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Thus, a body is such an entity that, if one posits a longitude on it, another longitude will be found intersecting it at a right angle, and a third longitude of these two lengths will stand as a perpendicular on the point of the previous intersection. Whatever can be placed under these three magnitudes in the aforesaid manner and is also a substance is called a body … But that which is in a body, such as length, width, and depth, is known to exist not in the form of the body, but as an accident to it. For instance, one can take a piece of wax and elongate it to make it one hand longer, two fingers wider, one finger deeper. Thereafter one can modify it so that its length width and depth vary. Under such circumstances its bodily form will always persist, whereas these three dimensions do not persist. Thus, these three dimensions are accidents to the wax, while its form is another attribute. Bodies differ not with respect to form because, by belonging to one kind of category, all bodies are identical with respect to the possibility of being described by these three dimensions in the aforesaid manner.

The Metaphysica of Avicenna (ibn Sīnā), tr. Morewedge (1973), ch. 4

In a famous passage of the Second Meditation, Descartes asks us to consider a piece of wax melting on a stove. According to Descartes, as the wax undergoes this process of melting, every feature of the wax detectable by the senses changes, but the wax continues to exist. At this stage in the Meditations, we are still in doubt about whether the wax really exists. However, whether it exists or not, Descartes argues, the fact that I am capable of thinking of the wax as persisting through these changes shows that I have a concept of the wax itself which cannot be identified with anything revealed by the senses. Descartes ultimately argues that this conception of the wax itself is nothing but the concept of extended substance, i.e., of a thing which has some length, width, and breadth or other. This notion is linked to geometry, a science undertaken by the pure intellect and not by the senses.

For Descartes, this argument is a step on the way to a defence of mechanism, the thesis that bodies have no intrinsic features other than the modes of extension (ways of being extended) and interact only by collision.1

Ibn Sīnā’s discussion of the nature of body at the beginning of Metaphysica2 is, in a number of respects, interesting to set alongside Descartes. It is not so surprising that ibn Sīnā and Descartes both make the argument for distinguishing a substance from its modes/accidents by treating the substance as that which persists through a change in the accidents—presumably they both got this from Aristotle’s Categories. It is more striking that ibn Sīnā, like Descartes, uses a piece of wax as his example. It would be interesting to trace the chain of influence here. Morewedge (the translator) notes some sort of similar uses in Plato’s Theatetus and Aristotle’s Physics. To me, however, the most interesting feature of the discussion is that ibn Sīnā, like Descartes, holds that extension alone constitutes the essence/nature/form of body. Furthermore, ibn Sīnā goes on to argue that this form is identical with the body itself:

the substratum of a material form is not an actuality without a material form. It is an actual substance due to the material form. In reality, therefore, the material form is the substance … Furthermore, the material substratum is by itself not a thing without a material form. It is impossible for reason to understand the description of the substance without this necessary accident. (ch. 8)

This seems to me to mirror Descartes’s doctrine that there is only a conceptual distinction, and not a real distinction, between a substance and its principal attribute (e.g., between a body and extension).

However, despite this robust agreement on foundational issues regarding the nature of body, ibn Sīnā does not turn out to be a mechanist, and this reveals that Descartes needs an additional premise which is much less explicit in Meditations than his claims about the nature of body. Ibn Sīnā avoids drawing the mechanist conclusion because he accepts the Aristotelian doctrine of real accidents distinct from, but residing in and depending on, the substance:

If we suppose that quality, such as whiteness or blackness … stood by itself, and did not depend on anything else, and did not partake of division, then neither blackness nor whiteness could exist … A body is that which is divisible since this receptivity to division is the meaning of a body. Hence, it can be both white and black (i.e. at different times it can contain contrary characteristics).3 The peculiarity of whiteness or blackness is different from the meaning of being a body, which admits no contrary. Being black is something other than being receptive to divisibility. Whereas being receptive to divisibility is the mark of a body, blackness is nothing but blackness itself. Consequently, blackness is dependent on the body, not independent of the body. (ch. 10)

