Interview by Richard Marshall.
'More is asking questions like, ‘If the universe were destroyed and later created, would there be time or duration in the intervening period?’. His answer is, ‘Yes’.'
'You might ask the substantivalist, ‘What is the relation between space and material bodies, like tables and planets?’. They might reply that tables occupy space, or that tables are identical with regions of space. The latter position is labelled ‘super-substantivalism’.'
'Of course, Cockburn - unlike More or Alexander - was a woman, and it’s likely that sexism has played some part in the neglect of her work. She was writing at a time when men worried that reading made women ‘troublesome or ridiculous’, and debated whether women’s inferiority was due to their feeble bodies or their soggy brain fibres. (Less than eighty years ago, C. D. Broad concludes a book review by writing that its author, Susan Stebbing, must be enjoying something of the exhilaration of a ‘good housewife’ who has completed her spring-cleaning.'
'‘Polytheistic blasphemy’ is the heresy of positing a substance with divine properties in addition to God - in effect, positing a second God. Substantivalists about space had to be wary of avoiding this heresy, as space is often thought to be eternal and infinite, properties that are supposed to belong uniquely to God.'
'Although super-substantivalism sounds strange, it was held (in different forms) by Aristotle and Descartes.'
Emily Thomasworks on space and time in the history of metaphysics. However, she's also interested in many connecting metaphysical topics, including idealism, personal identity, substance, categories, emergence, and metaphysical philosophy of religion. She's mostly published on early modern and early twentieth century philosophy, and has a penchant for the work of rich but under-studied figures, including women philosophers who have traditionally been neglected in the history of the discipline. Here she discusses absolute time, Henry More on time, whether More's Platonism and naturalism mixed, Samuel Alexander and substantivalism, spacetime,emergentism, matter, Spinoza, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, polytheistic blasphemy and how she avoids it, her feminism, Lockeanism, and Kantian Idealism, Hilda Diana Oakley, her idealism and her arguments about time defending jerk and whoosh and finally why idealism is important. And look out for her book Absolute Time in Early Modern British Metaphysicswhen it appears in the near future via Oxford University Press.
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?
Emily Thomas:I was sitting in a giant lecture theatre, in my very first week at university, listening to a talk about the absurdity of life. It was riveting, and I was astonished that people could work on those problems. I remember looking at the lecturer and thinking, ‘I could do that’.
3:AM:You’ve written about the development of accounts of absolute time. Before we look at this in more detail, can you say how you understand the term ‘absolute time’?
ET:There are lots of answers to the question, ‘What is time?’. Many accounts connect time with material bodies and their motions; for example, Aristotle can be read as identifying time with the motion of the celestial sphere that carries the stars. Many other accounts hold that human minds construct or project time onto the world; Augustine, Hobbes, and Kant arguably believe this.
I think ‘absolute’ theories of time are distinctive because they take time to exist independently of material bodies and human minds. Even if our universe were destroyed - eliminating all material bodies and human minds - there would still be time.
3:AM:You argue that Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, developed the first English account of this. You say he’s an absolutist and a substantivalist about time and that he was influenced by Plotinus. Can you say something about this – this is quite revisionist isn’t it because More wasn’t thought to have an account of time was he?
ET:In the mid seventeenth century, Henry More was an intellectual giant, and his writings ‘dominated every bookshop in London’. His fortunes have since declined. Nonetheless, I’m very fond of More, and I think his work deserves more attention. Most scholars deny that More has views on time but (as you say) I’ve shown that More actually has some quite complicated views on time and duration. More’s early work on time draws heavily on Plotinus, who I read as an absolutist. I think More’s later work on time was motivated by thought experiments. More is asking questions like, ‘If the universe were destroyed and later created, would there be time or duration in the intervening period?’. His answer is, ‘Yes’. Slowly, More came to identify this infinite duration with God’s attribute of eternity. As there is only a conceptual distinction between God’s substance and his attributes, this means that infinite duration is really identical with God. There are clear similarities between More’s view and those of the philosophers that came after him, such as Newton and Samuel Clarke.
3:AM:How did More try to absorb Descartes’s natural philosophy into his Platonic metaphysics? Is More a counter-example to the thought that naturalism and Platonism can’t mix?
ET:More’s Platonist heritage, drawn from Plato and Plotinus, provided him with a powerful metaphysics. However, this heritage did not offer much ‘natural philosophy’ (science). More was excited by Descartes’ natural philosophy and straightforwardly adopted whole chunks of it, such as Descartes’ view that the stars and planets move through outer space in spiralling vortices. Although I don’t think it’s true to say that More absorbed Descartes’ natural philosophy into his metaphysics, More certainly thought that Descartes’ natural philosophy was compatible with his metaphysics.
3:AM:Another figure from the past you’ve written about, is Samuel Alexander. He argued for super-substantivalism – the thesis that space is identical to time matter. Can you first sketch out the claim? and how it is a position of interest in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of physics?
