Locke, Species, and Money

Sunday, October 21st, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | 2 Comments

Dan Carey (Galway) writes…

The early modern debate over species – whether they exist in nature or merely represent a convenience imposed by language – featured an important intervention by John Locke. Locke famously attributed the designation of species to so-called nominal essences defined by observable qualities and properties of things. Natural philosophy was tasked with enhancing observation and thereby creating a better match between ideas and the words applied to them. One of the questions raised in recent criticism has been whether Locke believed in the real existence of species in nature despite his conventionalism about classifying them, and if so, how their existence might serve to constrain our nominal essences.

The widespread use of the word ‘species’ was not confined to natural history in the early modern period. Another area in which it arose was in the context of disputes over money which proliferated in the 1690s in England during the recoinage crisis. Locke also intervened in this debate. Faced with currency radically depleted of silver by clipping (on average by 50%) the choice was whether to opt for a devaluation or to ‘revalue’ it at the existing legal standard – recalling all the coin in circulation and reminting it at full weight. Locke favoured this solution and a plan largely supported by his principles prevailed in Parliament.

In Locke’s philosophy, money constituted a ‘mixed mode’ – basically a concept formed from what he called ‘voluntary combinations’ of ideas, known by definition rather than ostensive reference. In the case of mixed modes, ‘the essence of each species’ was made ‘by men alone’ (Essay, II.xxxii.12) and therefore no distinction existed between their real and nominal essences.

The scope for introducing new species – allowed by money’s status as a mixed mode – appears in several innovative proposals made during the monetary crisis of the 1690s. Three of the main advocates of a land bank to generate funds, John Asgill, John Briscoe, and Hugh Chamberlen, all referred to their schemes as creating a new species of money. Asgill made this explicit in the title of his book Several Assertions Proved, in Order to Create another Species of Money than Gold and Silver (1696). Not everyone was so cheerful at the prospect of such innovation. One of Locke’s economic supporters complained that, in the case of the Bank of England, its failure to honour the promise to exchange bank notes on demand for hard currency led to decline in the value of paper, which merited describing it as ‘perfectly a new Species of Clip’d Money’.

We can gain an insight into Locke’s attitude to species, I would argue, by attending to his position on money. Rather than endorsing changes of meaning at will (like the kind proposed by advocates of devaluation) he sought to anchor the definition of money in something outside of personal fancy or expediency. For him, the value of coin was set by the amount of silver it contained by weight – not by any stamp or arbitrary denomination given to it. Furthermore, the standard had been set at the Mint at 5s. 2d. per ounce and it should not, like other systems of measurement, be tampered with. Many arguments compelled this conclusion, but one of the most telling was that international exchange dictated that the value of money rested on ‘intrinsic’ silver quantity.

On his own analysis of mixed modes, Locke could have arrived at a different assessment. He could have seen devaluation as merely a new definition of money, agreed by common consent. What he searched for, evidently, was a secure criterion of meaning that was external and invariable – in other words something to constrain the freedom associated with mixed modes. We cannot, of course, conclude directly from this that Locke was similarly committed to the idea that nature constrains our species terminology, but there is at least a pattern worth observing in which a radical nominalism held no appeal for him. In nature, the standard might come from observable properties rather than discernable ‘real essences’ but here too he sought a more regulated system, governed by intersubjective criteria.

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

Special Issue: Women, Philosophy and Literature in the Early Modern Period

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

We are pleased to announce that Professor Peter Anstey and Emeritus Professor Jocelyn Harris of our Early Modern Thought Research Theme have edited a new special issue of Intellectual History Review with Routledge:

Over the last two decades, a burgeoning interest in women intellectuals from the early modern period has resulted in outstanding surveys, anthologies and a robust secondary literature. The consequence is that we now have a clearer, richer understanding of the range and quality of many women authors, together with an enhanced appreciation of their philosophical depth.

This special issue is the fruit of a conference exploring the intersection of women, philosophy and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, held in September 2009 at the University of Otago. Speakers both built on and extended recent scholarship in papers about women writers from Margaret Cavendish to Jane Austen, the representation of women by Nicolas Malebranche and mid-eighteenth-century playwrights, and the impact of a woman philosopher on Samuel Richardson. Their inter-connections highlight the thematic continuity of the whole.

This collection includes at least four common threads. First, the question of influence, or rather the extent to which contemporary philosophers influenced women thinkers and the extent to which they influenced one another. Second, the question of the gendered nature of mind, especially the epistemic status of women’s reason. That debate cannot be uncoupled from a third early modern preoccupation variously touched on in these essays, that is, the relation between humans and animals. And fourth, the decidedly Christian character of many of the writings under discussion.


