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)


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.)

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.)

Early modern philosophy is one of several areas of interest for the below postdoc opportunity.

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:

  • Epistemology (Paul O’Grady)
  • Philosophy of Language (James Levine)
  • 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)

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.

The deadline for applications is 30 November, 2017. 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://research.ie/funding/goipd/?f=postdoctoral.

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

I am currently re-reading Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, as I will be teaching it in the near future. There are two features of the text that have struck me this time through, to which I was perhaps less attuned on my last read:

  1. I am struck by the extent to which Cavendish’s reasons for panpsychism match the reasons given in more recent discussions (e.g., Nagel, Chalmers). The basic line of argument seems to be: human beings are made of ordinary matter, just like everything else. But human beings have sensitive/rational capacities that can’t be explained mechanically. So there must be something non-mechanical—specifically, something sensitive/rational—in (all) ordinary matter. Further, she goes on to suggest, this hypothesis can explain how not just lower animals but even inanimate objects act in an orderly, seemingly intelligent fashion.
  2. I am struck by the extent to which Cavendish’s skepticism about the use of scientific instruments (e.g., microscopes) is based on a criticism of her contemporaries (e.g., Hook) for their failure to appreciate that the scientist and his instruments are themselves part of nature.

These two observations together paint a picture of Cavendish as a naturalist in the very same sense that Della Rocca applies that term to Spinoza: that is, despite her occasional talk of the supernatural/spiritual soul and God, she rejects any attempt to ‘bifurcate’ the world or to see the human being as somehow standing apart from or outside nature.

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

Earlier this year, Christia Mercer published a fascinating article on the influence of Teresa of Avila on Descartes. Mercer shows (in my view convincingly) that the structure of Descartes’s Meditations is patterned after Teresa’s The Interior Castle, an extremely popular text at the time, especially in Jesuit circles such as the college where Descartes was educated. This line of influence has been missed by scholars because philosophers are dismissive of women and of religious mystics, and Teresa was both. (I hasten to add: scholars are often quick to forget that certain male philosophers such as Plotinus and Augustine were undeniably also mystics.) Mercer has now written  an essay on The Stone (the New York Times philosophy blog) presenting some of the same material for broader audiences.

A thread present in the journal article, but receiving greater emphasis in The Stone, is the extent to which this finding about Descartes and Teresa (and other related findings) calls for the rejection of a certain traditional narrative about the history of early modern philosophy. Again, I agree. However, I want to comment here on Mercer’s discussion of the origination of the traditional narrative. I am genuinely uncertain whether I am disagreeing with her or merely adding some additional nuance and detail to the account. Mercer claims in The Stone that “The longstanding story about Descartes’s creation of a ‘new philosophy’ that broke radically with medieval ‘ways of thinking’ and that marked ‘the dawn of modern times’ was promoted by philosophers who came after Kant.” The earliest specific time period she specifies for the ‘promotion’ of this story is the 1820s.

This strongly suggests to the reader that this story originated after Kant (but note that Mercer’s actual claim is only that it was ‘promoted’ by certain post-Kantian thinkers). Here I want to argue that a precursor of this narrative already existed by the late 17th century (though with certain important differences), and explore some of the implications of this fact for the historiography of philosophy.

The first point that needs to be recognized if we are to understand the emergence of the narrative in question is that in the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘modern’ or ‘new’ philosophy is the name of a controversial school of thought. When we use the term ‘early modern philosophy’ to refer to all philosophy that takes place during this period, we obscure the fact that there were self-consciously anti-modern philosophers active in the 17th and 18th centuries, and these people were doing serious philosophical work. For instance, John Sergeant (1623-1707) defended a version of the Aristotelian species theory of perception and Peter Browne (d. 1735) defended the view that testimony (which he called ‘authority’) is an independent and fundamental source of epistemic justification. One cannot deny that these people were philosophers. Yet they explicitly criticize ‘modern’ philosophy. Further, as late as 1733 Browne is defending philosophical positions with patristic citations. (Peter Browne, don’t you know it’s 1733 and not 1233?!) But Browne also has serious philosophical arguments, just as Thomas Aquinas, despite his reliance on authority, offers serious philosophical arguments. One cannot deny that Sergeant and Browne are philosophers, but it is misleading to describe them as ‘modern’ philosophers.