The view here is that color cannot be reduced to anything in the nature of body (i.e., extension), but nevertheless cannot exist apart from body, since only an extended thing can be colored. This is clearly an anti-mechanist color realism. This, however, does not in any way contradict the view that extension constitutes the nature of body, unless one adds the further premise that there must be an intelligible relation between the nature of a substance and its modes/accidents. This further premise (which Donald Rutherford, discussing Leibniz’s version, dubbed the Principle of Intelligibility) is indeed a core principle of Cartesian philosophy. Thus we can see that it is really Descartes’s commitment to the thoroughgoing intelligibility of nature—and in particular to the idea that all states of substances can be explicated through their natures, which can be grasped by the pure intellect—is a central plank of his argument for mechanism, and is in fact the place where at least some Medieval Aristotelians want to get off the boat.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)


  1. Although I won’t go into the evidence for this here, it seems to me that the overt agenda of the Meditations—securing our knowledge of the existence of God and the natural immortality of the soul—conceals a hidden agenda—selling mechanistic physics to the Catholic Church. Further, it seems to me that Descartes cares a great deal more about this hidden agenda than he does about the overt agenda. That’s not necessarily to say he’s insincere in his religious/theological assertions, but I don’t think these are among his core interests or motivations the way they are for some other early modern philosophers.
  2. I am not an expert on Medieval philosophy in general or Medieval Islamic philosophy in particular and am reading this work for the first time, in translation. Metaphysica appears to be a title given by the translator to the first (metaphysical) part of work called Dānish Nāma-i’alā’ī, a summary of Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy written in the vernacular Persian language rather than the scholarly Arabic of his other works.
  3. I think these parentheticals are the translator’s additions.

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This is Part 3 in an exploration of Leibniz’s complaint about “Locke and his followers” in his letter to Caroline (part of the “Leibniz-Clarke” correspondence). What is the problem that Leibniz sees with British philosophy circa 1714? In addition to the problems raised against Newton and his followers, what goes mostly unexplored in the Leibniz-Clarke-Caroline correspondence is the problem with the materiality and natural mortality of the soul because Clarke, too, is opposed to both the materiality and natural mortality of the soul.

Part 1: Henry Dodwell and Anthony Collins

Part 2: Catherine Trotter Cockburn

In 1696, John Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious, raising both his international profile and his notoriety. This was followed by multiple tracts—including, importantly, defenses of republicanism, of the Hanoverian succession, and of the importance of securing Protestant rule in England—before his 1704 Letters to Serena. His pamphlets in support of the Hanoverian succession secured him a spot in the envoy to welcome Frederick, Sophie, Sophie Charlotte, and Caroline. This greatly developed his international network and resulted in a series of debates with Leibniz, which may have served as a basis for Letters to Serena (where Sophie Charlotte is a plausible candidate for the pseudonymous “Serena”).

This is important for our purposes in that it gave Leibniz an opportunity to meet a British philosopher in whom he saw the destructive elements left open by Locke’s failure to condemn thinking matter. Leibniz held a very low opinion of Toland’s philosophical and historical abilities. (He told Sophie that Toland “likes to make grand discourses; in a word, he wants to be an author. … Instead of dabbling in philosophy, which is not his forte, he would do better to restrict himself to the search for facts.” [Strickland, Leibniz and the Two Sophies, 291]) Leibniz, though, took Toland’s views to be important enough that he wrote down multiple lengthy letters for Sophie Charlotte refuting Toland’s views even after he had debated the points in her presence previously. His “Letter on what is independent of sense and matter” went through multiple drafts and culminated in an argument that there are immaterial substances that are outside of matter. (See Strickland’s Leibniz and the Two Sophies, 220ff, esp. 233-236 and 245-247.) Sophie Charlotte passed Leibniz’s letter to Toland, who responded, partly by side-stepping the issue of immortality of the soul by saying he only ever meant to discuss the “present state.” Leibniz again goes through multiple drafts in composing a response. Leibniz and Toland also corresponded directly, including Leibniz’s essay known as “Reflections on the doctrine of a single universal spirit,” which emphasizes the importance of individual souls.

Toland should certainly be included among “Locke and his followers,” despite Locke’s desire to be disassociated from Toland’s notorious religious and political views. Leibniz certainly was distressed by Toland’s views and perhaps also Sophie Charlotte’s openness to his views.

