January 5, 2018

Stillingfleet's Target

I have now, I say, the satisfaction to see how I lay directly in your lordship's [Stillingfleet's] way, in opposing these gentlemen, who lay all foundation of certainty, as to matters of faith, upon clear and distinct ideas; i.e. the Unitarians, the gentlemen of this new way of reasoning; so dangerous to the doctrine of the Trinity. For the author of Christianity not mysterious [Toland] agreeing with them in some things, and with me in others; he being joined to them on one side by an account of reason, that supposes clear and distinct ideas necessary to certainty; and to me on the other side by saying, "the mind has its ideas from sensation and reflection, and those are the materials and foundations of all our knowledge," &c. who can deny but so ranged in a row, your lordship may place yourself so, that we may seem but one object, and so one shot be aimed at us altogether? Though, if your lordship would be at the pains to change your station a little, and view us on the other side, we should visibly appear to be very far asunder; and I, in particular, be found, in the matter controverted, to be nearer to your lordship, than to either of them, or any body else, who lay all foundation of certainty as to matters of faith, upon clear and distinct ideas. For I perfectly assent to what your lordship saith, "that there are many things of which we may be certain, and yet can have no clear and distinct ides of them."

John Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Letter, Concerning some Passages Relating to Mr. Locke's Essay of Human Understanding, in a Late Discourse of his Lordship's, in Vindication of the Trinity (1697). Vol. 4, pp. 107-108 in the 1823 edition of Locke's Works.

Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), bishop of Worcester, was more a religious polemicist than a philosopher. I do not say this to dismiss his philosophical relevance: the categories of 'religious polemic' and 'philosophy' have significant overlap, and the two are often carried out by he same people, sometimes at the same time. Indeed, I think much, perhaps most, of 17th and 18th century European philosophy just is religious polemic, and that this does not make it any less philosophical. Stillingfleet, however, is immersed in the unitarian controversy and the deist controversy, and he is clearly more comfortable with the historical and exegetical aspects of those controversies than the philosophical ones.

Nevertheless, Stillingfleet was a highly educated, respected intellectual, and has no difficulty producing relevant quotations from a wide variety of modern philosophical works. It is curious, then, that Stillingfleet has so much difficulty seeing any differences among the moderns. Not only does he lump Locke, Toland, and the unitarians together, he also doesn't seem to be able to tell them apart from Descartes and Hobbes. The target of Stillingfleet's polemic ends up being (just as Locke complains) an odd amalgam of modern philosophers and heterodox religious writers, that is hard to connect to any one thinker. Locke's metaphor in the quote above gets things exactly right in terms of the linkage between Locke, Toland, and the unitarians (though Locke exaggerates his distance from the others): Stillingfleet is looking at the situation from a certain angle, which causes all these views to merge into one, but from another angle they are quite distinct.

This is interesting to me from a historigraphical perspective. Evidently it was possible, in the late 17th century, for a well-educated and well-informed reader of these philosophical texts to regard Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Toland as members of a common philosophical school which was giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the established church. Perhaps even more surpisingly, in 1706 one William Carroll wrote a book arguing that Locke was a secret Spinozist! From what angle are these writers viewing these (from our perspective) very different philosophers in order to lump them together?

In "Berkeley's Lockean Religious Epistemology," I treated Stillingfleet among Locke's conservative critics, along with Peter Browne and John Sergeant. In his controversy with Locke, Stillingfleet certainly presents himself this way. It is tempting, then, to class Stillingfleet as one of my anti-modern philosophers. However, matters are more complicated, in at least two ways.

First, as M. A. Stewart has shown, Stillingfleet had been one of the leading latitudinarians and in early works had shown much less hostility to modern philosophy and the 'Way of Ideas'.

Second, Stillingfleet says (repeatedly) that what he opposes is a "new way of reasoning, of certainty by ideas." In other words, Stillingfleet's opposition is not explicitly directed at (what I regard as) the central defining doctrines of philosophical modernism, mechanism and epistemological individualism. What he rejects are certain modern accounts of reasoning and certainty that are expressed using the word 'idea'.

Is there a common doctrine here, that cuts across the differences between the philosophers Stillingfleet lumps together? I propose as a hypothesis the following: Stillingfleet's real underlying concern about the way of ideas is that, as he understands it, it makes all definitions arbitrary: it is merely a psychological fact that we associate a certain idea with the word 'person' and another with the word 'substance'. There is no Aristotelian 'real definition' of person. This, Stillingfleet thinks, provides us with no basis for a real defense of the Trinity; we can at best defend a Trinitarian form of words. This explains why Stillingfleet can't tell the difference between Locke's theory of nominal essence and Hobbes's very different theory of general words: both exhibit the arbitrariness to which Stillingfleet objects.

One slightly troubling datum for this hypothesis is that Stillingfleet does sometimes blame Descartes for creating this whole mess, but Descartes's "true and immutable natures" would seem to be just what Stillingfleet wants. Perhaps, though, Stillingfleet thinks that some of Descartes's remarks about ideas have pushed people in this bad direction, although there's nothing wrong with Descartes's theory per se. If this was his view, it would explain why he appears more favorable to 'idea' talk in other texts.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad)

Posted by Kenny at January 5, 2018 3:39 PM
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