So what is ‘modern’ (or ‘new’) philosophy? I was prompted to investigate this question a little while back by an invitation from Kirsten Walsh to participate in a HOPOS panel on alternative narratives of early modern philosophy. My interests are primarily in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. (I am the Berkeley guy, after all), so I decided to investigate the question of how ‘modern’/’new’ ‘philosophy’/’science’ was understood in this period. I did this by searching Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online for works containing these terms in the title or subtitle, and looking at how this school of thought was described and which philosophers were taken as its key advocates. (Note that my search was limited to English language sources.) I have no idea when (or if) I might get around to writing this up as a proper journal paper (so many papers to write, so little time to write them in!), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to present a little summary of the most interesting works I found, and the conclusions I drew from them.

  • Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men: Together with Some Reflections upon the New Philosophy (1662). This was the true gem of the bunch, and one of the earliest explicit historical reflections on New Philosophy (and also latitudinarian Anglicanism). Also, it contains the amazing Tale of the Aristotelian Clock-mender. Patrick’s overall narrative is the story of an early 17th century Scientific Revolution that overturned the old Aristotelian worldview and set philosophy on a new (and superior) mechanistic footing. The Aristotelian worldview was overthrown, according to Patrick, by a variety of “notable new phenomena recently discovered,” including, for instance, “the ansulae [Latin: little handles] of Saturn and four Moons about Jupiter [which] were never heard of till Galileo’s Nuncius Sidereus [Starry Messenge (1610)] brought the news” (p. 20). Galileo is the chief hero of Patrick’s story, but he gives honorable mention to Descartes, Scheiner, Tycho, Gilbert, and Boyle. According to Patrick, these philosophers rejected the authority of Aristotle and instead pursued empirical research and developed a mechanical picture of nature. (Seriously, this little pamphlet is awesome. If you have EEBO access, go read it.)
  • W. Simpson, Philosophical Dialogues Concerning the Principles of NATURAL BODIES: WHEREIN The Principles of the Old and New Philosophy are stated, and the New demonstrated, more agreeable to Reason, from Mechanical Experiments and its usefulness to the benefit of mankind (1677). (How’s that for a subtitle?!) Simpson also takes (anti-Aristotelian) mechanism as the central principle of the new philosophy, and treats Bacon and Boyle as its key exponents. (Descartes is not mentioned.)
  • Anne Conway, The Principles of the most Ancient and Modern Philosophy: CONCERNING God, Christ, and Creatures, viz. of Spirit and Matter in general whereby may be resolved all those Problems and Difficulties, which neither the Schools nor Common Modern Philosophy, nor by CartesianHobbesian, or Spinosian could be discussed (1690). Conway never defines ‘modern’ philosophy, and she’s not very explicit about exactly what its common features are, but note that there are three categories here of philosophy current in her own time: Scholastic philosophy (still an active enterprise!), ‘Common Modern Philosophy’, and the particular systems of great modern philosophers. The great modern philosophers are Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza.
  • William Wotton, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1697). This one doesn’t actually use ‘philosophy’ or ‘science’ in the title, but I included it anyway, and it turned out to provide the most detailed account of modern philosophy of the sources I consulted. Note that Wotton does use the word ‘modern’ rather than ‘new’. His account is worth quoting at length:

    As for Modern Methods of Philosophizing, when compared with the Ancient, I shall only observe these following Particulars. (1.) No Arguments are received as cogent, no Principles are allowed as current, amongst the celebrated Philosophers of the present Age, but what are in themselves intelligible; that so a Man may frame an Idea of them, of one sort or other. Matter and Motion, with their several Qualities, are only considered in Modern Solutions of Physical Problems. Substantial Forms, Occult Qualities, (x) [I don’t know what the x is for! -KP], Intentional Species, Idiosyncrasies, Sympathies and Antipathies of Things, are exploded; not because they are Terms used by Ancient Philosophers, but because they are empty Sounds, Words whereof no Man can form a certain and determinate Idea. (2.) Forming of Sects and Parties in Philosophy, that shall take their Denominations from, and think themselves obliged to stand by the Opinions of any particular Philosophers, is, in a manner, wholly laid aside. Des Cartes is not more believed upon his own Word, than Aristotle: Matter of Fact is the only thing appealed to … (3.) Mathematics are joined along with Physiology, not only as Helps to Men’s Understandings, and Quickeners of their Parts, but as absolutely necessary to the comprehending of the Oeconomy of Nature, in all her Works. (4.) The New Philosophers [NB: ‘new philosophers’ are those who follow ‘modern methods of philosophizing’. -KP], as they are commonly called, avoid making general Conclusions, till they have collected a great Number of Experiments, or Observations upon the Thing in hand … So that Inferences that are now a-days made from any Enquiries into Natural Things, though perhaps they be set down in general Terms, yet are (as it were by Consent) received with this tacit Reserve, As far as the experiments or Observations already made, will warrant (pp. 364-365).

