Posts Tagged ‘Locke’


Interested in self-consciousness and personal identity? This week the Descartes Research Group at Western University, lead by Benjamin Hill, is holding a virtual masters seminar on Udo Thiel’s The Early Modern Subject (2011). Event details:

Friday April 29
9:00-11:00 am EDT
Western University
Arts & Humanities Building, Room 2R07

For virtual attendance, join here. The portal will open 30 minutes before the session begins.

Benjamin Hill writes:

“The session will involve Prof. Thiel answering questions and responding to critical reflections that the research group as well as a number of external experts have formulated. Philosophers interested in personal identity, consciousness, and their relationship will be especially interested in Prof Thiel’s thoughts.”

A great opportunity to dive into early modern identity questions (if you weren’t sucked into those already).

Read Full Post »


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

Read Full Post »

Jan Swammerdam, Bybel der Natuure . . . of, Historie de insecten, 1737-38, tadpole; frog


The division between authors into rationalist and empiricist is often deemed artificial. A frame imposed on early modern philosophers, not of their own making. That between speculative and experimental philosophy, by contrast, is one that also authors in the seventeenth century would have been able to identify with.

Such resonance makes it extra exciting that NYU is holding a conference on experimental philosophy with a historical bend, Experimental Philosophy Through History, on February 20th. Areas discussed range from intuition in Confucian ethics to neo-Kantian anti-empiricism, via Hume, Locke, and decapitation.

Here is the program:

“What Was the Neo-Kantian Backlash against Empirical Philosophy About?”
Scott Edgar (Saint Mary’s University)
discussion by John Richardson (New York University)


“The Curious Case of the Decapitated Frog: An Experimental Test of Epiphenomenalism?”
Alex Klein (California State University)
discussion by Henry Cowles (Yale University)




“Experimental Philosophy and Mad – Folk Psychology: Methodological Considerations from Locke”
Kathryn Tabb (Columbia University)
discussion by Don Garrett (New York University)


“Intuition and Experimentation in Confucian Ethics”
Hagop Sarkissian (Baruch College, CUNY)
discussion by Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University)




“The Impact of Experimental Natural Philosophy on Moral Philosophy in the Early Modern Period”
Peter Anstey (The University of Sydney)
discussion by Stephen Darwall (Yale University)


“Experimental Philosophy and Eighteenth-Century Sentimentalism: Hume, Turnbull, and Fordyce”
Alberto Vanzo (University of Warwick)
discussion by Alison McIntyre (Wellesley College)
Full conference details on the dedicated site.

Image: Jan Swammerdam, Bybel der Natuure … of, Historie der insecten, 1737-38, tadpole; frog

Read Full Post »

According to the Port-Royal Logic, “words are distinct and articulated sounds that people have made into signs to indicate what takes place in the mind” (Buroker 74). Similarly, according to Locke, the use of language requires that one “be able to use [articulate] Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another” (EHU 3.1.2). Passages like these support Berkeley’s interpretation of his predecessors as holding that, in the proper use of words, the speaker “design[s] them for marks of ideas in his own, which he would have them raise in the mind of the hearer” (PHK, Intro 20). This in turn implies that “significant names, every time they are used, excite in the understanding the ideas they are made to stand for” (PHK, Intro 19). In other words, Berkeley understands his opponents to hold that “communication of ideas,” which his opponents take to be “the chief and only end of language” (PHK, Intro 20), requires that the hearer ends up having the same mental state as the speaker.

One problem with this, to which Berkeley does not call attention in his critique, is what happens when one hears and understands a sentence. Although this is disputed by Walter Ott, the standard view, which I take to be well-supported by the texts, is that for both the Port-Royalists and Locke, the mental proposition (i.e., the mental state signified by a complete sentence) carries assertive force. In the mental propositions signified by simple declarative sentences that aren’t negated, the subject idea and the predicate idea are joined by an act of affirmation. To have the mental state signified by ‘Melampus is an animal’ (Berkeley’s example in the Manuscript Introduction) just is to believe (occurrently) that Melampus is an animal. But this apparently implies that one cannot understand that sentence without believing it, and that’s absurd.

