in §3 of “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree,” beginning from Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind (c. 1628) proponents of the Way of Ideas held that knowledge by means of particular ideas was prior to knowledge by means of the knowledge of the universal ‘maxims,’ ‘axioms,’ or ‘principles’ of Aristotelian science. One way this was sometimes expressed was as the claim that particular propositions were just as eligible (perhaps more eligible) to be first principles as universal propositions. Thus, knowledge that 2=2 is prior to the general knowledge that ∀x(x=x). On this view, particular agreements and disagreements of ideas fall under general or universal maxims, but the truth of these universal maxims is recognized, at least in part, through the truth of their instances. Someone incapable of recognizing the truth of ‘2=2’ would be equally incapable of recognizing the abstract general statement ‘∀x(x=x)’. As Locke says, “Who perceives not, that a Child certainly knows, that a Stranger is not its Mother; that its Sucking-bottle is not the Rod, long before he knows that ’tis impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be?” (Essay, §4.7.9). Locke’s chapter “Of Maxims” (Essay, ch. 4.7) is in fact one of the clearest statements of this view.

In his preceding polemics against the Way of Ideas, the objection toward which Stillingfleet had been flailing was a lack of objectivity in the Way of Ideas: ideas are subjective mental states, anyone can associate any idea with the word ‘person’, and the agreements or disagreements the thinker finds in with this idea will count as items of knowledge. Thus there are no fundamental, objective truths about personhood.

In the course of trying to make this objection stick, Stillingfleet keeps getting tripped up by use and mention. Locke keeps pointing out that of course it is arbitrary what the English word ‘person’ means! But this is not the kind of arbitrariness Stillingfleet is driving at. Finally, near the end of his last entry into the controversy, Stillingfleet hits on Locke’s attack on Aristotelian maxims as the core of his objection. And this is precisely where Stillingfleet should be pushing, because what Stillingfleet needs is emphatically not an objectively right answer to the question “what idea/concept/notion should be associated with the word ‘person’?” Rather, what Stillingfleet needs is for a sentence like “a person is a thinking being” to express an objective truth about the world, and not just a description of the idea the speaker associates with the word ‘person’. Thus when Stillingfleet insists that his (Trinitarian) “Difference of Nature and Person is not imaginary and fictitious but grounded upon the real Nature of things” (157), he is not merely saying that ‘nature’ and ‘person’ happen, contingently, to signify different ideas for him. The distinction between these is not merely a distinction within his own ideas. Rather, self-evident ‘principles of reason’ can be expressed using these words, but in order to express these principles by these words we must use the words with different significations.

There is, however, a problem here: people cannot agree on what is ‘self-evident’. Aristotle seems to just shrug this off: not everyone’s intellect functions properly. But the Way of Ideas was supposed to make some progress on this issue, by requiring careful scrutiny of ideas to discern their agreements and disagreements. Of course this raises the problem of whether our ideas themselves might be somehow wrong, but proponents of the Way of Ideas addressed this issue at length, and some discussions yield more objectivity and less skepticism than Locke’s. Stillingfleet must answer the question, how do we recognize something as a principle of reason? Reid would later address this question in great detail, but Stillingfleet does not. As a result, it is far from clear that Stillingfleet’s ‘Way of Certainty’ provides any more objectivity than Locke’s Way of Ideas. It is no more difficult for a philosopher (or theologian) to insist that her own starting points are principles of reason than for her to insist that her starting points are manifest agreements among her ideas.

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

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Call for papers

Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy V (#DSEMP)
Utrecht University (NL), 30-31 May 2018
Submission deadline: 15 January 2018

The Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy brings together advanced students and established scholars to discuss the latest work in early modern philosophy, broadly conceived. Built on the success of the previous 2014–2017 editions, which gathered philosophers from all over the world, the Seminar offers workshop-style collaborations to stimulate scholarly exchange. The language of presentation and discussion is English.

Keynote speakers

Professor Christia Mercer (Columbia University)
Professor Karin de Boer (KU Leuven)

Call for papers

We welcome abstracts for talks on any topic related to early modern philosophy, broadly understood (roughly the period 1500–1800 CE). We are especially interested in presentations that discuss philosophical issues or works that have received less sustained scholarly attention, including, but not limited to: non canonical authors and traditions, anonymous texts, methodological reflections on doing Early Modern philosophy.