    Yes, the enumeration is original. (Wotton could have been an analytic philosopher!) Note also that, curiously enough, Descartes is here the poster-child for ‘modern’ system-builders, yet the method of modern philosophy is Baconian empiricism! In any event, Descartes is treated as a figure of crucial importance in the development of new methods of philosophizing that have overturned the old Aristotelian system in favor of a mechanistic world picture.

What can we conclude from this? Early 17th century philosophers, such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Gassendi, self-consciously portrayed themselves as overthrowing old Aristotelian systems by the rejection of ancient authorities in favor of new philosophical methods. Because this relies on a rejection of authority it is to a large extent individualistic. (It makes sense, in fact, that Descartes, in trying to push this individualistic approach to epistemology as against reliance on authority, would find a series of solitary meditations, patterned on Teresa’s, an appropriate mode of presentation.) Of course, in doing this these philosophers were influenced by their predecessors just as everyone is. But their opposition to reliance on authority led them to minimize this influence. By the end of the century, a significant number of thinkers (at least in England) had bought this story hook, line, and sinker. They believed that this group of mechanistic anti-authoritarian thinkers had produced an intellectual (scientific, philosophical) revolution by demolishing Medieval ways of thinking. Note also that ‘modern’ thinkers from this period typically treat ‘the Schools’ or ‘the School-men’ not just derisively but also monolithically. That is, we’re already developing the notion that there was such a thing as the Medieval way of thinking.

Now, as I said, I’m not sure I’m really disagreeing with Mercer here. In fact, the story I’ve just told could be read as a prequel to her story of the development of the standard narrative. This is because the narrative that exists in my late 17th century sources is missing some crucial elements of the standard narrative that develops in the 19th century. Here are some key differences:

  1. In the late 17th century, Descartes is one of the founders of the ‘new philosophy’; in the standard narrative he is the (one and only) founder. By the early 20th century, Galileo, Bacon, and Boyle belong to the history of science which is separate from the history of philosophy. Hobbes, Gassendi, and friends drop out of the picture entirely. (The extent to which Hobbes and Gassendi vanish can be recognized by the frequency with which Locke is treated as the founder of the modern empiricists.)
  2. In the late 17th century, the early 17th century debate is portrayed as the moderns vs. the School-men or the adherents of the ancients. As mentioned, Wotton even associates Descartes with Baconian methodology. In the standard narrative, however, the rationalist/empiricist dispute is the main event and anyone who put Descartes and Bacon on the same side would be regarded as incompetent.
  3. In the late 17th century, mechanism and epistemological individualism are the key principles of ‘new’ or ‘modern’ philosophy. Theories of ideas are made necessary because mechanism undermines Scholastic/Aristotelian theories of perception; rationalist and empiricist theories in epistemology (insofar as there are such things) are seen as answers to the question: “if we shouldn’t just rely on the authority of the ancients (or the Church) then how should we form beliefs?” These issues are, in other words, derivative of more fundamental issues.

So what happens in the historiography of modern philosophy between where my story leaves off around 1700 and where Mercer’s story picks up around 1820? And how is the history being portrayed by non-English-speaking philosophers and historians in this period? I’m afraid those are questions that will have to be left for another day, and perhaps another scholar.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Call for Papers

Spinoza on Virtue and Vice

The North American Spinoza Society will be sponsoring a session at the 2018 meeting of the Central APA on the topic “Spinoza on Virtue and Vice.” Papers on any aspect of Spinoza’s views on virtues and (or) vices are welcome. The 2018 Central APA meeting will be held in Chicago from February 21 to February 24.

To participate, please submit an abstract. An abstract should be prepared for blind review and no more than 750 words. Include contact information and the title of the paper in the email with the abstract attached as a word, pdf, or rtf document. With the subject heading NASS Central 2018, please send submissions to: adyoupa@gmail.com .

Deadline for submission: September 1, 2017.