Discussions of Taste in Scottish societies

Monday, October 1st, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Juan Gomez writes…

The Royal Society of London (RSL) is perhaps the most known academic society of the early modern period. Some of the most famous scientists of all time were members of this society, among them Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton, just to name a few.  The society had such an impact that it inspired intellectuals all across Europe to establish academic societies modelled on the RSL. Scotland was no exception, and arguably its philosophical societies were the birthplaces and testing grounds for some of the most influential ideas of the time. For example, Adam Smith presented at the Aberdeen Philosophical Society drafts of his work to be discussed among the members (Thomas Reid, George Campbell, and Alexander Gerard among them). This is just an example of one of the many philosophical societies established in Scotland during the eighteenth-century. In this post I wish to draw attention to one of the topics with which the enlightened members of these societies were preoccupied: the matter of taste.

One of the features of eighteenth-century British ‘aesthetics’ is the focus on the concept of taste. Perhaps the most famous discussion is found in David Hume’s essay Of the standard of taste. Hume was not the only one discussing the topic. The Scottish literati in general found this topics worthy of discussion in their learned societies.

If we examine the extant question lists of four of the most important Scottish philosophical societies (the Belles Lettres of Edinburgh (BLE), the Select Society of Edinburgh (SSE), the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (APS) and the Glasgow Literary Society (GLS)), we come up with 138 total questions regarding issues that we would now call ‘aesthetic.’ The contents of the discussions cover a wide range of issues: beauty, pleasure, and taste, as well as the characteristics of the particular arts, on particular artists, on genius, on criticism, and on the connections amongst ‘aesthetics’, morals, and society. This wide variety of topics is by itself evidence of the importance enlightened Scotsmen placed on discussing ‘aesthetic’ issues. Let’s look at some of these questions in more detail.


Eighteenth-century thinkers investigated of the origin of the pleasure that we experience from objects of art and how this process occurs. For example, Hutcheson focused on uniformity amidst variety, and Hume talked about qualities in the objects disposed to cause pleasure. The topic was also discussed in the learned societies:

  • In the BLE they asked “From what principle in human nature can the pleasure arising from inhuman spectacles be accounted for?”
  • In the LSG Dr. Robert Trail, Professor of Divinity at University of Glasgow read some reflections on theories concerning the sublime and beautiful.
  • In the APS George Campbell proposed to discuss a question, namely “What is the cause of that pleasure we have from representations or objects which excite pity or other painful feelings?”
  • In the SSE they considered the pleasure from the artists’ perspective asking “Whether doth one author feel more pleasure or pain.”


Taste, probably the element most commonly associated with eighteenth-century aesthetic theories, was also a topic of discussion in the meetings of the societies:

  • In the BLE, Mr. James Rose gave a discourse “on the connection of taste and judgment”
  • In Glasgow, Dr, Robert Trail read some “reflections on taste”, and Dr. William Wight, Professor of Church History, considered the following question:  “Are there any certain principles upon which we can judge of the production of poetry and the finer arts, or is there any criterion of taste?”
  • In the SSE they debated two questions regarding taste, namely, “whether a fine taste is the gift of nature or the product of experience and may be acquired?” and “whether is there any such thing as taste?”
  • The Aberdeen intellectuals also discussed the issue, proposed by James Beattie who presented two discourses on the “principles which determine our approbation in the fine arts.” They also discussed the question “Is there a standard of taste in fine arts and polite writing? And how is that standard to be ascertained?”


A closely related topic to taste, one characteristic of the eighteenth-century, was the concept of genius. This was a very popular topic and was brought up with certain frequency in the debates of each of the societies.

  • In the BLE they discussed a question, namely “What are the chief concurring circumstances that contribute most to the polishing the genius or natural parts of mankind?”
  • In Glasgow Mr. Robert Foulis, university printer gave a discourse on “the discovery and culture of genius,” and later on Mr. George Muirhead, professor of Humanity focused on one particular genius, Homer, and proposed two questions to be debated: “What is the reason we have seen no such poet as Homer arise in a savage country?” and “What were the chief causes which account for the excellences of Homer as a poet?”
  • In the SSE they also discussed the genius in particular with this historical focus, when they proposed the question “Whether are the greatest efforts of genius made at the revival of letters after an age of barbarism?”
  • The members of the APS discussed a number of questions on the topic: “In the perfection of what faculty does genius consist? Or if in a combination of faculties, what are they?”; “Whether there is any degeneracy of genius in the moderns?”; “Whether music or poetry gives the greatest scope to genius?” and “Whether any account can be given of the causes, why great geniuses have arisen at the periods which have been most remarkable for them, and why they have frequently arisen in clusters?” Alexander Gerard presented drafts of what was later to become his Essay on genius.

