Steel Center for the Study of Religion and Philosophy Presentation (Thursday, Nov. 16, 7:00 p.m., Mills Center)
Gideon Manning, Claremont Graduate University
“Death: A History”
manning photo

This talk will explore some of the myriad ways in which death is more than a biological event, for it is a historical event in the fullest sense, affecting art, literature, economics, government organization, and cultural and social practices. This is easiest to see when death occurs on a massive scale, as in epidemics, like the Black Death, or in times of war, like the U.S. Civil War. By focusing on these events and the broader history of death, this talk will identify some of the changes that have occurred in how death is experienced, represented, and has been conceived in Western culture. Questions that will be relevant to the subjects discussed include: What is the ideal death? How does a good death relate to a good life? How should we plan for death? What role do physicians have at the end of life? How should we mourn? Is death to be feared? Is immortality desirable? References will be made to the history of medicine, ancient and contemporary philosophy, the Old and New Testament, sociology, history of economics, and literature.

2017 South Central Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy Abstracts

Gideon Manning, Claremont Graduate University
“Descartes’ Human Body Problem”
manning photo

It is a commonplace to describe Descartes as advocating a stark metaphysical dualism between two substances or ways of being. It is equally common to observe that a host of problems follow from Descartes’s mind-body dualism, the most famous of which relate to the nature of the interaction and union between mind and body. My talk will focus on a problem little discussed but, I believe, central to the history of Cartesianism: the ontological status of the human body. To begin, I will remind us that Descartes avoids appeal to substantial forms in his natural philosophy, the implication of which is that the human body is not a body with a substantial form. Next, I will argue that Descartes’s promiscuous use of the label “substance” has obscured his view that particular bodies, like the human body, are, at most, modes of a substance. After this, I will show that Descartes believes a human body can only be identified through its relation to a human mind, implying that the former cannot exist without being “informed” by the latter. In other words, the human body is neither just a substance, nor independent of the human mind, and, therefore, it is not a mode of corporeal substance alone. Finally, having identified Descartes’s human body problem, I will indicate how these conclusions might be compatible with the “real distinction” between mind and body as it is presented in Meditation Six.

Steve Dezort, Texas A&M University
“Locke's Aesop's Fables as a Primer for Moral Demonstration”
dezort photo

Among Locke’s lesser-known works is his Aesop’s Fables, a text which trains one to be consistent in relating words to corresponding ideas. The infrequent discussions of this text focus on how it is a practical example of Locke’s language-learning system found in his Thoughts Concerning Education, or its place within the overall history of early-modern fable-telling [For the former: Stray (1991): 115-121; Latimer (1952/53); Beeler (1948). For the latter: Lerer (2008); Daniel (1982); Ferguson (1984); Horwitz and Finn (1975)]. The plentiful literature on moral demonstration is confined to Locke’s more canonical writing [Rossiter (2016); van Bunge (2011); Maat (2011); Colman (2010); Wilson (2007)]. No one before has linked Locke’s Fables to the moral project implicit in the Essay. In the Essay, Locke maintains that equal certainty is possible in both mathematics and ethics through demonstration—the perception of agreement or disagreement between intuitive ideas, through which more sophisticated ideas are made evident (4.3.19). Morality is harder to demonstrate than mathematics, because while morality is expressible with words only, mathematics is expressible in “diagrams.” Additionally, the ideas of morality are more complex than those of mathematics. Thus, before morality can be demonstrated, extra preparation is needed. Locke’s Fables provides the apparatus to do so.
    The Fables serves simultaneously as a textbook for language-learning and moral instruction. Locke presents each fable using his “interlinear” method. Each fable is presented line-by-line, with the English over the Latin. To learn either language, one need only divert her gaze from one line to learn the other. Through Locke’s method, the pupil learns the meaning of each word or phrase within each language, rather than one language in terms of the other. Additionally, the Fables no doubt teach morality, and the close connection between language and morals Locke establishes using his interlinear method prepares the pupil for more sophisticated moral thinking.
    In the Essay, Locke establishes that just as there is a connection between signs and things or actions, there is a connection between language and morality: “Things themselves, for the discovery of Truth; Or about the Things in his own Power, which are his own Actions,” and that it is “Signs the Mind makes use of both in the one and the other, and the right ordering of them for its clearer Information” (4.21.5). The consistent use of definitions, particularly those of complex ideas, is essential for moral demonstration. Through demonstration, ideas of the intuition reveal less-evident ideas through intermediate ideas, or “proofs” (as Locke calls them). Any moral demonstration will proceed from moral ideas grounded in the intuition, to less-evident moral ideas. Locke’s Fables educate both in ways of speaking and ways of thinking and acting—all of which are requisite for the sophisticated thinking needed to demonstrate morality.