Please submit abstracts (400 words max.) suitable for anonymous review to our EasyChair page.

Deadline: 15 January 2018

Decisions will follow by early March. Abstracts will be peer-reviewed. We will send reviewers’ reports with useful feedback on abstracts to all who wish to receive this.

Attendance is free and all are welcome, especially students. No financial assistance can be provided to support travel expenses and accommodation.

Contact Chris Meyns (c.meyns@uu.nl / @chrismeyns) with any questions.


Andrea Sangiacomo (University of Groningen)
Chris Meyns (Utrecht University)

The Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy is an activity of:

  • Department of Philosophy, Utrecht University
  • Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science and the Humanities, Utrecht University
  • Groningen Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Groningen
  • OZSW Study Group in Early Modern Philosophy

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I have now, I say, the satisfaction to see how I lay directly in your lordship’s [Stillingfleet’s] way, in opposing these gentlemen, who lay all foundation of certainty, as to matters of faith, upon clear and distinct ideas; i.e. the Unitarians, the gentlemen of this new way of reasoning; so dangerous to the doctrine of the Trinity. For the author of Christianity not mysterious [Toland] agreeing with them in some things, and with me in others; he being joined to them on one side by an account of reason, that supposes clear and distinct ideas necessary to certainty; and to me on the other side by saying, “the mind has its ideas from sensation and reflection, and those are the materials and foundations of all our knowledge,” &c. who can deny but so ranged in a row, your lordship may place yourself so, that we may seem but one object, and so one shot be aimed at us altogether? Though, if your lordship would be at the pains to change your station a little, and view us on the other side, we should visibly appear to be very far asunder; and I, in particular, be found, in the matter controverted, to be nearer to your lordship, than to either of them, or any body else, who lay all foundation of certainty as to matters of faith, upon clear and distinct ideas. For I perfectly assent to what your lordship saith, “that there are many things of which we may be certain, and yet can have no clear and distinct ides of them.”

John Locke, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Letter, Concerning some Passages Relating to Mr. Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding, in a Late Discourse of his Lordship’s, in Vindication of the Trinity (1697). Vol. 4, pp. 107-108 in the 1823 edition of Locke’s Works.

Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), bishop of Worcester, was more a religious polemicist than a philosopher. I do not say this to dismiss his philosophical relevance: the categories of ‘religious polemic’ and ‘philosophy’ have significant overlap, and the two are often carried out by he same people, sometimes at the same time. Indeed, I think much, perhaps most, of 17th and 18th century European philosophy just is religious polemic, and that this does not make it any less philosophical. Stillingfleet, however, is immersed in the unitarian controversy and the deist controversy, and he is clearly more comfortable with the historical and exegetical aspects of those controversies than the philosophical ones.

Nevertheless, Stillingfleet was a highly educated, respected intellectual, and has no difficulty producing relevant quotations from a wide variety of modern philosophical works. It is curious, then, that Stillingfleet has so much difficulty seeing any differences among the moderns. Not only does he lump Locke, Toland, and the unitarians together, he also doesn’t seem to be able to tell them apart from Descartes and Hobbes. The target of Stillingfleet’s polemic ends up being (just as Locke complains) an odd amalgam of modern philosophers and heterodox religious writers, that is hard to connect to any one thinker. Locke’s metaphor in the quote above gets things exactly right in terms of the linkage between Locke, Toland, and the unitarians (though Locke exaggerates his distance from the others): Stillingfleet is looking at the situation from a certain angle, which causes all these views to merge into one, but from another angle they are quite distinct.

This is interesting to me from a historigraphical perspective. Evidently it was possible, in the late 17th century, for a well-educated and well-informed reader of these philosophical texts to regard Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Toland as members of a common philosophical school which was giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the established church. Perhaps even more surpisingly, in 1706 one William Carroll wrote a book arguing that Locke was a secret Spinozist! From what angle are these writers viewing these (from our perspective) very different philosophers in order to lump them together?

In “Berkeley’s Lockean Religious Epistemology,” I treated Stillingfleet among Locke’s conservative critics, along with Peter Browne and John Sergeant. In his controversy with Locke, Stillingfleet certainly presents himself this way. It is tempting, then, to class Stillingfleet as one of my anti-modern philosophers. However, matters are more complicated, in at least two ways.