This is only a sample of the aesthetic topics discussed in the learned societies. In a future post, I will show how these discussions informed and aided the development of the thought of some of the most influential thinkers of the period.

The origins of ‘solar system’

Monday, August 13th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Peter Anstey writes…

The Cartesian vortex theory of planetary motions came under serious suspicion in England in the early 1680s. To be sure, many still spoke of ‘our vortex’ well into the 1680s and ’90s, such as Robert Boyle in his Notion of Nature of 1686 (Works, eds. Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 10, p. 508), but by the early 1690s the new Newtonian cosmology was coming to be widely accepted and many in England thought that the vortex theory had been disproved. By that time the vortex theory of planetary motions had come to be seen as the archetypal form of speculative natural philosophy. What was required then was a new descriptor for that cosmological structure in which the earth is located. And a new term was soon deployed, namely, ‘solar system’.

Some have claimed that it was John Locke who coined the term ‘solar system’. In fact, the OED lists Locke’s Elements of Natural Philosophy, which it dates at c.1704, as the earliest occurrence. However, the term first appears in his writings in Some Thoughts concerning Education of 1693 where speaking of Newton’s ‘admirable Book’ about ‘this our Planetary World’, he says,

his Book will deserve to be read, and give no small light and pleasure to those, who willing to understand the Motions, Properties, and Operations of the great Masses of Matter, in this our Solar System, will but carefully mind his Conclusions… (Clarendon edition, 1989, p. 249)

Interestingly, a quick word search of EEBO reveals that the term was also used by Richard Bentley in his seventh Boyle lecture of 7 November 1692, but published in 1693 in a volume that Locke owned (Folly & Unreasonableness of Atheism, London). Bentley uses the term in an argument for the existence of God on the basis of the claim that the fixed stars all have the power of gravity. It is God who prevents the whole system from collapsing into a common centre:

here’s an innumerable multitude of Fixt Starrs or Suns; all of which are demonstrated (and supposed also by our Adversaries) to have Mutual Attraction: or if they have not; even Not to have it is an equal Proof of a Divine Being, that hath so arbitrarily indued Matter with a Power of Gravity not essential to it, and hath confined its action to the Matter of its own Solar System: I say, all the Fixt Starrs have a principle of mutual Gravitation; and yet they are neither revolved about a common Center, nor have any Transverse Impulse nor any thing else to restrain them from approaching toward each other, as their Gravitating Powers incite them. Now what Natural Cause can overcome Nature it self? What is it that holds and keeps them in fixed Stations and Intervals against an incessant and inherent Tendency to desert them? (p. 37, underlining added)

There is no evidence, however, that Bentley was using the term as an alternative to ‘our vortex’. In a letter to Newton of 18 February 1693 he speaks unabashedly of matter that ‘is found in our Suns Vortex’.

Who published the word first? Bentley’s seventh Boyle lecture was not published separately, but appeared in the 1693 volume, the last lecture of which was not given its imprimatur until 30 May that year. Locke’s book was advertised in the London Gazette #2886 for 6–10 July. I have not been able to establish exactly when Bentley’s volume appeared, but it’s not mentioned in the London Gazette before #2886.

Whatever the case, it is most likely that the term was already ‘in the air’ and history shows that it was soon widely used and, of course, it is a commonplace today.

(N.B. This post also appears on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog.)

The ‘Reliability’ of the Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696)

Monday, August 6th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Tim Cooper writes…

The autobiography of the leading English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-91) was edited by his close friend and fellow Nonconformist minister Matthew Sylvester, and published in 1691 under the title Reliquiae Baxterianae.  No wonder Sylvester began his Preface to the Reader with an apology for the five-year delay in publication: the whole work is around eight-hundred pages long or, to be precise, 644,149 words.  Sylvester has been generally criticized for his editorial efforts but he did his best with what was a near-impossible task.  In the memorable words of William Lamont, the autobiography ‘is a sprawling monster containing everything but Baxter’s laundry list’.


A new edition of this sprawling monster is now in the offing.  I am one of a team of editors that is working to produce a critical edition of the Reliquiae to be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.  My colleagues in the project are Professor Neil Keeble, Professor John Coffey and Dr Thomas Charlton.  So I am rapidly developing an interest in seventeenth-century life-writing.  In November I will be presenting a paper to the North American Conference on British Studies.  In this post I would like to signal my broad intentions and ask for some help.


