Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

Religious and political historians of 17th/18th century Britain and Ireland are well aware of the long-running conflict between the ‘latitudinarian’ and ‘high-church’ factions in the Anglican Communion. However, many historians of philosophy are entirely unfamiliar with these terms. To historians of philosophy, religious debate in Britain and Ireland in this period is a conflict between Christians and deists/atheists, in which differences among Christians are either entirely invisible or of secondary importance. This is unfortunate, first, because this internal Anglican conflict can shed light on some familiar philosophical texts and debates and, second, because there is a lot of interesting philosophy currently languishing in obscurity that is connected with this conflict.

The terms ‘latitudinarian’ and ‘high-church’ are, at least to some extent ‘actors’ categories’. That is, 17th and 18th century Anglican writers would recognize the terms and have opinions about who belonged to which categories. Both terms were often used pejoratively, but instances of self-ascription can also be found in both cases.

The conflict between these two groups grew out of the effective loss of a national church, in both England and Ireland. (Since the Church of Scotland remained Presbyterian even after the Restoration of the Monarchy, the situation was rather different there.) At an earlier stage the Church of England and Church of Ireland had been understood as national churches—that is, membership in them had been considered part of citizenship in the nation. On this conception, dissent from the church is ipso facto disloyalty to the government, and the existence of any other religious group in the nation is a threat to the national order. This conception played a role in setting up the Wars of the Three Kingdoms: it was not possible for Anglicans and Puritans (and Catholics) to “live and let live” because the unity of the nation, it was thought, required a single church to which all citizens belonged.

Following the Restoration, it came to be accepted that some degree of religious diversity was going to be a permanent feature of the landscape. However, Anglicans continued to defend their status as the established church, that is, the only church sponsored and supported by the government. (The Church of England still enjoys this status today.) The core questions are, first, why should there be an established church at all? and, second, what should be done about the other religious groups?

The latitudinarians were for the most part politically aligned with the Whigs and controlled most of the important episcopal sees from the Restoration on. They generally accepted the modern liberal idea that government is concerned with temporal goods like property and security and so forth, rather than spiritual goods like salvation. Within this scheme, state support of the church is justified because it is not enough for the good of the country that citizens refrain from evil actions; citizens must be positively virtuous. The established church serves as an arm of the state for promoting virtue among citizens. It is a kind of mirror image of the justice system: the justice system punishes people who do wrong, while the church encourages people to do good. Most latitudinarians would deny that this is all that the church is about (the church is certainly concerned with eternal salvation), but it is this benefit to the state that, according to them, justifies the state’s support of the church.

The church, on this view, will be more effective the more people are in it. To this end, the latitudinarians propose a twofold strategy in their relation to non-Anglicans: toleration and comprehension. Toleration simply means that no effort is to be made to compel people into the church. The usual justification for this is that only sincere belief is really productive of virtue and salvation, and sincere belief cannot be coerced. Comprehension means that the church is to be made as broad as possible, insisting only on the bare minimum of beliefs and practices that are necessary to virtue and salvation, so that as many people as possible can, in good conscience, join themselves to the established church. Anglican polemicists (on both sides) usually assume that belonging to the established church is the default position (even with toleration, after all, life is easier for those who belong to the dominant religious group) while dissent requires strong reasons. The idea of the latitudinarian policy of comprehension is to leave as few reasons for dissent as possible.

High-church thinkers, on the other side, were generally allied with the Tories and, while they held some positions of importance in the church, never held the see of Canterbury. They generally believed that, insofar as the end of government is the good of the people, this included their spiritual good, and this was the basis for the government’s promotion of the established church. They usually accepted toleration only reluctantly, not disavowing persecution of religious minorities in principle, but only claiming that it was not expedient at present.

In the remainder of this post, I want to outline what I see as two contrasts in terms of general philosophical approach between writers on the two sides.

Old vs New

One characteristic of latitudinarianism that was recognized early was their friendliness to the ‘new philosophy’. By the turn of the 18th century, this meant primarily the philosophy of Locke and Newton. (Newton’s friend Samuel Clarke was one of the leading latitudinarians in this period, and every one of the early Boyle lecturers was both a personal friend of Newton and a latitudinarian.) High-church writers, on the other hand, favored ancient and Medieval sources.

