Posts Tagged ‘Bacon’


Image from: Giovanni Aldini, Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme (Paris, 1804)

The conference program for Life and Death in Early Modern Philosophy, to be held in London on April 14–16 this year, has been announced. And it’s looking good.


Thursday 14th April 2016

The Great Hall, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS

2.30–4.00 Tea and Registration in the Foyer of the Great Hall
4.00–4.30 Susan James, Welcome and Introduction
4.30–6.00 Michael Moriarty, The thought of death changes all our ideas and condemns our plans


Friday 15th April 2016

Birkbeck College, Clore Management Centre, Torrington Square, London WC1E 7JL

9.30–11.00 Ursula Renz, Our Consciousness of Being Alive as a Source of Knowledge
 11.15–12.45 Session 1 Session 2 Session 3
Meghan Robison

But a Movement of Limbs: On the Movement of life in Hobbes’ Leviathan

Steph Marston

Affects and Effects: Spinoza on Life

John Callanan

The Historical Context of Kant’s Opposition to Suicide

Barnaby Hutchins

Descartes’s ‘Vitalism’

Julie Klein

Life and Death in Spinoza: Power and Reconfiguration

Jonas Jervell Indregard

Kant on Beauty and the Promotion of Life

12.45–2.00 Lunch, coinciding with meeting of agreed and likely contributors to research network
2.00–3.30 Martine Pécharman, The Moral Import of Afterlife Arguments in Pascal and Locke
3.45–5.15 Session 1 Session 2 Session 3
Hannah Laurens

An Eternal Part of the Body? Spinoza on Human Existence Beyond Life and Death

Andreas Scheib

Johannes Clauberg and the Development of Anthropology after Descartes

Sarah Tropper

When the Manner of Death Disagrees with the Status of Life. The Intricate Question of Suicide in Early Modern Philosophy

Filip Buyse

Spinoza on conatus, inertia and the impossibility of self-destruction

Andrea Strazzoni

Particles, Medicaments and Method. The Medical Cartesianism of Henricius Regius

Teresa Tato Lima

Suicide and Hume’s Perspective about Human Life

5.30–7.00 Mariafranca Spallanzani, ‘Tota philosophorum vita commentatio mortis est’. Death of philosophers


Saturday 16th April 2016

Birkbeck College, Clore Management Centre, Torrington Square, London WC1E 7JL

9.30–11.00 Session 1 Session 2 Session 3
Kate Abramson

Living well, well-being and ethical normativity in Hume’s ethics

Dolores Iorizzo

Francis Bacon’s Natural and Experimental History of Life and Death (1623): A Lacuna in Accounts of the Scientific Revolution

Oliver Istvan Toth

Do we really need to die? Spinoza on the Necessity of Death in the Ethics

Giuliana di Biase

Human’s life as a “state of mediocrity” in John Locke’s Essay and in his other works

Gianni Paganini

Life, Mind and Body. Campanella and Descartes’ Connections

Piet Steenbakkers

Living Well, Dying Well: Life and Death in Spinoza’s Philosophy and Biography

11.15–12.45 Charles Wolfe, How I learned to love Vitalism
12.45–2.00 Lunch
2.00–3.30 Session 1 Session 2 Session 3
Sean Winkler

The Persistence of Identity in Spinoza’s Account of Individuals

Piero Schiavo

Controlling Death. Democritus and the myth of a death en philosophe

Matteo Favaretti

Camposampiero, The Ban of Death: Leibniz’s Scandalous Immortalism

  Mogens Laerke

The Living God. On Spinoza’s Hebrew Grammar and Cogitata Metaphysica II,6

Michael Jaworzyn

Clauberg, Geulincx, and philosophy as meditatio mortis after Descartes

Audrey Borowski,

Leibniz’s natural Mechanism. Life and Death Revisited

3.45–4.15 Meetings of learned societies
4.15–5.45 Lisa Shapiro, Learning to Live a Fully Human Life
5.45–6.00 Conclusion and Farewell

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In my previous post I mentioned Hobbes’s worry that his materialist account of perception would lead him to a sort of panpsychism. When he explains the problem he faces, Hobbes notes that one might just accept the conclusion. After all, “there have been philosophers, and those learned men, who have maintained that all bodies are endued with sense” (De Corpore 25.5). Who were these learned men Hobbes had in mind?

