Posts Tagged ‘Spinoza’

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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Modern authors regularly published anonymously. Why did they do so, and to what effect? How to handle anonymous texts in scholarship? We discussed these topics in a recent panel on Anonymous Modern Philosophy with Julia Joráti, Alex Douglas, and Sandra Lapointe at the APA Pacific. Here you can listen to recordings of the talks:


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Anonymous Modern Philosophy
Panel of the Society for Modern Philosophy
APA Pacific Division Meeting 2016
Thursday Evening, March 31: 8:00-10:00 P.M.


  • Juli Joráti (Ohio State): Early Modern vs. Medieval Anonymity
  • Alexander X. Douglas (Heythrop College/St Andrews): The Spinozist Model of Anonymity and the Tractatus-Theologico Politicus
  • Sandra Lapointe (McMaster): Rooting for the Underdogs

Authorship is central to our grasp of philosophical contributions. People tend to associate an idea with its originator—think of: ‘Platonist’, ‘Humean’—and especially for the modern period, scholarship on seven big names dominates the field. However, not all philosophical moves have been made by identified figures. Sometimes authors made deliberate efforts to remain hidden from view, be it to allow for a more neutral assessment of their work, or to distance themselves from controversial opinions. As yet, only fragmented attention has been paid to the anonymous and pseudonymous face of modern philosophy.

This panel will begin to address this gap. Its findings will have implications not only for efforts to reshape the philosophical canon, but also for thinking about named authorship in research practices more generally.

Event hashtag: #AnonModPhil
Web: http://anonphil.github.io


Early Modern vs. Medieval Anonymity

It was not at all rare for early modern philosophers to publish or circulate their work anonymously. In fact, nearly all commonly studied early modern figures did so at least once: Descartes, Spinoza, Conway, Locke, Masham, du Chatelet, and Hume, to name just a few. Nevertheless, the early modern period is also a period in which named authorship becomes more and more important. It is in this period that ideas come to be viewed increasingly as the property of those who first expressed them, and in which authors come to expect to be given credit when others make use of their ideas. This is evident, for instance, in the heated dispute between Leibniz and Newton over the invention of the calculus. Some early modern philosophers even argue for intellectual property rights explicitly. My paper aims to show that as a result of this new attitude toward named authorship, anonymity also takes on a different meaning for both authors and readers.

More specifically, the paper explores the shift in attitudes toward named authorship—and, relatedly, toward anonymity—that appears to coincide roughly with the transition from the medieval to the early modern period. A widely accepted narrative has it that it was quite common in the medieval period to circulate one’s work anonymously but that this changed radically shortly after the advent of the printed book. While medieval authors were not all that interested in putting their name on their work, renaissance and early modern authors were usually eager to do so, except in special cases. The shift is often attributed partly to print conventionsand partly to changing views about the centrality of the identity of the author. To put it starkly, the common narrative claims that early modern authors generally have bigger egos than their medieval counterparts, and hence stronger desires that their ideas be associated with their names.

This narrative, like most broad narratives that draw a sharp contrast between medieval and early modern attitudes, is of course over-simplified. Yet, there is some truth in it as well: the notions of intellectual property, copyright, and plagiarism seem to have developed after the invention of the printing press. The identity of the author becomes increasingly important in early modern Europe and certain authors even attain the status of celebrities. As a result, publishing under one’s name starts to become the default, which in turn means that when an author withholds her name, it is quite likely that she thinks there are special reasons in favor of anonymity. While it is entirely possible for a medieval author to write anonymously without giving much thought to the matter, it is quite unlikely in the case of early modern authors. This in turn, my paper contends, also changes the ways in which readers perceive anonymity.

The Spinozist Model of Anonymity and the Tractatus-Theologico Politicus

Why did Spinoza choose to publish his philosophy anonymously? He might have done so in order to protect himself from persecution. But there are reasons to doubt that this was his main motive.

Perhaps Spinoza aimed to show himself to be above ambition, which was in those days recognised as a vice. Descartes and his followers in the Dutch Republic were accused of harbouring this vice: while claiming to pursue truth, it was alleged, what they actually sought was to be admired for their cleverness.

Spinoza, in the Tractatus, turned the accusation against the accusers: those who condemn the writings of others do in order to win “the applause of the crowd”; they are the ones corrupted by ambition. But he then risked having the accusation turned back upon himself. Anonymous publication made any such counter accusation appear much less plausible.

It was, however, very important for Spinoza not simply to appear unmotivated by ambition in writing his philosophy, but also to be so unmotivated. His psychological theory rules it impossible to convey one’s philosophical thoughts to somebody without also transferring to her the motivations that prompted those thoughts. If ambition is among those motivations, the philosophy will have a corrupting effect. And the contagion of ambition is, for Spinoza, among the most dangerous of all the social pathologies.