As is always the case with general characterizations of parties, sects, or schools of thought, there is a serious danger of oversimplification here, but the contrast can be brought out by contrasting the latitudinarian philosopher George Berkeley* with the high-church philosopher Peter Browne. In the manuscript version of the Introduction to the Principles, Berkeley twice quotes Aristotle in the original Greek (!) and also compares his view to that of certain ‘School-men’, but these references are scrubbed from the published version and Locke is the only author quoted. In the later works Alciphron and Siris, Berkeley makes plenty of references to ancient and Medieval philosophy, but he is careful not to treat these as authorities. The approach is thoroughly modern and if any ancient or Medieval ideas are taken up, they are taken up as insights to be incorporated within a modern framework.

Browne is just the reverse. He agrees with Locke on a number of points, and sometimes uses language similar to Locke’s, but he is quite clear that his intention is to reject Locke’s modern ‘ideist’ framework. He says, in fact, that “the University … [has been] unhappily poysoned by an Essay concerning Human Understanding” (Divine Analogy, p. 127). His position is really a neo-Thomist one, though sometimes framed in Lockean language, and, especially in his last work Divine Analogy (1733), Browne clearly treats ancient and Medieval Christian writers as authorities in preference to modern writers whom he rejects.

As another complicating factor we should add that many high-church philosophers, including John Norris and Mary Astell, have a very favorable attitude to Descartes. However, like many theologically conservative Cartesians (e.g., Malebranche and Arnauld), these philosophers tend to like Cartesianism precisely because they see it as bringing Augustinianism forward into the modern age. So, as a rough characterization of the ‘feel’ of high-church vs. latitudinarian polemics, it seems to me to be correct to say that the latitudinarian writers are modern and high-church writers are anti-modern in their approach to philosophy.** Within the high-church party, Browne is an extremist while Astell is a moderate, and one of the many places where this is manifest is in their attitudes to modern philosophy.

Authority and Individualism

A second contrast we can draw, which is more directly connected to the political implications of the views, regards authority and individualism. Latitudinarians, as I indicated above, accept at least some parts of the modern liberal political picture. They tended to be moderate Whigs. (Berkeley, though a latitudinarian in his religion, was a moderate Tory in his politics—a combination that was almost unheard of in England, but less unusual in Ireland.) The natural tendency of Locke’s political philosophy was toward disestablishment of the church, and some radical Whigs in the early 18th century did go so far as to advocate this. Obviously the latitudinarians needed to oppose this tendency, and they did so by means of their argument about the utility of religion for promoting civic virtue. Still, latitudinarian thought was strongly individualistic in both religion and politics. Following Locke, many latitudinarians thought that one key reason in favor of toleration was the (alleged) fact that it is impossible to believe on command. I can only believe something insofar as it appears to me to be true. (This idea receives a lot of emphasis from Edward Synge, the leading Irish latitudinarian.) Religious belief is then seen as the product of an individual following his or her reason where it leads. This means that latitudinarian philosophy needs to focus on providing direct arguments in favor of particular doctrines so that the reader’s own reason will lead her to the truth.

High-church writers typically take the notion of authority much more seriously, and are more inclined to defend their positions by arguing that the reader ought to accept certain authorities. Many, including Browne, do insist that it is possible to believe on command and that political or religious authorities may legitimately issue such commands. Again, Astell’s position is moderate. Nevertheless, the question of the scope of such authority is a central question in her philosophy. She is moderate insofar as she restricts its scope and insofar as she emphasizes the role of individual judgment in determining when to submit to which authorities. Still, despite the rhetoric of individual judgment, much of The Christian Religion is about how to distinguish between just and unjust authorities, so that we may submit to the just authorities (who derive their authority from God) while rejecting the unjust. Authority, including authority over belief, remains a major theme.

