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.

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.)

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!

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?