The 2017 Midwest Seminar in Modern Philosophy will be held at the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH on October 20–22, 2017. The conference will start in the early afternoon of Friday, October 20, and run till about 1pm on Sunday, October 22. Papers on any aspect of early modern philosophy (up to and including Kant) will be considered and should have a reading time of approximately 45 minutes. Submissions should take the form of abstracts of 500–800 words, prepared for anonymous review. They should be submitted, as an attachment to an email in either Microsoft Word or PDF format, to johnson.5987@osu.edu. The deadline for the receipt of submissions is April 1, 2017. Authors will be notified by April 20, 2017 of the program committee’s decision.

For more information, see here.


Berkeley and Hobbes

From a certain point of view (or perhaps several points of view), one might think that no two early modern philosophers are more opposed than Berkeley and Hobbes. True, both are empiricists, and the disagreement between rationalists and empiricists is often treated as the ‘main event’ of early modern philosophy. However, a comparison between Berkeley and Hobbes might well be regarded as a vivid and compelling illustration of the failings of the traditional rationalist-empiricist narrative. Note, for starters, that the ontologies of Berkeley and Hobbes are disjoint: Hobbes believes only in material substances, Berkeley believes only in spiritual (immaterial) substances. Second, Hobbes, known as the “Monster of Malmesbury,” was the arch-infidel, regarded by many early modern writers (including Berkeley!) as the poster child for modern atheism. Berkeley, on the other hand, was ordained a priest of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland in the same year he published the Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, and he went on to become a respected bishop.

However, from another point of view, the philosophies of Berkeley and Hobbes are quite similar, in ways that go beyond their shared empiricism. Indeed, I would venture to claim that, specifically on issues related to mental and linguistic representation, Hobbes and Berkeley are much closer to one another than either of them is to (for instance) Locke. Here are a few controversial theses endorsed by both Berkeley and Hobbes:*

  • All ideas are concrete (fully determinate) sense images.
  • There are no intrinsically general ideas. Generality is introduced by the introduction of conventional marks/signs, such as words.
  • There is no idea of God or the soul, nor are there ideas corresponding to most of the key words of Christian theology (e.g., ‘homoousion’). (This is taken to follow from the previous point.)
  • Reasoning is merely the manipulation of symbols according to conventional syntactic rules. (Both use mathematical examples to illustrate this point.)
  • Language does not merely permit us to express to others the thoughts we already had, but rather expands our capacities for thought.
  • Language is first and foremost a practical matter. Having the right words and using them properly enables us to interact properly with our physical, social, and political environment.

Both Berkeley and Hobbes regard these reflections on mind and language as philosophically foundational. Yet they hope to draw from them radically different visions, especially with regard to religion. Coming from such similar starting points, where do they diverge? One rather subtle difference is this. Both Berkeley and Hobbes hold that religious language frequently contains words that do not signify ideas. Hobbes concludes from this that these utterances are insignificant, that is, that they are nonsensical, that those who use them are guilty of what he calls ‘absurdity’.** On the other hand, as Berkeley’s early critic Peter Browne correctly recognized, Berkeley holds “that Words may be Significant, tho’ they signify Nothing” (Divine Analogy (1733), p. 534).

Now one could be excused for thinking (as Browne certainly did) that this is a distinction without a difference. Yet it seems to me that this difference—between Hobbes’s view that religious utterances are insignificant and Berkeley’s view that they are significant although they do not signify anything—is the key point of divergence between them. Berkeley follows Hobbes in holding that the introduction of words can expand our capacity for thought. In fact, Berkeley goes beyond Hobbes in holding that the use of words can expand our representational capacities in such a way as to allow us to make cognitive (and interpersonal) contact with a supra-sensible (hence supra-ideational) reality. In other words, Berkeley takes seriously the notion (occasionally, though perhaps only ironically, endorsed by Hobbes) that although we have no idea of God, our word ‘God’ nevertheless names (refers to) God. Similarly, despite denying that we have any idea of the Trinity (or any idea signified by ‘homoousion’), Berkeley holds that the claim ‘God is triune’ really does describe God. Since Berkeley does not identify persons with their bodies, all talk about persons is like this: the sentence ‘Socrates is wise’ refers to Socrates and describes him as wise, despite the fact that there can be no idea of Socrates or of wisdom.

