Posts Tagged ‘Peter Browne’

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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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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