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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 Colin Maclaurin’s four-volume An Account of Sir Issac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries, published posthumously by his wife Anne, he responds in a footnote to Spinoza’s “Epistle 15,” the so-called “worm in the blood” letter. In Spinoza’s letter he considers how a small animal living in a bloodstream would consider particles to be wholes that the animal whose blood it is would consider to be parts. Spinoza raises a number of interesting conclusions from this, which I won’t go into here.

Maclaurin, a mathematician and philosopher deeply influenced by Newton, denies that human beings can be usefully and correctly compared to such minute animals. Humans, according to Maclaurin’s footnote (Book 1, page 18), “must be allowed to be the first being that pertains to this globe, which, for any thing we know, may be as considerable (not in magnitude, but in more valuable respects) as any in the solar system, which is itself, perhaps, not inferior to any other system in these parts of the vast expanse.” Although with respect to magnitude this planet and its “first being” are not considerable in magnitude, it is appropriate that humans have the particular situation that they do. If they were “occupying a lower place in nature,” they could better understand other minute things but “would have been in no condition to institute an analysis of nature, in that case.” (Maclaurin here seems to conflate being smaller in magnitude with being in a “lower place in nature,” which seems to be the very problem that he justly rejected in the previous two sentences.) On the other side, if we were larger we might have “access to the distant parts of the system,” but this would lead us to “too great attention on” these distant parts. By indulging in a “correspondence with the planets” and then the fixed stars and ultimately infinite space, a person would fail in the duties “incumbent upon him, as a member of society.” Humans are thus properly suited by their magnitude not to fall too easily into investigations of the very small or very large; attempting comprehensive knowledge of either would be detrimental to human society, according to Maclaurin. The trade-off is that we fall short of comprehensive knowledge of the minute and “the distant parts of the system,” but we are able to carry out an “analysis of nature.”

Maclaurin’s footnote is an elaboration and defense of his claim that “tracing the chain of causes is the most noble pursuit of philosophy.” This task begins with what is sensible to us, and those things that are sensible to us are “those things which are proportioned to sense.” He wants to go further, though, and claim that there is something special about our situation such that we are well positioned to carry out this investigation–so well positioned that we can infer a divine appointment. However, Maclaurin’s response to Spinoza is suspicious, seemingly a “just-so” story about our place in a divinely ordained order. Can anything be said on his behalf that doesn’t assume a number of contentious claims about a divine first cause that ordered the universe and situated us just so? In other words, why can’t there be a noble philosophy for the “animalcules in the blood discovered by Microscopes”?

 

Full text of the footnote (in context at this link):

If we were to examine more particularly the situation of man in nature we should find reason to conclude perhaps that it is well adapted to one of his faculties and inclinations for extending his knowledge in such a manner as might be consistent with other duties incumbent upon him and that they have not judged rightly who have compared him in this respect (Spinoz. Epist. 15) with the animalcules in the blood discovered by Microscopes. He must be allowed to be the first being that pertains to this globe which for any thing we know may be as considerable not in magnitude but in more valuable respects as any in the solar system which is itself perhaps not inferior to any other system in these parts of the vast expanse. By occupying a lower place in rature man might have more easily seen what passes amongst the minute particles of matter but he would have lost more than he could have gained by this advantage. He would have been in no condition to institute an analysis of nature in that case. On the other hand we doubt not but there are excellent reasons why he should not have access to the distant parts of the system and must be contented at present with a very imperfect knowledge of them. The duties incumbent upon him as a member of society might have suffered by too great an attention to them or communication with them. Had he been indulged in a correspondence with the planets, he next would have desired to pry into the state of the fixed stars, and at length to comprehend infinite space.

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At a recent conference I gave a paper on Leibniz’s correspondence with Thomas Burnett of Kemnay. Among my questions was how Locke appeared to Leibniz. Did he look like a Socinian, or similar sort of religiously dubious character? In answering that, it would be good to have some idea of how Leibniz thought about Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity. But Leibniz said relatively little explicitly about that text. There is, however, an argument in Leibniz’s correspondence with Burnett that seems to bear on the issue.

It seems to me that too many books aiming to prove the truth of religion are written in your country. That’s a bad sign, and is something that doesn’t always have a good effect … I have often thought, and others have come to agree with me, that preachers should usually avoid this issue, because instead of relieving doubts, they give rise to them. Books in vernacular languages have this effect most often … I’d prefer that we concentrated on making the wisdom of God known through physics and mathematics, by revealing more and more of the wonders of nature. That’s the real way to convince the profane, and should be the goal of philosophy (Leibniz to Burnett, 18 July 1701, A 1.20.185, pp.286-7).

(more…)

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