Abstracts of the papers:

Jacqueline Broad, “Impressions in the Brain: Malebranche on Women, and Women on Malebranche”

In his De la recherche de la vérité (The Search after Truth) of 1674-75, Nicolas Malebranche makes a number of apparently contradictory remarks about women and their capacity for pure intellectual thought. On the one hand, he seems to espouse a negative biological determinism about women’s minds, and on the other, he suggests that women have the free capacity to attain truth and happiness, regardless of their physiology.  In the early eighteenth-century, four English women thinkers – Anne Docwra (c. 1624-1710), Mary Astell (1666-1731), Damaris Masham (1659-1708), and Mary Chudleigh (1656-1710) – engaged with Malebranche’s ideas. Their writings reveal how we might dispel the apparent contradictions in Malebranche’s thinking about women, and reaffirm the liberating potential of Cartesian philosophy for women in the early modern period.

Jennifer Clement, “Elizabeth I, Patriotism, and the Imagined Nation in Three Eighteenth-Century Plays”

The cult of Elizabeth I shaped three eighteenth-century plays: James Ralph’s The Fall of the Earl of Essex in 1731; Henry Jones’s The Earl of Essex: A Tragedy, first performed in 1753; and Henry Brooke’s play, also called The Earl of Essex, first performed in London in the 1760-61 season. This article explores the specific historical circumstances of each play to show how they produce significantly different readings of Elizabeth. While Ralph depicts a queen unable to control her passions, Jones intensifies Elizabeth’s patriotism, and Brooke not only makes Elizabeth a full-fledged Patriot Queen but also portrays Essex as much to blame for his own tragic fate. Examining these plays together thus shows Elizabeth’s significance in the development of British patriot discourse. Moreover, in spite of their differences, all three plays emphasize the importance of a loving bond between sovereign and people, and suggest that only such a bond can resist faction and reach out beyond court corruption to unify the nation in its advance towards an imperial future.

Jocelyn Harris, “Philosophy and Sexual Politics in Mary Astell and Samuel Richardson”

When the novelist Samuel Richardson dramatised in his heroine Clarissa the character, life and sexual politics of the celebrated Mary Astell, neo-Platonic philosopher and advocate for women’s education, then appropriated her more satiric tone for her friend Anne Howe, he spread Astell’s arguments more widely than she ever could. Richardson printed for Astell in 1730, and his intellectual circle intersected with hers through Sarah Chapone, who tried to bring him together with Astell’s biographer George Ballard. Similarities between Richardson’s first and third editions and Ballard’s memoir suggest that he read it in manuscript. As Astell and Richardson both point out, Locke’s concept of freedom through the social contract does not apply to women. Astell’s submission to authority on political and religious grounds made heaven her only recourse. In Richardson’s masterpiece, too, Clarissa only finds freedom in death.

Charles Pigden, “A Sensible Knave? Hume, Jane Austen and Mr Elliot”

My paper deals with one woman’s literary response to a philosophical problem. The woman is Jane Austen, the problem is the rationality of Hume’s ‘sensible knave’, and Austen’s response is to deepen the problem. Despite his enthusiasm for virtue, Hume reluctantly concedes that injustice can be a rational strategy for ‘sensible knaves’, who feel no aversion towards thoughts of villainy or baseness. Austen agrees, but adds that absent considerations of a future state there are other vices besides injustice that can be rationally indulged with tolerable prospects of worldly happiness. Austen’s creation Mr Elliot is just such an agent – sensible and knavish but not technically ‘unjust’.

L. E. Semler, “Margaret Cavendish’s Early Engagement with Descartes and Hobbes: Philosophical Revisitation and Poetic Selection”

This essay explores Margaret Cavendish’s early engagement with the works and ideas of Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes. In the process it presents a chronology of her early works and the hypotheses of poetic selection and philosophical revisitation. The essay argues that Cavendish had extensive philosophical knowledge by the early 1650s, was interested in poetically exploring the philosophical ideas of her male contemporaries, and revisited in the 1660s philosophical ideas that she had already considered in the early period. It concludes that despite her covert use of sources and denials of extensive philosophical knowledge in the early period, her early works reveal her to be deeply and intelligently engaged in current trends of thought.

