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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Browne’

At the beginning of the final (and by far the longest) chapter of his 1733 Divine Analogy, Peter Browne reports that “JUST as this Treatise was finished and sent away to the Press, I was very accidentaly surprised with a threatning Appearance of a powerful Attack upon the Doctrine of Divine Analogy, from an anonymous Author under the Disguise of a Minute Philosopher” (p. 374). The reference is, of course, to Berkeley’s 1732 Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher. Browne proceeds to offer a lengthy critique of the account of religious language found in Berkeley’s fourth and seventh dialogues.

Browne correctly recognizes that Berkeley’s key thesis in the seventh dialogue is that “words may be significant although they do not stand for ideas” (Alciphron, §7.8). Browne interprets Berkeley as subsequently strengthening this thesis ultimately to arrive at the claim “that Words may be Significant, tho’ they signify Nothing” (Divine Analogy, 534). Browne’s reading of Berkeley here is, I believe, correct.

Browne further notes, again correctly, that Berkeley aims to secure the meaningfulness of words by means of their ability to influence our lives. As Berkeley puts it, “A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act or excites to the doing or forbearance of an action may, it seems, be useful and significant, although the words whereof it is composed should not bring each a distinct idea into our minds” (Alciphron, §7.8).

Browne finds this notion, and particularly its application to religion, so shocking that he often seems to be sputtering with rage. (Actually, it seems that “sputtering with rage” is Browne’s normal literary persona; Berkeley is far from being the only object of his ire.) The hastily written chapter, added in response to Berkeley, goes on for some 180 pages (more than a third of the book) and runs from one objection to another in a rather disorganized pattern. Further, Browne never spends so much as a moment contemplating how Berkeley might respond to his objections, or indeed whether Berkeley might have already anticipated and responded to the objection. Nevertheless, Browne’s remarks are occasionally insightful.

I discovered today, in the ‘insightful’ category, an objection of Browne’s that passes rather quickly which I hadn’t noticed before:

Surely if there be any common Sence remaining it will inform us, that it is some Idea or Conception or Notion in the Mind, affixed to the Word or excited by it, which gives it all its Significancy[,] Life and Activity; and which renders it a Ruling Principle, as he calls it [Alciphron, §7.4], for the Conduct of Men’s Faith and Practice … where [people] have [no ideas] annexed to [words] or excited by them, they are downright Nonsence; and of no real Influence, Use, or Signification. But if it were true, as this Author asserts, that Words without any Ideas or Conceptions belonging to them could realy affect and move us; such Emotions would be merely Mechanical: At Best Men must be affected as mere Animals only; they would be moved when there was nothing but Wind or Sound to move them; they must be wrought upon and disposed without any Concurrence of Thinking or Reason; and they would be intirely under the Guidance and Direction of Tones and Accents of the Voice, without any Rational, Moral, or Religious Influence and Meaning. (Divine Analogy, 536-537)

A. D. Woozley characterized Berkeley as holding “that not only does intelligent and intelligible handling of [words and other signs] not require a concomitant shadow sequence of images in the stream of consciousness, but it does not require any accompaniment at all” (pp. 431-432). Browne’s objection is that such a view leaves no room for rational agency. If I, as an agent, am to respond to the words I hear, this response must be mediated by some kind of cognitive process. In the absence of such a cognitive process, my response to the words would be merely ‘mechanical’, like a response to a posthypnotic suggestion. This would be particularly disastrous in the case of religious language which is meant (according to both Berkeley and Browne) to be productive of moral virtue.