In a recent paper, Jennifer Smalligan Marušić proposes an interesting and plausible solution to this problem (see ppp. 273-277). Marušić’s suggestion is that, when communication succeeds, the hearer may form an idea of the speaker’s mental state, rather than having that mental state herself. Since the Port-Royalists explicitly distinguish between the act of affirming and the idea of that act, and say that you can have one without the other (Buroker 79), this allows us to understand sentences without affirming them. Since Locke also has ideas of reflection, it seems that he can make a similar move.

A nice feature of this approach, which Marušić does not mention, is that it helps to reconcile the Port-Royalists’ claim that “for an uttered or written sound to signify is nothing other than to prompt an idea connected to this sound in the mind by striking our ears or eyes” (Buroker 66) with their claim that the verb signifies the act of affirmation, and not the idea of that act. On this reading, the verb signifies the speaker’s act of affirmation by prompting the idea of that act in the hearer. What it doesn’t signify is that the speaker has (occurrently) an idea of affirmation.

If this is right, then the Port-Royalists may not hold quite the view of language Berkeley has in mind in his critique in the Introduction to the Principles. I don’t think, though, that this has far-reaching consequences for Berkeley’s critique. For one thing, Berkeley is arguing against the very existence of the mental states (abstract ideas) the words are thought to signify; to say that only speakers need to have these ideas, while hearers may have only ideas of ideas is not a way of escape. Furthermore, the attribution of the view that understanding involves ideas of speakers’ mental states to the Port-Royalists is better supported than its attribution to Locke. Now, I do think we need to take very seriously all the things that Berkeley says indicating the breadth of his targets (using phrases like ‘received opinion’, ‘common opinion of the philosophers’, etc.). I also think it’s pretty likely that Berkeley had read the Port-Royal Logic, simply on grounds that the book was extremely widely read in the period. However, we don’t have evidence that Berkeley gave to Port-Royal the kind of sustained attention we know he gave to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. So the Port-Royal Logic‘s direct impact on Berkeley’s conception of the ‘received opinion’ was probably modest at best. (The Logic‘s indirect impact, via Locke, was enormous.)

In sum, if our project is understanding Port-Royal or Locke on their own terms, Berkeley’s presentation may be misleading, because he may well be wrong to think that understanding involves simulating what goes on in the mind of the speaker, rather than just conceiving of what goes on in the mind of the speaker. On the other hand, from Berkeley’s own perspective, this is an irrelevant, hair-splitting distinction. Since abstract ideas are impossible, and we can’t conceive of impossibilities, we can’t have ideas of abstract ideas. So regardless of which interpretation we take, Locke and Port-Royal have both speakers and hearers doing things that are (according to Berkeley) impossible.

Let me conclude with some controversial assertions about the relationship between Locke’s Essay and the Port-Royal Logic. (After all, what are blogs for?) Much of Locke’s Essay can be read as an empiricist, radical Protestant rewrite of the (Cartesian, Catholic) Port-Royal Logic. (Compare, for instance, the subtle differences in the two works’ accounts of faith and the practical upshots derived from them – Buroker 260-272; EHU 4.18-19.) But Locke does not always seem to be aware of the ways in which his own anti-Cartesian polemics undermine the Port-Royal theory of mind and language. This fact is responsible for many of Locke’s well-known inconsistencies and unclarities, as for instance on the topic of whether (and in what sense) all ideas are images.

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

Read Full Post »

I have storified this year’s Scientiae conference on emergent Early Modern knowledge practices, held in Toronto, May 27-29. The full report can be found here.

Read Full Post »

Most debates about faith and reason in the Western tradition carry the background assumption that ‘faith’ is or involves believing the teachings of the Bible. This gives rise to a rather obvious strategy for resolving any apparent conflicts between faith and reason: reinterpret the Bible. Much of what Locke says in “Of Faith and Reason, and their distinct Provinces” (EHU 4.18) depends crucially on this assumption, and this is why, in the 4th edition, Locke saw fit to add a chapter “Of Enthusiasm” (4.19) against those who claimed a direct revelation from God not mediated by language. In this post, I want to discuss some of the historical context for Locke’s claims about reinterpreting Scripture in light of discoveries made by ‘natural reason.’