Jane Spencer, “The link which unites man with brutes’: Enlightenment Feminism, Woman and Animals”

This essay argues that eighteenth-century natural historians’ accounts of the relationship between animals and humanity had a complex influence on the development of Enlightenment feminism. On the basis of analogies between human and animal behaviour, human female subordination and feminine qualities such as modesty were naturalised. Focusing on Mary Wollstonecraft, the essay shows how her argument with William Smellie’s Philosophy of Natural History was instrumental in her development of a social constructivist position which she used to counter Edmund Burke’s conservatism on social and gender hierarchies. In developing this position, she reaffirmed a dualist understanding of a firm boundary between human (spiritual) and animal (physical) nature. While earlier feminist thinkers had considered human affinities to animals in a more positive light, Wollstonecraft, though advocating kindness to animals, was conservative on the human-animal hierarchy. For her, woman’s place in a rational humanity radically distinguished from animal life was the necessary foundation of  feminist argument.

Sophie Tomlinson, “A Woman’s Reason: Aphra Behn Reads Lucretius”

Critics have conflicting views about Aphra Behn and libertinism, some seeing her as embracing it, others seeing her as ambivalent towards it, and others still feeling that she employs it strategically for marketing her literature. This essay explores all three approaches, arguing that Behn’s ‘libertinism’, like all libertinism, is more difficult to define than is sometimes thought. The essay shows that Behn dallied with alternative forms of libertinism depending on occasion; it explores Behn as a revising author, analyzing the changes that she made to some of her most crucial libertine texts. Behn’s libertinism is hard to pin down, because Behn herself defines it differently each time she revises her work.


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!

Bruno and the Extra-Terrestrials

Sunday, July 1st, 2012 | Greg Dawes | 2 Comments

Giordano Bruno (Livre du recteur, University of Geneva, 1578)

The SETI League, which is dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life, each year offers an award in honour of Giordano Bruno (15481600).

Bruno was, notoriously, burned to death in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, after eight years of imprisonment and condemnation by the Roman Inquisition. One of the judges who condemned him was the learned Jesuit, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, who would later play a prominent role in the Galileo affair (and who is now Saint Robert Bellarmine).

So why should a sixteenth-century heretic be associated with the search for extra-terrestrial life, a search that involves thousands of computers scanning the electromagnetic spectrum for that longed-for (or perhaps dreaded) signal, that suggests we are not alone in the universe?

An image from Copernicus's "De Revolutionibus"

Bruno, along with Galileo, was one of the first defenders of Copernican cosmology. Indeed he seems to have been the first to note that the anonymous preface to Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was not written by Copernius himself. We now know that preface to be written by the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander. It offers an instrumentalist interpretation of Copernicus’s cosmology, arguing that his picture of the universe should not be understood as a description of the way it actually is, but as a mere instrument for calculating heavenly movements. Along with Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo (1564–1642), Bruno denied that this was Copernicus’s intention and held to a realist interpretation of his cosmological scheme.

A 1483 copy of Lucretius's work, produced for Pope Sixtus IV.

But in many respects Bruno went beyond Copernicus. He followed the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 99–55 BC), as well as some late medieval thinkers, in affirming the existence of a universe that is infinite in extent. While Bruno coupled this with a defence of Copernican cosmology, he realized that such an idea rendered moot debates about the centre of the universe. As Lucretius had already written in his De rerum natura (I,1070), “there can be no centre to that which is boundless” (medium nil esse potest infinita). In his De la causa, principio et uno (Fifth Dialogue), Bruno expresses a similar idea with a paraphrase of the words of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64). One can affirm with equal truth, he writes, that “the centre of the universe is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere” (il centro de l’universo è per tutto, e che la circonferenza non è in parte alcuna) or that “the circumference is everywhere, but the centre is nowhere” (la circonferenza è per tutto, ma il centro non si trova).

Of more interest to the SETI League is the fact that Bruno believed this infinite universe to be populated by an infinite number of worlds, in the sense of planetary systems orbiting other suns. He claimed that these worlds were inhabited by creatures like, or even superior to, ourselves.

Such ideas sound very modern. But should we regard Bruno as a pioneer of modern science? This idea was vigorously contested by Frances Yates, who in her 1964 book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradtion, argued that Bruno is better thought of as a Renaissance magus. More recently, Hilary Gatti, in her book Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science, has tried to reforge a link between Bruno and the new natural philosophy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But even Gatti is loathe to describe Bruno as a practitioner of the new science. He is merely “a friend and supporter of the new science,” who, while supportive of aspects of that new knowledge, is also “deeply suspicious of some of its outcomes and consequences.”

Galileo Galilei in 1636 (Portrait by Justus Sustermans)

What’s important to note is that Bruno does not reason in the same manner as, say, Galileo, who in a letter to Fortunio Liceti in 1639 admitted that he could not decide if the universe is infinite or bounded. Bruno has no such hesitations. As Gale Christianson writes (Science Fiction Studies March 1976), Bruno “soared into the metaphysical realm unencumbered by the ballast of scientific thinking.”