The relationship between Hobbes and Berkeley here is illustrative of a broader phenomenon in the history of Western philosophy: it is frequently the case that two philosophers are from one perspective difficult to tell apart, but from another perspective appear diametrically opposed. A clear example of this can be seen by consideration of the other arch-infidel of the 17th century, Spinoza, as compared to the mainstream/orthodox tradition of classical philosophical theology. Classical philosophical theologians—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—generally began from a Pagan tradition of reflection on Being Itself, running from Parmenides through Plato to Plotinus. Being Itself, it was held, was necessary being, pure actuality, being having all perfections, being than which none greater could be conceived, etc. Now this is not very similar to the conception of God possessed by the ordinary pew-sitter, embodied in religious practice, etc. The philosophical theologians therefore sought to (somehow) recover traditional religious belief and practice (suitably reinterpreted) after the fact. What does Spinoza do? He begins from this same Greek notion of Being Itself, but rather than proceeding to recover traditional religion he proceeds to upend it. Yet he is employing as fundamental this same notion that Being Itself is necessary being having all perfections and that all finite things depend on and are explained by it.***

In the comments on William King’s De Origine Mali that Leibniz appended to his Theodicy, Leibniz complains that King “confuses a Thomist with a Spinozist” (sect. 13, Tr. Huggard). From one point of view, such a confusion seems inexcusable. After all, Aquinas is the bastion of orthodoxy, and Spinoza is the arch-infidel. From another point of view, however, the project of distinguishing Aquinas (or Maimonides) from Spinoza is quite a delicate one. After all, Aquinas believes that the Ultimate Substance (aka, God, the One, Being Itself, etc.) exists necessarily, has all perfections, that all things proceed from Him/It, that He/It determines every detail of the world of finite things, that personal attributes cannot be ascribed univocally to Him/It, and so on and so forth. Where precisely shall we locate the difference between Aquinas and Spinoza?**** Similar remarks could be made about confusing a Berkeleian with a Hobbist.

There is an important general lesson for the historiography of philosophy here, and it is this: when our attention remains focused on abstract issues in metaphysics and epistemology, distinctions that were extremely important to the figures under study can appear quite subtle and esoteric. When, however, we attend to what these philosophers took to be the practical upshots of their disagreements—especially but not only for religious practice and the role of religion in society—these debates often come into focus in ways that make it much clearer what the figures under discussion thought they were arguing about and why they thought it mattered.

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

** Hobbes nevertheless uses quite a lot of religious language in the later parts of Leviathan. What exactly he thinks he’s doing is a vexed question. I’m not a Hobbes expert, but I suspect that Hobbes does regard religion as ‘useful nonsense’ (useful, of course, to the sovereign in maintaining order) and that recognizing that it is indeed nonsense is supposed to ease the way to just accepting whatever form of religion the sovereign imposes, rather than having rebellions and things. Berkeley, on the other hand, would certainly not accept the characterization of religion—even revealed religion—as ‘useful nonsense’ (see Williford).

*** I arrived at this way of looking at Spinoza via a long ago conversation with Lewis Powell.

**** Leibniz is a sort of neo-Thomist, and Robert Adams argues convincingly that Leibniz saw Spinoza’s rejection of teleology as the key point of divergence.

I also find that the senses show me that the soul moves the body, but they teach me nothing (no more than do the understanding and the imagination) of the way in which it does so. For this reason, I think that there are some properties of the soul, which are unknown to us, which could perhaps overturn what your Metaphysical Meditations persuaded me of by such good reasoning: the nonextendedness of the soul. This doubt seems to be founded on the rule that you give there, in speaking of the true and the false, that all error comes to us in forming judgments about that which we do not perceive well enough. Though extension is not necessary to thought, neither is it at all repugnant to it, and so it could be suited to some other function of the soul which is no less essential to it.

Elisabeth to Descartes, 1 July 1643 (tr. Shapiro)

When Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes is mentioned, it is often merely to credit her with being (among) the first to raise the interaction problem for substance dualism. But this radically understates what she’s doing here, and the depth of understanding of Descartes’s system she demonstrates. The brief quotation above is one of the most decisive refutations in the history of Western philosophy. Very probably, Descartes knows it and this is why he completely changes the subject in the next letter. As Leibniz observed, “Descartes had given up the game at this point” (“New System of Nature” (1695), tr. Ariew and Garber, p. 142).

