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Posts Tagged ‘isaac watts’

NB: I found this in my drafts folder for this site from October, 2014(!). I reiterate now my desire to see more discussion of Watts. I didn’t recheck the texts, but my complaints align with what I remember of my worries from the time. (A poor confirmation.) I generally find Watts to be interesting, although I find his writing on space to be especially obscure, as his style of writing, strongly shaped by reactions to other writers, does not always make clear when we are getting his glosses on others and when we are getting his own vies..

You cannot make Space think, or will, or act, as a Spirit does; for, join Thinking and Space, which are two distinct Ideas, as near as possible in your Mind, yet you cannot unite them into one Being, nor conceive of Space as having any Share in thinking, or as exerting a Thought. So you may join Iron and Joy together in your Mind as two neighbouring Ideas, but they will be two Ideas for ever distinct: No Force can squeeze, melt or weld them together, and make them unite in one; you can never make Iron become joyful: There is an utter Inconsistency in their Ideas, and they are eternally incompatible. Space can no more exert a Thought, than Iron can exert Joy. (Isaac Watts, Philosophical Essays, 2nd Ed., Essay 1.9, p. 31)

Having given reasons for thinking that space is a real being (either God or a property of God, as many British philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries thought), Isaac Watts turns to arguing that space is not a real being. His argument often appeals to parallels with darkness, which serves as an example of how we could come to form an idea that is really a privation of something else (body or light). The passage excerpted above is part of a section in which he is giving his first set of arguments that space is not real because real beings either act or are acted upon and space neither acts nor is acted upon (that is, it has no active powers or passive capacities).

I find this particular passage perplexing. The argument perhaps owes some debt to Descartes’ conceivability argument, but it is not obviously identical to it. It also might remind readers of Locke’s thinking matter hypothesis, but since the topic is mere spatial extension and not appropriately disposed body, it is not quite the same point (although perhaps the discussion of iron suggests that Watts wants to extend the argument to body, but this still falls short of complex material systems).

What I find perplexing, though, is what it means for the two ideas to remain distinct. Watts seems to be denying that there is an unrestricted combinatorial ability in the mind (of the sort that Hume endorses for the imagination). I can’t just put any two ideas together and make a new complex idea. But why not? Does he think that if two ideas are capable of being joined it must be because they aren’t truly distinct? (E.g., I can weld my idea of the beer in the glass to the idea of the glass because they were never really distinct.) This seems oddly restrictive and at least not clear in the text. Does he think that only ideas of the same sort (e.g., regarding extension, regarding thought) can be combined? (E.g., I can combine my idea of the table and the beer into a complex idea of the beer on the table because they are not just consistent but I can “weld” them into a new idea.) This might be question-begging (or at least not an interesting argument). Does he think that there is some inconsistency in conceiving of thinking space? This wouldn’t be surprising for the time, especially for someone like Watts who wants to maintain certain orthodox religious positions. But I take this to be an argument for why they are inconsistent (if we can’t join two distinct ideas, then they are inconsistent), and I’m trying to understand the initial claim.

We can turn to his much-read logic textbook for some help. If we have two ideas, we can “join them by Affirmation, or disjoin them by Negation, according as we find them to agree or disagree” (Logick, 9th Ed., 1751, p. 142). He denies that this judgment is a “mere Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of Ideas“; judgment also includes an act of the will. In some ways, this helps explain the earlier case, since we now see that he may be thinking of “space” and “thinking” in terms of our ability to form propositions (which always involve a judgment of two ideas for Watts) and thus while “This iron is joyful” or “Space is thinking” are presumably grammatically correct they do not form actual propositions. However, this also complicates the problem because (1) we now need to address Watts on judgment and on propositions to make sense of this passage about distinct ideas, (2) by adding in the will to these judgments it is clear that he is not only restricting our ability to form new ideas without an act of the will, we also cannot form them with an act of the will, and (3) saying that we can’t will them together is no clearer than saying we can’t join distinct ideas. Even more worryingly, he claims that mathematical parts (which includes physical parts like the limbs of a human body) are really distinct but can

I apologize for not being able to pose a nice solution to this problem, and perhaps it wasn’t the best introduction to his thought. (I do think he’s worth reading, and his influence in his lifetime has not been matched by discussion of him in ours.)

Addendum: If anyone knows of work on Watts’ philosophy, I’d appreciate being made aware. Watts appears occasionally in footnotes, but I don’t know of any article-length work on his philosophical thought (rather than his hymnody).

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