Burnett, on maps

I’ve been thinking about the correspondence of Thomas Burnett of Kemnay, particularly his correspondence with Leibniz (thus this earlier post and indeed this one).[1] Here I’d like to think a little bit about Burnett’s travels, and the geographical distribution of the correspondence. For now I’d like to focus on correspondence with Leibniz, and on the years 1695 to 1705.[2]

Figure 1 shows what might seem to be the three most important geographical locations involved. It shows Kemnay (where Burnett was from), London (where he spent a good deal of time) and Hanover (where Leibniz was, for the most part).

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Measuring and mapping

[Cross-posted from philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com.]

I’ve been thinking about Justin Smith’s post Philosophometry, with its reference to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, and more generally to “the value of quantitative, digitally based study” of the texts one is interested in. There is, as Smith says, a good deal of such discussion of such approaches in the humanities, if not in philosophy — this is part of what goes on under the name of ‘digital humanities’. This is something by which I’ve been persistently intrigued, despite never really doing anything about it.

There is a problem — at least a practical one — with the approach Smith has in mind. One apparently needs “to compile a massive database of texts, titles, key words [and] key arguments”. But how do we do this? Generating a database in this way apparently requires a good deal of interpretation. Do we have to commit to close reading of everything, before we can do the data analysis? If the project is to map the locations of occurrence of certain views, then probably yes. But is there the same necessity in all ‘digital humanities’ approaches to history of philosophy?

One paper that has attempted an approach of this sort in the history of modern philosophy, with explicit reference to Moretti, is Shaun Nichols’ ‘The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitative History of Philosophy’ (Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31 (2007), 260-70) [pdf]. And Nichols addresses this problem:

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[Cross-posted from philosophymodsquad.]

In preparing to talk about Descartes on machines and animals and human beings the other day, I set out looking for information about seventeenth-century automata.

One really interesting thing is Jessica Riskin’s article “Machines in the Garden” in Republics of Letters. This has a lot of information about “lifelike machines” of two sorts: religious ones – “the muttering Christs, the horn-playing angels, the eye-rolling devils, the teeth-chattering heads” – and a great variety of hydraulic machinery in the gardens of the rich and powerful.

There are also multiple online versions of Salomon de Caus’s 1615 book, Les raisons des forces mouvantes, avec diverses machines tant utiles que plaisantes, auxquelles sont adjoints plusieurs dessings de grotes & fontaines. The image below is one example of the machines illustrated, and is described as a machine “Pour faire representer le chant d’un oyseau en son naturel, par le moyen de l’eau”.

Image from de Caus, Les raisons des forces mouvantes

One online version of the book is at http://cnum.cnam.fr/SYN/FDA1.html. For another version, and more description of the book’s contents, see http://architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr/traite/Notice/Caus1615.asp?param=en. Or alternatively, for just the illustrations, see http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b2100042f/f1.planchecontact.

Hobbes’s arguments for nominalism in De Corpore

[Cross-posted from philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com.]

(Following up on my earlier post on an argument for nominalism in the Elements of Law.)

In chapter 2 of De Corpore Hobbes offers two further arguments for the view that names are the only universals.

(1) The first involves the way in which common names denote.

However a common name, as it is the name of several things taken one by one, but not however of all the things together at the same time (as ‘man’ is not the name of human kind but of Peter, John, and the other men separately) is called for that reason universal. So the name ‘universal’ is not the name of some thing existing in rerum natura, and not the name of an idea, or some phantasm formed in the soul, but is always the name of some vox or name (DeCo 2.9).

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Hobbes’s argument for nominalism in the Elements of Law

[Cross-posted from philosophymodsquadwordpress.com.]

Hobbes was a nominalist, in that he believed that “there is nothing universal but names” (EL 5.6), so there are neither universal things nor universal ideas. But why did he believe this?

In chapter 5 of the Elements of Law, having introduced names, Hobbes distinguishes between universal and singular names: singular names name one thing, while universal names name more than one thing. As an example of a universal name he gives ‘man’, which is a name given “to every particular of mankind” (EL 5.5), that is, to every individual man.

Having distinguished the two sorts of name, Hobbes goes on to note that the universality of certain names has lead some to think that there are also universal things (EL 5.6). On this view

besides Peter and John, and all the rest of the men that are, have been, or shall be in the world, there is yet somewhat else that we call man, (viz.) man in general, deceiving themselves by taking the universal, or general appellation, for the thing it signifieth (EL 5.6).

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Leibniz, Locke, and ‘books aiming to prove the truth of religion’

[Cross-posted from philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com.]

At a recent conference I gave a paper on Leibniz’s correspondence with Thomas Burnett of Kemnay. Among my questions was how Locke appeared to Leibniz. Did he look like a Socinian, or similar sort of religiously dubious character? In answering that, it would be good to have some idea of how Leibniz thought about Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity. But Leibniz said relatively little explicitly about that text. There is, however, an argument in Leibniz’s correspondence with Burnett that seems to bear on the issue.

It seems to me that too many books aiming to prove the truth of religion are written in your country. That’s a bad sign, and is something that doesn’t always have a good effect … I have often thought, and others have come to agree with me, that preachers should usually avoid this issue, because instead of relieving doubts, they give rise to them. Books in vernacular languages have this effect most often … I’d prefer that we concentrated on making the wisdom of God known through physics and mathematics, by revealing more and more of the wonders of nature. That’s the real way to convince the profane, and should be the goal of philosophy (Leibniz to Burnett, 18 July 1701, A 1.20.185, pp.286-7).

