Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Witcraft in 1701 and 1751 - leaving the modern philosopher with no excuse for saying ‘things which he doth not understand’

Onward into Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English.  I have reached “1701: Politics, religion and the two new philosophies,” which means I have reached John Locke.  I called Hobbes a “major” philosopher, and Locke is beyond that, a significant figure in any history of Western philosophy.  He gets forty percent of the pages in the chapter, and they are more like a standard treatment than is usual for Rée.

Locke’s is one of the “two new philosophies”; the other is the corpuscularianism, badly named by Robert Boyle, the great chemist.  Corpuscularianism is Descartes adapted for the Royal Society, the new organization of what we would now call scientists, a system where

… the natural world is like an enormous collection of machines, operating on the same principles as artificial devices such as levers, locks, watches and air-pumps.  Everything that happens in nature can be reduced to a few ‘Mechanicall Affections of Matter’, as Boyle put it in 1666, without any need for the Qualities, Elements, Species, Essences, Forms and Substantial Forms postulated by the Aristotelians.  (108)

Boyle and the other corpuscularians hauled away a lot of old lumber, if nothing else.  Locke’s ideas have a strong Cartesian basis, too.  Everyone’s did.  There was a English Descartes craze:

By the 1690s readers of English were starting to take the physico-mathematical Descartes to their hearts, while booksellers promoted Descartes-themed publications on topics ranging from card games to hoists and pulleys.  There was also a lavishly illustrated folio volume called An Entire Body of Philosophy, aimed at the ‘Fair Sex’ and written by a French friar called Antoine le Grand…  The ‘Corpuscular Philosophy’, he said, had exposed the ‘Occult Qualities’ and ‘Hidden Powers’ of traditional science as ‘Gibberish’, leaving the modern philosopher with no excuse for saying ‘things which he doth not understand’.  (119)

In the context of philosophy, such a claim is always hilarious.  Here we see another reason I admire Rée – he understand not just literary history but book history.  Ideas do not just float around, but are written in some kind of language and published in some way, both of which affect the ideas themselves.  The Descartes craze is the first of several that appear in Witcraft.

“1751: New Philosophy, New History.”  In the last chapter, Rée used the lively, well-read non-entity John Toland as his hook character, but now he switches to a major figure.  “In October 1751 a young Scot called Adam Smith started work as a professor in the Arts faculty at the University of Glasgow” (149).  Rée can always move forward by checking in on whatever Smith was reading.  Francis Hutcheson, The Fable of the Bees, David Hume, a little bit of Voltaire and Rousseau, George Berkeley.

The introduction to the latter, for example: Smith writes to his mother about a cure, imported from America, that he has found for “’a violent fit of laziness’”: “You take some resin from fir trees or pines, stir it into a bucket of water, let the mixture settle and then drink half a pint twice a day” (164).  It’s the tar water craze, “sparked by a book called Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the virtues of Tar Water (1744), written by Bishop Berkeley, who, having solved, or more accurately demolished, one of the great philosophical problems, retired to a life of family and religious  duties and “extolling the virtues of tar water.”

This is a terrific chapter.  It does not hurt that Berkeley, Hume, and Smith are genial figures, happy philosophers, who write clear prose.  I should note that Rée’s chapters can easily be detached and read on their own, if a reader loves Hume but finds the 17th century just too tedious.


  1. Sounds like my type of book. The philosophers and thinkers, especially Adam Smith have an appeal for me that it seems this book captures. How insightful the observation that the language used affects the ideas themselves.

  2. I skipped some outstanding examples, especially in the 1701 chapter, of words that are new to English or are radically changing in the hands of philosophically inclined writers - "atheist," "idea," "self." Rée enjoys the linguistic side, the in English side of his book.