I am interested in the ‘reliability’ of the Reliquiae.  Being aware of just how much the word deserves its inverted commas,  I am very sensitive to just how tricky the concept of reliability will prove to be, given its proximity to the concept of truth: is the story that Baxter tells a true one?  Is it accurate?  Is it reliable?  Or is it distorted, partial and incomplete?  There are clear perils in trying to talk in these terms.  Of course Baxter’s account was partial and distorted – it could not have been anything else.  Yet in practical terms, historians (and scholars in other disciplines) will be required to use the Reliquiae for scholarly purposes.   I would like to be able to say something about how it should be approached and with what sort of confidence or reservations.


My intention is to compare the Reliquiae with an earlier and much briefer biographical account.  In April 1659 Baxter wrote the last chapter of A Holy Commonwealth, in which he answered the question ‘By what Reasons was I moved to engage myself in the Parliaments Warre?’ (p. 456).  It is a remarkably candid and fulsome explanation, quite different in tone from the way in which Baxter faced the same question (though he did not seek to answer it explicitly) in the Reliquiae, which he began to write five years later in 1664.  Obviously, neither account is without bias: there is a clear audience and purpose in in mind 1659, just as there is in 1664.  But I think something can be said about what is going on in the Reliquiae when it is placed alongside A Holy Commonwealth.  If nothing else, the events of 1659 (and 1660) altered the story that Baxter was able to tell himself, and they certainly altered the story he wanted to tell us.

I am only at the beginning of serious reading on the subject.  Already some generous colleagues have supplied a few welcome pointers.  But I would like to know of any scholarly discussion of the related issues of truth and reliability in early modern life-writing.  Can anyone send me to some helpful conversation partners to get me started?

Further instances of the Fingerpost

Sunday, July 29th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Terry Doyle writes …

In 1999, a seminal paper appeared in the medical literature entitled ‘Tamoxifen Prevention of Breast Cancer: an Instance of the Fingerpost’ (Scott M. Lippman and Powel H. Brown. J. Natl. Cancer Inst. (1999) 91 (21): 1809–19). After analyzing the results of a large trial, the authors discussed the value of the oestrogen antagonist drug Tamoxifen in reducing the growth of breast cancers, calling it ‘an instance of the fingerpost for resolving the intense debate on the future direction of chemoprevention research’.

The first use of the term ‘an instance of the fingerpost’ was by Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum (II, Aphorism 36) referring to a scientific test ‘borrowing the term from the fingerposts which are set up where roads part, to indicate the several directions’. It is one of the Prerogative Instances, which he cites in describing his inductive method, where an investigator must make a correct choice of direction between ideas the initial evidence for which is ‘so balanced as to be uncertain’.

These and other Baconian ideas are explored in An Instance of the Fingerpost by Oxford art historian Iain Pears, where mid-1660s Oxford is used as a microcosm for the intellectual, religious and political turmoil of the period just after the Restoration of Charles II. The aporias of the novel centre on the mysterious death of Robert Grove, a Fellow of New College. Explanations of his death are given by four witnesses. The first is a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming precedence over Richard Lower as the first blood transfusionist. The second is the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause intent on vindicating his father. The third is John Wallis (1616–1703), mathematician and cryptographer to both Cromwell and Charles II. The fourth is Anthony Wood the Oxford antiquarian (1632–1695). The Dramatis Personae include famous virtuosi from the period; John Aubrey, Robert Boyle, John Locke, Richard Lower, the German chymist Peter Stahl and Christopher Wren.

The intellectual backbone of the novel is Francis Bacon’s discussion of inductive reasoning in Novum Organum (1620), where he points out the fallacies that may beset logical thinking. Each of the four sections of Pears’ novel is preceded by an epigraph from Bacon’s work. The first are three of his four ‘Idols of the Mind’ –– ‘The Idols of the Market’ (referring to a misuse of language); ‘The Idols of the Cavern’ (meaning personal obsessions); ‘The Idols of the Theatre’ (the danger of false reasoning). The fourth section is entitled ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ and the epigraph is an abridged version of the original.

When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided. These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of the Investigations will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed, these Instances are found amongst that Evidence already set down. Aphorism 36.