Galileo is a good place to start. In his 1613 letter to Castelli and in the much expanded version of the same letter which was addressed to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615, Galileo holds that, since the Bible, as a revelation from God, teaches only truth, and reason, used correctly, yields only truth, the Bible properly interpreted and reason properly employed cannot yield contradictory results. From this Galileo concludes that if reason (including not just a priori reasoning, but also experimental reasoning) has demonstrated something, then the Bible should be interpreted in a way that makes it consistent with that claim.

Now, there ought not to have been anything shocking about this remark of Galileo’s. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers, including some of the most respected figures in the tradition (e.g., Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas), had been saying things like this for fifteen centuries already. The problem for Galileo was that he was caught in the crossfire between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as well as a general conservative backlash against increasingly open religious dissent. This is borne out by the charges brought against him. Those charges include, “interpreting Holy Scripture according to your own meaning in response to objections based on Scripture which were sometimes made to you” (from the Inquisition’s 1633 sentence, tr. Finocchiaro). Similarly, the 1615 complaint against Galileo contains the charge “that some [i.e., Galileo and his followers] want to expound Holy Scripture in their own way and against the common exposition of the Holy Fathers” (Lorini’s Complaint, tr. Finocchiaro). Similarly, Caccini’s deposition from the same year charges Galileo with holding propositions which “”are repugnant to the divine Scriptures expounded by the Holy Fathers and consequently to the faith” (emphasis added). In other words, Galileo was charged with interpreting Scripture like a Protestant, i.e., without due deference for the Church and its Tradition. He was not condemned for holding that Scripture needs to be reinterpreted when the apparent meaning of the passage turns out to be contrary to some claim known by natural reason. A second issue he ran up against was that, due to the conservative backlash that was going on at the time, ‘natural reason’ (or ‘philosophy’ or ‘science’) was being identified with Aristotle. But everyone (who knew what they were talking about) agreed that, if (e.g.) Aquinas had become convinced that it can be shown by reason that the earth moves and the sun is stationary, he would have reinterpreted Scripture in accord with this, and this would have been the right thing to do, provided there had not been a prior authoritative proclamation on the subject.

Meanwhile in Holland…

… some conservatives in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition understood the Protestant principle of sola scriptura to imply that we ought not to bring any outside information to our interpretation of Scripture. Typically, these people were reasonable enough to hold that information about the language and historical context in which the Biblical books were written was not ‘outside’ in the objectionable sense, but they held that we need to interpret the Bible first and then believe natural reason only where the Bible is silent. (These people are still around.)

In his recent book with the fantastic title A Book Forged in Hell, Steven Nadler documents a radical reaction against this approach by a friend of Spinoza’s, Lodewijk Meijer (I just read this chapter of Nadler, which was the impetus for this post). In his 1666 work, Philosophia S. Scripturae Interpres (i.e., Philosophy, the Interpreter of Sacred Scripture; an English translation was published by Marquette University Press in 2005), Meijer draws a distinction which roughly corresponds to our distinction between linguistic meaning, speaker meaning, and truth. In the case of the Bible (spoken by God), speaker meaning and truth must always align (Nadler, 122). The conclusion Meijer tries to derive from this is that, quite generally, the only way to determine which of several possible meanings of a passage God actually intended is to figure out which one(s) is/are true. This results in the conclusion that the Bible cannot reveal truths to us at all, since in order to know that a particular proposition is taught by Scripture, we first have to know that that proposition is true! (See Nadler, 124.)

Spinoza himself takes a different radical view. In the Theological Political Treatise, Spinoza argues (probably ad hominem) that even the moderate view of Maimonides, that Scripture must be interpreted so that it does not teach known falsehoods, violates an important Protestant doctrine known as the perspicuity of Scripture. This doctrine does not appear very explicitly in the confessional documents of the Dutch Reformed Church, but it was endorsed by the orthodox theologians of that tradition. Here is how the doctrine appears in the Westminster Confession (1647):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (art. 7).

Note that this statement of the doctrine is carefully qualified: it does not apply to everything revealed in Scripture, and it still claims that interpretation requires “a due use of the ordinary means.” However, the idea is still that even “the unlearned” can get at God’s revelation. Furthermore, some of the radical Protestants with whom Spinoza associated did not make these qualifications.

