March 10, 2011

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Two Bad Footnotes

I found two rather bad footnotes in student editions of early modern texts this week. Both texts are from the Oxford Philosophical Texts (OPT) series. The first makes a rather contentious historical/interpretive claim, and doesn't seem to recognize that it is doing so; the second is an outright error.

The first footnote is in the OPT edition of Hume's first Enquiry. In the course of a critique of occasionalism, Hume writes,

It argues more wisdom to contrive at first the fabric of the world with such perfect foresight that, of itself, and by its proper operation, it may serve all the purposes of providence, than if the great Creator were obliged every moment to adjust its parts, and animate by his breath all the wheels of that stupendous machine. (Enq sect. 7, para. 22)

At the end of this quotation, editor Tom L. Beauchamp has the note:
To extricate occasionalists (and perhaps other believers in divine providence) from difficulties in their theories, Hume here offers an alternative, namely deism. The deists were late 17th- and early 18th-century figures in France and England who maintained that God contrives the fabric of the world, but does not intervene after Creation.

The problem? Well, it seems to me that in this quotation Hume is referring to Leibniz. The three works of Leibniz with which Hume was most likely to be familiar were the "New System of Nature" and the subsequent exchanges which took place in the Journal des Savants in 1695 and 1696, the 1710 Theodicy, and the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, which Clarke published shortly after Leibniz's death in 1716. (Hume's Enquiry was published in 1748). Additionally, Hume was a big fan of Pierre Bayle, whose Historical-Critical Dictionary included a famous discussion of Leibniz's views, based mostly on the "New System." Now consider the following quotations:
Imagine two clocks, or two watches, which always tell exactly the same time. This can be done in three ways. The first is by mutual influence of one clock on the other; the second, by the attentions of a man who looks after them; the third by their own accuracy ... Now put the soul and the body in the place of these two clocks. Their agreement or sympathy can also come about in one of these three ways ... [The third way is] my theory, the way of pre-established harmony, set up by a contrivance of divine foreknowledge, which formed each of these substances from the outset in so perfect, so regular, and so exact a manner, that merely by following out its own laws, which were given to it when it was brought into being, each substance is nevertheless in harmony with the other ... Assuming God is capable of this, it is evident that this is the most admirable way, and the one most worthy of him. ("Extract From a Letter Written by M. Leibniz About His Philosophical Hypothesis" [AKA "Third Explanation of the New System"], Journal des Savants 38 (1696), tr. Woolhouse and Francks)

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers also have a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to them, God almighty needs to wind up his watch from time to time, otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. No, the machine of God's making is so imperfect, according to these gentlemen, that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it, as a clockmaker mends his work, who must consequently be so much the more unskillful a workman as he is more often obliged to mend his work and set it right. (Leibniz's First Paper, from the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, para. 4, tr. Ariew and Garber)

I maintain [the creation] to be a watch that goes without needing to be mended by him; otherwise we must say that God revises himself. No, God has foreseen everything. He has provided a remedy for everything beforehand. (Leibniz's Second Paper, from the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, para. 8)

Quotations could be multiplied, but I think these three make my point. Now, is Leibniz a deist? Well, deism is supposed specifically to involve the denial of particular providence, the doctrine that God cares about what happens to individuals, as opposed to only caring about the general course of the world. Hume does, of course, go on to discuss this view in sect. 11. Leibniz explicitly denies that his view has this consequence:
This opinion does not exclude God's providence or his government of the world; on the contrary, it makes it perfect. A true providence of God requires a perfect foresight. But then it requires, moreover, not only that he should have foreseen everything but also that he should have provided for everything beforehand with proper remedies; otherwise he must either want wisdom to foresee things or power to provide for them. (Leibniz's Second Paper to Clarke, para. 9)

Leibniz thinks that his view is the way to preserve the traditional picture of God against deism, Socinainism, and so forth. Furthermore, he's right.

The second bad footnote is in the OPT Leibniz collection. Section 23 of the Discourse on Metaphysics ends this way:

[The ontological argument for the existence of God] only proves that God necessarily exists if he is possible. It is indeed an excellent privilege of the divine nature to need only its possibility or essence in order actually to exist - exactly what is called an ens a se.

At this point, editors R. S. Woolhouse and Richard Francks refer us to the glossary entry for ens per se. Note the different preposition. The bibliography entry in question reads, "a Latin Scholastic phrase meaning 'a being through itself' - not dependent on anything else for its existence," which is a correct definition of ens per se. It is not, however, a correct definition of ens a se, which literally means 'a being from itself'. An ens per se or, equivalently, an unum per se ('one through itself'), is contrasted in Leibniz (and in the Scholastic tradition, though some Scholastics make more distinctions than Leibniz does) with ens per aggregationem or unum per aggregationem. In these latter cases, the thing is a unity/being only because various elements are combined together by a perceiving mind. Considered apart from mind's perceiving it, it is not one thing, but many. An ens per se has no such dependence.

Ens a se, on the other hand, is glossed by Leibniz in the passage quoted: to be an ens a se is to have the "privilege ... to need only [one's] possibility or essence in order to actually exist" or, as is sometimes said, to exist from the necessity of one's own nature. Only God is an ens a se.

I note that the old Morris and Parkinson collection of Leibniz's writings has a somewhat more helpful (or at least correct) footnote, referring us to this passage from the "Specimen of Discoveries:"

If there were no necessary being, there would be no contingent being; for a reason must be given why a contingent thing should exist rather than not exist. But there would be no such reason unless there were a being which is in itself, that is, a being the reason for whose existence is contained in its own essence, so that there is no need for a reason outside it. (Morris and Parkinson, pp. 76-77, emphasis added)

Posted by Kenny at March 10, 2011 2:08 PM
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