Lisa Downing interviewed by Richard Marshall.


Lisa Downingis the philosopher who thinks all the time about the early modern philosophers of Europe, especially 17th and 18th century philosophy, about how philosophical analysis and historical exactitude compliment each other, on adding to the canonical philosophers of the period, on why Malebranch is the closest to re-entry, and Robert Boyle, on Descartes vs Newton, on avoiding anachronism, on the dynamism of the period, on primary and secondary qualities, on resisting the idea that historical views have to be relevant, on Berkeley, on tensions in Locke, on women philosophers of the time and on rejecting the occult. This one is kick-ass! Yo!

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? Were you surprised when you did or was it something that always seemed likely?

Lisa Downing:When I went to college, I expected to become a scientist, probably a biologist or chemist. I pursued that for several years, but I found that my science classes got less interesting as they got more specialized, whereas the philosophy classes got more interesting. (Plus, I was terrible at lab work. I believe I caused thousands of dollars of damage to a centrifuge at one point. But I have a publication in Biopolymers!) I was also very impressed with some of my philosophy professors: I thought they had an amazing ability to say exactly what they meant. I wanted to be able to do that.

3:AM:Your focus of scholarship is the early modern period of philosophy. This means seventeenth century European philosophy doesn’t it? Can you give an introduction to this and perhaps say what the main preoccupations of philosophers were at this time and why?

LD:I work on 17th and early 18th century European philosophy. I’m not qualified to discuss every important development in the period, but two transformative tendencies were (1) their desire to replace the scholastic Aristotelianism that dominated western philosophy for hundreds of years and (2) their focus on developments in natural philosophy (i.e. science). These were not unconnected tendencies. Influences go in both directions (and many directions), of course, but I think it is fair to say that advances in natural philosophy (in astronomy, mechanics, chemistry) motivated radical changes in the metaphysics of body and in metaphysics more generally. Some figures work more on the physics side (Galileo, Boyle, Newton) and some more on the philosophical side (Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley), with the great Descartes (and others) straddling both sides, but all of them are concerned, to some extent at least, with that border.

3:AM:For you, how far does philosophical analysis and critique trump historical exactitude?

LD:I don’t think there’s any question of either trumping the other. This sounds a bit pious, but surely they can be mutually supporting. In doing the history of philosophy, I take my goal as being to identify and explain the actual views of the philosopher in question, with the result being a philosophical understanding of what that philosopher thought and why. I don’t think we can understand their views without doing some critical evaluation/assessment. That is, if we haven’t figured out where the controversial assumptions and argumentative sticky points are, we haven’t advanced very far in our understanding of a philosophical text. Historical detail is needed because without it, we aren’t going to correctly identify their views. Also, historical detail is overwhelmingly likely to make the results more interesting—richer, and perhaps more surprising to us.

That said, not all historical detail is equally relevant to philosophical understanding. But, relevance is best assessed with a lot of historical background knowledge in place. I do think it makes sense to have some division of labor here: Some scholars are more interested in historical context for its own sake, and, whether they are located in philosophy or history or history of science departments, their work benefits historians of philosophy and philosophers generally.

3:AM:Linked to this is the expansion of ‘old history’ to include a broader set of philosophical figures (i.e. more than just Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume). Why broaden out? Aren’t these the key figures and everyone else are just circling their wagons?

LD:Circling their wagons? Do you mean spinning their wheels? Or is the idea that everybody else was resisting change? In any case: No, it isn’t true that these six are obviously the six most worthy early modern philosophers, irrespective of our interests. And it is even less true that these six were all the innovators. There is a classic article, “Seven thinkers and how they grew: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz; Locke, Berkeley, Hume; Kant,” by Bruce Kuklick which tells the historically contingent story of how this list became canonical in America. That is not to say that anyone on the list is unworthy of their status—all of those philosophers are important thinkers who wrote deep, systematic works. But so did Malebranche and Hobbes, and both were exceedingly influential, arguably more so than Berkeley or even Spinoza. So one reason to broaden out is so as not to miss some really good philosophy. Another reason is that one can’t understand how and why modern philosophy developed as it did without considering a broader set of figures.