The reinterpretation of Scripture according to reason was introduced to avoid attributing to Scripture either known falsehoods or outright contradictions. Spinoza’s argument can be seen as posing the following dilemma: either Scripture has to be reinterpreted according to reason, in which case it is not accessible to “the unlearned,” or else Scripture teaches known falsehoods and contradictions, in which case it is not a source of truth. Spinoza grasps the second horn, holding that Scripture is a source of moral training, but not of ‘philosophical’ truth. This is not simply a matter of denying that the Bible is a science textbook; Spinoza even denies that the Bible teaches the truth about God.


Locke was in Amsterdam when he was putting the finishing touches on the Essay. He may well have read both Meijer and Spinoza: they both published originally in Latin and only later in Dutch translation, and they were both published in Amsterdam. By comparison to these writers, Locke adopts a moderate position. Locke’s position is essentially a generalization of the unobjectionable position adopted by Galileo. For Locke, “Faith .. is Assent to any Proposition, not thus made out by the Deductions of Reason; but upon the Credit of the Proposer, as coming from GOD, in some extraordinary way of Communication” (EHU 4.18.2). Faith is, in other words, belief on the basis of divine testimony. Against Meijer and Spinoza, Locke holds that divine testimony via Scripture can provide a rational basis for belief.

Locke argues that we can know with certainty the following principle:

Divine Veracity (DV): For any proposition p, if it is revealed by God that p, then p.

However, in order to show that it is revealed by God that p, we would need to show both that a particular utterance or inscription is a divine revelation and that that utterance or inscription means that p. Neither of these things can ever be known with certainty. Locke therefore appeals to the well-known principle that (as it is often put) one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens. The following two argument forms are both logically valid:

  1. God has revealed that p.
  2. Whatever God reveals is true.
  3. Therefore,

  4. p
  1. Not p.
  2. Whatever God reveals is true.
  3. Therefore,

  4. God has not revealed that p.

Locke explicitly draws from this the conclusion that if some claim is known to be false, we must conclude that that claim is not revealed by God. But his claim is more general than Galileo’s in two ways. First, the question of whether the Bible (or a particular canonical book) is a revelation from God is on the table here: one possible response is to concede that the Bible teaches the proposition in question and, on that basis, deny that the Bible is a divine revelation. Second, Locke does not have in mind only the restricted case in which the proposition in question is known with certainty. Locke’s argument suggests, much more generally, that the evidence that p is revealed has to be weighed against the evidence that p is false. Note, however, that this does not yield Meijer’s strong conclusion, and Locke explicitly points this out (EHU 4.18.7-9). Locke says explicitly that “an evident Revelation” (EHU 4.18.9, boldface added) can overcome probable belief on the basis of reason, but this is in the case where we determine, by reason, that the evidence of the revelation is stronger than the probability against the proposition. There are also some matters, Locke says, in which reason provides no basis for judgement, and revelation can provide us with probable belief in these cases. (For more on Locke’s religious epistemology, see sect. 1.1 of this paper.)

On the assumption that there is a God of a rather traditional sort, Locke’s view seems like a moderate and reasonable one. Any evidence against a proposition is evidence against that proposition’s having been revealed by God. That, however, does not necessarily render divine revelation impossible. The thought that it does probably stems from failure to recognize that probable belief plays an important role in our cognitive lives; not everything needs to be certain knowledge. (Locke would, I think, agree with this diagnosis.)

(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Read Full Post »

Thinking about a comment of Eric Schliesser’s about “Toland’s defense of book learning against the distrust of it by Moderns” reminded me of a feature of Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious [CNM] that I find a little puzzling.

Early in Christianity not Mysterious Toland seems largely to be summarizing familiar Lockean views from the Essay. Thus he tells us, for example, that “all our Knowledg is, in effect, nothing else but the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our Ideas in a greater or lesser Number, whereinsoever this Agreement or Disagreement may consist. And because this Perception is immediate or mediate, our Knowledg is twofold” (CNM Sect. I, ch. ii; p.12). Toland thus echoes Locke’s claim in Essay IV.i.2 that “Knowledge then seems to me to be nothing but the perception of the connecxion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas“, as well as his later distinction between intuitive and demonstrative knowledge.

Toland goes on, in the next chapter, to talk a little about testimony. Now Locke has often seemed to be highly individualistic about knowledge (at least in his theoretical discussions in the Essay). Either your ideas agree or they don’t, and what other people say doesn’t have anything to do with it.[1] Toland however appears to give testimony a more central role.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »