Archive for July, 2018

I want to begin this post with a longer sequence of quotations than is usual. The reason is that simply juxtaposing the quotations goes a long way toward telling the story I want to tell. Here, then, is a sequence of comments on philosophy and trust in the senses, ranging in date from 1580 to 1713:

We want to find out by reason whether fire is hot, whether snow is white, whether anything within our knowledge is hard or soft. There are ancient stories of the replies made to the man who doubted whether heat exists—they told him to jump into the fire—or to the one who doubted whether ice is cold—they told him to slip some into his bosom: but a reply like this is quite unworthy of the professed aims of philosophy. Philosophers could have spoken in this way only if they had left us in a state of nature, simply accepting external appearances as they offer themselves to our senses, or if they had left us to follow our basic appetites, governed only by such modes of being as we are born with. But they themselves have taught us to make judgements about the universe; they themselves have fed us with the notion that human reason is the Comptroller-General of everything within and without the vault of heaven; they themselves say that it can embrace everything and is the means by which anything is known or understood. Such replies would be good among the Cannibals1 who live long and happy lives, in peace and tranquility, without the benefits of Aristotle’s precepts and without even knowing what the word ‘physics’ means. Perhaps such a reply could even be better and more firmly based than all the ones which philosophers owe to reason or discovery. Such arguments would be within the capacity of ourselves, of all the animals and of all for whom the pure and simple law of Nature still holds sway. But they themselves have renounced such arguments. They must not tell me: ‘This is true; you can see it is; you can feel it is.’ … [If they do,] let them abandon their professed intention, which is to accept nothing and approve nothing except by following the ways of reason.

– Michel de Montaigne, “An apology for Raymond Sebond” (1580), Screech, pp. 607-608

a piece of paper or a feather lightly brushed over any part of our body performs exactly the same operation with regard to itself namely, moving and touching. But with regard to us, by touching between the eyes, or on the nose, or under the nostrils, it produces an almost intolerable titillation, whereas in other parts it is hardly felt. That titillation is entirely in us and not in the feather, and if the animate and sensitive body is removed, it is nothing but an empty name. Now, I believe that many qualities that are attributed to natural bodies (such as tastes, odors, colors, and others) may have a similar and not greater reality … I do not believe that in order to stimulate in us tastes, odors, and sounds, external bodies require anything other than sizes, shapes, quantity, and slow or fast motions. I think that if one takes away ears, tongues, and noses, there indeed remain the shapes, numbers, and motions, but not the odors, tastes, or sounds; outside the living animal these are nothing but names, just as tickling and titillation are nothing but names if we remove the armpits and the skin around the nose.

– Galileo, The Assayer (1623), Finocchiaro, pp. 186-187

There are, however, many other things which I may appear to have been taught by nature, but which in reality I acquired not from nature but from a habit of making ill-considered judgements; and it is therefore quite possible that these are false. Cases in point are the belief that … the heat in a body is something exactly resembling the idea of heat which is in me; or that when a body is white or green, the selfsame whiteness or greenness which I perceive through my senses is present in the body; or that in a body which is bitter or sweet there is the selfsame taste which I experience, and so on.

– Descartes, Sixth Meditation (1641), CSM 2:56

the illiterate bulk of manking that walk the high-road of plain, common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, [are] for the most part easy and undisturbed … They complain not of any want of evidence in the senses, and are out of all danger of becoming sceptics. But no sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds, concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and endeavouring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation; till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find our selves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn scepticism.

– Berkeley, Principles (1710), Intro §1

I assure you, Hylas, I do not pretend to frame any hypothesis at all. I am of a vulgar cast, simple enough to believe my senses, and leave things as I find them … I cannot for my life help thinking that snow is white and fire hot.

– Berkeley, Three Dialogues, Luce and Jessop 229

I am presently reading (portions of) Montaigne’s famous Essays for the first time. I found his remark on trust in the senses (the first of the quotations above) quite striking, because it seems to me to form an interesting prequel to the story I tell in “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree”.