ET:‘Substantivalism’ is the view that space or spacetime is a substance or pseudo-substance: a kind of thing. You might ask the substantivalist, ‘What is the relation between space and material bodies, like tables and planets?’. They might reply that tables occupy space, or that tables are identical with regions of space. The latter position is labelled ‘super-substantivalism’.
Although super-substantivalism sounds strange, it was held (in different forms) by Aristotle and Descartes. I’ve also argued it was held by Newton, and by the early twentieth century philosopher Samuel Alexander. Today, super-substantivalism is a live position in metaphysics and philosophy of physics. If it’s true, it might lead us to conceive tables as collections of properties ‘pinned’ to spacetime. It might also lead us towards ‘monism’, the view that the universe really contains just one thing: the spacetime manifold.
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3:AM:This position involved a hierarchy of levels and emergentism didn’t it? Can you unpack it for us?
ET:Samuel Alexander was a world-building philosopher: he advanced a system that aimed to be comprehensive, to explain every aspect of being. ‘Emergence’ is a key concept in that system. Although it can be understood in different ways, one way of grasping emergence is to think about consciousness. The individual parts of a human brain, its neurons and synapses, lack consciousness. However, when the parts are fitted together, the new and higher quality of consciousness emerges. Alexander thought that new qualities emerge when things grow complex enough, and he applied this reasoning throughout his system.
On the bottom level of Alexander’s system is substantival spacetime (Alexander took this to be supported by the physics of his day). Over time, motions emerge in space and, as those motions become complex enough, material bodies emerge. From the level of matter emerges a new quality of biological life, and from the level of life emerges the new quality of consciousness. Alexander firmly believed that his account of the world ‘fits the facts’ as we know them.
3:AM:How does he try and explain why spacetime is identical to matter? Is Alexander’s approach indebted to his understanding of Spinoza?
ET:After publishing his metaphysics in 1920, Alexander read Spinoza, and found deep affinities between their metaphysics. Consequently, Alexander went on to rewrite his system as a kind of gloss on Spinoza.
Spinoza’s Ethicsargues that there is only one substance, and one of its attributes is spatial extension. Spinoza faces the problem of explaining how, if there is only one substance, there is also variety in the world: human beings, plants, stars, teapots. Alexander argued that Spinoza could have solved this problem if Spinoza had also conceived time to be an attribute of substance. For Alexander, time brings change or novelty, and this explains the variety evident in the world.
Alexander rewrote his system, conceiving spacetime to be the Spinozistic substance, and the motions in spacetime as Spinoza’s modes.
3:AM:Another account of substantivalist space you examine is one presented by Catharine Trotter Cockburn from considerably earlier than either More or Alexander. I’d never heard of her, (I hadn’t heard of Alexander either to be honest!) but you say she presented an original account for her time. So what was the usual account at the time, and how does hers differ from those?
ET:Yes, I do seem to enjoy playing detective on the work of poorly known figures, and Catharine Cockburn is another philosopher who deserves to be better known.
Of course, Cockburn - unlike More or Alexander - was a woman, and it’s likely that sexism has played some part in the neglect of her work. She was writing at a time when men worried that reading made women ‘troublesome or ridiculous’, and debated whether women’s inferiority was due to their feeble bodies or their soggy brain fibres. (Less than eighty years ago, C. D. Broad concludes a book review by writing that its author, Susan Stebbing, must be enjoying something of the exhilaration of a ‘good housewife’ who has completed her spring-cleaning.)
To return to space, Cockburn’s account is unique. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, most philosophers held Cartesian dualism, the view that there are two kinds of substances: spatially extended material bodies, and thinking immaterial minds. Cockburn argues that space is a third kind of substance, one that is spatially extended yet immaterial.
3:AM:Was the threat of what Berkeley identified as ‘polytheistic blasphemy’ a threat that many substantivalists sought to avoid, and did this theological pressure distort metaphysical accounts at the time?
ET:Definitely. ‘Polytheistic blasphemy’ is the heresy of positing a substance with divine properties in addition to God - in effect, positing a second God. Substantivalists about space had to be wary of avoiding this heresy, as space is often thought to be eternal and infinite, properties that are supposed to belong uniquely to God. Many substantivalists, including Henry More, get around this problem by identifying space with God.
3:AM:How does Cockburn avoid polytheistic blasphemy? How is connected to her Platonism?
ET:Cockburn is a substantivalist about space, and she attributes various ‘divine’ properties to it, including eternity and infinity. What’s so clever about her account is that she manages to avoid making space into a rival for God, thereby avoiding polytheistic blasphemy. She manages this by invoking a view known as ‘Great Chain of Being’.
The Great Chain orders everything that exists into a hierarchy of perfection. As the least perfect beings, rocks sit at the lowest level of the hierarchy, followed by plants, animals, human beings, and angels. God, as the most perfect being, sits at the very top. The Great Chain has Platonic roots, and one of the underlying ideas is that it demonstrates God’s profundity: anything that is possible to be created, is created by God. This means that the Great Chain has no ‘gaps’: there is nothing that is possible that is not actual.