Among other interesting matters considered in the novel is the theory of fevers; ‘Could a loss of blood mean that there is insufficient to vent the excess heat from the heart?’ (p. 58) and Sylvius’ theory of the life spirit. ‘You have fallen under the influence of Monsieur Descartes’, says Richard Lower . . . ‘you have constructed a theory, and that leads you to recommend a practice. You have no evidence that it would work . . .  The alternative, proposed by my Lord Bacon, is to amass evidence, and then to frame an explanation which takes into account all that is known’. (Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 59–60)

The authors of the Tamoxifen paper acknowledge in their title that they rely for their conclusions on Bacon’s notion of eliminative induction. This was the means by which they established that the growth of oestrogen receptor positive breast cancers is halted by the drug Tamoxifen. So Sir Francis’ work turns out to be pretty useful. Little wonder that the late great Bacon scholar Graham Rees regarded the passage in which Bacon discusses instances of the fingerpost as ‘a startlingly original expression of a central aspect of the theory of experiment’.

Early Modern Thought Colloquium Schedule

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

We have finalized the schedule for our Early Modern Thought Research Theme’s colloquium on 27-28 August held at Otago University.  The full abstracts are available on our conference page. Everyone is welcome; for registration details please contact Michael Cop (michael.cop@otago.ac.nz):

Monday 27 August Otago Museum Kakapo Room

9:15 Registration

9: 30 Peter Anstey, University of Otago: Introduction and remarks: Practical and Speculative Knowledge

10:00 Peter Harrison, University of Queensland: “Contemplation and Creation: Some Theological Motivations for the Pursuit of an Experimental Natural Philosophy“

11:00  Morning tea

11: 30 Sorana Corneanu, University of Bucharest: “The Parts of Prudence and the Virtues of Experimental Knowledge”

12:30 – 2:00 Lunch

2:00 Peter Marshall, Warwick University: “How to Recognize a Heretic in Sixteenth-Century England”

3:00 Afternoon tea

3:30 – 4:30 Terry Doyle, University of Otago: “Pharmaceutice Rationalis: Patterns of Medical Treatment in the Seventeenth Century”


Tuesday 28 August Otago Museum Hutton Theatre

9:30 Evelyn Tribble, University of Otago & John Sutton, Macquarie University: Introduction and Remarks: The Historical Study of Skill

10:00 Paul Menzer, Mary Baldwin College: “Sophistication”

11:00 Morning Tea

11:30 Michael Neill, University of Auckland: “‘A book where one may read strange matters’: Envisaging Character on the Shakespearean Stage.”

12:00 Tom Bishop, University of Auckland, “Work and Play”

Lunch 12:30 – 2:00

2:00-4:30 Roundtable: Theatrical Skills, then and now
Brief remarks from Paul Menzer, John Sutton, Ros Knutson, David Carnegie, Evelyn Tribble, and Lisa Warrington; followed by open discussion

John Locke and Anne Docwra

Sunday, July 8th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | 1 Comment

In 1695 the philosopher John Locke, who was residing at Oates, the family home of Francis and Damaris Masham, recorded a treatment for cancer and king’s evil in one of his medical notebooks (Bodleian Library MS Locke d. 9, pp. 306–7). The receipt was for a combination of black lead and red lead boiled and mixed with oil of roses or linseed oil. This was then to be applied as a plaister to ‘cancerous knots’, particularly those in the breast of a woman.

The source of this medical receipt is recorded in Locke’s notebook as ‘Mrs Docwra’. Could this be the Quaker Anne Docwra (c.1624–1710) who published a number of works on Quakerism and who was renowned for her views on the role of women in the church, enthusiasm and toleration?  Until now there has been no known connection between Locke and Docwra. Her name does not appear in any of Locke’s extant writings or correspondence and his name is absent from her writings. However, the circumstantial evidence that we have, together with the contents of Locke’s receipt for cancer, suggest that it is highly likely that the Quaker Anne Docwra is Locke’s source.

Docwra moved to Cambridge after her husband’s death in 1672. Interestingly, Locke’s source records that:

My kinswoman who first used this plaister made it mostly of Linseed oyle. Mrs Fox of Cambridg had a cancerous knot on her breast crookd about the bignesse of my litle finger as hard as a bone. She used this plaister made with Salet oyle for about 14 years before she died. She felt noe pain after she used it, neither did she perceive it grow biger. She told me a short time before her death that she did not find that to be any cause of her death. She died of a consumption & when her flesh was wastd the knot appeard much biger than it did when her breast was plump. (Bodleian MS Locke d. 9, p. 307)

The term ‘kinswoman’ suggests a female relative and ‘Fox’ was a name strongly associated with Quakerism in late seventeenth-century England. The fact that this kinswoman resided in Cambridge provides a link between Mrs Docwra and Cambridge, though one cannot conclude definitively that this Docwra was herself from Cambridge. At the least, however, Mrs Docwra, claims to be an eyewitness just before Mrs Fox’s death, testimony that establishes that this Mrs Docwra was in Cambridge at the time.

