Toland and testimony

Thinking about a comment of Eric Schliesser’s about “Toland’s defense of book learning against the distrust of it by Moderns” reminded me of a feature of Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious [CNM] that I find a little puzzling.

Early in Christianity not Mysterious Toland seems largely to be summarizing familiar Lockean views from the Essay. Thus he tells us, for example, that “all our Knowledg is, in effect, nothing else but the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our Ideas in a greater or lesser Number, whereinsoever this Agreement or Disagreement may consist. And because this Perception is immediate or mediate, our Knowledg is twofold” (CNM Sect. I, ch. ii; p.12). Toland thus echoes Locke’s claim in Essay IV.i.2 that “Knowledge then seems to me to be nothing but the perception of the connecxion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas“, as well as his later distinction between intuitive and demonstrative knowledge.

Toland goes on, in the next chapter, to talk a little about testimony. Now Locke has often seemed to be highly individualistic about knowledge (at least in his theoretical discussions in the Essay). Either your ideas agree or they don’t, and what other people say doesn’t have anything to do with it.[1] Toland however appears to give testimony a more central role.

Humane Authority is call’d also Moral Certitude; as when I believe an intelligible Relation made by my Friend, because I have no Reason to suspect his Veracity, nor he any Interest to deceive me. Thus all possible Matters of Fact, duly attested by coevous Persons as known to them, and successively related by others of different Times, Nations, or Interests, who could neither be impos’d upon themselves, nor be justly suspected of combining together to deceive others, ought to be receiv’d by us for as certain and indubitable as if we had seen them with our own Eyes, or heard them with our own Ears. By this means it is, I believe there was such a City as Carthage, such a Reformer as Luther, and that there is such a Kingdom as Poland. When all these Rules concur in any Matter of Fact, I take it then for Demonstration, which is nothing else but Irresistible Evidence from proper Proofs: But where any of these Conditions are wanting, the thing is uncertain, or, at best, but probable, which, with me, are not very different (CNM Sect. I, ch. III; pp.17-8).

It is not so surprising to see Toland talking about testimony, and giving it some epistemological role. More surprising, however, especially given the Lockean framework, is that testimony is apparently taken to lead to knowledge, properly so called. Of testimony that meets the various tests described, Toland says “I take it then for Demonstration“: not probability or opinion, but demonstration. And this fits quite nicely with the thought that Toland wanted to give testimony and “book learning” a more central role than typical moderns had given them.[2]

On the other hand though, it’s a little tricky to see just what Toland is up to here. For one thing, it’s hard to see how to reconcile this with the ‘agreement of ideas’ view just above it. For another, despite this talk of demonstration, testimony (or authority, as Toland calls it) is said to be just a “means of information”, rather than one of the “grounds of persuasion”. That is, he can seem to give just as little of an epistemological role to testimony as Locke does in the early chapters of Essay IV. But we can perhaps see him as wanting to find a stronger and better position for testimony within the system, even though we don’t see such a stronger position really being worked out.


[1] So, at least, it tends to seem — but see Schieber 2009 for some arguments against that.

[2] ‘Typical’ is a little tricky here — Cudworth was a modern too, in his own way.

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