Montaigne’s aim here is skeptical, but he believes that a sort of escape from skepticism can be accomplished by a return to ‘a state of nature’ which is a state of naive trust in the senses. One can find (very different!) versions of this strategy in Berkeley, Hume, and Reid.2 Montaigne is arguing against ‘the philosophers’ who, according to him, want “to accept nothing and approve nothing except by following the ways of reason.”3 This is objectionable to Montaigne, in part, because it leaves no room for religious faith. In fact, in an earlier passage that is strikingly similar to a famous remark of Kant’s (though used for a totally different purpose), Montaigne suggests that Pyrrhonian skepticism is the best of philosophical systems because it “shows us Man … annihilating his intellect to make room for faith” (Screech 564).4

The discussion of trust in the senses is part of Montaigne’s argument that reason is unable to serve as our sole guide in everything. If someone denies that fire is hot, Montaigne suggests, no one can argue that person into accepting this proposition; appeal must be made to experience. However, according to ‘the philosophers’ (whoever they are?) the senses can’t provide an independent basis for belief. Trust in the senses is legitimate only to the extent that reason tells us it is. Thus ‘the philosophers’ have no basis for believing that fire is hot or snow is white.

Oddly enough, only a few decades later, philosophers were actually arguing that snow is not white and fire is not hot! According to Galileo, thinking that the fire is hot is like thinking that the feather is ticklish. Descartes classifies the belief that “the heat in a body is something exactly resembling the idea of heat which is in me” among the ‘childish’ beliefs that his course of meditations is meant to eliminate.

What is even more interesting, is that both Descartes and Galileo do this as part of an effort to assert the supremacy of the intellect over the senses. In so doing, they take themselves to be going against Aristotelianism, although Montaigne blames reverence for Aristotle for teaching people to despise the senses. Galileo wants to argue that only those qualities of bodies that can be understood geometrically really inhere in the body itself. This ensures the role of pure intellect for interpreting the ‘book of nature’. According to Descartes, the “greatest benefit [of the method of doubt] lies in freeing us from all our preconceived opinions, and providing the easiest route by which the mind may be led away from the senses” (Synopsis, CSM 2:9). When he comes to his anti-skeptical conclusion in the Sixth Meditation, the conclusion is not that all of my faculties are trustworthy but rather that “there [is not] any falsity in my opinions which cannot be corrected by some other faculty supplied by God” (CSM 2:55, emphasis added). The senses are not completely to be despised, according to Descartes, but it is a serious error to “treat[] them as reliable touchstones for immediate judgements about the essential nature of the bodies located outside us” (CSM 2:56). The senses cannot be relied upon for ‘immediate judgements’; instead, they require constant correction by the pure intellect. In other words, Galileo and Descartes can be seen as leaning into Montaigne’s characterization of ‘the philosophers’ in a way that is much more extreme than anything one would find in the Aristotelian tradition.5

Berkeley, on the other hand, advocates for an anti-skeptical, philosophical return to “the dictates of nature.” Like Montaigne, he ridicules ‘the philosophers’ for casting doubt on the veracity of the senses. Unlike Montaigne, he refuses to blame this on the inherent weakness of our faculties. As he famously writes:

The cause of this [skepticism] is thought to be the obscurity of things, or the natural weakness and imperfection of our understandings … But perhaps we may be too partial to our selves in placing the fault originally in our faculties, and not rather in the wrong use we make of them … Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that the far greater part, if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to our selves. That we have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see (Principles, Intro §§2-3).

Berkeley’s view, mediating in a way between Descartes and Montaigne,is that when reason is used properly it casts no doubt on the senses, and in fact explains why they were worthy of our trust all along. In this way Berkeley advocates a return to Montaigne’s ‘state of nature’ in which we can be ‘simple’ or childish enough to believe that snow is white and fire is hot.