Browne’s concerns would only have been heightened if he had seen the discussion of ‘reward’ talk in Berkeley’s unpublished Manuscript Introduction (see folios 22-25). As David Berman has suggested (p. 162), this sounds a lot like Pavlovian conditioning: frequent association between the word ‘reward’ and positive outcomes, beginning from childhood, has made us habitually respond to it in a certain way. What Berkeley really needs to counter Browne here is an account of agency that allows that these sorts of responses directly to words, unmediated by ideas, could really count as actions of mine. I have previously tried to gather such an account from Berkeley’s works. (Browne is a little puzzled by Berkeley’s insistence in this context on the inactivity of ideas, but this is what guarantees that, even in the case of a habitual response to ideas the mind must be understood as acting rather than being acted upon.) However, when the issue is raised by Alciphron, immediately following the discussion of religious mysteries, Euphranor gives a rather deflationary account of moral agency, with which Browne could hardly be expected to be satisfied (Alciphron, §§7.19-20).

This observation also mustn’t be separated from the broader context of the debate about religious mysteries. Toland and other religious radicals had been arguing that these mysterious doctrines, though strictly speaking meaningless, operated as tools of oppression, used by the clergy to produce blind obedience in the laity. Berkeley is arguing in Alciphron that these doctrines are meaningful precisely insofar as they shape feeling and action. The question is, if words can shape our actions without the mediation of ideas, are the actions really still ours? Are we not being operated upon, as by a hypnotist? And if we are being operated upon in this way, then aren’t the ‘hypnotists’ who wield these words (i.e., the clergy) guilty of just the kind of tyrannical domination alleged by Toland?

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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In George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man, David Berman amasses considerable circumstantial evidence to the effect that Berkeley’s movement away from Locke’s theory of language may have been touched off by an in-person encounter with Archbishop William King and Provost Peter Browne (later Bishop of Cork and Ross) at a meeting of the Dublin Philosophical Society, November 19, 1707, where Berkeley read a brief paper entitle ‘Of Infinities’ (included in Luce and Jessop, volume 4; see Berman 11-20). I think Berman’s overall picture is quite likely correct. In fact, in a paper called “Berkeley’s Lockean Religious Epistemology” which I am currently revising for Journal of the History of Ideas, I provide further evidence that some of Berkeley’s work can be seen as a direct response to Browne. However, I have just acquired a piece of information that partially undermines one piece of Berman’s case. This is Berman’s appeal to the controversy surrounding Berkeley’s ordination.

Berkeley was ordained in early 1710 by St. George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College (Berman 17). (In case you are wondering, this guy is not a canonical saint; his first name was actually ‘St. George.’ This may have been a political statement on the part of his parents: he was an Irish Protestant, and St. George is the patron saint of England.) Now, Berman notes that the ordination was performed in King’s jurisdiction and without King’s permission, and King actually ordered Berkeley to be prosecuted. Berkeley escaped prosecution by writing a letter of apology to King. Berman notes that A. A. Luce had previously claimed that Berkeley was simply caught in the middle of a power struggle. However, Berman supports the claim that King had personal animosity toward Berkeley by a letter of King to Ashe, dated March 27, 1710. In this letter, King alleges that Berkeley intentionally scheduled the ordination when King was out of town.

Other evidence, however, supports Luce’s interpretation. In his biography of Browne (Peter Browne: Provost, Bishop, Metaphysician (1974)), Arthur Robert Winnett documents a protracted jurisdiction dispute between Trinity College and the archdiocese of Dublin. Winnett notes that in the 1690s “It was usual … for the resident members and Fellows of Trinity College to avoid receiving holy orders from the archbishop of Dublin” (p. 4). Browne was heavily involved in this controversy on the side of the College: Browne was rector of St. Mary’s parish in Dublin from 1698 to 1699, and he entered and left this position without knowledge or consent of the Archdiocese. King became archbishop in 1703 and actually alleged that Browne’s resignation was invalid (and therefore that all subsequent appointments to the rectory were likewise invalid), since Browne tendered his resignation to the wrong office. The dispute was finally resolved by Parliament in 1717 (p. 5). All of this information seems to me strongly to favor Luce’s interpretation over Berman’s. Furthermore, it suggests that in intentionally avoiding being ordained by King Berkeley was siding with the College and therefore with Peter Browne, its provost, contrary to Berman’s portrayal of Browne and King on the same side against Berkeley.

(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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