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“Locke and His Followers” 2

Yesterday I wrote about Henry Dodwell and Anthony Collins as potential candidates for Locke’s “followers.” These posts are an exploration of the problem that Leibniz sees with British philosophy circa 1714 but that goes mostly unexplored in the Leibniz-Clarke-Caroline correspondence because Clarke, too, is opposed to both the materiality and natural mortality of the soul.

Let’s review Leibniz’s charge, originally written to Caroline as part of a longer letter, as it gets excerpted in editions of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence.

1. Natural religion itself seems to decay very much. Many will have human souls to be material; others make God himself a corporeal being.

2. Mr. Locke and his followers are uncertain at least whether the soul is not material and naturally perishable.

The next candidate for “Locke and his followers” is Catherine Trotter (later Catherine Trotter Cockburn). Notice Leibniz’s language: these folks “are uncertain at least whether…” For Leibniz, it matters not just that the soul is not material and naturally perishable but that we know this to be the case with certainty.

In a 1706 letter to his primary British correspondent/gossipmonger, Leibniz thanks Thomas Burnett for sending him a “defence of Mr Locke written by a very spirited young lady…” (Side note: Thank you to Lloyd Strickland for not only his excellent book that makes available Leibniz’s correspondence with Sophie and Sophie Charlotte, but also the website where he provides important translations like this one.) The timing of this letter, its topic, and its use of “defence” make it overwhelmingly likely that Leibniz is discussing Cockburn’s A Defence of the Essay of Human Understanding (1702).

Her defense of Locke is focused on arguing that Locke relies on a distinction between what is available by the “light of nature” (unaided or amplified but not supplemented human reason) and what is available through special revelation. She finds it obvious that the soul is immortal and all agree on this.

That the immortality of the soul is only highly probable by the light of nature, none can deny, who believe that Apostle, by whom we are told, that life and immortality is brought to light by Jesus Christ through the gospel. Why then is it objected against Mr. Locke’s principles, that they give us no certainty of the immortality of the soul without revelation? By what other way can we be certain of anything, that is only highly probably by the light of nature? (From p53 in Patricia Sheridan’s very useful edition for Broadview).

3D16DF2F-7515-42C4-9ACE-B87F27BE7920We do not have demonstrative knowledge, without revelation, that the soul is immortal, according to Cockburn’s reading of Locke. She is critical of attempts in natural theology to arrive at the immortality of the soul through routes such as arguing for the soul’s immateriality. It “may be dangerous” to require the soul’s immortality to depend on its immateriality because some people will fail to follow a good proof; arguments (even very good ones) affect people differently. Putting the argument for the soul’s immortality on “false or uncertain grounds” is an aid to those who oppose the soul’s immortality (Sheridan 63-64). Those who want to defend “the future state” (which many worried was necessary to keep people doing good in this life) ought not require demonstrations of immortality of the soul that require immateriality.

This is just one of her lines of argument, nestled in other questions about whether a thinking substance must be always thinking and other abstruse questions. One of her key points, though, is that by reason alone we can establish with high probability that the soul is immortal and special revelation gives us certainty. Leibniz, remember, is concerned about those who are “uncertain at least whether the soul is not material and naturally perishable.” By denying that immateriality and natural imperishability are required to establish immortality and by furthermore arguing that, by the light of nature alone, it is “highly probable” (rather than certain) that the soul is immortal, Leibniz would have seen her “spirited” defense as not going far enough in establishing what can be known through natural theology (without special revelation).

It seems likely, then, that Trotter (Cockburn) is included in “Locke and his followers,” who fall short of guaranteeing demonstrative certainty of the soul’s immateriality without the aid of revelation.

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When Leibniz writes to Caroline to express his concern over the dangerous thinking in England he specifically names “Locke and his followers” and “Newton and his followers.” But who exactly were Locke’s “followers,” and why don’t we talk about them more in the context of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence?

