Materialism and panpsychism (making things from Bayle’s Dictionary)

[Cross-posted from Modsquad.]

In an earlier post I talked about some arguments in Bayle’s Dictionary. In notes to the article ‘Dicaearchus’ Bayle argues against the view that certain material things can think because of the way their parts are arranged. I suggested at the end of that post, rather hesitantly, that one might gloss the conclusion as ‘the only way to be a materialist is to be Spinoza’. That still strikes me as not quite right. But Bayle does provide the materials to construct an argument for a somewhat Spinozistic sort of materialism, one that does not rely on the arrangement of material things to explain why some material things can think.

Bayle does argue against Spinoza. But what he argues against most prominently is Spinoza’s monism (see note N to ‘Spinoza’). Suppose we take the Spinozistic idea that substances have at least two attributes, thought and extension, but drop the claim that there is only one substance. Then we have a sort of non-monistic Spinozism. On this view, every substance is material (because it has the attribute of extension) but also thinking (because it has the attribute of thought). This is the sort of view that is suggested by reading the ‘Dicaearchus’ arguments as arguments that the only way to be a materialist is to hold that body has an irreducible power of thought.

Further support for that view is provided by Bayle’s argument in ‘Leucippus’ that atomists could have avoided objections to their view by arguing that “each atom had a soul and feeling”. (See the main text of that article and also note E.) Bayle does not straightforwardly support this sort of animist or panpsychist atomism. Atomists with this view would, he argues, “not have avoided all of the difficulties”. However he also says that it “is is no small thing to be able to parry some of the blows”. And what is this view that parries the blows? It is an atomist version of the non-monistic Spinozism described above.

Bayle suggests in these various places that the best way to be a materialist is to think that all bodies have the irreducible power of thought. This is not Spinoza’s view, even as Bayle understands it, despite Bayle’s view that Spinoza, given his other commitments, “ought to have recognized that everything in nature thinks”. For this view is non-monistic, contrary to Spinoza’s “monstrous hypothesis”. But this non-monistic Spinozism is a better view, Bayle thinks, than the ordinary materialist view that relies on the organization of unthinking parts to produce thought. It’s probably better in Bayle’s eyes than a Lockean superaddition view too (see note M to ‘Dicaearchus’).

Having constructed this position out of bits and pieces in Bayle’s Dictionary, one might wonder whether it is in fact Bayle’s position. That would be overreaching, even without the general difficulties of figuring out Bayle’s overall position from the many and varied arguments he presents. To attribute to Bayle the conditional ‘if you must be a materialist, be this sort of materialist’ is much more straightforward. And these arguments also illustrate a way in which Bayle’s book can be (and was) used: as a source of materials, from which one can construct things rather different than those constructed by Bayle. Hume does this, for instance. Consider for instance the way Hume uses arguments against Spinoizistic monism in Treatise 1.4.5 (and notice the explicit reference to Bayle’s article ‘Spinoza’).

Published by Stewart Duncan

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Florida