First, as M. A. Stewart has shown, Stillingfleet had been one of the leading latitudinarians and in early works had shown much less hostility to modern philosophy and the ‘Way of Ideas’.

Second, Stillingfleet says (repeatedly) that what he opposes is a “new way of reasoning, of certainty by ideas.” In other words, Stillingfleet’s opposition is not explicitly directed at (what I regard as) the central defining doctrines of philosophical modernism, mechanism and epistemological individualism. What he rejects are certain modern accounts of reasoning and certainty that are expressed using the word ‘idea’.

Is there a common doctrine here, that cuts across the differences between the philosophers Stillingfleet lumps together? I propose as a hypothesis the following: Stillingfleet’s real underlying concern about the way of ideas is that, as he understands it, it makes all definitions arbitrary: it is merely a psychological fact that we associate a certain idea with the word ‘person’ and another with the word ‘substance’. There is no Aristotelian ‘real definition’ of person. This, Stillingfleet thinks, provides us with no basis for a real defense of the Trinity; we can at best defend a Trinitarian form of words. This explains why Stillingfleet can’t tell the difference between Locke’s theory of nominal essence and Hobbes’s very different theory of general words: both exhibit the arbitrariness to which Stillingfleet objects.

One slightly troubling datum for this hypothesis is that Stillingfleet does sometimes blame Descartes for creating this whole mess, but Descartes’s “true and immutable natures” would seem to be just what Stillingfleet wants. Perhaps, though, Stillingfleet thinks that some of Descartes’s remarks about ideas have pushed people in this bad direction, although there’s nothing wrong with Descartes’s theory per se. If this was his view, it would explain why he appears more favorable to ‘idea’ talk in other texts.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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EUPHRANOR. There is, if I mistake not, a practical faith, or assent, which sheweth itself in the will and actions of a man, although his understanding may not be furnished with those abstract, precise, distinct ideas, which, whatever a philosopher may pretend, are acknowledged to be above the talents of common men; among whom, nevertheless, may be found, even according to your own concession, many instances of such practical faith, in other matters which do not concern religion. What should hinder, therefore, but that doctrines relating to heavenly mysteries might be taught, in this saving sense, to vulgar minds, which you may well think incapable of all teaching and faith, in the sense you suppose?

Which mistaken sense, said Crito, has given occasion to much profane and misapplied raillery. But all this may very justly be retorted on the minute philosophers themselves, who confound Scholasticism with Christianity, and impute to other men those perplexities, chimeras, and inconsistent ideas which are often the workmanship of their own brains, and proceed from their own wrong way of thinking. Who doth not see that such an ideal abstracted faith is never thought of by the bulk of Christians, husbandmen, for instance, artisans, or servants? Or what footsteps are there in the Holy Scripture to make us think that the wiredrawing of abstract ideas was a task enjoined either Jews or Christians? Is there any thing in the law or the prophets, the evangelists or apostles, that looks like it? Every one whose understanding is not perverted by science falsely so called may see the saving faith of Christians is quite of another kind, a vital operative principle, productive of charity and obedience.

ALCIPHRON. What are we to think then of the disputes and decisions of the famous Council of Nice, and so many subsequent Councils? What was the intention of those venerable Fathers, the Homoousians and the Homoiousians? Why did they disturb themselves and the world with hard words, and subtle controversies?

CRITO. Whatever their intention was, it could not be to beget nice abstracted ideas of mysteries in the minds of common Christians, this being evidently impossible. Nor doth it appear that the bulk of Christian men did in those days think it any part of their duty to lay aside the words, shut their eyes, and frame those abstract ideas; any more than men now do of force, time, number, or several other things, about which they nevertheless believe, know, argue, and dispute. To me it seems that, whatever was the source of those controversies, and howsoever they were managed, wherein human infirmity must be supposed to have had its share, the main end was not, on either side, to convey precise positive ideas to the minds of men by the use of those contested terms, but rather a negative sense, tending to exclude Polytheism on the one hand, and Sabellianism on the other.

ALCIPHRON. But what shall we say of so many learned and ingenious divines, who from time to time have obliged the world with new explications of mysteries, who, having themselves professedly laboured to acquire accurate ideas, would recommend their discoveries and speculations to others for articles of faith?

