Skip to main content

Locke, Body, and Soul

Image result for catharine trotter cockburn

I've been reading WOMEN PHILOSOPHERS OF THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD (1994) a selection of texts from the 17th and 18th centuries edited (and with commentary by) Margaret Atherton.

The collection is rather hit or miss. The women selected have little in common other than sex, chronology, and a western European abode. But it does help fill out some of the history of ideas.

The collection includes for example a vigorous defense of John Locke's ideas about the human mind, written by Catharine Trotter Cockburn.

Defense against whom? Against Cartesians in general. More specifically, against a fellow named Thomas Burnet, who had written extensively against Locke from a Cartesian point of view.

One thought that strikes me here  is that by Descartes' time, the terms "mind" and "soul" had become synonymous philosophically. The mind is the immortal part of me if there is one, and if one wants to speak of it in a religious context one can call it the soul. This is in striking contrast with, for example, the old Platonic view that the mind is only one of the three parts of the soul.

Anyway: Locke made the following two points, which struck various Cartesian nerves: first, that if an omnipotent God wanted to make matter think, He could make matter think! There is no logical contradiction involved in saying "I am entirely made of matter and I think." Locke didn't think it true, he believed in an immaterial mind, but he thought it important to make that point about the possibility of thinking matter. Second, Locke said that it is not only possible, it is likely that there are times in the life of a mind when it doesn't think, when it is entertaining no thoughts at all -- as when its body is enjoying a deep sleep.

Cartesians in general, and Burnet in particular, found both points objectionable,. The essence of matter is contrary to the essence of mind thus (on their view) even a omnipotent Being couldn't make matter conscious. Further, that which is conscious must always be conscious, that is, it must always be thinking, although many of its thoughts, even for long stretches, may of course be forgotten.

Cockburn's pamphlet against Burnet, or at least the portion reproduced in this book, is largely aimed at defending Locke from critiques on these two points. And in its defense she says that just because something is "inconceivable" (such as a thinking lump of matter) doesn't mean it isn't so

"All the demonstration we can have from such difficulties [of conception] is of the weakness and scantiness of our knowledge, which should not make us forward in determining positively on either side, much less to establish the immortality of the soul on so uncertain a foundation."

That passage reminds me somehow of The Princess Bride.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…