MODERN PHILOSOPHY

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  1. The Paper
  2. General Reading
  3. Specific Authors

1. The Paper

This paper covers the metaphysical and epistemological thought of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. The paper is divided by a traditional classification into the Rationalists and Empiricists, with a separate final section for Kant.

In all cases it is important first to look at primary sources, and to try and work out for yourself what a thinker is saying or trying to say. In almost every case, the authors in question were systematic thinkers, and what we now consider to be their philosophical writings are only part of their general intellectual interests and works. Although it is tempting to extract from one author or another a particular view on an issue of contemporary interest, one should remember that these thinkers are responding to their own philosophical concerns and interests in the intellectual context of their own age and not of ours. While there may be some perennial philosophical problems, the form they take and the plausibility of one solution rather than another can alter from epoch to epoch. The authors highlighted in this guide are not the only philosophers of the period, and while some of them had contact with each other, it is misleading to think of their work as a conversation across the decades over these philosophical problems. A fuller picture of each of them can be obtained only by attending also to some of the ‘lesser' figures of the period (for example, Bacon, Hobbes, Gassendi, Mersenne, Arnauld, Boyle, Malebranche and Bayle).

Secondary material can be useful as an aid, but cannot replace first-hand knowledge of the texts. Where the author did not write in English there are normally good translations available, indicated below. There is no requirement of reading texts in written in languages other than English in the original languages, but students who do possess the relevant linguistic skills are encouraged to make use of them

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2. General Reading

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3. Specific Authors

Descartes

Main Works

The best current translation of Descartes into English is The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (and Anthony Kenny, for Vol. 3), 3 Vols., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985; hereafter CSM for vols. 1 and 2; CSMK for vol. 3). From this there are two abridgements also available, J. Cottingham, Descartes: Selected Writings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), and J. Cottingham, Meditations on First Philosophy: with Selections from the Objections and Replies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). From these you should look at Meditations on First Philosophy, including the Objections and Replies; Discourse on Method, Parts I–IV; The Principles of Philosophy, esp. Part I. You should also look at some of the selected letters to Mersenne, Princess Elizabeth, and Henry More, all collected in CSMK.

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Descartes and the Physical World

Descartes' principal intellectual concerns were with the natural sciences. His conception of the physical world was mechanistic and corpuscularian (though rejecting atoms and the vacuum), and he sought to overthrow the Aristotelian natural philosophy that had dominated sixteenth-century Europe. It is useful to compare Descartes' views to Galileo's The Assayer (see Matthews, The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy for relevant selections). For Descartes' own account of those of his scientific views of most direct interest to philosophers see in particular Parts II, III and IV of The Principles of Philosophy, and The World, all in CSM, Vol. 1.

Secondary Reading

On Descartes' attitude towards the qualities of physical objects, see

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Ideas

Thomas Reid saw Descartes as the founder of the ‘theory of ideas', associated with ‘representationalism' as an account of how the mind relates to the world and to God. For Descartes' own description of the nature of ideas see Meditations 3 and 5, plus his responses to Arnauld's criticism (the Fourth Set of Objections and Replies); also look at Principles, Part I, 60–4.

Secondary Reading

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Mind and Body

Descartes claimed that the mind was distinct from the body—the arguments for this are presented in part in Meditation 2 and completed in Meditations 5 and 6. But Descartes was also keenly aware of the intimate relation between the two, and echoed a famous phrase of Aquinas' that the mind is not lodged in the body as a sailor in a ship. His attitude towards the union of mind and body has been the subject of much discussion both among his contemporaries and among recent commentators. For Descartes' own attempts to explain his position see his letters to Elizabeth, 21 May 1643, 28 June 1643, and Principles, i. 53, 54, 60–4; also see Passions of the Soul.

Secondary Reading

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Cartesian Epistemology

Although the Meditations begins with the ‘hyperbolic' doubt of the malign genie, it is not solely, or even primarily a work on epistemology—it is as concerned with outlining Descartes' metaphysical views as establishing epistemological doctrines. Descartes' own attitude to scepticism is not clear-cut—see Popkin, The History of Skepticism ; cf. Curley, Descartes Against the Skeptics, ch. 1. Nevertheless, Descartes' distinctive positive epistemological views are developed throughout the Meditations, starting with the cogito in Meditation 2, the nature of judgement and occasion for error in Meditation 4, the role of God against doubt in Meditations 3 and 5, the final resolution of sceptical doubts in Meditation 6.

Secondary Reading
Scepticism
The Cogito
The ‘Cartesian Circle'

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Spinoza

Main Works

The best current translation of Spinoza's works is The Collected Works of Spinoza, edited and translated by Edwin Curley, (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), but affordable selections from this translation can now be obtained in A Spinoza reader: the Ethics and other Works, trans. and ed. by E. Curley, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Curley's translation of The Ethics alone is also available as a Penguin Classic. Another useful translation and selection is The Ethics; Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect; and Selected Letters, trans. by Samuel Shirley, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992). For this paper you should look mainly at the Ethics, in particular Parts I and II, though Spinoza's letters are of great interest and often very valuable for helping understand his system.