Another clue lies in the comment that:

Sometimes upon Knots that are not very hard I lay a litle peice of leaf gold as big as a new threepence or more according to the bignesse of the Knot … (ibid.)

This indicates that Mrs Docwra was a woman of some means as was Anne Docwra after the death of her husband James Docwra.

Locke recorded scores of medical receipts from friends and acquaintances, many of them women. For example, in 1691 he recorded a receipt from Damaris Masham’s mother Mrs Cudworth (ibid., p. 62). And in the same year as the Docwra receipt, 1695, Locke recorded a treatment for ulcers of the mouth recommended by Damaris Masham and Lady Barnard (ibid., p. 58). Normally when Locke derived a medical receipt directly from someone he would add their name after the notebook entry and this is the case with the Docwra receipt. If a receipt derived from a third party he would note its provenance in the entry itself or, occasionally, in the marginal head for the entry. In the case of the receipt for cancer then, it would appear that this derived directly from Mrs Docwra. She, in turn, informed Locke that ‘This plaister was made by a consultation of Surgions at London for a relation of mine who had a Cancerous knot on her breast as hard as a bone’ (ibid., p. 307).

Both Locke and Damaris Masham had theological and philosophical interests in common with Anne Docwra. Moreover, Masham, the daughter of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, had lived in Cambridge from her birth until 1685, overlapping with Docwra in Cambridge by some thirteen years. Did they meet in Cambridge? Did Anne Docwra’s interests also extend to medicinal receipts? Who was Mrs Docwra’s relative in London? We can only await further research!

An Untold History of Heresy

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012 | TAKASHI SHOGIMEN | No Comments

Takashi Shogimen writes …

At the heart of the idea of heresy lies a paradox: Church authority may declare that certain individuals are heretical, while those who were identified as “heretics” do not consider themselves as such. Heresy is, by definition, a false belief; however, no one can believe what he or she knows is false. Hence, there emerges a cognitive gap between Church officials, who detect and judge “heretics,” and alleged “heretics,” who considered themselves orthodox. From this gap stems the tragedies of Cathars, Waldensians, Spiritual Franciscans, and Hussites: they all believed that their faith was true and orthodox and yet were condemned as heretics. “Heresy … can only arise in the context of the assertion of authority.” Thus wrote R. I. Moore – and rightly.

Medieval heresy is a research field, which has expanded dramatically over the last few decades. But generally scholars have focused on heresies as popular, rather than intellectual, movements. Moreover, experts who study academic heresy examined censures and the intellectual doctrines that were deemed heretical by Church authority. What has been scarcely studied is how medieval intellectuals conceptualized heresy. In this untold story the Franciscan theologian and philosopher William of Ockham (c.1285-1347) should loom very large. Although the mainstream conception of heresy was underpinned by the authoritative viewpoint as Moore pointed out, Ockham de-institutionalized the idea of heresy. Ockham did not regard doctrinal decision-making as an “authoritative” process, which is initiated by church officials, but as a “cognitive” one, which anyone who could read the Bible and other doctrinal texts, may participate in. According to Ockham, a papal doctrinal decision is binding not because it is papal but because it is theologically true. Thus the epistemological status of orthodox faith and heretical error became central to Ockham’s enquiry. It was a volte-face in the medieval discourse on heresy.

I have a growing interest in the history of the academic idea of heresy in the Late Middle Ages and beyond, and especially Ockham’s place therein. Recently I wrote on the early sixteenth-century Parisian theologian Jacques Almain’s indebtedness to Ockham’s idea of heresy: this piece forms a book chapter which will be published next year. It is striking how widely Ockham’s idea of heresy was assimilated by theologians and canon lawyers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For example, both Jean Gerson and Juan de Torquemada based their discussions of heresy on Ockham’s twenty modes of heretical pertinacity. We can also discern an echo of Ockham’s idea of heresy in such theologians of the sixteenth century as Franciscus de Vitoria and Cardinal Cajetan. The history of the academic conceptions of heresy is yet to unfold.