3:AM:So who will probably be new to many of us non-specialists and what were they contributing?

LD:Nicolas Malebranche is perhaps the closest to re-entering the canon. There are now inexpensive editions of his main works in translation, and one even sees him appearing in textbook anthologies. The cariacature of Malebranche is that he responds to Descartes’ mind-body problem (if mind and body are entirely different kinds of substances, how can they causally communicate?) with an ad hoc solution: God is the only true cause (occasionalism) and God just acts directly on both minds and bodies so that they appear to communicate. The truth, though, is that Malebranche, who is one of very few figures in the period to directly consider the question of what efficient causation amounts to, offers quite general arguments that raise serious difficulties for anyone who wants to maintain, in a seventeenth/eighteenth century context, that finite created things have real efficient causal power. (Interestingly, Leibniz helped promote this cariacature of Malebranche, in advertising his own solution to the mind-body problem: the pre-established harmony.) In doing so, he highlights some of the most difficult metaphysical issues for Cartesianism, e.g.: How do modes relate to substances? How does God act in time? What happens when two bodies collide? Furthermore, Malebranche can be a fierce and effective critic of Descartes, most notably on our knowledge of the nature of mind and of the existence of bodies. (In both cases, Malebranche is much more pessimistic than Descartes.)

Another fine example of someone who is rightly re-entering the canon is Robert Boyle—chemist, physicist, philosopher, theologian, and publicist for the new science. Historians of philosophy began to engage more seriously with Boyle when they began to attend more to Locke’s philosophical debt to him. But he more than merits study on his own, at least if one is interested in what British natural philosophy looked like before Newton. His version of the primary/secondary quality distinction is one of the most developed in the period, plus he addresses methodological questions about the foundation for mechanist science that others leave untouched.

3:AM:Was this a time when the interplay and conflict between metaphysics and naturalism came to the foreground of philosophical discussion? I think you have written about the way Newtonian physics disrupts some elements of Cartesianism, as found in Malebranche and Fontenelle, which illustrates this point don’t you? Could you say something about this issue?

LD:There’s a crucial conflict between Cartesianism and Newtonianism in the period, yes, which is well-known to historians of the science of the period, but which is still sometimes glossed over in accounts of the scientific revolution as the triumph of the mechanical philosophy over scholasticism. Newton’s physics turns out to be highly disruptive, in the following way: Newton’s account of gravity invokes attraction, which appears to violate widespread strictures against action at a distance. Further, many held that to attribute to bodies the ability to generate new motion or act without contact is to breach the barrier between (active) mind and (passive) bodies, threatening dualism and our immortal (immaterial) souls! Now, no one at the time describes this conflict as a conflict between metaphysics and science. For one thing, as scholars love to point out, ‘science’ in the period means ‘systematic body of knowledge, ’ i.e. scientia, not what we now call ‘natural science.’ The closest seventeenth century equivalent to what we call ‘science’ is ‘natural philosophy,’ which, obviously, was a kind of philosophy. But the conflict was widely perceived and inspired a philosophically productive debate. Some clung to the supposition that Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation could be accommodated within a plenist (no vacuum) Cartesian physics, so that strict mechanism could be maintained and no action at a distance would be posited. There were sound arguments that this option was unworkable, however. (Newton himself, who formulated some of these arguments, nevertheless considers the idea of a non-mechanical yet still material ether which could potentially explain gravity and other effects.) Another option, advocated at the time by Roger Cotes, in his editor’s preface to the second edition of Newton’s Principia, is to expand our list of primary qualities by adding attraction to it.

This looks quite radical at the time, as it threatens to blow up our concept of body. A more conservative response, to which Newton sometimes seems sympathetic, is to attribute gravity to God’s direct action. This sounds ad hoc to us, but in context it arguably is not: God is almost universally supposed, in the period, to be intimately involved in some fashion with the continued existence and/or functioning of the created world. Samuel Clarke, who is the most prominent advocate of this view, draws a principled divide between bodily behaviors (e.g. inertia) which can be explained by the passive nature of body and others (e.g. attraction) which result from God’s governance. Another option, however, is to dissolve the tension by severing relations between natural philosophy and metaphysics. This is accomplished by prioritizing the notion of law of nature and, often, inculcating a mild skepticism about our knowledge of metaphysics. ‘sGravesande, the Dutch Newtonian, argues that we should expect our knowledge of nature to terminate in laws, such as Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation, and we should not expect to anchor such laws in the essence of body, which eludes us in any case.