The problem is this: the fundamental starting point of Descartes’s system is the claim that by the pure intellect we grasp the essence of body (extension) and the essence of mind (thought), and we can see that these two natures have nothing in common. Further, he claims, every feature of an entity must be a modification of its essence. Thus every feature of a body must be some particular manner of being extended, and every feature of a mind must be some particular manner of thinking. Further, Descartes is committed to the a priori intelligibility of causal relations. However, since extension and thought are utterly conceptually independent no a priori causal connection between any mode of extension and any mode of thought is possible. Thus if, as Descartes claims, we know by experience that the soul moves the body (i.e., causes the body to move), then mind, body, and causation are not thoroughly intelligible as Descartes supposes. Not only does this undermine Descartes’s argument for the real distinction of mind and body; it undermines most of his philosophical system. Game over, turn the lights out, it’s time to go home.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

University of York, UK

June 5-6, 2017

Funded by a grant from the New Directions in the Study of the Mind Project (http://www.newdirectionsproject.com/) to Louise Richardson and John Schwenkler

Keynote speakers: Mohan Matthen and L.A. Paul

Confirmed invited speaker: M.G.F. Martin

With responses from members of Sense Perception in the North (SPIN, http://spinperceptionnetwork.wordpress.com/)

Call for Papers:

  • Deadline: February 15th 2017
  • Length: Submitted papers must be suitable for presentation in no more than 40 minutes. (approx. 5000 words or less)
  • Submission details:
    • Submissions should be made via the conference site: http://spinperceptionnetwork.wordpress.com/mq/
    • Please submit papers in .doc or .pdf format prepared for anonymous review.
    • Please also include a separate covering letter including your name, e-mail address, and current position and institutional affiliation.
    • You may direct any queries to the organisers (see below) or to: question@gmail.com
    • Authors will be notified of decisions no later than mid April.

The organisers will aim to cover in-EU travel expenses and accommodation for speakers.

Further details:

The question that now bears his name was posed by the Irish philosopher William Molyneux, and discussed by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere …, so as to tell, when he felt one and t’other, which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube. (Locke 1694: II, ix, 8)

Molyneux’s question has had enduring appeal to philosophers in the ensuing three centuries. Why this is, is something of a puzzle of its own. First, it is unclear what, if any, philosophical problem would be settled if Molyneux’s question were to be answered. Furthermore, the question looks like one that philosophers have no particular role in resolving: to answer Molyneux’s question one should just, so it seems, present a ‘man born blind’ and now ‘made to see’ with a cube and a sphere and observe whether he can tell which is which.

However, just as mysterious as its enduring appeal to philosophers is the recalcitrance of Molyneux’s question to this direct experimental approach. Despite the promise of recent studies, carrying out this apparently simple experiment has, as yet, yielded no unambiguous answer to Molyneux’s question.

It is natural to think that scientists will answer the question by performing the simple experiment, and that philosophers will draw conclusions about the issues of interest to them once an answer is provided. And this reflects a tempting picture of the form that dialogue between scientists and philosophers of perception should take more generally: the experiments that scientists perform provide data which philosophers should then interpret and use to draw conclusions. However, the enduring philosophical appeal and experimental recalcitrance of Molyneux’s question raise the possibility that this view of the roles of philosophers and scientists in thinking about Molyneux’s question specifically, and perception more generally, is mistaken.

For example, maybe philosophers can play a direct role in answering Molyneux’s question. Perhaps the scientific experiments that will contribute to answering the question are other than the simple one Molyneux described. And maybe philosophers’ interest in Molyneux’s question can be satisfied without an answer to it: to find out, philosophers need to say more clearly what the philosophical interest of the question is.

We will bring together philosophers for a two-day international conference in York to consider the different roles and interests that philosophers and scientists have in considering Molyneux’s question. By trying to answer these questions together, we will also be making progress on the larger issue of the proper form that dialogue between philosophers and scientists of perception ought to take.

We invite submissions of papers to be considered for presentation at this international conference. Potential topics include but are not limited to the following:

  • Why is Molyneux’s question of such enduring philosophical appeal?e., what traditional philosophical issues hinge on the proper resolution to Molyneux’s question? In what ways does “our” (contemporary) interest in the question differ from the earlier interests of Molyneux, Locke, and others? Can considering the historical context of the question and comparing it to our own help in understanding its enduring appeal and philosophical significance?
  • What is the role for science in answering Molyneux’s question?e., what sorts of experimental findings would help us to answer it? Why has it been so difficult to answer the question through an experiment of the sort Molyneux originally envisioned? What other experimental approaches might be taken to answering the question? What sorts of experimental data or scientific frameworks are most relevant to it?
  • What positive contributions can philosophy make toward answering Molyneux’s question, beyond the interpretation of experimental data?e., can philosophers address the question productively by considering it just as a “thought-experiment”? Can phenomenological analysis of visual and tactile experience support a positive or negative answer to the question? Can we make progress by considering how vision and touch are sources of knowledge of the spatial world?