Putting these two contrast together, I think, points to one reason why it’s worth caring about the way philosophy emerges in this conflict. It can seem that the high-church faction, insofar as they are conservative and anti-modern, are ‘on the wrong side of history’ and irrelevant to philosophical progress. But this is not so, for a variety of reasons. In the first place, well-known modern philosophers like Locke often endorse pretty extreme forms of epistemological individualism and write as if they can’t conceive of alternatives. The move today toward social epistemology, with worries about testimony, expertise, and the knowledge possessed by groups or institutions is a reaction against this. But the fact is, Locke and friends can conceive of alternatives. Indeed, many of their contemporaries, drawing on Medieval sources, advocated alternatives. Furthermore, these high-church thinkers were in no position to just take authority for granted. After all, they had to argue against Locke and friends and they also had to justify the Reformation. So the question of which authorities we should follow when and why were very much alive for them.

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


  • Philosophers who are aware of this dispute have sometimes mischaracterized Berkeley as belonging to the high-church faction. I am currently working on a book interpreting Berkeley as a latitudinarian. This was the occasion for this post.

** Anti-modern approaches can never be the same as pre-modern approaches. To say that a philosophers, like Peter Browne, is anti-modern is to say that he is reacting against modern philosophy by trying to bring back Aquinas and friends in the age of Locke. Browne, however, is acutely aware that he’s living in the age of Locke.

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Again, your lordship [Stillingfleet] charges me, that I do not place certainty in syllogism; I crave leave to ask again, and does your lordship? … And if you do, I know nothing so requisite, as that you should advise all people, women and all, to betake themselves immediately to the universities, and to the learning of logic, to put themselves out of the dangerous state of scepticism: for there young lads, by being taught syllogism, arrive at certainty; whereas, without mode and figure, the world is in perfect ignorance and uncertainty, and is sure of nothing. The merchant cannot be certain that his account is right cast up, nor the lady that her coach is not a wheelbarrow, nor her dairymaid that one and one pound of butter are two pounds of butter, and two and two four; and all for want of mode and figure; nay, according to this rule, whoever lived before Aristotle, or him, whoever it was, that first introduced syllogism, could not be certain of any thing; no, not that there was a God, which will be the present state of the far greatest part of mankind (to pass by whole nations of the East, as China and Indostan, &c.) even in the Christian world, who to this day have not the syllogistical methods of demonstration, and so cannot be certain of any thing.

John Locke, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter: Wherein, besides other incident Matters, what his Lordship has said concerning Certainty by Reason, Certainty by Ideas, and Certainty by Faith; the Resurrection of the Body; the Immateriality of the Soul; the Inconsistency of Mr. Locke’s Notions with the Articles of the Christian Faith, and their Tendency to Scepticism; is examined (1699), vol. 4, pp. 386-387 in the 1823 edition of Locke’s Works.

To post-Fregean ears, it is perhaps strange to hear that Locke’s Essay was, in the decades following its publication, regarded as a logic manual. Not only does the Essay (obviously) lack any treatment of symbolic logic, it doesn’t even give much attention to the question of validity or proper syllogistic form. At this time, however, logic was understood (as the subtitle of the Port-Royal Logic has it) as “the art of thinking.” Logic in this sense was something more like what philosophers today call normative or regulative epistemology: it was the study of how to use our cognitive faculties in such a way as to gain knowledge, or at least (perhaps especially, in Locke’s case) a degree of belief that is appropriately proportioned to the evidence.

Stillingfleet clearly reads Locke this way, for he is forever speaking of Locke’s method or way of certainty by ideas. He presents Locke as claiming to have discovered a new method of employing our cognitive faculties to gain knowledge (certainty), in a fashion that is inconsistent with what people had been doing before.

Locke, however, strenuously objects to this characterization in many places (including the quotation above). Locke repeatedly insists that, although the modern use of the word ‘idea’ may be due to Descartes and so (relatively) new, there is nothing new about the path to certainty he describes in the Essay. Back in his reply to Stillingfleet’s first answer, Locke insists that “if [the account given in the Essay] be new, it is but a new history of an old thing. For I think it will not be doubted, that men always performed the actions of thinking, reasoning, believing, and knowing, just after the same manner that they do now; though whether the same account has heretofore been given of the way how they performed these actions, or wherein they consisted, I do not know” (p. 135). This ‘history’, Locke says, is a description of the actions of his own mind, and his justification for publishing it lies in the assumption that other minds perform similar actions to his (pp. 138-9 and 143-5).