Galen Barry, Iona College
“A Puzzle about Inference in Spinoza”
barry photo

Spinoza’s geometrical method relies heavily on our ability to draw inferences from ideas of self- contradictory beings. This is most apparent in the Ethics, where many of the most important reductio arguments require the reader to draw inferences from such self-contradictory beings as one-attribute substances, finite substances, and created substances. There is nothing unique about Spinoza’s reliance on these sorts of inferences. They constitute a traditional argument form and one which Spinoza seems entitled to use. The purpose of this paper is rather to argue that he faces a puzzle about how they are supposed to work. I argue that he faces the following apparently inconsistent triad:
    (A) We can draw inferences from a consideration of self-contradictory beings.
    (B) In order to draw an inference from x, we must be able to form an idea of x.
    (C) We cannot form an idea about self-contradictory beings.
The first part of the paper argues that Spinoza is prima facie committed to (A), (B), and (C). First, he is clear, both explicitly and in his use of such inferences, that he thinks (A) is true. Second, he is committed to (B), I argue, by his view that argumentation and inference-making are mental phenomena. Finally, in defense of (C), Spinoza writes: “it should be noted that we may properly call a Chimaera a verbal being because it is neither in the intellect nor in the imagination. For it cannot be expressed except in words. E.g., we can, indeed, express a square circle in words, but we cannot imagine it in any way, much less understand it” (G I 241/C I 307). He elaborates in the Treatisethat we cannot form an idea of a self-contradictory being because we cannot unite the contradictories in thought: “if by chance we should say that men are changed into beasts, that is said very generally, so that there is in the mind no concept, i.e., idea, or connection of subject and predicate” (G II 24/C I 28).
    The solution I propose is derived from Spinoza’s discussion of composite and simple ideas in the Treatise. There Spinoza argues that all simple ideas are true and that correct thought requires a dissolution of flawed, composite ideas into their constituent parts. He writes: “if an idea is of some most simple thing, it can only be clear and distinct… it follows that if, in thought, we divide a thing that is composed of many things into all its most simple parts, and attend to each separately, all confusion will disappear.” (G II 24/ C I 29). I argue that we can draw inferences from a consideration of self-contradictory beings even if we cannot form an idea of them. We do this by forming an idea of each logically consistent part of the self-contradictory being in isolation. When we do so, its normal set of logical connections becomes available. Spinoza can therefore explain how the foundational inferences of the Ethics work without abandoning any of his views on representation or argumentation.

Andrew Youpa, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
“Spinoza’s Friendship Ethics”
youpa photo

In this paper I show that the virtue of nobility (generositas), in Spinoza's view, is a type of empowered love that calls for educating and befriending others. I argue that joining others in friendship is a prerequisite for coming to their aid by teaching others how to live joyously and lovingly.
     On the one hand, Spinoza maintains that "virtue" and "power" are synonymous: an individual is virtuous and powerful "insofar as he has the power of bringing about certain things, which can be understood through the laws of his nature alone" (4D8). Real power is the power to be an adequate cause (3D1, 4D8). On the other hand, Spinoza uses "virtue" to refer to specific ways that adequate causal power can be harnessed and directed. These two meanings of "virtue" appear side by side in the demonstration of 4p56 where he claims that the ignorant man is ignorant of "all the virtues" and "does not act from virtue at all, i.e. (as is evident from D8), is extremely weak-minded" (4p56d). In speaking of "all the virtues" he is talking about virtues as specific ways that adequate causal power can be harnessed and directed. In contrast, when he claims that the ignorant man "does not act from virtue" he is talking about virtue simply as adequate causal power. The latter meaning of "virtue" is the one that features in the official definition of "virtue" (4D8), and virtue in this sense constitutes what Spinoza calls "strength of character" (fortitudo): "All actions that follow from affects related to the Mind insofar as it understands [intelligit] I relate to Strength of character [fortitudinem]. . ." (3p59s). Someone who performs deeds on the basis of understanding has the virtue of strength of character.
     Furthermore, strength of character is a genus that contains two primary species of virtue. First, there is the virtue of tenacity (animositas), which is defined as the ". . . Desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to preserve his being" (3p59s). Tenacity is the virtue of taking intelligent care of oneself. Second, there is the virtue of nobility (generositas), which is defined as the ". . . Desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to aid other men and join them to him in friendship" (3p59s). Nobility is the virtue of taking intelligent care of others. In this paper that I show that to aid people is to contribute to the removal obstacles that prevent them from living joyously and lovingly, and to contribute directly to empowering others to live joyously and lovingly. First and foremost, this means contributing to people's education and to the conditions that facilitate education, and Spinoza holds that friendship is a prerequisite for empowering others through education.