Rooting for the Underdogs

There are many things wrong about our conception of what counts as canonical in philosophy in the nineteenth century, and with the idea of a canon in general. Considering the case of Bernard Bolzano is quite enlightening. It shows that the value of philosophical ideas has little to do with authorship and popularity. Our focus on “founding giants” and “great minds” is tainted by perspective, prejudice and all sorts of complicated assumptions, most of which are fed by bias. At the same time, part of the interest of doing the history of philosophy—as opposed to rational reconstruction—is to tell a story, explain how theories arise and develop in context, and anonymity is not a very good engine for narratives. This raises a number of questions about historical methodology and surprisingly little has been written on the topic. In this talk I will make a few suggestions.

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Thanks again to Chloe Armstrong and Jeff McDonough for their discussion last week. Here are links to all the relevant posts.

The paper being discussed: “Leibniz, Spinoza and an Alleged Dilemma for Rationalists”

Chloe’s first post, A Leibnizian Way Out of the Rationalist’s Dilemma (Part 1): https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/a-leibnizian-way-out-of-the-rationalists-dilemma-part-1/

Jeff’s first reply: https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-leibnizian-way-out-of-the-rationalists-dilemma-mcdonough-reply-part-1/

Chloe’s second post: A Leibnizian Way Out of the Rationalist’s Dilemma (Part 2): https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/a-leibnizian-way-out-of-the-rationalists-dilemma-part-2/

Jeff’s second reply: https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/mcdonough-reply-part-2/

Comments on all these posts will remain open for another couple of weeks, if anyone else wants to contribute to the discussion.


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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

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At the end of her last post, Armstrong raised the question of why we should be tempted to follow Leibniz’s way out of Della Rocca’s Dilemma if we reject key aspects of Leibniz’s way into the problem. The short answer, I think, is that the aspects of Leibniz’s way into the problem that are most problematic are not essential to his way out of Della Rocca’s Dilemma. Leibniz’s suspect commitment to relations being at least partially ontologically grounded in the divine intellect makes Della Rocca’s Dilemma more challenging, not less. Watching Leibniz juggle five balls makes it easier to see how we can juggle three.


I introduced the distinction between ontological and semantic grounding largely to explain the sense in which relations are and are not ideal for Leibniz. If we turn specifically to Della Rocca’s argument against the possibility of relata jointly grounding relations I don’t think that distinction is particularly important. What is important is the thought that at least some relational facts might be wholly grounded in their relata, that, for example, the fact that a and b co-exist might be wholly grounded in the existence of a and the existence of b. Borrowing notation that I learned from my colleague Selim Berker, we might express (what I’ll call) Leibniz’s Key Thought by saying that [p • q] <- [p], [q] where “[p]” is shorthand for “the fact that p,” and “[p] <- [q]” is shorthand for “[p] is fully grounded in [q].”


Although I think most contemporary philosophers accept Leibniz’s Key Thought, Della Rocca and Bradley would, I believe, demur. They think that [p], [q] cannot fully ground [p • q] on their own. Something more, in their view, is needed, namely, [p] and [q]’s standing in a certain relation, call it “R.” So, to fully ground [p • q], we’d need at least [p], [q] and R. But wait, they’ll say, [p], [q] and R also can’t fully ground [p • q] on their own. For the same reason as before, something more is needed, namely, their standing in some relation, call it “R’”. And so on. If one allows the first regress, obviously we’ll be off to the races. Either we will be committed to doubling back at some point, falling into a vicious circle, or we’ll be launched on an infinite regress. I think contemporary rationalists should follow Leibniz’s lead and nip the regress in the bud by accepting his Key Thought.


If I’ve understood her correctly, Armstrong sees Della Rocca’s argument against the possibility of relata jointly grounding relations slightly differently. Her suggestion is that, according to Della Rocca, “the coexistence of a and b requires the relation of partial grounding, which is itself grounded in the coexistence of a and b.” This suggestion, she thinks, generates an “additional fact in need of explanation … namely, why does the fact that a’s existence partially grounds a and b’s coexistence require appeal to both a and b?” But, as I think Armstrong would agree, if there is such a fact as a’s existence partially grounds a and b’s coexistence, it looks like it too can be grounded in a’s existence and b’s existence. Using Berker’s shorthand, and letting “[p] <- – – [q]” stand for “[p] is partially grounded in [q],” we can say [[p • q] <- – -[p]] <- [p], [q]. If Leibniz’s Key Thought is accepted, it will take care not only of Della Rocca’s Dilemma as I’ve interpreted it, but also as Armstrong has interpreted it. Either way, contemporary rationalists could do a whole lot worse than to follow Leibniz’s way out of Della Rocca’s Dilemma.


Thanks again to Armstrong for her careful reading and thoughtful comments. And thanks to Stewart Duncan for setting up our exchange.


[Posted on behalf of Jeff McDonough]

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In Part 1, I raised some questions about how to understand semantic grounding as a response to the Rationalist’s Dilemma within Leibniz’s system. In this post, I will explore the notion of semantic grounding as a response to the dilemma as it arises for adherents to the PSR more generally.