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The Uniqueness of Substance

Descartes' philosophy occupies a central place in understanding Spinoza: his first philosophical work was a rendition of Descartes' system into analytic form, Descartes' Principles of Philosophy. Spinoza's distinctive theory of substance may appear at first sight rather odd, but you should find it helpful to place it in the context of an attempt to draw out the consequences implicit in the Cartesian distinctions of substance, mode and attribute. See Ethics, Part I, props. 1–14, for the bald statement of his substance monism.

Secondary Reading

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Mind, Thought and Body

Other aspects of Spinoza's thought develop out of his monistic metaphysics. This is true of his psychology and physics. For his account of mind and its relation to the physical world look at Ethics Parts II and III.

Secondary Reading

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Determinism and the Denial of Contingency

Spinoza's universe is a totally mechanistic one, apparently removing any place for contingency in the world of nature. His attitude towards human action and freedom of the will is strongly influenced by his general metaphysics, and it remains a matter of controversy what his account exactly is. Start with Ethics, Part I, props. 16–33, then look at Part IV.

Secondary Reading

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The Passions

One of the central themes in Spinoza's account of the nature of man and his place in the world is the possibility and means of overcoming the passions. See Ethics, Part IV. Again, one can understand his particular account of human psychology only in the context of his general metaphysics (contrast his account of the passions with Descartes' own theory in his The Passions of the Soul.

Secondary Reading

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Leibniz

Leibniz presents the unusual, almost unique, example of a great philosopher who never wrote a great book on philosophy, and his system needs to be constructed from the partial, incomplete or highly compressed presentations of it in various of his writings.

Main Works

Selections of Leibniz's writings in English translation can be found in

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Substance, Monads and the World

Leibniz's distinctive remarks on substance are best examined in the context of Descartes' and Spinoza's metaphysical views. There is a sense in which Leibniz developed his theory of substance in order to address well-known problems in the Cartesian account of substance. The starting point for his view of substance and monads are Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics.

Secondary Reading

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Truth, Contingency and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Leibniz's views of truth, the nature or real definition of things, and contingency are regulated by his principle of sufficient reason. On this see ‘On Contingency', ‘On Primary Truths', ‘On the Ultimate Origination of All Things', ‘Principles of Nature and Grace', Monadology, secs. 30–40, all in G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays, translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989).

Secondary Reading

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Identity and Indiscernibility

We owe to Leibniz formulations of the laws of identity. First, that identicals are indiscernible, " x " y ( x = y ¨ ( Fx Ç Fy )), but also the converse, that indiscernibles are identical " x " y (( Fx Ç Fy ) ¨ x = y ): the latter is controversial if any restriction is placed on the substitution for F. For Leibniz's discussion of identity see ‘On Primary Truths', ‘The Source of Contingent Truths', Monadology.

Secondary Reading

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Freedom and Determinism—God and Theodicy

Leibniz's determinism issues from his commitment to two principles about necessity and possibility: the first is that any predicate true of any substance is contained in the individual concept of that substance; the second is his denial of the possibility of a substance having had attributes other that it actually has—given that Leibniz was a diplomat, on his view, he could not have been the same individual if he had not been a diplomat. Leibniz's fullest expression of his view is in The Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil. Edited by Austin Farrer. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985. You could also look at, ‘On Freedom and Possibility', ‘On Freedom', ‘The Principles of Nature and Grace', ‘The Dialogue on Human Freedom and the Origin of Evil', all in Ariew and Garber.

Secondary Reading

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Locke

Main Works

Locke's most important philosophical work is the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The best modern edition is John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); the textual apparatus of this provides details of how Locke revised his work for successive editions, and is indispensable for serious study of Locke's philosophical thought. For ordinary student use there are other less expensive editions, including one edited by Roger Woolhouse (London: Penguin, 1997). Locke's other writings have mostly be consulted in old collected editions of his works, of which the 1823 edition (reprinted 1963) is the most widely used. The most important of these other writings are the three very long letters that Locke wrote to defend the Essay against criticisms by Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester.

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Ideas, Representation and Innateness

Locke's empiricism is properly so called through his opposition to the innateness of any ideas, in which view he engaged Leibniz's opposition. For Locke's attack see Essay, I. ii–iv; for Leibniz's response see New Essays, Introduction, Bk. I, Chs. 1–3.

Secondary Reading

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Primary and Secondary Qualities

Locke provided the classic statement of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, though earlier versions of the distinction can be found in writers such as Galileo, Descartes and Boyle, and in some form it can be traced back to Democritus. For Locke's discussion of the distinction see Essay, II, iv, viii.

Secondary Reading

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Substance and Essence

Locke is often credited with an attack on the notion of substance or substratum. However, close reading of the Essay (II. xiii. 17–20, II. xxiii) suggests that his views may be more complex than this. How exactly his account of substance in Book II is related to the theory of real and nominal essences in book III (chs. iii, iv, vi, ix) is also controversial.

Secondary Reading

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Personal Identity

For Locke, ‘person' is a forensic term, associated with the attribution of responsibility. His novel account of personal identity is closely related to his remarks on substance and individuation; and it prefigures in many ways Kant's critique of rational psychology. This chapter, which appeared only from the second edition on is Essay, II. xxvii.