Matthew Wurst, University of Toronto
“Leibniz on the Asymmetries Between Divine and Human Freedom”
wurst photo

Leibniz is a compatibilist about divine freedom. Indeed, Leibniz thinks that God is mostfree just because God is infallibly determined by reasons of goodness to the best. Leibniz also thinks that rational creatures are made in the image of God. For Leibniz, this means that rational creatures exercise freedom in the same way that God exercises freedom.
     But Leibniz acknowledges important asymmetries between divine and human freedom. Further, Leibniz thinks that these asymmetries imply different degrees and better and worse uses of freedom. So although God is free in the same way that human beings are free, God is more free than human beings. And although the blessed are free in the same way that you and I (and all those in via) are free, the blessed are freer than you and I.
    Recently, some commentators have argued that there are incompatibilist strains in Leibniz’s thought [Michael Murray, “Spontaneity and Freedom in Leibniz” in Leibniz: Nature and Freedom, eds. Donald Rutherford and J. A. Cover; Ori Beck, “Leibniz—A Freedom Libertarian,” Studia Leibnitiana 47; Cranston Paull, “Leibniz and the Miracle of Freedom,” Nous 26]. For Murray, Leibnizian moral necessity (which is compatible with freedom) is incompatible with psychological determination. And for Beck and Paull, Leibnizian free actions are inconsistent with physical determination. Beck and Paull draw support for their interpretation from provocative passages in Necessary and Contingent Truths (NCT). Further, for Beck, the passages from NCT show that Leibniz is a physical compatibilist about divine freedom and the freedom of the blessed, but a physical incompatibilist about human freedom.
     But I argue that Leibniz embraces a psychological determinism whereby one’s psychological states causally necessitate one’s volitions at all levels. Further, at all levels, freedom is not only consistent with psychological determination, but requires it. In addition, this psychological determination is a determination at least as strong as physical determination.
    So I deny that there are incompatibilist strains in Leibniz’s thought. But I argue that these interpretations and the passages to which Beck and Paull refer highlight something interesting; namely, the asymmetries between divine and human freedom. For Leibniz, one’s psychological states always necessitate one’s volitions. But the kinds of psychological states that necessitate God’s volitions are different from those that necessitate the volitions of the blessed; and those, in turn, are different from those that necessitate the volitions of you and me. Further, the kinds of psychological states necessitating God’s volitions imply the best use and highest degree of freedom, and those necessitating the volitions of the blessed imply a better use and higher degree of freedom than those necessitating the volitions of you and me. Thus, interpretations defending incompatibilist strains in Leibniz are untenable. Rather, Leibniz holds that freedom always requires psychological determination. But considering the asymmetries between divine and human freedom, I argue, leads to a richer understanding of Leibnizian freedom generally.

Tobias Flattery, Notre Dame University
“Worlds-Apart, Causal Independence, and Existential Independence in Leibniz’s Metaphysics: A Partial Defense of the Lawful Approach”
flattery photo

