Philosophical Letters, 1.1-29

I have added a new file to my Cavendish page: Philosophical Letters, 1.1-29 (pdf). This is a modernized version of the early part of Margaret Cavendish’s 1664 Philosophical Letters: the front matter, and the first 29 letters in part 1. Most of those letters (4-29) discuss the work of Thomas Hobbes. The text has been modernized in its spelling, use of capital letters, and use of italics. Few changes have been made to Cavendish’s punctuation, the main one being to add apostrophes indicating possession.

Course description: Introduction to Philosophy (PHI2010), Fall 2016

PHI2010 is a general introduction to philosophy. It aims to introduce you to some fields and debates in philosophy; to show you something of philosophy’s history; and to develop skills in reading, discussing, and communicating that will be useful in later philosophy classes and elsewhere.

The class will be divided into three sections. The first will look at the philosophy of religion, focusing on arguments for and against the existence of God. The second section will consider topics related to the meaning of life. We will discuss how such things as pleasure, morality, love, and work relate to the value and meaning of life as a whole. The third section will look at some famous relevant works from the history of philosophy: some dialogues of Plato’s, and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.

This class meets the Humanities general education requirement. It also counts for 4000 words of the writing requirement. The main items of assessed work will be three papers, a final exam, and regular in-class clicker quizzes.

There is one required book: Alter and Howell, The God Dialogues (Oxford University Press, 2010), ISBN 9780195395594. All other readings will be made available on Canvas.

We will use physical i>clicker clickers in the class. Any of the i>clicker, i>clicker+, or i>clicker 2 remotes should be appropriate (see You may not use software clickers, such as the phone app, in this class.

Puzzling about Spinoza on expression (part 2)

My previous post asked some questions about Spinoza’s notion of expression. I’m particularly interested in – puzzled by, really – the expression done by attributes and modes.

In that post, I asked whether it helped to think of Spinoza’s talk of expression using the model provided by Leibniz’s claim that “every effect expresses its cause” (Discourse on Metaphysics 28). Though this might make some sense of the expression done by modes, it seems less helpful when we look at the expression done by attributes. So here I turn to a different model of expression, one suggested by the Ethics itself. Spinoza says that definitions express, that words express, and that people express using words. Can we understand the expression done by attributes and modes using this more or less linguistic model? As with the causal model, there are problems and puzzles, but there also seem to be some possibilities.

In this linguistic sense of expression, expression is representation or description. Now, the metaphysical relation of expression between attribute and essence, even though we don’t really know what it is, might seem to be nothing like that. An attribute is not, you might say, like a definition or a thought or a word – not like the sort of thing that expresses in this way.

However, the view that attributes are representations of the essence of God does seem to make some sense on a subjective interpretation of the attributes. If attributes just are thoughts by which we think about the essence of God, their expression of that essence could be quite like the expression involved in the linguistic cases. (Particularly if we think of expression as being description – the subjectively understood attributes would describe the essence of God as being a certain way.) Now, lots of people don’t like subjective interpretations of the attributes. But thinking this way would allow us to unify some of the diverse-seeming uses of ‘express’ in the Ethics. For attribute expression and linguistic expression would turn out to be the same thing.

(For all the problems alleged with subjective interpretations of the attributes – and I make no reply to those points here – one ought at least to acknowledge that these interpretations have a strong and basic appeal, simply because of the way Spinoza himself chose to define ‘attribute’.)

What, however, to say about the expression done by modes? Can we think of this as a sort of description or representation, and thus make sense of it too on a linguistic model? After all, it would be good to have a unified account of metaphysical expression, something the causal model did not provide.

This does seem difficult, though there are perhaps things one might say. One might think of a body, a finite extended thing, as a sort of low grade, degenerate representation of God considered as a substance that possesses the attribute of extension. Likewise one might think of a mind, a finite thinking thing, as a sort of low grade, degenerate representation of God considered as as a substance that possesses the attribute of thought. This is to take particular things as being (in an attenuated sense) images of God, because of their relation to the attributes and essence of God. Being images in this way is not exactly like representing as language does. But it is at least a sort of representation.

Puzzling about Spinoza on expression (part 1)

Writing about Leibniz on expression got me thinking about other early modern talk about expression, and in particular about Spinoza, who talks several times in his Ethics about things expressing others. Some of this expressing involves language, but other cases seem not to. Thus both attributes and modes are said to express things. For example, 1p6 talks of the infinite attributes of God, “each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence”. Modes, meanwhile, are also said to express God’s essence (though in a certain way, related to a certain attribute). Thus, Spinoza says in 2d1 that “By ‘body’ I understand a mode that expresses in a definite and determinate way God’s essence in so far as he is considered as an extended thing”, and in 2p1d that “Individual thoughts, or this and that thought, are modes expressing the nature of God in a definite and determinate way”. There is also related language in which attributes are said to be expressed in modes (see 3p6d, and perhaps 1p25c).