First, some context. Sophie Charlotte and her husband, King Frederick I of Prussia, were (for a while) guardians to Princess Caroline of Ansbach. Sophie Charlotte frequently hosted Leibniz in Berlin and elsewhere (while Leibniz was supposed to be working on his history of the Brunswick family), and it is in her court that he met Caroline and eventually became her tutor. Caroline would become the central (but hidden) figure in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, passing the letters between them with her own observations stated in accompanying letters. In addition to the broader public and the official correspondent, Caroline is the unstated audience for both Leibniz and Clarke. (See Meli 1999 for more on Caroline’s role in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence.)

Leibniz’s initial letter to Caroline (printed as the first letter in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence) is an attempt to keep Caroline from straying from his views and toward the (to Leibniz) dangerous views in England. He specifically mentions “Locke and his followers” and “Newton and his followers” in his opening salvo.

Because Clarke, who takes up the cause of English “natural religion,” is clearly a member of “Newton and his followers” and defends (half-heartedly) Newton’s use of sensorium and defends (very well) Newton’s “very odd opinion concerning God’s workmanship,” scholarship has focused on the letters as a debate between Leibniz on the one side and Newton-Clarke (with various weightings assigned to Newton and Clarke as author) on the other. Partly this is because Clarke is clearly opposed to the position ascribed to “Locke and his followers” that they “aren’t sure whether the soul is material and naturally perishable.” In asking who “Locke and his followers” are, we can look to those who think the soul is “material and naturally perishable.”

The debate about a “naturally perishable” soul focused in early eighteenth century Britain on Henry Dodwell, who had argued that the soul only became immortal at baptism. Clarke opposes this view in a typically public letter. Anthony Collins responds, and the two men’s subsequent correspondence (1707-1708) on the immateriality and natural immortality of the soul is a fascinating example of a substance dualist (who unlike Cartesian dualists is open to the soul being extended) and someone working towards an emergentist view long before such views became popular. Collins holds the sort of view that Leibniz sees as following from Locke’s openness to thinking matter in the later editions of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, while Clarke defends a thinking, immaterial soul. Leibniz is aware of Dodwell as early as 1706, due perhaps to his primary British correspondent Thomas Burnett. Dodwell, then, is the first candidate for “Locke and his followers,” with Collins worth consideration, as well.

The debate between Clarke and Leibniz quickly focuses on Leibniz’s objections to Newton and Clarke rather than on the thinking matter views entertained by Locke and Collins because Clarke is the clear opponent of both Dodwell and Collins. This is part of why, I think, we think today of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence as about Leibniz’s problems with Newtonian natural philosophy and Clarkean natural theology rather than with post-Lockean concerns about whether all souls are immortal. Because it was Clarke who, at Caroline’s request, answered Leibniz’s charge, the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence focuses on the immortality question only insofar as it is connected to questions like the nature of the sensorium and God’s relationship to space (e.g., as a world-soul).

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NB: I found this in my drafts folder for this site from October, 2014(!). I reiterate now my desire to see more discussion of Watts. I didn’t recheck the texts, but my complaints align with what I remember of my worries from the time. (A poor confirmation.) I generally find Watts to be interesting, although I find his writing on space to be especially obscure, as his style of writing, strongly shaped by reactions to other writers, does not always make clear when we are getting his glosses on others and when we are getting his own vies..

You cannot make Space think, or will, or act, as a Spirit does; for, join Thinking and Space, which are two distinct Ideas, as near as possible in your Mind, yet you cannot unite them into one Being, nor conceive of Space as having any Share in thinking, or as exerting a Thought. So you may join Iron and Joy together in your Mind as two neighbouring Ideas, but they will be two Ideas for ever distinct: No Force can squeeze, melt or weld them together, and make them unite in one; you can never make Iron become joyful: There is an utter Inconsistency in their Ideas, and they are eternally incompatible. Space can no more exert a Thought, than Iron can exert Joy. (Isaac Watts, Philosophical Essays, 2nd Ed., Essay 1.9, p. 31)

Having given reasons for thinking that space is a real being (either God or a property of God, as many British philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries thought), Isaac Watts turns to arguing that space is not a real being. His argument often appeals to parallels with darkness, which serves as an example of how we could come to form an idea that is really a privation of something else (body or light). The passage excerpted above is part of a section in which he is giving his first set of arguments that space is not real because real beings either act or are acted upon and space neither acts nor is acted upon (that is, it has no active powers or passive capacities).

I find this particular passage perplexing. The argument perhaps owes some debt to Descartes’ conceivability argument, but it is not obviously identical to it. It also might remind readers of Locke’s thinking matter hypothesis, but since the topic is mere spatial extension and not appropriately disposed body, it is not quite the same point (although perhaps the discussion of iron suggests that Watts wants to extend the argument to body, but this still falls short of complex material systems).

What I find perplexing, though, is what it means for the two ideas to remain distinct. Watts seems to be denying that there is an unrestricted combinatorial ability in the mind (of the sort that Hume endorses for the imagination). I can’t just put any two ideas together and make a new complex idea. But why not? Does he think that if two ideas are capable of being joined it must be because they aren’t truly distinct? (E.g., I can weld my idea of the beer in the glass to the idea of the glass because they were never really distinct.) This seems oddly restrictive and at least not clear in the text. Does he think that only ideas of the same sort (e.g., regarding extension, regarding thought) can be combined? (E.g., I can combine my idea of the table and the beer into a complex idea of the beer on the table because they are not just consistent but I can “weld” them into a new idea.) This might be question-begging (or at least not an interesting argument). Does he think that there is some inconsistency in conceiving of thinking space? This wouldn’t be surprising for the time, especially for someone like Watts who wants to maintain certain orthodox religious positions. But I take this to be an argument for why they are inconsistent (if we can’t join two distinct ideas, then they are inconsistent), and I’m trying to understand the initial claim.

We can turn to his much-read logic textbook for some help. If we have two ideas, we can “join them by Affirmation, or disjoin them by Negation, according as we find them to agree or disagree” (Logick, 9th Ed., 1751, p. 142). He denies that this judgment is a “mere Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of Ideas“; judgment also includes an act of the will. In some ways, this helps explain the earlier case, since we now see that he may be thinking of “space” and “thinking” in terms of our ability to form propositions (which always involve a judgment of two ideas for Watts) and thus while “This iron is joyful” or “Space is thinking” are presumably grammatically correct they do not form actual propositions. However, this also complicates the problem because (1) we now need to address Watts on judgment and on propositions to make sense of this passage about distinct ideas, (2) by adding in the will to these judgments it is clear that he is not only restricting our ability to form new ideas without an act of the will, we also cannot form them with an act of the will, and (3) saying that we can’t will them together is no clearer than saying we can’t join distinct ideas. Even more worryingly, he claims that mathematical parts (which includes physical parts like the limbs of a human body) are really distinct but can

I apologize for not being able to pose a nice solution to this problem, and perhaps it wasn’t the best introduction to his thought. (I do think he’s worth reading, and his influence in his lifetime has not been matched by discussion of him in ours.)

Addendum: If anyone knows of work on Watts’ philosophy, I’d appreciate being made aware. Watts appears occasionally in footnotes, but I don’t know of any article-length work on his philosophical thought (rather than his hymnody).

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As Elisabeth of Bohemia famously pointed out, Descartes appears to be committed to the following inconsistent triad:

  1. In every instance of causation, there is an a priori conceptual connection between cause and effect.
  2. There are no conceptual connections between mind and body.
  3. Mind and body interact causally.

The most common response to this problem among Descartes’s 17th century followers was occasionalism, the view that bodily phenomena do not genuinely cause mental phenomena but are merely reliably correlated with them, and vice versa, so that bodily phenomena may be called occasions of mental phenomena and mental phenomena may be called occasions of bodily phenomena.