In particular, Bruno’s belief in an infinite universe populated by a plurality of worlds is not based on any empirical data. In fact, he believes there could be no empirical evidence for such a claim. As he writes near the beginning of De l’infinito universo, “no corporeal sense can perceive the infinite. None of our senses could be expected to furnish this conclusion; for the infinite cannot be the object of sense-perception” (non è senso che vegga l’infinito, non è senso da cui si richieda questa conchiusione; perché l’infinito non può essere oggetto del senso).

Rather than being based on empirical evidence, Bruno’s conviction is based on a theological principle. It is based on the idea that an infinite creator could not do anything other than create an infinite world. To suggest that God would create a finite universe is to accuse the Creator of being miserly or envious (invidioso), since he would be refusing to share his own goodness (De l’infinito universo First Dialogue). It follows, as Bruno writes, that “we insult the infinite cause when we say that it may be the cause of a finite effect” (infinita causa injuriose finiti dicetur effectus causa) (De immenso et innumerabilibus I, 9).

It is deeply ironical that Bruno, who was put to death by the Church, argued for a revolutionary scientific conclusion on theological grounds

So is Bruno a pioneer of modern science? In some of his conclusions, yes, perhaps he is. But in the manner in which he is reasoning he certainly is not. In fairness to the SETI League, they also recognize this fact. While naming an award after Bruno, they have also posted a critical essay by Richard Pogge, suggesting that Bruno’s thought has little to offer the modern searcher for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

There is, of couse, a lesson to be learned here. Before we describe a thinker as a precursor of some modern ideas, we need to examine, not merely the conclusions at which he arrived, but the ways in which he arrived at them. This may involve styles of reasoning that are far removed from those we would consider scientific.

The Case of Thomas Emes

Sunday, May 6th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Plenty of obscure books were published in the early modern period and for anyone who is prepared to spend a few hours scouring a database as powerful as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (or its 17th-century equivalent EEBO) it is not uncommon to turn up a work about which little is known.

Now, as a student of the philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704), I am interested in the impact of Locke’s thought on subsequent generations. One of Locke’s most notorious and widely discussed remarks in the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690, 1st edn) concerns the possibility that God might supperadd to ‘Matter fitly disposed’ the power of thought (Essay IV. iii. 6). Earlier in the year, I stumbled upon a book (unhelpfully) listed in ECCO as Vindici? Mentis attributed to Thomas Emes and published in 1702. I found it by searching for occurrences of the term ‘fitly disposed’. The correct title is Vindiciae Mentis

Here is how Emes introduces his extended discussion and what he says clearly alludes to Locke:

It is supposed by some that God may give a Power of Thinking, to matter some way or other fitly dispos’d; at least that none has ever demonstrated the Contrary, and whether it be demonstrable, it to them a Question. (p. 26)

Of course scholars have been writing about the impact of this claim for decades. John Yolton, for example, wrote not one, but two books about it: Thinking Matter (1981) and Locke and French Materialism (1991). Until very recently, however, Emes’ book had slipped under the radar of modern scholarship. Yolton doesn’t mention it in either of his books on the thinking matter controversy, which is understandable because they were written years before the availability of the new databases. But searches of Google Scholar and JSTOR turned up nothing either, except of course the book itself.

Moreover, John Attig’s superb Locke Bibliography lists 104 works under the subject ‘Thinking matter’ dating from 1695, but it doesn’t include Emes’ book. Even worse, the article on Thomas Emes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography fails to mention this work even though there are very strong grounds for attributing it to him. Poor old Emes! His work really did fall dead-born from the press (to echo Hume).

This neglect of Emes’ book has recently been rectified by Udo Thiel in his excellent The Early Modern Subject: Self-Consciousness and Personal Identity from Descartes to Hume. Thiel’s discussion of Vincidiæ Mentis (pp. 227–9) is concerned, not with the thinking matter controversy, but with the question of personal identity. However, Thiel does provide good evidence for the attribution of authorship to Emes and mentions that the book was discussed in a pamphlet in 1702 by Henry Layton.

So what then is the value of this highly obscure book? As far as philosophical sophistication goes, it is a work of little merit. But with regard to what it tells us about the reception of Locke’s ideas and the wider debate about the nature of the soul, the mind–body distinction and personal identity, this work has a minor, though important, place in the broader context in which these issues were discussed.

I will contact John Attig straight away and ask him to add the name ‘Emes’ to his Locke bibliography. I will also ask ECCO to correct the title of Emes’ book. Meanwhile, start searching ECCO. Who knows what you’ll turn up?