Cockburn argues that, as matters stand, there is a gap between extended material substances and thinking immaterial ones. To fill this gap, she argues we should posit a third kind of substance: immaterial, unthinking space. One advantage of this view is that it firmly affords space a position lower down the hierarchy than God: not only is space necessarily an unthinking substance, it is necessarily less perfect than God.
3:AM:How does this metaphysical thesis connected with her Lockean view of personal identity, and feminism, moral philosophy and Platonism?
ET:On the Lockean view of personal identity, a person is a conscious being. Historically, the inferiority of women has been grounded in their bodies or souls, which were seen to be weaker (remember the soggy brain fibres). On Locke’s view of a person, thinking things are not gendered, allowing all persons to potentially have the same powers of reason.
Cockburn was a playwright as well as a philosopher, and her plays evince her feminism, discussing for example the need to educate men and women equally. Consequently, some scholars have argued that the Lockean view of personal identity was attractive to Cockburn as a feminist.
3:AM:Hilda Diana Oakley is an obscure idealist – although you say she did believe the world existed independently of the mind. So what is her contribution to idealism and how does it link to her views on history and time?
ET:There are different kinds of idealism, and Oakeley is broadly a Kantian idealist: there is the mind-dependent, known ‘world’ of our experience; and there is the world beyond our minds, unknown as it is in itself. However, the details of her idealism differ from Kant’s.
Oakeley argues that the world outside ourselves is constantly buffeting us with confusing, fragmentary data. Our minds attempt to make sense of this data by drawing on our memories, in an active process Oakeley labels ‘creative memory’.
To illustrate, imagine a child walking into a garage filled with unfamiliar objects: the child perceives long pieces of metal with sharp points and jagged edges, blocks of wood overlaid with shining sheets, and shafts of grey scrunched into twists and u-shapes. Now imagine a carpenter walking into that same space: the carpenter experiences claw hammers and saws, block planes and feather boards, wood drive screws and clotter pins and wing nuts.
Oakeley would argue that the perceptual experience of the carpenter literally differs from that of the child, because the carpenter creatively uses her memory to interpret the objects in the room: the carpenter doesn’t see strangely shaped pieces of meta, she sees hammers and screws. In this way, Oakeley would argue our minds are continually, actively constructing the worlds of our experience.
3:AM:Oakley went up against the big boys when she gave her account of time – in particular JME McTaggart, all the British Idealists of her time and even Leibniz. So can you sketch what the position she was attacking looked like?
ET:Many idealists, including Leibniz, Kant, and British idealists such as J. M. E. McTaggart, hold that time is fundamentally unreal. They think that, on the bottommost level of reality, it is not true to say that things happen one after the other.
These idealists usually try to explain the mismatch between appearance and reality: why it appears that things happen one after the other, even though this is not really the case. For example, Kant argued that human minds project time onto the world. McTaggart argued that when we think we perceive events as ordered in time we are really misperceiving a deeper order.
3:AM:And what did she think was wrong with that account, and what was her alternative? Do you think her account is superior?
ET:Oakeley argues that we continually experience or perceive ‘temporal passage’: the feeling that events such as an election are in the future, then become present, then past. D. C. Williams sums up passage as the ‘jerk and whoosh of process, the felt flow of one moment into the next’.
Oakeley attacks McTaggart’s view that this perception of passage is a misperception, and argues that we can’t explain away our experience of time. For Oakeley, we must find a place for the reality of time in our metaphysical systems. In a striking inversion of Kant, this leads Oakeley to argue that minds in themselves are timeless, but the world outside our minds inflicts time on us.
In my view, Oakeley’s account of time is superior to that of other idealists: I also find attempts to explain away the jerk and whoosh of process unsatisfying.
3:AM:And finally, David Chalmers has recently said that he thinks there’s going to be a revival of idealism in some form given the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Do you think your historical figures, with their various idealist theories, emergentism and so forth may be fruitfully revisited and offer still-live options, or are their ideas of historical interest only?
ET:Good question! I’ll start by saying that I don’t believe history of philosophy is ever of historical interest only. I think one of philosophy’s merits is its ability to question everything, including deeply entrenched views like materialism. Reading history of philosophy provides one way of doing that: understanding why people endorse emergentism or idealism allows us to get inside alien viewpoints, and in turn allows us to recognise assumptions we’re making as assumptions.
I’m not well placed to judge whether current research in philosophy of mind will lead to revivals of idealism, but I hope so: the more idealism I read, the more I appreciate it. If idealism were revived, I certainly think that histories of idealism could be of use, to avoid revisiting old problems and providing new lines of thought. Timothy Sprigge (1932-2007) was a recent defender of idealism, and he drew on various parts of its history.
3:AM:And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
On early modern metaphysics, I highly recommend Edward Grant’s beautifully titled Much Ado about Nothing,
Jackie Broad’s Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century,
and Robert Pasnau’s Metaphysical Themes.
On early twentieth century metaphysics, you can’t go wrong with John Passmore’s A Hundred Years of Philosophy
and Bill Mander’s British Idealism.
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