CRITO. To all such innovators in religion I would say with Jerome, “Why after so many centuries do you pretend to teach us what was untaught before? Why explain what neither Peter nor Paul thought necessary to be explained?” And it must be owned that the explication of mysteries in divinity, allowing the attempt as fruitless as the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone in chemistry or the perpetual motion in mechanics, is no more than they chargeable on the profession itself, but only on the wrongheaded professors of it.

George Berkeley, Alciphron: Or, the Minute Philosopher (1732), sect. 7.12

The Council of Nicea (AD 325) was quite literally a dispute over an iota. The Council was called to resolve a dispute between the followers of Arius and the church authorities in Alexandria. As with many heresiarchs, it is difficult to say what Arius actually taught because the victors write the history. We can say, at least, that the controversy arose from a tension: Christians purport to be monotheists, believing in just one eternal, immaterial, invisible God, yet from a very early date it is reported that Christians attributed divine honors and prerogatives to the Christ, and Christians of course believe that the Christ is the historical human being Jesus of Nazareth. Arius and his followers thought to resolve this tension by holding that, since there is only one God, Christ must be a creature and not strictly speaking God. Divine honors and prerogatives are therefore attributed to him only in a secondary or derivative sense.

At the Council, the opponents of Arius proposed for inclusion in the Creed the claim that Christ is homoousion (consubstantial, or of one substance or essence) with God the Father. This formulation is usually understood as claiming (at least) that Christ is God in precisely the same sense of the word ‘God’ as the Father. Now this raises further problems, for the Christian, as we have said, is supposed to be a monotheist. If Christ is really literally God (and not merely called ‘divine’ in some derivative or honorific sense, as Arius apparently taught), then either Christ is numerically identical with the Father, or there are (at least) two gods. The first view is known as Sabellianism after another heresiarch, Sabellius. (It is also called ‘modalism’, since as usually understood it sees the three Persons of the Christian Trinity as three ‘modes’ in which the divine is manifested to us.) The second view would be a form of polytheism. The homoousion was intended to avoid all of these problematic views (somehow) by holding that Christ is identical in substance, essence, or being with the Father and yet is (somehow) not the same person as the Father.

Arius and his followers (understandably) thought this was all a lot of metaphysical gobbledygook not to be found anywhere in the Christian Bible or in the authentic teachings of Jesus or the Apostles. They therefore proposed the addition of a single iota to the formulation to form the word homoiousion: Christ is of a similar (not identical) nature/being/essence to the Father. This fit their view of Christ as the most Godlike of all creatures (yet still ultimately a creature).

The proponents of the homoousion carried the day at the Council in 325, and again at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 (which revised the Creed into its now-standard form, with the exception of one disputed word which need not concern us at present). In between, however, a battle raged between Arian and Nicene (as it came to be known) Christianity. Each side sought support from the Roman government and worked to depose and exile the clergy of the opposing faction. There was a great deal of violence—both state-sanctioned violence and mob violence—all of it over that blasted iota.

In the deist controversy of the 18th century, this history is weaponized against the religious establishment by writers like John Toland (see yesterday’s post) and Anthony Collins (pp. 61ff.). The aim is to show that faction, dissension, corruption, and desire for political power among the clergy can be traced back all the way to the fourth century and that these failings pollute even the most basic and most broadly Ecumenical standards of Christian orthodoxy. The only solution, according to the deists, is to strip the clergy of both political and epistemic authority and allow the laity to think for themselves.

In his references to the Arian controversy, Toland is concerned to distinguish himself from Socinians and Unitarians who wish to revive something like the Arian position. In Christianity Not Mysterious, Toland writes: “tho the Socinians disown this Practice [of believing mysteries], I am mistaken if either they or the Arians can make their Notions of a dignifi’d and Creature-God capable of Divine Worship, appear a whit more reasonable than the Extravagancies of other Sects touching the Article of the Trinity” (p. 27). In Hypatia he writes: “with me the Homoiousion and the Homoousion are of no Account, in Comparison of the Bible, where neither of them are to be found” (ch. 21). Toland’s view, then, is that the Arian position is metaphysical gobbledygook just as much as the Nicene position.