The best-known advocate of this strategy (and, indeed, the best-known Cartesian after Descartes) was Nicolas Malebranche. Malebranche famously adopted full-strength occasionalism that had been popular among Medieval Islamic philosophers and theologians. On this view, there are no ‘secondary causes’ at all. God is the only true cause and created things can only serve as occasions for God to exercise God’s power. Malebranche has many arguments for this view, but one of them derives directly from the Cartesian doctrine of the a priori intelligibility of causation:

We have only two sorts of ideas, ideas of minds and ideas of bodies … since the idea we have of all bodies makes us aware that they cannot move themselves, it must be concluded that it is minds which move them. But when we examine our idea of all finite minds, we do not see any necessary connection between their will and the motion of any body whatsoever … But when one thinks about the idea of God, i.e., of an infinitely perfect and consequently all-powerful being, one knows that there is such a connection between His will and the motion of all bodies, that it is impossible to conceive that he wills a body to be moved and that this body not be moved. We must therefore say that only His will can move bodies (The Search After Truth, tr. Lennon and Olscamp, 448)

Malebranche’s view here is a much more substantive revision of Descartes than is required to escape the inconsistency above. There is a general tendency in Cartesian thought to contrast body as passive with mind as active, but Malebranche’s view appears to make created mind every bit as passive as body.

An alternative view would maintain divine occasionalism with respect to mind-body interaction, but attribute genuine activity to the mind in internal actions like imagining and willing. Indeed, Malebranche himself sometimes seems tempted by such a view, although his arguments for occasionalism appear to rule it out.

An even smaller tweak to respond to the problem of the causation of mental states by bodily states is possible, and is suggested by remarks Descartes makes in “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet”:

there is nothing in our ideas which is not innate to the mind or the faculty of thinking, with the sole exception of those circumstances which relate to experience, such as the fact that we judge that this or that idea which we now have immediately before our mind refers to a certain thing situated outside us. We make such a judgement not because these things transmit the ideas to our mind through the sense organs, but because they transmit something which, at exactly that moment, gives the mind occasion to form these ideas by means of the faculty innate to it (CSM 1:304, emphasis added).

This passage suggests, not divine occasionalism, but a sort of finite occasionalism, whereby the states of material systems give occasion for the (genuinely causal) activity of the finite mind in forming ideas of the things around it.

This hint is picked up by Arnauld and Nicole in the Port-Royal Logic:

It is thus false that all our ideas originate in the senses. On the contrary, one can say that no idea in the mind originates in the senses, although motions in the brain, which is all the senses can bring about, may provide the occasion for the soul to form various ideas that might not have been formed without this occasion (Logic, tr. Buroker, 30, emphasis added)

Here note again that it is the finite mind itself that forms the ideas and not God.

This line of response to the inconsistency with which we began makes good sense with basic Cartesian commitments, commitments which Arnauld emphasizes (against Malebranche) in On True and False Ideas. Cartesian metaphysics begins from two (alleged) clear and distinct ideas: the idea of body as extended substance and the idea of mind as thinking substance. Extension is the principal attribute of body and thought is the principal attribute of mind. Every property of a substance must be an intelligible modification of its principal attribute. A modification of an attribute is a way of possessing that attribute, i.e., a way of being extended or a way of thinking. Thus every property of a mind must be a way of thinking. But thinking is an activity, while being extended is a state. Hence every mode of mind is active and every mode of body is passive. Now from the fact that every mode of mind is active, it follows that the state of the mind in sensory perception is active, that is, when the mind perceives by means of the senses the mind acts. Insofar as the mind is in perception active and not passive, the mind’s act may be said to be occasioned by the state of the brain. (Note that this approach also would likely have seemed like the obvious one in the context due to its similarity to the Scholastic notion of the ‘agent intellect’ that ‘spiritualizes’ the material species.)

An additional reason why this looks good for Arnauld is that Arnauld is a primitivist about representation: in his view, just as it is the nature of the mind to think, so it is the nature of thought to have an object, and no account of this relation is needed. Hence for Arnauld, there is no problem about how the mind could respond to the state of the brain, since knowing about (perceiving) things like that is just what the mind does.

Arnauld does, however, have another, related problem (and concerns like this are pressed by Malebranche in various places). According to Arnauld, “our thought or perception is essentially reflective upon itself … For I do not think without knowing that I think” (On True and False Ideas, tr. Gaukroger, 71). However, we are not reflectively aware of knowing any state of the brain. It thus remains mysterious how any state of the brain could enter into the explanatory story of thought, whether as an occasional cause or a true one.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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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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