Secondary Reading

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Berkeley

Main Works

The standard edition of Berkeley's works was edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, London: Nelson, 1948–57. His most important philosophical works are the Principles of Human Knowledge. and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Student editions of these two include:

A fuller selection of Berkeley's works can be found in

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Abstraction and the Idea of Matter

The Introduction to Berkeley's principles contains his notorious attack on Locke's theory of abstract general ideas. Many commentators have sought for the significance apparently accorded this disagreement in the role Berkeley's anti-abstractionism plays in his arguments against matter though this neat interpretation is certainly questionable. For Locke's own account of abstract ideas see his Essay, III i–iii.

Secondary Reading

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Idealism

Already by sec. 7 of the Principles, Berkeley seems to have in play the main elements of his idealism and his critique of materialism which are then played out further in the first part of the Principles (no second part was ever published: part was drafted but it was apparently lost during a tour of Italy). In the mid-twentieth century a form of anti-materialism called phenomenalism had some popularity, and that has led some commentators to find phenomenalism in Berkeley. This is controversial, for there are forms of idealism which are not phenomenalist.

Secondary Reading

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God and Other Minds

According to Berkeley we can have no idea of any spirit, either finite or infinite. He therefore broke with the empiricist principle maintained by Locke (and subsequently taken over by Hume) that words have their meaning by being made signs of ideas. Instead he sketched (but never fully developed) a theory of ‘notions': we have notions of our own mind, of other minds, and of God. Both how Berkeley establishes the existence of God, and the role of God within his general metaphysics are matters of much dispute. Berkeley offers us a rare example of an anti-realist ‘proof' of the existence of God. See Principles of Human Knowledge, secs. 135ff, and the second of the Three Dialogues. Berkeley's fullest account of these matters is in his work of Christian apologetics, Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher, in vol. 3 of the Luce and Jessop edition of the collected works. There is a useful abridgement and commentary on this in Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher in Focus, edited by David Berman, London: Routledge, 1993.

Secondary Reading

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Mathematics and Natural Science

Berkeley's fullest exposition of his instrumentalist account of scientific theories is in De Motu, in Works, ed. Luce and Jessop, vol. 4, but also in the collection edited by Michael Ayers. See also Principles of Human Knowledge, secs. 101ff.

Secondary Reading

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Hume

Main Works

The earliest and fullest account of Hume's philosophy is in A Treatise of Human Nature ; the material relevant to this examination paper being in Book I. A later, clearer but considerably less detailed account is in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The following are the most widely used editions:

A Treatise of Human Nature, edited, with an analytical index, by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 2nd ed. revised by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. This revised edition also includes the important Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature, which Hume published anonymously in the (vain) hope of stimulating sales of the main book.

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited, with an analytical index by L. A. Selby-Bigge 3rd ed. revised by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

There are also editions published by Penguin Classics, and new editions from Oxford University Press:

A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton, and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Impressions and Ideas

In one sense the distinction between impression and idea is the fulcrum of Hume's whole philosophy of mind; but on the other hand, it is both difficult to see exactly what the content of the distinction amounts to, and secondly on what grounds Hume holds to it. For his (rather unhelpful) exposition of perceptions and their classification into impressions and ideas, see Treatise, I. i. 1–4 and Enquiry, secs. i–iii.

Secondary Reading

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Induction, Causation and Necessity

Hume is famous for his scepticism concerning inductive reasoning and the existence of causation. Such fame rests on controversy as to his real attitude towards causation and reasoning about probability. Hume was certainly wary of the role of ‘reason' in the explanation or justification of our beliefs about the future and the powers at work in the world around us. Whether he believed that causation could be reduced o regularity is a matter for discussion. For his own words on the matter see Treatise I. iii. 2–16, the Abstract (pp. 649–54 of the revised Selby-Bigge edition of the Treatise ), and the first Enquiry, secs. iv–vii.

Secondary Reading

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The Self

Hume denied that he could find any impression of his own self within the mind. In place of this, he appears to have offered a ‘bundle theory' of the self. Although, as with his views on causation, there is some dispute as to Hume's attitudes towards what there actually is, as opposed to what we have justification to believe. In the Appendix to the Treatise, Hume despaired of rendering his account of personal identity consistent, but was less than forthcoming about the problems he found there. Look at Treatise, I. iv. 6, plus the relevant part of the Appendix (pp. 633–6 in Selby-Bigge's edition).

Secondary Reading

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Scepticism with Regard to the Senses

In his chapter on scepticism with regard to the senses in the Treatise (I. iv. 2) Hume set out to investigate the causes that induce us to believe in the existence of bodies. According to what he says there, the idea cannot be derived from either the senses or from reason, but must be the result of imagination. In the later presentation of the Enquiry, the positive aspects of the Treatise account have been removed, and Hume presents us solely with his sceptical argument (which he is concerned to claim as original to him) against vulgar beliefs in the existence of a world independent of our senses: Enquiry, sec. xii, part. I.

Secondary Reading

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Kant

For a detailed bibliography and guidance on specific topics see the section on the Kant paper.

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