3:AM:Is the appeal of this period that its issues are recognizably still with us?

LD:That’s part of it, although there’s a serious danger of anachronism in taking for granted that their issues are our issues. For example, I think it’s easy to miss important features of the debate over freedom and the will by rashly assuming that what worries 17th century thinkers is what worries 20th/21st century thinkers. Nevertheless, western philosophy really was transformed in the seventeenth century, and part of the value of early modern philosophy is that it gives us a better understanding of how problems philosophers still struggle with were first formulated (or crucially reformulated). Certainly, Descartes is to be credited with or blamed for quite a lot of our philosophy of mind and epistemology.

For me, the special appeal of the period is how dynamic it is, in (at least) two respects:
(1) Physics/metaphysics is in a ferment that really I think is unique in the history of western philosophy (as captured and petrified in notions like “the scientific revolution”).
(2) Most of the key thinkers of the period are in active dialogue and debate with one another, as is preserved in fabulous texts like the Objections and Replies to Descartes’ Meditations, the Leibniz/Clarke Correspondence, etc. When I teach this period, I like to talk about “the early modern conversation.”

3:AM:An example that you’ve written about explicitly in terms of the contemporary relevance of an idea from this period is in the collection of essays titled: Primary and Secondary Qualities: The Historical and Ongoing Debate.’ So Gassendi, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Reid, Kant and Helmholtz are all implicated in contemporary philosophical debates about this issue. Can you first say what the issue is that secondary and primary qualities is supposed to address?

LD:Well, I think one thing that the collection nicely points out is that there is more than one version of the distinction. (I’m thinking here especially of the articles by Mi-Kyoung Lee and Robert Pasnau.) There’s a version of the distinction that starts with primary qualities and takes them to be qualities basic to or essential to bodies/matter, and defines secondary qualities as leftover qualities, which in some way or other are lesser in status, perhaps assigned to appearances. On the other hand, there’s a version of the distinction that starts from secondary qualities (color, taste, etc.) and suggests that reflection reveals that they are inherently subjective, mind-dependent. As Margaret Wilsonpointed out some time ago, contemporary philosophers have mostly been interested in the latter distinction, while 17th and 18th century philosophers were making the former distinction, based on their physics and associated metaphysics. There is some overlap, though, on the question of what status should be assigned to these secondary qualities: are they mind-dependent, and in what way exactly? One reason why interest in the distinction has persisted is because philosophers keep needing to think about what we contribute to our experience of the world.

3:AM:Berkeley is a key interest of yours, and you have agued that he has much to say of importance, say, in his ideas about mechanics. Could you say something about this – why is he such an attractive figure for you and could you say how, for example, his application of immaterialism to contemporary notions of motion are both still relevant and important?

LD:I’d like to resist the idea that historical views have to be relevant in order to be interesting and important, at least if “relevant” means something like—something contemporary philosophers should consider adapting and adopting.

I see the structure of Berkeley’s thought as looking like this: Berkeley’s fundamental motivations really are religious: he thinks the mechanist, materialist philosophy of his predecessors (e.g. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke) leads to a pernicious skepticism and atheism. (By the way, it is important to note that “materialist” just means here “believes that matter exists,” rather than “believes that only matter exists.”) This motivates Berkeley to argue (powerfully!) that Cartesian and Lockean views are unstable, untenable, unattractive. It also motivates him to develop an idealist alternative, according to which reality is constituted by minds and their ideas. But, as you point out, Berkeley has no interest in rejecting the new science wholesale. He accommodates it by regarding laws of nature as regularities in our ideas. These regularities are produced by a benevolent God, on his view, but the aim of natural philosophy is to track the regularities, not to consider their cause. Here he is influenced by Malebranche and importantly prefigures Hume.

