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Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

This post brings me back to my earlier themes of materialism and panpsychism. But it largely developed from my trying to understand one of Henry More’s examples. More believed there to be incorporeal substances, including human minds, ghosts, and a further spirit quite unlike the others, the spirit of nature. More’s central argument for the existence of a spirit of nature relied on a series of examples of phenomena that could (allegedly) only be explained with reference to such a spirit.

One such phenomenon was the sympathetic resonance of unison strings. Roughly speaking, given two strings that are tuned to the same note, if the first is sounded, the second will start to sound the note as well, even though it has not been plucked or otherwise touched itself. As More puts it, there is a power that “makes strings that be tuned Unisons (though on several Instruments) the one being touched, the other to tremble and move very sensibly, and to cast off a straw or pin or any such small thing laid upon it” (More 1659, 451).

More was far from the first philosopher to notice this phenomenon. The example occurs in such diverse places as Plotinus’s Enneads (4.4.40-4, quoted at Gouk 1999, 87), and Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (Bacon 1627, 72). Hume later used it to help illustrate his psychological sort of sympathy. Of most immediate relevance, however, is a discussion in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle.

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In an earlier post I talked about some arguments in Bayle’s Dictionary. In notes to the article ‘Dicaearchus’ Bayle argues against the view that certain material things can think because of the way their parts are arranged. I suggested at the end of that post, rather hesitantly, that one might gloss the conclusion as ‘the only way to be a materialist is to be Spinoza’. That still strikes me as not quite right. But Bayle does provide the materials to construct an argument for a somewhat Spinozistic sort of materialism, one that does not rely on the arrangement of material things to explain why some material things can think.

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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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In thinking about early modern materialism, I’ve repeatedly come across the view that materialism implies panpsychism. This claim has some current resonance, in that Galen Strawson has been arguing for a version of it. And it has several early modern sources. Thomas Hobbes worried that his materialist account of perception would lead him to a sort of panpsychism. Henry More argued that the changes Hobbes made to his view to avoid this did not solve the problem. Margaret Cavendish was a panpsychist materialist, and thought that non-panpsychist materialists, such as Hobbes aimed to be, could not adequately explain the workings of the world. There’s also, I believe, a version of the claim that materialism implies panpsychism in John Locke’s Essay (in 4.10.10). And there’s another version — the one I describe below — in Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary. This being, at least, a curiously persistent theme, it seems to be worth some investigation.

In note C to the article “Dicaearchus”, Bayle argues against the view (Dicaearchus’s view, as he has it) that body can think. Bayle’s argument works in something like the following way.

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