It is in the context of this attack that Berkeley writes the section of Alciphron quoted above. In the preceding sections of dialogue 7, Alciphron has presented Toland’s argument against religious mysteries from Christianity Not Mysterious and Euphranor, speaking for Berkeley, has rebutted that argument using considerations in the philosophy of mind and language to show that, in a certain sense, we may truly be said to “believe where we do not understand” (as the matter is summarized later, in sect. 7.19).

Euphranor’s defense of this claim relies on a broadly pragmatist account of religious language (and, on my own controversial interpretation, language in general): the utterances in question are meaningful because of the difference they make in the life of the believer. Alciphron, therefore, is right on target in responding, “What was the intention of those venerable Fathers, the Homoousians and the Homoiousians? Why did they disturb themselves and the world with hard words, and subtle controversies?” The sarcastic use of the phrase “those venerable fathers” evokes the aspersions cast on the (allegedly saintly) Nicene fathers by the deists and freethinkers, but the meat of the objection is just this: surely this difference doesn’t make a difference to the life of the ordinary believer. It is far too subtle and abstruse. Further (as Toland had forcefully insisted at the end of Hypatia), the difference these doctrines made to the clergy who (allegedly) understood them was negative. Therefore, even if Euphranor’s argument shows that the words are meaningful, by Euphranor’s own (pragmatist) lights they should be rejected.

The response to this question is put in the mouth of Crito, not Euphranor. Throughout the book, Crito shows considerably more knowledge of the history of theology and the major disputes among Christians than Euphranor. Crito is also more informed about recent thought in England, including freethinking. Euphranor, who usually gives voice to Berkeley’s distinctive views, is less partisan in his Protestantism than Crito, and is a gentleman farmer in Connecticut who sits in his isolated farmhouse reading Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible, in blessed ignorance of contemporary European thought. (This, apparently, is the way to become a Berkeleian.) Crito, though, is always happy to find that Euphranor’s (sometimes unusual) thoughts happen to be useful to the defense of the established church. But according to Crito, the established church (and Christianity more broadly) is “an institution fitted to ordinary minds, rather than to the nicer talent, whether improved or puzzled, of speculative men” (sect. 7.13). Christian doctrine, according to Euphranor and Crito (and therefore Berkeley) must be the sort of thing that belongs to the ordinary faith of ordinary folks. What, then, of the much-disputed homoousion? Crito responds:

Whatever their intention was, it could not be to beget nice abstracted ideas of mysteries in the minds of common Christians, this being evidently impossible. Nor doth it appear that the bulk of Christian men did in those days think it any part of their duty to lay aside the words, shut their eyes, and frame those abstract ideas … To me it seems that, whatever was the source of those controversies, and howsoever they were managed, wherein human infirmity must be supposed to have had its share, the main end was not, on either side, to convey precise positive ideas to the minds of men by the use of those contested terms, but rather a negative sense, tending to exclude Polytheism on the one hand, and Sabellianism on the other.

Berkeley refuses to fall into Toland’s trap. Instead, he admits (in a halfway, “mistakes were made” kind of non-apology) that Christians involved in the dispute over the iota did not behave in the most Christian fashion. But in refusing to fall into Toland’s trap, Berkeley offers at best a half-hearted defense of the homoousion, for Berkeley says that the point of that word was “to exclude Polytheism on the one hand, and Sabellianism on the other” and he attributes this aim to “either side.” In other words, the Arians too were just trying to avoid these two extremes, and thus in a sense may be regarded as good Christians. Insofar as the homoousion may (perhaps?) be better doctrine than the homoiousion it is only because it (perhaps?) more effectively excludes both of these false doctrines.

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

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No, no, they were no Christians that kill’d Hypatia; nor are any Christian Clergymen now to be attack’d through the Sides of her Murderers, but those that resemble them; by substituting precarious Traditions, scholastick Fictions, and an usurped Dominion, to the salutiferous Institution of the holy Jesus.

John Toland, HYPATIA: OR, THE HISTORY OF A Most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish’d LADY; WHO was torn to Pieces by the CLERGY of Alexandria, to gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of their ARCHBISHOP, commonly but undeservedly stiled St. CYRIL (1720), ch. 21

There is some controversy regarding the details surrounding the death of Hypatia of Alexandra (c. 375-415), but the following facts are essentially undisputed. Hypatia was an accomplished philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer and was head of the Platonist philosophical school at Alexandria. She was the only woman ever to hold that role. Further, although we know that there was a significant number of women philosophers in the ancient Mediterranean world, Hypatia is perhaps the only one known to us by name.* During her lifetime, there was an ugly political rivalry between Christians and Platonists in Alexandria, who were vying for influence with the Roman governor. In AD 415, Hypatia was murdered by a rioting mob of Christians.