According to McDonough’s solution, relations are semantically grounded in their relata jointly and still satisfy the PSR. In particular, McDonough thinks that the relation of coexistence is unproblematically grounded in the existence of its relata:


If one has an explanation for the fact that my dog exists, and one has an explanation for the fact that my cat exists, then ipsis factis one has an explanation for the fact that both my dog and cat exist…what is harder to imagine is [Leibniz] agreeing with the intuition that, say, having explained the fact that one substance exists and the fact that another substance exists, there should remain an additional fact still standing in need of explanation, namely, the fact that both substances exist (McDonough 379).


However, Della Rocca offers an argument against the possibility of relata jointly grounding relations. This argument is part of what makes Della Rocca’s dilemma worrisome for those that accept the PSR but reject Leibniz’s views on the ideality of relations (or substance-accident ontology for that matter). Della Rocca argues that the coexistence of objects cannot be grounded in the existence of those objects as follows:


…in order for a relation between a and b to hold, the relation must be partially grounded in a (and also partially grounded in b). Call this relation of partial grounding (between a and R) R’. So R holds in part because R’ holds. Why does R’, the relation of partial grounding between a and R, hold? There’s a relation, R’, of partial grounding between a and R only because a coexists with b. Call the relation of coexistence R”…Now in virtue of what do a and b co-exist, i.e. in virtue of what does the relation, R”, of coexistence hold? Just as R’ obtains in part because a and b coexist, so too R” obtains because a and b coexist…so R” holds in part because R” holds…And here we reach a circular explanation of a relation (Della Rocca 149).


The key move in the above argument is that grounding the coexistence of a and b requires the relation of partial grounding, which is itself grounded in the coexistence of a and b. McDonough, as we saw above, thinks that coexistence can be semantically grounded in existence, because it’s unlikely that “there should remain an additional fact still standing in need of explanation, namely, the fact that both substances exist.” It is, however, worth revisiting this issue precisely because Della Rocca does not think that coexistence directly appeals to the coexistence of both a and b. Instead, the relation of partial grounding generates appeals to the coexistence of a and b. My point is that the additional fact in need of explanation is a fact about grounding—namely, why does the fact that a’s existence partially grounds a and b’s coexistence require appeal to both a and b?


Perhaps Della Rocca is emphasizing the partial aspect of this relation. In order for it to be true that a partially grounds the coexistence of a and b, b must also partially ground coexistence. So the conditions under which a partially grounds a and b’s coexistence depends upon both a and b existing, or their coexistence.


On the one hand, I’m not sure I’m doing Della Rocca’s objection justice for, when reframed this way, it is still difficult to see why the partial grounding relation requires appeal to coexistence. The partial grounding relation itself is not so specific as to involve the other objects involved in partial grounding. Thus, to my mind, a’s existing partially grounds the coexistence of a and b in the same way that a’s existing partially grounds the coexistence of a and c, in the same way it would partially ground the coexistence of a, b, and c.


On the other hand, it is also true that a’s existence does not partially ground a and b’s coexistence without b’s existence. This, at least for me, gives Della Rocca’s worry some bite. But what this suggests is that a’s partial grounding depends on b’s existence, and thus only derivatively on the coexistence of a and b. So we have reason to think that a’s partial grounding relation too depends on a’s existence and b’s existence. This is consistent with what McDonough says about semantic grounding: not only is coexistence grounded in existence, but also the partial grounding of coexistence is grounded in existence. What is surprising, perhaps, is that a’s partial grounding depends upon b’s existence, but as long as it does not depend on their coexistence it is not circular.


Della Rocca’s argument above focuses on circularity, but he also raises an infinite regress worry—a Bradley-style regress—whereby the relation between x and y is grounded in a further relation which is grounded in other relations which are themselves grounded in other relations and so on (151). The relation of partial grounding is itself partially grounded thus there is the possibility for an infinite regress of grounding relations. While Leibniz seems opposed to an ontological regress of relations (see Mugnai 2010) it is less clear whether he would object to a semantic regress. Because the issue here is rooted in the ontological aspect of relations I have focused more on the circularity worry. However, if partial grounding can be grounded in existence, then even if there are an infinite number of semantic grounding relations as long as the ground for each is not itself a relation there is not a vicious semantic regress.


I’ll leave it to the reader to determine the gravity of Della Rocca’s objection, and the viability of my recommendations using McDonough’s resources. But, as I’ve rendered it, I think that Della Rocca’s objections raise the following important questions for developing a notion of semantic grounding:


  1. Do semantically grounded relations generate further truths about grounding?
  2. If grounding is a relation, are its instances semantically grounded?
  3. Is coexistence the (partial?) ground of the grounding relation for coexistence?


Works Cited

Della Rocca, Michael (2012). “Violations of the Principle of Sufficient Reason in Leibniz and Spinoza.” In Fabrice Correia and Benjamin Schnieder (Eds.), Metaphysical Grounding, Understanding the Structure of Reality (139-164). Cambridge University Press.


McDonough, Jeffrey (2015). “An Alleged Dilemma for Rationalists.Ergo, 2, 367-392.


Mugnai, Massimo (2010). “Leibniz and ‘Bradley’s Regress.’” The Leibniz Review, 20, 1-12.

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