Interestingly, though, Berkeley is (quite rightly) unimpressed by the actual explanatory successes of mechanism, and prefers Newton’s natural philosophy. They looked like rivals, in the late 17th/early 18th centuries, because (as we discussed earlier) Newtonian gravitational attraction appeared to violate the mechanist requirement that all bodily interaction be contact action at impact. The importance Berkeley assigns to laws of nature puts him in position to transcend concerns about action at a distance. In De Motu, in effect, Berkeley points this out and develops an instrumentalist account of Newtonian dynamics. The philosophy of science that Berkeley develops floats free of its metaphysical motivations and can be motivated independently.

3:AM:In your essay on Locke’s ontology you say that his philosophy is full of tensions between his metaphysical claims and his epistemic modesty. Basically, he’s making a lot of claims about what the world must be like but also saying that we can’t know much. Is that right? Can you say something about this? Is this a tension that still haunts contemporary epistemology and naturalist metaphysics?

LD:Some of those tensions are merely apparent tensions that can be resolved if we understand Locke rightly. In fact, this is a central motivation for much of my work on Locke. In teaching Locke on the primary/secondary quality distinction, I found myself getting stuck on the following tension: Locke’s notion of primary quality seems to be a straightforwardly metaphysical notion: primary qualities are the foundational qualities, the qualities that are really in bodies, ineliminably, which ground all of their other qualities and behaviors. Yet, Locke writes in many parts of the Essay as though these intrinsic and irreducible qualities just are the ones mechanist natural philosophy takes to be basic (size, shape, solidity, motion), which seems like a wildly optimistic assessment of the science of his time, and this despite the fact that he repeatedly notes that it is not his business in the Essay to pronounce on which physical hypothesis be “clearest and truest”. Even worse, in 2.8.9 he seems to suggest that we can identify these intrinsic and irreducible qualities by means of a little reflection on sensory experience. But this, surely, runs right up against Locke’s epistemic modestly: we have no faculties for identifying essences!

But this tension is resolved by the right interpretation: For Locke, the primary/secondary quality distinction is first and foremost a metaphysical distinction. Boylean mechanism represents, officially, one hypothesis about which qualities might actually fill those metaphysical roles. The hypothesis does have a special status, though, because Locke thinks this particular hypothesis is uniquely intelligible to us—it corresponds to the concept of matter/body that we derive from reflection on sense perception. That’s what Locke is pointing out in 2.8.9, and that’s what explains why Locke repeatedly employs the mechanist/corpuscularian theory in explaining the fundamentally more general notions of primary quality and real essence. Further, I think that considering Locke’s philosophical development over time shows us that his views evolved here: At an early stage of composing the Essay, he was inclined to think that Boylean mechanism was the right theory of body, but eventually he saw that Newton had shown that it could not be a correct and complete account, because it was not consistent with gravity. As I see it, then, Locke’s Essay does not presuppose a particular physics, but it does presuppose some metaphysics. One might still wonder, then, how the latter fits with his epistemic modesty. Again, I think book 2, chapter 8 is instructive here (although his discussion of real essence in the Essayand of the origin of our idea of substance in the correspondence with Stillingfleet are also enlightening). In 2.8, one thing that Locke shows us is how reflection on sensory experience allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality and arrive at the very notion of a primary quality-- a quality that bodies have intrinsically and that grounds other powers.

In effect, Locke holds that we have a natural metaphysics, that it is the metaphysics of real essence and primary quality, and that it entails the (in principle) deducibility of further qualities from essences (particular complexes of primary qualities). Of course, he also held that we have a natural physics—mechanism/corpuscularianism. He thought that demonstrated problems with corpuscularianism should lead us to distance ourselves from our natural physics, to acknowledge that God has made a world that doesn’t fit easily with the view of bodies that we distill from ordinary experience. In principle, he ought to allow for an analogous critique of our natural metaphysics, the one we distill from reflection on ordinary experience. I think Locke saw no parallel reason to question the more abstract metaphysics that lay behind corpuscularianism. Locke’s own views, however, dictate that our natural metaphysics is something that could itself be called into question. That our natural metaphysics is workable and that the world is in principle intelligible in its terms, he ought to regard as a defeasible assumption-- his epistemic modesty demands this much-- but he does not regard it as defeated.