On the ‘logical approach’ to interpreting incompossibility in Leibniz’s metaphysics, two substances are incompossible just in case it is logically impossible for both to co-exist: if God created both, a contradiction would result. Some logical approach advocates also accept ‘world-boundness’, i.e., the claim that all members of the same possible world are existentially bound together: if God creates one, then God must create the others, on pain of contradiction.
    By contrast, defenders of the ‘lawful approach’—the other major camp in the incompossibility debate—hold as a central thesis that created substances are existentially independent of one another: it is possible, strictly speaking, for God to create any substance with or without any other. On this approach, then, incompossibility cannot be a logical relation. Rather, two substances are ‘incompossible’ just in case both cannot co-exist given some universal law(s) that God freely chooses. Lawful defenders also deny world–boundness, since it is inconsistent with the independence thesis. One important source of textual evidence for the independence thesis is drawn from so-called ‘world-apart’ passages, in which Leibniz claims that every substance is “like a world apart,” independent of all other things except God. However, some skeptics of the lawful approach have sought to undermine the independence thesis—and by extension, the lawful approach—by calling into question whether world–apart passages really do support existential independence. Instead, they argue, these passages are best read as supporting only the claim that substances are causally, but not existentially, independent.
    I seek to undermine this undermining argument. I argue that it need not matter, ultimately, whether lawful defenders interpret Leibniz in the world-apart passages as claiming that substances are existentially independent or causally independent. I argue that this is so, since existential independence will in any case follow, provided one accepts certain plausible interpretations of Leibniz’s complete concept theory and causal independence, interpretations likely to be accepted by logical advocates and at least some lawful defenders. Plausibly, every substance has a complete individual concept that contains all of its (the substance’s) properties; every complete concept represents its substance’s individual essence or nature; and all substances are causally independent (as well as causally active and causally sufficient). I then argue that causal independence, along with complete concept theory, rules out any binding (i.e., existence-entailing) intersubstantial relations, and thus that created substances are existentially independent.
    This result—that a commitment to causal independence (with complete concept theory) leads to a commitment to existential independence—is interesting in its own right. But it also allows lawful defenders to affirm existential independence, and to deny world–boundness, without having to settle the interpretive question concerning the world-apart passages. I also consider whether there might be intersubstantial relations not ruled out by causal independence, and thus immune to my argument; but I conclude that it is most plausible that there are not.

Timothy Yenter, University of Mississippi
“Ether/Orb: Scottish Newtonians on Causes and Gravity””
yenter photo

A pressing problem for Scottish Newtonians was whether and how to explain how gravity appears to act as it does. This problem has nested problems, such as whether a thing can act where it is not present and what could possibly be an efficient cause of a body’s movement. Roughly, five positions emerged among those whom we could call Newtonians:
    (A) God is the only cause (Andrew Baxter, although he at times seems to go for the second position, below),
    (B) God as well as subordinate immaterial agents are the immediate causes (Thomas Reid, on one understanding of causes),
    (C) ether is part of the causal explanation for how gravity acts (Colin Maclaurin seems most open to this),
    (D) a refusal to decide between ether and immaterial agents as explanations (Henry Pemberton, to whom many Scots responded), and
    (E) the causal powers described by gravity are “impressed upon” or inherent in matter (Roger Cotes, Joseph Priestley).
    I argue that the most important determinant of an eighteenth century Scottish Newtonian’s position on gravity, ether, and causation is the philosopher’s interpretation of Newton, particularly what his methodology is and how it should be replicated. More narrowly, we can best understand Newton’s impact on Thomas Reid’s metaphysics by seeing a sharp divide between his public, modest, Maclaurian natural philosophy and his private, Baxterian openness to divine causation of all or almost all things.
    With methodology in mind, we can see why Baxter adopts a possibly occasionalist account that eliminates ether as a possibility. Newton’s publicly endorsed positions are correct, and good natural philosophy is equivalent to speculative metaphysics that builds on Newton’s findings, leading directly to the existence of an always acting God. Baxter, then, is a Newtonian only in the starting point for his metaphysics.
    By contrast, for Maclaurin, Newton’s advances are not just what he showed but also his experimentalist methods (which he frequently contrasts with Cartesian “speculative” philosophy). According to Maclaurin, Newton rightly discussed ether in his “queries,” which lack the certainty of his other published conclusions, but which we should treat as a live possibility.
    Reid adopts Maclaurin’s methodological modesty about assigning causes when doing natural people. In natural philosophy, causes (understood as natural laws) describe what happens at the level of phenomena, but do not explain the perceived effects, and we don’t know enough about efficient causes to know how or whether they explain their effects, but presumably they do. However, in his private correspondence, in his notebooks, and in his lectures, Reid endorses Baxter’s bolder conclusions about God’s activity in the world. Reid’s incorporation of Newton into his philosophy is complex, partly because of a sharp division that he draws between natural philosophy and metaphysics.