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Travels far and near

[Cross-posted from Modsquad]

I’ve been reading Leibniz’s correspondence with Thomas Burnett of Kemnay. Burnett is probably best known as one of the people via whom Leibniz tried to communicate with Locke. He was, more generally, a source of news for Leibniz about things published in English — his own personal book review section.

Locke’s work is indeed a repeated topic, but there are all sorts of other topics besides: a fashion for Aesop’s Fables, Dryden’s translation of Virgil, etc, etc. But this seems like a good occasion to notice an interest in travel literature.

This interest was not confined to Burnett and Leibniz. See Lewis’s post about Ippolito Desideri’s Account of Tibet. And Locke obviously had some interest in this, as shown by Essay I.iii.9, with its reference to (among others) “the voyage of Baumgarten, which is a book not every day to be met with”. But not all of the travels written about were terribly distant.

John Toland wrote a book about his travels to Berlin and Hanover — one that describes his visits to courts and meetings with philosophers, but which I remember most vividly for a passage expressing Toland’s great enthusiasm for Prussian signposts. (Toland has other relevance here as the author of Christianity not Mysterious, and also of a Life of Milton that Burnett sent to Leibniz, and which Leibniz commented on.)

Various examples of not so distant travels appear in the Leibniz-Burnett correspondence. A letter from Burnett to Leibniz in March 1699 (A1.16, N372) mentions travel books including Martin Lister’s A Journey to Paris in the Year 1698 and Martin’s  A Late Voyage to St Kilda [non-subscription version][St Kilda wiki page]. Leibniz made approving note of both of these (A1.18.N211, p382), and the second led Leibniz to ask Burnett whether the Irish language was much like the Welsh, as well as to speculate about the ways in which one linguistic example in the book resembles Greek (p388).

Sympathy, spirits, and strings

[Cross posted from Modsquad.]

This post brings me back to my earlier themes of materialism and panpsychism. But it largely developed from my trying to understand one of Henry More’s examples. More believed there to be incorporeal substances, including human minds, ghosts, and a further spirit quite unlike the others, the spirit of nature. More’s central argument for the existence of a spirit of nature relied on a series of examples of phenomena that could (allegedly) only be explained with reference to such a spirit.

One such phenomenon was the sympathetic resonance of unison strings. Roughly speaking, given two strings that are tuned to the same note, if the first is sounded, the second will start to sound the note as well, even though it has not been plucked or otherwise touched itself. As More puts it, there is a power that “makes strings that be tuned Unisons (though on several Instruments) the one being touched, the other to tremble and move very sensibly, and to cast off a straw or pin or any such small thing laid upon it” (More 1659, 451).

More was far from the first philosopher to notice this phenomenon. The example occurs in such diverse places as Plotinus’s Enneads (4.4.40-4, quoted at Gouk 1999, 87), and Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (Bacon 1627, 72). Hume later used it to help illustrate his psychological sort of sympathy. Of most immediate relevance, however, is a discussion in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle.

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Locke, Pasnau, and More

[Cross-posted from Modsquad.]

A lot has been said about Locke’s account of substance and substratum. Robert Pasnau has recently argued (in his book Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671) that “the substratum just is the ordinary substance” (160). Pasnau says that Locke’s statements about substance become less puzzling when we put them in “the proper historical context, that of the thin metaphysical substance of the Aristotelian tradition” (167, n.9). The “ordinary substance” and the the “thin metaphysical substance of the Aristotelian tradition” are thus identified. The ‘thin’ substance is introduced (101-2) as the union of form and matter, and is then the thing in which accidents inhere. Thin substance plus accidents is the ‘thick’ substance. The thin substance is not “nothing more than a bare substratum”, but is instead “quite rich in character” (107). And “Indeed, in a very real sense, the thin substance just is the cat or dog or stone” (107).

Pasnau says, indeed, that he hopes “that enough has been said to make it seem puzzling why anyone has ever taken seriously the idea of a bare substratum, the unknowable substance beneath the substance” (167). Indeed he suggests that “modern historians have misinterpreted the seventeenth century, and so arrived at a theory of substance that philosophers never would have dreamed of putting forth as their own idea” (167).

There are, however, other contexts here. Yes, we can look at Locke against the thin substance background, but we can also look at him against the background of some of Henry More’s discussions. For some of More’s discussions in The Immortality of the Soul appear to closely parallel the discussions in Essay 2.23. Thus axiom VIII of book I, chapter 2 of The Immortality of the Soul is “The Subject, or naked Essence or Substance of a thing, is utterly unconceivable to any of our Faculties” (More 1959, 10), paralleling the early sections of Essay 2.23, and chapter 3 involves arguing “That the notion of Spirit is altogether as intelligible as that of Body” (More 1659, 16), paralleling the later sections of Essay 2.23.

Moreover, in support of Axiom VIII, More argues as follows: “For the evidencing of this Truth, there needs nothing more then a silent appeal to a mans owne mind, if he doe not find it so; and that if he take away all AptitudesOperationsProperties and Modifications from a Subject, that his conception thereof vanishes into nothing, but into the Idea of a meer Undiversificated Substance; so that one Substance is not then distinguishable from another, but onely from Accidents or Modes, to which properly belongs no subsistence” (More 1659, pp.10-1).

Here the substance is indeed the thing distinguished frpm the accidents. But it appears not to be the thin substance of Pasnau’s discussion. On More’s understanding of the subject or substance, it is too thin, so to speak, to be the ordinary cat or horse, for the substance of the cat and the substance of the horse are not distinguishable. This notion of substance at least approaches that of a ‘bare substratum’. And that suggests, at least, that the idea of such a bare featureless underlying substance is not a mere invention of recent commentators, but something that Locke could have found being discussed in his own time and place.