Early Moderns and "Thinking Around"

I am taking a brief break from grading to make a few notes about something I’ve become increasingly interested in recently, which I’ve been labeling for myself as “thinking around” (to be contrasted with “thinking about”).

I’m going to start with two examples, one from Hume and one from Berkeley.

On my reading of Hume, there is a sort of mental activity one can engage in towards that which is strictly and literally inconceivable.  This activity is supposition.  In one part of my dissertation, I attempt to show that Hume can embrace this form of mental engagement without abandoning his commitment to analyze all mental activity (of the understanding) in terms of conception (i.e. ideas).  At any rate, there are a few passages which are naturally read as Hume allowing that some things can be supposed which cannot be conceived.  This type of mental engagement, I argue, allows a response to a Reidian objection which charges Hume as unable to account for reductio ad absurdum reasoning.  So, while you cannot, on my reading of Hume, think of or about an even prime greater than 2, for example, you can think around such a prime, allowing you to reason your way to its non-existence.

Berkeley, like Hume, has a view of conception bound up with what ideas one possesses.  Consequently, Berkeley deploys arguments about the nature of ideas to show that certain things are inconceivable.  But, as is somewhat explicit in the third Dialogue between Hylas and Philonous, and fully explicit in Alciphron VII, Berkeley introduces a way to defend the meaningfulness of discourse in which meaningful terms to not signify ideas (rejecting a straightforward Lockeanism about language), with something I’ll call “notions” (though I don’t know if Berkeley consistently uses the “idea”/”notion” terminology to track this distinction).  Having a notion of something does not require having an idea of it.  Thus, even though I cannot have an idea of immaterial susbtance, I still have a way to engage with propositions about immaterial substances (whether we are speaking of me or god).  This too is a sort of thinking around, as I understand it.

Resources which allow a philosopher to permit our thinking around something which we cannot (on their view) properly think about or of are important elements of their views for two reasons.  First, they can give us important insights about other aspects of their views.  For instance, noting that Berkeley must appeal to some such resource in the third dialogue, to explain how we can believe in immaterial substance helps us exclude some (seemingly natural) interpretations of the first dialogue arguments against material substance.  While it might appear that Berkeley is offering a straightforward inconceivability argument against belief in material substance there, it is clear from his own later admission that we cannot strictly conceive of immaterial substance that the dialogue one argument must be more complicated than it at first seemed.

Second, however, they are important for allowing us to see how powerful objections to those philosophers wind up being.  Take Hume, who embraces the view that we cannot conceive of anything which is impossible.  Given that various philosophers have appeared to sincerely defend views which, for Hume, turn out to be impossible, there is the objection that Hume cannot be right, because we could not then make sense of such apparently sincere defenses.  A natural sort of reply is to invoke some sort of verbal confusion underlying the dispute.  But that line of reply is not always satisfying, and does not always do a good job of addressing the behavior of his opponents.  On the other hand, Hume’s resource of supposition-without-conception permits him a more robust way to understand his opponents as engaging with these impossible views (apart from merely “mistakenly defending that the sentences which express those impossibilities actually express truths”).

I’m sure that similar sorts of resources crop up in the views of other philosophers, but I don’t want to just start casting around randomly. If anyone has suggestions of places to look (especially in terms of early modern figures other than the “canonical” British empiricists), please let me know.

8 thoughts on “Early Moderns and "Thinking Around"

  1. I think Berkeley is pretty consistent in his use of 'idea' and 'notion' at least from 1732 on. For the 1734 edition of the Principles and Dialogues, he edited pretty thoroughly to make the terminology consistent. In the first editions of the Principles and Dialogues his usage is more like Locke's: 'notion' and 'idea' officially mean the same thing, but he is more inclined to use 'notion' for ideas that are somehow vague or unclear. Thus in the first edition of the Principles, there is a narrower sense of 'idea' and 'notion' on which we have no idea or notion of any substance, since ideas (in the narrow sense) are just not well-suited to represent substances, but there is also a broader sense in which we do have ideas/notions of God and the soul as immaterial substances. In the first edition of the Principles, this broader sense of 'having a notion' is pretty explicitly connected with whatever it takes to meaningfully use a word. In my view, Berkeley in 1710 already had the view that you could meaningfully use words without having ideas (in the narrow sense) that correspond to them, but didn't have a theory to explain how this is possible or what the necessary conditions for it are. When he actually develops this theory in Alciphron (some of the preliminaries occur in De Motu), the broad sense of idea/notion becomes 'notion' and the narrow sense becomes 'idea'.Leibniz's account of 'blind thought', which occurs especially in NEHU might be of interest to your general project. The mainstream view was that it is possible to manipulate words without attaching any meaning to them, and that this is bad and a source of all kinds of confusion (this is emphasized by Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke), but Leibniz, like Berkeley, thinks that it can be a good thing if it's done carefully, since it can expand the range of things we can reason about.