Please do not hesitate to contact the organisers with any queries you may have.

Louise Richardson (louise.richardson@york.ac.uk) and John Schwenkler (jschwenkler@fsu.edu)

History of early modern philosophy is one of several areas of interest for the following postdoc funding opportunity. Readers are encouraged to apply!

The Irish Research Council (IRC) annually offers postdoctoral fellowships of one or two years’ duration. Applicants of any nationality are eligible, but must be in residence at an Irish university during the fellowship period. Application is made under the mentorship of a member of the academic staff at the university where the applicant hopes to reside.

The Department of Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin welcomes applications under this scheme. Mentors are available, in particular, in the following areas:

  • Metaphysics (James Miller, Peter Simons, Kenneth Pearce)
  • Epistemology (Paul O’Grady)
  • Philosophy of Language (James Levine, James Miller, Peter Simons)
  • Philosophy of Religion (Paul O’Grady, Kenneth Pearce)
  • Ethics (Ben Bramble)
  • Phenomenology (Lilian Alweiss)
  • History of Philosophy:
    • Ancient (Vasilis Politis)
    • Medieval (Paul O’Grady)
    • Early Modern (Kenneth Pearce)
    • Modern European (Lilian Alweiss)
    • Analytic (James Levine, Paul O’Grady, Peter Simons)

There has been a rich tradition of philosophical excellence at Trinity since its foundation in 1592 and today the Department is a close-knit, lively intellectual community of researchers, teachers and students that combines high-quality teaching with expansive research activity.

Trinity College Dublin Philosophy Department has been consistently ranked as a premier philosophy department and is among the top 100 philosophy departments in the world (QS World University Rankings by Subject 2016).

Prospective applicants may either contact their proposed mentor directly or contact the Philosophy Department’s Director of Research, Kenneth Pearce (pearcek@tcd.ie).

Complete details on the Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme can be found at: http://www.research.ie/funding/government-ireland-postdoctoral-fellowship-2017

More information on the TCD Philosophy Department can be found at: http://www.tcd.ie/Philosophy/

A Letter from Valerie Tiberius:

Dear Colleague,

As chair of a philosophy department at a large state institution (University of Minnesota), I’ve frequently been called upon to defend philosophy and to justify its place in higher education.  This has made me reflect on what really is worth preserving, celebrating, or (possibly) changing about our field.  To this end I want to solicit the views of my philosophy colleagues in a more systematic way than just asking my Facebook friends, which is what drew me to the project of creating a survey. 

I am now writing to ask you to participate in this (fairly short) survey:  “What Matters to Philosophers”.  Please click the link below to take the survey, or copy it into the location bar of your web browser:


The point of this survey is to gather your views regarding what is valuable in your academic discipline, so that we can address questions about philosophy’s future and its role in the academy on the basis of values we share as a community.

I should say that this survey is not intended to answer tactical questions about effective ways of helping philosophy to survive in difficult times; rather, I would like to know what you believe is valuable and worth preserving in academic philosophy.  And so that you can feel comfortable being entirely candid in your responses, the survey is completely anonymous

Of course, the success of this project depends on the generous contributions of time from people like you.  Mindful of this, I have tried to create a survey that will not take too much of your valuable time – it should not require more than 15 minutes to complete. 

Data from the survey will form the substance of my presidential address at the APA Central Division meeting in Kansas City in March 2017.  Presidential addresses are published in the APA proceedings, and I hope to publish and discuss my findings in other arenas as well.  I will also share the data – in a form that does not permit the identification of any individual’s responses – with the APA and with philosophy departments who are interested in it. 

During the planning process for this project, some philosophers have expressed reservations about completing the survey because they do not have full time academic positions, or are still in graduate school, or are not APA members.  Please be assured that there are no such restrictions on who may take the survey!  It is only by hearing from as many philosophers as possible that we can get an accurate picture of what we, as a community, think about philosophy. 

I greatly appreciate your assistance. Thank you.


Valerie Tiberius

Professor and Chair

Department of Philosophy

University of Minnesota

I have added a new file to my Cavendish page: Philosophical Letters, 1.1-29 (pdf). This is a modernized version of the early part of Margaret Cavendish’s 1664 Philosophical Letters: the front matter, and the first 29 letters in part 1. Most of those letters (4-29) discuss the work of Thomas Hobbes. The text has been modernized in its spelling, use of capital letters, and use of italics. Few changes have been made to Cavendish’s punctuation, the main one being to add apostrophes indicating possession.