3:AM:Of this period, is there a relatively unknown figure who you’ve found surprisingly good at some area of philosophy who ought to be brought in to contemporary discussions more than they are? Could you introduce us to someone who rarely figures?

LD:I think this suggests the wrong model of how the history of philosophy should benefit and inform contemporary philosophy. The goal should not be to uncover some pearls of wisdom or new sage who can address our contemporary concerns. I think the main goals are two-fold: (1) To allow us to understand how we got here. As you pointed out earlier, the early modern period is particularly crucial here. (2) To show us, and allow us to consider, alternatives to the current consensus. In both of these ways, the history of philosophy allows us to re-examine and question our unstated background assumptions.

One sort of lesser-known figure that I think is often illuminating is a late, perhaps text-book, representation of some school of philosophy. Cartesians such as Malebranche, or Newtonians, such as Gravesandeshow us some of the consequences of Descartes’ and Newton’s positions and exhibit what these movements ended up meaning to their successors. A fabulous example is Rohault’s System of Natural Philosophy, in which Jacques Rohault lays out a Cartesian natural philosophy in textbook form, which Samuel Clarke then elaborately festoons with Newtonian footnotes—indicating how Rohault must be amended to approach the Newtonian truth. This text then molded how both Cartesianism and Newtonianism were understood throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.

3:AM:Are there women philosophers of the time who we should reassess in terms of their importance? I wonder whether you have unearthed figures who have suffered obscurity because of gender bias that now ought to be brought into the foreground more?

LD:Certainly the answer to your first question is an emphatic ‘yes’. This is not something I’ve worked on much directly myself, but I’ve benefited from the important work of others, which I think is getting more and more attention. Unfortunately, one major effect of the gender bias of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was to often prevent women from writing the systematic philosophical works that they might have under other circumstances. (If only we had a Treatise from Princess Elizabeth!) However, women authored important and original philosophical texts and were, moreover, key participants in the early modern conversation. I have had a longstanding interest in Émilie du Châtelet, who produced a still-admired French translation of Newton’s Principiaand clashed with Voltaire over the fascinating question of what a Newtonian metaphysics should look like.

3:AM:I was recently at Swendenborg’s House for a reading there. He was a proto-scientist as well as a mystical visionary. Newton had huge interest in the occult. Should contemporary philosophy interrogate more closely the occult in order to see exactly how and why philosophies of science and magic (and religion) seemed to thrive hand in hand during your period?

LD:Contemporary philosophy, surely, has good reason to ignore the occult. In three centuries, one thing that has improved is that we have a much better grip on what the facts are. Historians of philosophy, however, as you point out, cannot and should not ignore magical traditions. This is mainly because the lines between natural philosophy and magic are often blurry, in the seventeenth century. Henry More, for example, supposed that the efficacy of witchcraft was one of things that a metaphysics and physics had to explain. Alchemy is surely the best example: In the seventeenth century, the nascent science of chemistry was not distinct from alchemical traditions and aspirations, as is evident in Boyle, Newton, and others.

3:AM:And finally, for the philosophical historians here at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own) that you could recommend to take us further into your world?

LD:I’m focusing here on secondary literature, that is, great examples of the history of the philosophy of the early modern period. References to primary literature are scattered above, but if anyone wants a recommendation of how to enter into early modern philosophy for the first time, I would recommend the following: start with Descartes’ Meditations, and keep going. Read the Objections and Replies and the Principles of Philosophy.

Bricker, P. and R. I. G. Hughes, Eds. (1990). Philosophical Perspectives on Newtonian Science. Cambridge, M.I.T. Press. (Especially Howard Stein’s essay.)

Des Chene, Dennis. (1996). Physiologia. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Garber, Daniel. (1992). Descartes' Metaphysical Physics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, Margaret D. (1999). Ideas and mechanism: essays on early modern philosophy. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Winkler, Kenneth P. (1989). Berkeley: An Interpretation. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Richard Marshallis still biding his time.