However, Locke’s own description of the Essay as a work of (natural) history—i.e., a mere description—is not inconsistent with its status as a logic—i.e., a work aimed at improving our thinking. The model for taking these things together is the Port-Royal Logic (1662), a work whose influence on Locke is well-documented. In the Preface to that work, the authors (Arnauld and Nicole) give the following account of the aims of logic:

… this art [of thinking, i.e. logic] does not consist in finding the means to perform [mental] operations, since nature alone furnishes them in giving us reason, but in reflecting on what nature makes us do, which serves three purposes.

The first is to assure us that we are using reason well, since thinking about the rule makes us pay new attention to it.

The second is to reveal and explain more easily the errors or defects that can occur in mental operations. For we frequently discover by the natural light of reason alone that some reasoning is fallacious without, however, knowing why it is so…

The third purpose is to make us better acquainted with the nature of the mind by reflecting on its actions (p. 23 of Buroker’s translation).

Arnauld and Nicole hold, as Locke does, that logic is in the first place descriptive because the ability to perform various cognitive operations is part of our natural endowment. The procedure, then, is to examine the functioning of human minds in order to understand the errors to which they are liable and, ultimately, to improve cognitive performance. To use an analogy, studying logic is more like athletic training than it is like learning to cook. It’s not a matter of learning to follow a new set of recipes, algorithms, or procedures, it’s a matter of practicing and training to hone a set of abilities naturally possessed by human beings.

To this end, Locke claims (still following Port-Royal, and both of them following Descartes), syllogisms and logical axioms are almost totally useless. As Arnauld and Nicole suggest, “those who could not recognize a fallacy by the light of reason alone would usually not be able to understand the rules behind it, much less to apply them” (Buroker, p. 135), and (as we saw in my last post) Locke makes basically the same case regarding maxims/axioms.

There is, however, a further line of argument, which is quite explicit in the quote at the top of this post, and is my reason for using the word ‘populist’ in the title: ordinary people, who haven’t been given a ‘Scholastic’ education and have never heard of Aristotelian syllogisms or maxims/axioms are perfectly capable of reasoning and gaining knowledge. It follows from that explicit awareness and employment of this method is not the primary or only basis for reasoning or knowledge. Of course, particular self-evident truths fall under universal maxims, and particular instances of good reasoning fall under syllogistic rules. But these are descriptive generalizations drawn by the philosopher trying to understand the human mind; they are not (or at least not ordinarily) tools employed in reasoning. This can be seen as a kind of externalism, holding that one can follow a rule of reasoning without having knowledge of the rule (see “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree”). This kind of externalism has a populist basis: it is supported (in part) by Locke’s insistence that the dairymaid needs no help from Aristotle in order to be capable of reasoning and knowledge.

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

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The Rules established in the Schools … seem to lay the foundation of all other Knowledge in these Maxims … [but in fact] where our Ideas are determined in our Minds, and have annexed to them by us known and steady, Names under those settled Determinations, there is little need, or no use at all of these Maxims … he that needs any proof to make him certain, and give his Assent to this Proposition, that Two are equal to two, will also have need of proof to make him admit that What is, is.

John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), §§4.7.8, 19

herein lies the fundamental Mistake, that you presume that we are not to judge of things by the general Principles of Reason, but by particular Ideas.

Edward Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester’s ANSWER to Mr. Locke‘s Second Letter; Wherein his NOTION of IDEAS Is prov’d to be Inconsistent with it self, And with the ARTICLES of the CHRISTIAN FAITH (1698), 156

It is typically assumed (primarily, I suppose, due to the influence of Reid) that critics of the ‘Way of Ideas’ are mainly concerned with its (alleged) introduction of a veil of ideas. Some early critics are indeed concerned about this. For instance, John Sergeant writes, “when a Gentleman bids his Servant fetch him a Pint of Wine; he does not mean to bid him to fetch the Idea of Wine in his own head, but the Wine it self which is in the Cellar” (p. 33). Sergeant’s book was published in 1697, the same year as Stillingfleet’s Vindication, and the two of them are the earliest writers I know to use the phrase “Way of Ideas.”