My initial question is relatively simple: what does Spinoza mean when he talks of attributes and modes expressing in these ways? I consider this by presenting at two different possible models of expression, and asking whether the expression of attributes and modes fits either model.

Two models of expression

  1. A causal model of expression. One Leibnizian idea about expression is that “every effect expresses its cause” (Discourse on Metaphysics 28). This helps, I think, understand some otherwise puzzling things Leibniz says about substances expressing God. Might it also help us in understanding what Spinoza says about attributes and modes expressing the essence of God?

  2. A linguistic model of expression. At various points in the Ethics, definitions are said to express (1p8s2, 1p16p), words are said to express (Explication of 2d3), and people are said to express using words (2p47s; see also 2p40). In these cases, expression seems to be a descriptive or representational relation. These are not all the same case, but they are plausibly related, and use a sense of ‘expression’ we might at least recognize. Could something like this sort of expression be a good model for the metaphysical cases?

Does the causal model help?

Suppose we start with the causal model, and with the expression done by modes. If Spinoza held the causal view of expression, the reason why he would say, e.g., that some particular body expressed “God’s essence in so far as he is considered as an extended thing” would be that God’s essence was the cause of that particular body. Now that might appear to be wrong, because the causal interactions of bodies are with other bodies. However, Spinoza does say that God causes modes: e.g., 1p18 says God is the immanent cause of all things. So we might think of Spinoza as saying that modes express their immanent cause, which is God, because God is their cause. So far, this is consistent with the causal model.

What about attributes though? Can we think of Spinoza’s attributes as expressing God’s essence, which is their cause? (One might imagine a causal hierarchy from essence to attribute to mode, with the things lower down on the hierarchy expressing those higher up.)

Someone might deny that Spinoza could have though this, by arguing that there is not enough of a distinction between the essence and the attributes for one to be the cause of the other – e.g., by identifying the essence with the collection of the attributes. Suppose for now though that there is enough of a distinction between essence and attributes, such that they could stand in a causal relation. Is there any evidence at all that Spinoza thought they did?

I suppose one might try and run an argument from God being the immanent cause of all things. If attributes are things, then they are caused by God. But it seems too easy to deny that attributes are things in the relevant sense. 1p18 comes soon after the claim that “nothing exists except substance and modes” (1p15d). In general, it is hard to see how to sustain the view that the essence of substance is the cause of its attributes. At least, that seems an obvious sticking point for using the causal model.

Next time, something on using the linguistic model.


Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

Reading Arash Abizadeh’s recent “The Absence of Reference in Hobbes’s Philosophy of Language” reminds me of something that puzzles me about early modern philosophy of language. Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

If you look at medieval scholastic theories of language, you find repeated mention of signification and supposition, two semantic features of terms. When you look at famous early modern discussions of language, you find discussions of signification, but seem to find no mention at all of supposition.

Thus Hobbes talks at length in the Elements of Law, Leviathan, and De Corpore about signification, but not at all about supposition. Locke, to give just one other example, develops a theory of signification, not of supposition, in Book III of his Essay concerning Human Understanding. (He does occasionally use the words ‘supposition’ and ‘supposing’, but meaning something else by those terms.)

Abizadeh argues that the absence of a theory of supposition is telling about Hobbes’s views:

he conspicuously abandoned the theory of “supposition,” which was the intellectual apparatus used in theories of language prevalent before him to express what corresponds to our contemporary notion of reference, i.e., the notion of an analytically irreducible semantic relation between words and things (objects) (Abidazeh 2015, p2).

That is, Abidazeh takes Hobbes’s abandonment of supposition to be evidence of his abandonment of reference. I wonder, however, how much the rejection (or ignoring) of supposition shows about Hobbes in particular. After all, that rejection seems to have been pretty widespread. Clearly the theory of supposition went away. But when did it go away?

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Spring 2016 course descriptions

Modern Philosophy (PHH3400)

PHH3400 is an introduction to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European philosophy. We will focus on four prominent works of the period: René Descartes’s 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, G.W. Leibniz’s 1686 Discourse on Metaphysics, John Locke’s 1689 Essay concerning Human Understanding, and David Hume’s 1748 Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. We will also look, more briefly, at the views of some of their contemporaries, including Thomas Hobbes and Margaret Cavendish. The course will focus on the philosophers’ views in metaphysics and epistemology, but will also consider views in the physical sciences and in ethics. Assessment will involve papers, a final exam, and some other smaller items. As well as meeting requirements for the Philosophy major and minor, PHH3400 counts towards the Humanities (H) and International (N) general education requirements.

Ethics: Hume & Smith (PHH4420)

This course will examine the moral philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith. It will focus on Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) and Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). We will also look briefly at some earlier views, such as those of Thomas Hobbes, to help us understand the context in which Hume and Smith were writing.