  2. Kenny,I was inclined to think that Berkeley was fairly good about the distinction, but I am not familiar enough with all the ins and outs of his corpus, so I didn't want to be on the hook for claiming that he always used the terms that way. Thanks for the details on his patterns of usage.Is there anywhere in NEHU in particular that you would think of with respect to "blind though" or should I just look to the index?

  3. This is great stuff, Lewis! On my reading of Berkeley and Hume mathematics provides resources that allows one to discuss all kinds of things in very fruitful ways (for example to make powerful and surprising predictions of natural phenomonea) without properly reasoning with the entities posited in the math (or, this forcing one to be ontologically committed to them).

  4. Eric,Is that stuff about Hume and Berkeley on Mathematics in print or in draft form that I can look at?I should say, I think that for Berkeley, in Alciphron VII, there are two things in play. I think, first, that Berkeley advocates (using the poker chip analogy) that bits of language can be significant without suggesting ideas _on all occasions of use_. This is what goes on, it seems, when we compute using decimal representations instead. However, this use of words (which is pretty strongly echoed in Hume) seems to be used by Berkeley as a wedge against the strong form of the "Lockean" account of language, opening the door for what reads (to me) like some sort of non-cognitivist account of our discourse about various theological propositions.It is a bit hard for me to judge whether Berkeley endorses the non-cognitivism about language that I see presented in Alciphron VII, because, dialectically, the view is presented by Euphranor as something Alciphron is not in a position to rule out, and not as Euphranor's own view. I definitely have not done a careful enough reading of Alciphron to know how to suss out anything nuanced about what Berkeley is intending to commit himself to.

  5. There's a lot of dispute about whether Berkeley endorses a form of noncognitivism, and it depends in part on how you define 'noncognitivism'. I think Berkeley's other example, the use of the number i (square root of -1) in algebra, clearly shows that he thinks there are meaningful signs that NEVER suggest ideas (at least not in the normal way in which words like 'chair' do). On some definitions this might be sufficient for noncognitivism. However, I think it's more common to define noncognitivism about a domain of discourse as the view that sentences in that domain are not truth evaluable. I think that Berkeley believes that mental or verbal propositions containing signs that don't signify anything may nevertheless be truth-evaluable, but this is a controversial position.

  6. So, I know that there the term gets used in various ways, but, especially for the early moderns who conceived of theories of language as things that were to be given in terms of human mental life, the "cognitivism"/"non-cognitivism" distinction seems like it should track the feature of "expressing belief" or "expressing a cognitive state".Since it was typical for thinkers of that era to regard the truth-evaluability of sentences as inherited from the truth-evaluability of the mental states they expressed, and also typical for them to regard judgment as the paradigmatic state capable of truth-evaluability, it is natural that the following two doctrines tended to go hand in hand (for a given predicate F):1) Sentences in which F occurs in predicative position express non-cognitive states.2) Sentences in which F occurs are not truth-evaluable.However, it would appear to be possible for someone to jettison the background assumptions which link (1) and (2), and thus give an account on which a class of predicates is non-cognitive (i.e. not expressive of belief) but still truth-evaluable.In more contemporary contexts, this is one way of understanding (certain implementations of) the expressivist program (for instance, those that couple a connative story about moral thought with a minimalism/assertability story about truth).Can you point me to some extant literature on the question of Berkeley's non-cognitivism? This is quickly becoming one of my new interests.

  7. The key proponent of the view that Berkeley is a non-cognitivist is David Berman. See his "Cognitive Theology and Emotive Mysteries in Berkeley's Alciphron" in Berman, ed., 'Alciphron in Focus' (1993) and also pp. 143-155 of his monograph 'George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man' (1994). This view is also endorsed by Bertil Belfrage in the editor's introduction to his edition of Berkeley's 'Manuscript Introduction'.The key opponents are Kenneth Williford and Roomet Jakapi. See Williford, "Berkeley's Theory of Operative Language in the Manuscript Introduction," BJHP 11 (2003); Jakapi, "Entry 720 of Berkeley's Philosophical Commentaries and Noncognitive Propositions in Scripture," Archiv fur Geschichte 85 (2003); Jakapi, "Christian Mysteries and Berkeley's Alleged Non-Cognitivism" in Daniel, ed., 'Reexamining Berkeley's Philosophy' (2007); Williford and Jakapi, "Berkeley's Theory of Meaning in Alciphron VII" BJHP 17 (2009)As you may have noticed from these titles, the manuscript introduction to PHK is almost as important as Alciphron VII in this debate.

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