Stillingfleet, however, does not seem particularly concerned with the veil of ideas. Stillingfleet flails around a bit trying to locate what’s actually wrong with the Way of Ideas, and he frequently misunderstands Locke’s theory. However, in his second reply to Locke he finally clearly and explicitly indicates a principle of the Way of Ideas to which he objects.

As I documented in §3 of “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree,” beginning from Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind (c. 1628) proponents of the Way of Ideas held that knowledge by means of particular ideas was prior to knowledge by means of the knowledge of the universal ‘maxims,’ ‘axioms,’ or ‘principles’ of Aristotelian science. One way this was sometimes expressed was as the claim that particular propositions were just as eligible (perhaps more eligible) to be first principles as universal propositions. Thus, knowledge that 2=2 is prior to the general knowledge that ∀x(x=x). On this view, particular agreements and disagreements of ideas fall under general or universal maxims, but the truth of these universal maxims is recognized, at least in part, through the truth of their instances. Someone incapable of recognizing the truth of ‘2=2’ would be equally incapable of recognizing the abstract general statement ‘∀x(x=x)’. As Locke says, “Who perceives not, that a Child certainly knows, that a Stranger is not its Mother; that its Sucking-bottle is not the Rod, long before he knows that ’tis impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be?” (Essay, §4.7.9). Locke’s chapter “Of Maxims” (Essay, ch. 4.7) is in fact one of the clearest statements of this view.

In his preceding polemics against the Way of Ideas, the objection toward which Stillingfleet had been flailing was a lack of objectivity in the Way of Ideas: ideas are subjective mental states, anyone can associate any idea with the word ‘person’, and the agreements or disagreements the thinker finds in with this idea will count as items of knowledge. Thus there are no fundamental, objective truths about personhood.

In the course of trying to make this objection stick, Stillingfleet keeps getting tripped up by use and mention. Locke keeps pointing out that of course it is arbitrary what the English word ‘person’ means! But this is not the kind of arbitrariness Stillingfleet is driving at. Finally, near the end of his last entry into the controversy, Stillingfleet hits on Locke’s attack on Aristotelian maxims as the core of his objection. And this is precisely where Stillingfleet should be pushing, because what Stillingfleet needs is emphatically not an objectively right answer to the question “what idea/concept/notion should be associated with the word ‘person’?” Rather, what Stillingfleet needs is for a sentence like “a person is a thinking being” to express an objective truth about the world, and not just a description of the idea the speaker associates with the word ‘person’. Thus when Stillingfleet insists that his (Trinitarian) “Difference of Nature and Person is not imaginary and fictitious but grounded upon the real Nature of things” (157), he is not merely saying that ‘nature’ and ‘person’ happen, contingently, to signify different ideas for him. The distinction between these is not merely a distinction within his own ideas. Rather, self-evident ‘principles of reason’ can be expressed using these words, but in order to express these principles by these words we must use the words with different significations.

There is, however, a problem here: people cannot agree on what is ‘self-evident’. Aristotle seems to just shrug this off: not everyone’s intellect functions properly. But the Way of Ideas was supposed to make some progress on this issue, by requiring careful scrutiny of ideas to discern their agreements and disagreements. Of course this raises the problem of whether our ideas themselves might be somehow wrong, but proponents of the Way of Ideas addressed this issue at length, and some discussions yield more objectivity and less skepticism than Locke’s. Stillingfleet must answer the question, how do we recognize something as a principle of reason? Reid would later address this question in great detail, but Stillingfleet does not. As a result, it is far from clear that Stillingfleet’s ‘Way of Certainty’ provides any more objectivity than Locke’s Way of Ideas. It is no more difficult for a philosopher (or theologian) to insist that her own starting points are principles of reason than for her to insist that her starting points are manifest agreements among her ideas.

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

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