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


  1. The ‘Cannibals’ were a tribe the Portugese were said to have encountered in Brazil, who were said to practice cannibalism. In his essay “On the Cannibals” (Screech 228-241) Montaigne argues that the Cannibals are in fact less cruel, savage, and barbarous than the Europeans and live happier more moral lives. Even their cannibalism, he argues, can be understood to be motivated by the same sort of desire for ‘ultimate revenge’ that leads Europeans to commit a variety of atrocities, in the Americas and at home, and is no worse than those European atrocities.
  2. I could have continued my list of quotations for several pages, but I decided not to!
  3. Due to too many years in academia, I have lost the ability to write without footnotes.
  4. Screech, in his introduction and notes, is for some reason very concerned to deny that Montaigne is a skeptical fideist, but I am not at all sure what Screech thinks the phrase ‘skeptical fideist’ means. The nature of Montaigne’s book makes it difficult to be confident in attributing any view to him, but I really can’t see how one can deny that he holds that the inadequacy of human reason for finding the truth means that we must have faith of a sort that goes beyond—and perhaps even conflicts with—(natural, human) reason. As far as I know that’s all that philosophers (and scholars of the history of philosophy) mean by ‘skeptical fideism’.
  5. Interestingly, Montaigne also ridicules belief in mountains and valleys on the moon (Screech, 505). The observation of such mountains and valleys was one of the main results reported in Galileo’s Starry Messenger (1610).

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The Irish Philosophy in the Age of Berkeley conference will take place in the Trinity Long Room Hub Neill Lecture Theatre, Trinity College Dublin, on 5 and 6 April, 2019.

George Berkeley’s Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) are standard texts in the philosophy curricula of most European and American universities. No other Irish philosopher, and no other work of Berkeley’s, has achieved this ‘canonical’ status. However, there was a vibrant philosophical scene in Ireland in Berkeley’s lifetime, to which Berkeley was far from the only contributor. Studying this broader Irish philosophical discussion will improve our understanding of Berkeley and also of early modern philosophy more generally.

The Irish Philosophy in the Age of Berkeley conference will include general exploration of the intellectual culture of early modern Ireland as well as examination of specific thinkers with significant connections to Ireland active during Berkeley’s lifetime (1685–1753). Such figures include Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615–1691); Robert Boyle (1627–1691); Michael Moore (c. 1639-1726); William King (1650–1729); William Molyneux (1656–1698); Edward Synge (1659–1741); Jonathan Swift (1667–1745); John Toland (1670–1722); Peter Browne (d. 1735); and Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746).

Invited speakers will include:

  • Lisa Downing, Professor of Philosophy, The Ohio State University, USA
  • Eric Schliesser, Professor of Political Science, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Kate Davison, Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, UK

Approximately nine additional papers will be selected by anonymous review of submitted abstracts.

We welcome abstracts from scholars in any discipline addressing one or more of the following issues:

  • The Irish context of Berkeley’s philosophy.
  • The philosophical work of other Irish thinkers active during Berkeley’s lifetime.
  • The reception within Ireland of other philosophical figures, ideas, and movements.
  • The reception of Irish philosophy outside Ireland.

Particular preference will be given to papers that address figures and/or topics outside the currently recognized philosophical ‘canon’, including the work of early modern women.

Papers presented at the conference will be considered for publication as part of the Mind Occasional Series, Oxford University Press.

For complete details and abstract submission instructions, please visit: http://www.tcd.ie/Philosophy/events/IPAB/

Participants and attendees may also be interested in attending Berkeleian Minds: Will and Understanding, to be held at York University 2 and 3 April. Contact John Blechl (john.blechl@gmail.com) for more information.

Support for this conference is provided by the Mind Association, in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Making Ireland Research Theme and the Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin.

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Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man … in such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

– Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ch. 13

And here we have the plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant, as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are one from another. Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject.

– Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1689), §19

In response to Friday’s post about Hooker and Locke, I was reminded that a few months ago Eric Schliesser offered a similar comparison of Suarez and Hobbes. On the issue I discussed yesterday, regarding individualistic versus communalist notions of the social contract, Schliesser puts Suarez with Hooker and Hobbes with Locke. This seems to me to be correct. However, this got me thinking about another issue on which Locke sides with Hooker against Hobbes, and this is the view that laws exist in large part to constrain the sovereign. Hobbes (in)famously argues that it is contradictory to think of the sovereign as bound by laws and, indeed, that to accuse a sovereign of injustice against a subject is to commit a conceptual confusion (see ch. 18). Hooker suggests, on the contrary, that laws were invented precisely because, after trying out absolute monarchy as a solution to the problems inherent in the state of nature, people “saw that to live by one man’s will, became the cause of all men’s misery” (Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity [1593], McGrade, vol. 1, p. 73). So, according to Hooker, the explicit promulgation of laws was introduced precisely in order to constrain the sovereign. Locke similarly argues at length that absolute monarchy does not actually remove us from the state of nature because the monarch is still a judge in his or her own case. (In a similar way, and for similar reasons, Locke argues that enslaving one’s enemies is a way of continuing the state of war, not a way of ending it.)

This difference, it seems to me, derives directly from a difference in the conception of the state of nature shared by Locke and Hooker, as against the very different conception held by Hobbes. For Locke and Hooker, the state of nature is characterized by fragile peace, and the peace is fragile because in the state of nature “men may be judges in their own cases” (Locke, Second Treatise, §13). As Hooker explains:

Men always knew that when force and injury was offered, they might be defenders of themselves; they knew that howsoever men may seek their own commodity, yet if this were done with injury to others, it was not to be suffered, but by all men and by all good means withstood; finally they knew that no man might in reason take upon him to determine his own right, and according to his own determination proceed in maintenance thereof, inasmuch as every man is toward himself and them whom he greatly affects partial; and therefore that all strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent to be ordered by some whom they should agree upon (McGrade, 1:72).

The explanation Locke gives in §13 is almost identical, except that Locke is more explicit in admitting that in the state of nature people are indeed judges in their own cases, with all the problems that this causes.

The problem of the state of nature, for Hooker and Locke, is that even very well-meaning people will fail in their attempts to judge fairly when they have severe conflicts of interest. Thus since, as Locke puts it, “in the state of nature every one has the executive power of the law of nature” (§13), the state of nature can result in violent conflict even when both sides are doing their level best to follow the laws of nature, simply because of the inability of the human being to judge fairly in his or her own case.

On Hooker’s account, the natural response to this is simply to appoint some one judge (or judicial body) over all the cases, and this is not too dissimilar from a Hobbesian sovereign. However, according to Hooker, this fails to solve the problem because that judge will then inevitably be a judge in his or her own case. Because of the concentration of power in the hands of this judge (or judicial body) not only does this not solve the problem of the state of nature, it exacerbates it. This, of course, is precisely the issue Locke has in mind in the famous remark that the proponents of absolute monarchy “think, that men are so foolish, that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes; but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions” (§93).

Hobbes sees the problem of the state of nature quite differently. Hobbes famously claims that the state of nature is “a warre … of every man against every man” in which “the life of man, [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” In Hobbes’s view, in the state of nature, the law of nature permits—and in fact requires—human beings to do whatever is necessary for their survival, and this puts them in direct conflict and competition with other human beings. The point of entering the civil state is simply to stop the killing. The way to do this is to institute “a common Power to keep them all in awe.” As long as the sovereign’s power is, and is believed to be, overwhelming, there will be no violence except at the sovereign’s command.

But of course this last bit is really the crux of the issue, since Hobbes admits essentially no restrictions on the sorts of violence the sovereign may command:

it belongeth of Right, to whatsoever Man, or Assembly that hath the Soveraignty, to be Judge both of the meanes of Peace and Defence; and also of the hindrances, and disturbances of the same; and to do whatsoever he shall think necessary to be done, both beforehand, for the preserving of Peace and Security, by prevention of discord at home and Hostility from abroad; and, when Peace and Security are lost, for the recovery of the same (ch. 18).

This means that there is simply no recourse for a person whom the sovereign has judged an enemy of the state. In this way, submission to a Hobbesian sovereign does indeed put one at risk of being “devoured by lions.” Hobbes, however, would respond that to introduce any mechanism of holding the sovereign accountable for obeying the laws is to introduce a competing sovereign, which inevitably leads back to the state of nature, i.e., the war of all against all.

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

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