One good candidate here is Tommaso Campanella. But here I want to draw attention to another possible candidate, Francis Bacon. In his Sylva Sylvarum Bacon claims that it “is certaine that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no Sense, yet they have Perception” (Bacon 1627, 211; I learned of this from David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, 82-3).

Bacon notes the sensitivity of this “perception”, and goes on to give several examples, many of which are examples of things that are signs of the weather. The Sylva Sylvarum was a popular work, of which Hobbes would likely have known. Aside from the work’s popularity, Hobbes had the connection of having once worked for Bacon as a secretary: a connection that makes potential Hobbes-Bacon connections particularly intriguing, though they are hard to pin down.

So what did Bacon have in mind by talking about the perception of bodies?


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I think many of us are familiar with a sentiment expressed by Thomas Hobbes, namely, that it is possible for philosophers to be “deceived by the idiom of their own language” (1839-45: VII 81).  Francis Hutcheson expresses the same concern in his Nature and Conduct of the Passions when he issues the following warning: “The Nature of any Language has considerable Influence upon Mens Reasonings on all Subjects” (1728: 39).  Furthermore, we find this claim in Francis Bacon’s New Organon: “Plainly words do violence to the understanding” (2000: I xliii 41).  Here Bacon has in mind what he refers to as the “illusions which are imposed on the understanding by words” (2000: I lx 49).  I believe several other instances can be produced in which an early modern thinker expresses a similar view.

This seems like a fairly reasonable view to hold.  We should not take for granted that a term is meaningful.  And we should not conclude from the fact that a certain term is commonly used that it actually picks out something in the world.  One response to this worry about meaning is to devise a philosophical method for interrogating and evaluating the significance of a given term.  Such a method is employed by John Locke and David Hume.

However, some early modern philosophers hold the opposite assumption about the relationship between ordinary language and the understanding.  Accordingly, these philosophers soundly reject the prospect of evaluating the significance of a term by any means other than consulting ordinary language itself.  John Sergeant, for example, claims in his Method to Science that any other method must “fall infinitely short of that Certainty and Plainness which the Common and Constant Use of the Generality of Mankind, or the Vulgar, affords us” (1696: 104).  And in his Solid Philosophy he writes of “that Solid Maxim, that The true Signification or Sense of the Words is to be taken from the Common Usage of them” (1697: 188).

We find the following remarkable passage in Kenelm Digby’s Two Treasises: “it is the indisciplined multitude that must furnish learned men with naturall apprehensions, and notions to exercise upon them as they please; but they must first receive them in that plaine and naked forme, as mankind in general pictureth them out in their imaginations.  And therefore the first work of schollers, is to learne of the people…what is the true meaning and signification of these primary names, and what notions they beget in the generality of mankind of the things they designe” (1644: 8).  Here Digby appears to suggest that the components of ordinary language constitute the basic materials from which philosophical discourse is built.

The emphasis on the importance of ordinary language for our understanding of a given term, and for the discipline of philosophy in particular, carries over to at least one member of the Scottish Enlightenment.  George Turnbull, among whose students was Thomas Reid, claims the following in his Principles of Moral Philosophy: “Language, not being invented by philosophers, but contrived to express common sentiments, or what every one perceives, we may be morally sure, that where universally all languages make a distinction, there is really in nature a difference” (1740: 118).  Hence Turnbull takes it to be “an absurdity” to claim that some words “have no meaning at all” despite the fact that they are commonly used (1740: 15).

It is not obvious to me that this assumption about the importance of ordinary language is implausible.  It may have some methodological virtues.  But I am curious about whether those who hold this assumption are able to consistently adhere to it in matters of philosophy.  I am also curious about the extent to which this assumption may have pressured some early moderns to “speak with the vulgar.”

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