The disputed points are the proximate causes of the riot and the degree of involvement of Archbishop Cyril (d. 444).

In his 1720 work Hypatia, based on the ancient sources, John Toland unsurprisingly wields this story as an anti-clerical polemic. Toland is a master of rhetorical strategy and insinuation, and it is fitting that he originally published his work on Hypatia as part 3 of Tetradymus. Part 2 of that work, Clidophorus, deals explicitly with esoteric and exoteric writing, and the kind of insinuation found in Hypatia fits right in to his strategy.

Cyril is a particularly good target for Toland, because Cyril is venerated as a saint primarily for his role in the debates about the divine and human natures in Christ, which led ultimately to the Chalcedonian Definition of 451, a deeply metaphysical document, which teaches that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood,” using of course the same confusing word “consubstantial” (homoousion) found in the Nicene Creed.

Toland’s treatment is mainly historical, and sticks reasonably close to the ancient documents. The rhetorical punch comes at the end. Here, Toland takes “precarious Traditions, scholastick Fictions, and an usurped Dominion” as the characteristics of clergy of Cyril’s sort—characteristics, it is implied, that lead to the sort of wrongful violence, attributable to pride and political ambition, (allegedly) committed by Cyril. As is confirmed by Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), Toland takes these three things to be essentially inseparable. The homoousion, Toland and most of his opponents agree, is a ‘mystery’ par excellence and in Toland’s view the whole point of mysteries (which are really just meaningless phrases) is to assert the intellectual dominion of the clergy, by forcing the people to treat a lot of nonsense as a matter of deep importance. Toland in fact goes on in Hypatia to connect his discussion quite explicitly with the ancient dispute over the homoousion. For Toland, this word is a ‘precarious tradition’ insofar as it is not found in Scripture, it is a ‘scholastick fiction’ insofar as it makes questionable use of Aristotelian metaphysical jargon, and it enables the clergy’s ‘usurped dominion’ by improperly demanding that the laity surrender their intellectual autonomy.

The brilliance of Toland’s rhetorical strategy lies in the trap he is laying for the orthodox here. Toland is arguing (mainly by insinuation) that the murder of Hypatia was a necessary, or at least natural, consequence of the clergy arrogating to themselves the right to prescribe beliefs to the laity. Like many deists, Toland throughout his works presents his radical view as a natural consequence of basic Protestant commitments: the clergy cannot prescribe ‘precarious traditions’ or ‘scholastick fictions’, since only the Scripture is a binding religious authority, and any attempt by the clergy to make such prescriptions can only be a step down the road to tyranny. We also mustn’t forget that this work was published in 1720, in the middle of the Jacobite Risings. Toland’s insinuation, then, is that only a radical, hardline Protestant position that rules out even the homoousion—hence even the Nicene Creed—as an obligatory article of belief can serve as a bulwark against a tyrannical form of religious politics in which no one is safe from becoming another Hypatia. (Toland, of course, is exploiting one of the political bogeymen of his time, and shows little concern for the question of what kind of political and religious structures Jacobites might actually favor.) The trap, then, that Toland is laying is this: he is setting up the discussion in such a way as to make it appear that even the most minimal, Ecumenical standard of Christian orthodoxy can be defended only by defending Cyril’s actions and, further, that any defense of Cyril’s actions must simultaneously be a defense of the right of the clergy to prescribe arbitrary articles of belief and to exert control over secular government. Such a defense would, unavoidably, be a defense of (the bogeyman version of) the Jacobite Catholic view of church and state, hence ultimately a form of political disloyalty and perhaps even treason. Well-played, John Toland. Well-played.

Additional remark one: ‘Salutiferous’ (from the Latin for ‘salvation-bearing’) is my new favorite word.

Additional remark two: Happy New Year!

  • I say ‘perhaps’ because there is some reason to believe that the character Diotima in Plato’s Symposium may be based on a historical person (as all of Plato’s other named characters are), and ‘Diotima’ may or may not have been that woman’s real name.

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

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