The themes discussed will include the roles of reason and emotion in ethics; whether we have a moral sense, and what such a thing might be; the view that moral judgments involve thought about an impartial spectator; and some early suggestions of utilitarian theories.

A main aim of this course is that you come to know something about the views and arguments of Hume and Smith. Another is to develop a set of skills that are useful in thinking about the history of modern philosophy, philosophy more generally, and other issues. These include close reading, critical thinking, and the ability to write critically and carefully. Most classes will be structured around discussions of primary texts, and others around discussions of relevant works of secondary literature.

Leibniz, internal action, and experience

Leibniz sometimes describes thought as an internal action (see this earlier Modsquad discussion). Moreover, in a couple of places he says that we can know this by experience. Indeed, he suggests we can know enough in this area by experience to establish some substantive philosophical truths about the mind.

Thus, in “On Nature Itself” (1698):

Indeed, if this view [occasionalism] were extended so far as to eliminate even the immanent actions of substances … then it would be as distant as it could possibly be from reason. For who would call into doubt that the mind thinks and wills, that we elicit in ourselves many thoughts and volitions, and that there is a spontaneity that belongs to us? If this were called into doubt, then not only would human liberty be denied and the cause of evil things be thrust into God, but it would also fly in the face of the testimony of our innermost experience and consciousness, testimony by which we ourselves sense that the things my opponents have transferred to God, without even a pretense of reason, are ours (ONI 10).

And later in a 1704 letter to Masham:

In this [pre-established harmony] I am doing no more than attributing to souls and bodies always and everywhere what we experience in them whenever the experience is distinct, that is to say, mechanical laws to bodies, and internal actions to souls (WFNS 206).

As well as using different terminology, these arguments have different purposes. The first is directed against a particular version of occasionalism, which denies all causal power to the human mind. To oppose this, Leibniz appeals to experience that he takes to show that we do have such power: “we elicit in ourselves many thoughts and volitions”. The comment to Masham suggests, however, the possibility of something stronger: of an argument from experience for the pre-established harmony.

That argument, if it is such would begin from a premise about our experience: when our experience is distinct, we see our souls working by internal action (rather than mechanical laws or external action). How it would proceed from there is less clear. Leibniz appeals to distinct experience. Perhaps too he is relying on a principle of uniformity according to which our minds always work in the way we see they sometimes – those distinctly experienced times? – work. This appeal to uniformity fits well with the general themes of Leibniz’s letter.

It would be intriguing if Leibniz really was suggesting an argument from experience for the pre-established harmony here. And such a thing would not be entirely unprecedented for him. Recall the way he appeals to the evidence of “Swammerdam, Malpighi, and Leeuwenhoek, the best observers of our time” in the “New System”. But perhaps this is straining the text of the letter to Masham too much, and all Leibniz aims to do is indicate that his system, in which souls only ever cause changes in themselves, is not opposed to all experience. We know at least, he might just be saying, that our souls sometimes cause changes in themselves. So however strange my view might seem, it does not go against all experience. This more modest reading would also tie back in to the comment in “On Nature Itself” – for the occasionalist there has gone against the very thing that experience tells us and Leibniz’s system upholds.

A lack of supporting texts making the bolder argument inclines me to the more modest reading – watch me talk myself out of the more exciting bit of the post even while I’m still writing it – but the bolder reading is not completely ungrounded. Any thoughts out there?

Hobbes and Thucydides

Hobbes on the state of nature:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Leviathan, chapter 13).

Thucydides on the early state of Greece, something that Hobbes translated:

It appears, for example, that the country now called Hellas had no settled population in ancient times; instead there was a series of migrations, as the various tribes, being under the constant pressure of invaders who were stronger than they were, were always prepared to abandon their own territory. There was no commerce, and no safe communication either by land or sea; the use they made of their land was limited to the production of necessities; they had no surplus left over for capital, and no regular system of agriculture, since they lacked the protection of fortifications and at any moment an invade might appear and take their land away from them (1.2, Warner’s translation).

For discussion, see James Jan Sullivan in A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides.

“Nor is there any such thing as … simply good”

In a previous post, I pointed to Hobbes’s theorizing about moral language at the end of chapter 4 of Leviathan. I argued that Hobbes thinks moral terms have a double signification: they signify something in the world, and also something about the nature of the speaker — something about them that contributed to their applying that word to this thing.

The notion that some moral or political terms have a double signification is also visible in the earlier Elements of Law. Thus ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ “signify the same thing, together with the divers passion of those that use them; for when the men that be in that office please, they are called an aristocracy, otherwise an oligarchy” (EL 20.3). Both ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ have two significations. Each signifies some group of men. Each also signifies the attitude of the speaker towards that group, be it positive or negative.

Understanding Hobbes’s view about the double signification of moral terms can also help us to understand his discussions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. One of those occurs earlier in the Elements of Law:

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