Daniel Collette, St Norbert College
“Hume’s Pascalian Antidote: Skepticism and its Skeptical Solutions”
collette photo

Hume’s Enquiry offers an antidote to skepticism based on custom and habit. As is well known, he questions human ability to know matters of fact, a posteriori beliefs with epistemic certainty. But this raises practical concerns, as reasoning this way does not seem to match lived experience. We believe, for instance, that the sun will rise tomorrow, regardless of its uncertainty. Hume offers an antidote, accounting for these deviations without compromising his skepticism—we form beliefs, he says, not only with reason but also with custom and habit. These habitual beliefs are not knowledge, but act as a mental shortcut. We cannot know that the sun will rise tomorrow, but because of custom and habit we can live our lives as though it will. So for Hume, though custom falls short of human understanding, it is an important aspect of belief formation that allows for more advanced inquiry.
    In my paper I show that Blaise Pascal articulates Hume’s antidote a century before the Enquiry, even before those who are most typically identified as influencing Hume on this point, viz. Locke and Butler. In the Pensées, Pascal outlines a skeptical program, with some important qualifications. What Pascal describes is that belief formation is not always rational but sometimes grounded in something precognitive. It is common for commentators to emphasize Pascal making these claims on religion; e.g., religious beliefs form by compelling the will directly to believe, bypassing reason. But custom is more broadly applied beyond religion in the Pensées to also include ordinary experiences. “How few things are demonstrated!” he writes, “[C]ustom provides our strongest and most firmly believed proofs. It inclines the automaton, which drags the mind unconsciously with it. Who has demonstrated that tomorrow will dawn and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom that persuades us…” (S661/L821). Though in Pascal’s philosophy, we often lack epistemic certainty on important issues like ethics and religion, custom allows us to form beliefs from acting habitually as though we had knowledge.
    Given our epistemic limits, it is beneficial that most of our beliefs are formed by custom and habit: “to have proof before us is too much trouble. We must acquire an easier belief, which is that of habit, which, without violence, art, or argument, makes us believe things and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that our soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by the power of conviction and when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary” (S661/L821).
    In my paper, I accomplish at least two things. First, I establish that Pascal offered the “Humean” solution a century earlier by offering a careful analysis of the role of custom and habit in both of their thought. Second, beyond the immediate historical interest of this discovery, seeing Hume’s antidote as Pascalian allows for new ways of insight into both of their skepticism.

Rudmer Bijlsma, University of Lausanne
“Alienation in Commercial Society: The Republican Perspective of Rousseau and Ferguson”
bijlsma photo

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Ferguson shared a highly critical analysis of the commercial societies of their time. The many citizens who engaged in commercial pursuits were following their self-interest, the two philosophers agreed, and became ever less interested in defending the public cause. Not just the persistence of their freedom under the rule of law was in jeopardy, but also their personal experience of being free human beings living meaningful lives. Commercial society’s citizens were alienated from their true selves due to the fragmentation, the selfishness, and insincerity that characterized modern life and its typical modes of human interaction.
    This paper explores the common ground in Rousseau’s and Ferguson’s republican critiques of commercial society by focusing on their analyses of modern alienation. It contributes in an innovative way to the debate on Rousseau’s relation to, and influence on Scottish Enlightenment republicanism, which has thus far chiefly focused on the Rousseau–Smith connection. It addresses two (interrelated) aspects of alienation as Rousseau and Ferguson see it.
    The first aspect concerns the insincerity that characterizes the new moral vocabulary of politeness, so much valued by contemporaries like Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith. Ferguson and Rousseau see it as a superficial veneer of benevolence, needed to advance one’s position and as such disguising actual motivations. The polite disposition is a mere residue of the truer moral sentiments that humans have, or develop, when placed in more wholesome social conditions. Modern society, then, makes us less than human, alienates us from our better selves.
    The second aspect of alienation the paper scrutinizes concerns the division of labour. Both philosophers see this division as a threat for the person’s integrity. Specialization causes us to give up tasks that are essential for our inner and outer freedom. We become dependent on others, Rousseau says, which leads to ever greater inequality. Both thinkers see a particular threat in political and military specialization. A country needs citizens willing to stand up for their liberty through political participation and, if necessary, in war. Such activities also ennoble the spirit, building a moderately proud citizenry of free equals. Like Smith’s, Ferguson’s critique of specialization has a particularly modern ring with its account of the repetitive, mind-numbing work of the factory laborer.
    Finally, the paper points to the relevance of Rousseau and Ferguson for contemporary republicanism. Their accounts of alienation suggest that realizing a negative ideal of liberty as non-domination is not enough. This aligns them with later republican proponents of a more inclusive conception of liberty who also see alienation as a socio-political threat (cf. Arendt 1958; Schuppert 2015). Further, their analyses lead them, in part, to an attitude of resignation. Rousseau seems to have believed France to be beyond salvation, while Ferguson thinks that the alienation of the factory worker is a given fact of modern life (as opposed to the elite’s alienation, which can be remedied through political participation). So, they force us to think about our own hopes for modern societies: What degree, and what kinds of republican freedom do we still consider achievable today?