Posts Tagged ‘clarke’

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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“Where is my mind?” – The Pixies, rock philosophers

One of the big problems that faced Newtonians in the early eighteenth century was the issue of action at a distance. It had long been thought that there could be no action at a distance, yet gravitation seemed to operate between two bodies at a distance. How could this be? One option, probably held by Newton, is that there needs to be something that is in both places and able to act at both. God fills that role nicely. Whether this frequent involvement by God in the world, giving some causal push to the stuff in the universe, is seen as a good or bad thing for theology is what separated Clarke and Leibniz, respectively.

There is a second question of action at a distance. Besides the (at least apparent) causal interaction between two bodies, is there action at a distance between a soul and a body? That is, in order for a soul to move a body, must the soul have a location? If so, where? Is it a single point or an extended location? Could it act if at a single point? If it’s an extended space, does that mean the soul is divisible? If it is divisible, then it is presumably dissoluble, so it is not naturally immortal (a theologically discomfiting position to the orthodox). There’s a lot of problems for any of the positions.

Let’s look at one argument. Isaac Watts, in his Philosophical Essays (second edition, 1733), takes up the question of whether the soul is in the body (152ff). Some say that the soul can’t be everywhere, since then it would be infinite; so it must be somewhere. The soul must be where your body is “because it acts upon your Body, for no Being can act upon any thing at a Distance according to the old Maxim, Nihil agit in distans.” What part of this line of argument should we reject? Watts suggests that the “old Maxim” should be reconsidered.

Ans. ’Tis time, I think, that this Axiom or Maxim should be now exploded by Men of Learning, since the Philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton has prevailed in the world. We find in his System, the Sun and the Planets, which are at prodigious Distances, act upon each other by an attractive Force, which is called the Law of Gravitation; which force is incessantly influencing all parts of Matter to act upon all other parts of Matter in their Proportions, be they never so distant. But what is this Force of Attraction or Gravitation, but a powerful Appointment of the Creator? Now, if Bodies can act upon each other, without Contact or Proximity of Place, and that by the powerful and general Volition or Appointment of God, we may well allow Spirits to act upon Bodies, without any Proximity to them, by the same Divine Appointment or Volition.” 

Watts takes the “Newtonian” position that bodies can act on one another at a distance because of a general volition of God. And if a general volition of God can explain actions between noncontiguous bodies, why not between a body and a soul that is not proximate to it? I think there are some reasons to reject the parity argument that Watts seems to be making, but perhaps we could work that out in the comments.

[Thanks to Lewis for letting me join The Mod Squad, which I’ve been enjoying for some time. More about who I am here.]

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