Excluding sceptics; the case of Thomas White, 1593–1676

  • Beverley C. Southgate
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 117)


“There’s nothing but may be demonstrated, if there want not Industry”1 — or, as we might put it, you can establish the truth of anything, if you just try hard enough. The vehemence of Thomas White’s repudiation of scepticism in his Exclusion of Scepticks (1665) testifies to the strength of that philosophical tradition by the latter half of the seventeenth century. By then White was engaged in very much a rearguard action, against “modernists”, for whom the acceptance of an essentially sceptical position was the norm. That, of course, implied different things for different people, but for White the essence of “scepticism” lies in its denial of the possibility, in principle, of attaining certain knowledge, or truth. I argue in this paper that White’s major intellectual debates, with such contemporaries as Thomas Hobbes and Joseph Glanvill, ultimately hinge on that one key issue.


Seventeenth Century Fourteenth Century Sceptical Position Intellectual Debt Infinite Universe 
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  1. 1.
    Thomas White, An Exclusion of Scepticks from all Title to Dispute, London: John Williams, 1665, pp. 18–19; cf. p. 23. This is an English translation of the Latin Sciri, sive Scepticis et Scepticorum a Jure Disputationis Exclusio, published two years earlier, London: 1663.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    It was on recently re-reading Richard Popkin’s seminal work, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, revised edition, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979, that I became conscious of my intellectual debt to him, which I am here happy to acknowledge with gratitude. In particular, the concept of “the quest for certainty” provided for me the organising principle from which to view the life and work of Thomas White as a coherent whole.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    As a late example, Richard Hooker still writes of the possibility of man reaching “perfection of knowledge” in Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, London: Printed by John Windet, 1593–1597, Vol. l,p. vi.Google Scholar
  4. 4a.
    Joseph Glanvill, A Letter to a Friend concerning Aristotle, London: By E.C. for Henry Eversden, 1665, p. 78.Google Scholar
  5. 4b.
    Cf. Descartes: “Theology has been so subjected to Aristotle that it is almost impossible to explain another philosophy without it seeming at first contrary to the Faith.” Letter to Mersenne, 18 December 1629, in Correspondance, ed. Charles Adam et G. Milhaud, Paris: Libraire Felix Alcan, 1936, Vol. 1, p. 95.Google Scholar
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    Richard Ward, The Life of the learned and pious Dr. Henry More, London: Joseph Downing, 1710, p. 10. The result of Descartes’ education at La Flèche was not dissimilar: “I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my own ignorance,” Discourse, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, tr. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, London: Cambridge University Press, 1967, Vol. 1, p. 83.Google Scholar
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    Institutiones Sacrae, Lyons: 1652, Vol. 2, lib. 3, lect. 2, p. 217, as quoted by ‘S.W.’, A Vindication…, Paris, 1659, p. 86.Google Scholar
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    Letter to a Person of Honour, Douai: 1659, unpaginated.Google Scholar
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    These words are from the title of White’s Religion and Reason: see note 17 above.Google Scholar
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    Letter to a Person of Honour.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
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    Peripateticall Institutions, pp. 188, 364–365. This attempted rationale implies, as White concedes, that the earth’s orbit is minute within the context of the universe as a whole: “it scarce makes a visible magnitude, in respect of the rest of the world.”Google Scholar
  29. 27a.
    De Mundo, Paris: Apud Dionysium Moreau, 1642, trans. Harold W. Jones, in his edition of Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, London: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1976, p. 161. Descartes’ theological orthodoxy seems similarly contrived, for the sense in which the earth does not, in the Cartesian system, move, is that it does not move relative to the vortex in which it actually orbits the sun: “the earth rests in its own heaven, but… it is still carried along by it.” Principles of Philosophy, III.26 Cf. Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1978, p. 272;Google Scholar
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  32. 29a.
    William Rush Worth, Dialogues, Paris: chez Jean Biliaire, 1654, p. 250. The fourth dialogue, from which this quotation is taken, is in fact Thomas White’s.Google Scholar
  33. 29b.
    See also William Rush Worth White’s A Contemplation of Heaven, Paris: 1654, p. 94.Google Scholar
  34. 30a.
    Thomas White, An Answer to Lord Faulkland’s discourse of Infallibility, London: Printed by Gartrude Dawson, for John Hardesty, 1651, p. 18;Google Scholar
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    Thomas White An Apology for Rushworth’s Dialogues, Paris: Jean Billain, 1654, p. 10.Google Scholar
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    Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, transl. Stillman Drake, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970, p. 368;Google Scholar
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    Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, III.3.Google Scholar
  38. 32a.
    De Mundo, p. 389. Dialogue 3, ch. xiii is devoted to demonstrating that “Terram in usus hominum esse conditam.” Cf. White’s An Exercise of Love, Paris: 1654, pp. 111–112, 143;Google Scholar
  39. 32b.
    Peripatetical Institutions, pp. 214–215, 366.Google Scholar
  40. 33.
    A similar position is maintained by Thomas Browne, who argues against “obstinate incredulity” and “Academicall reservation in matters of easie truth, or rather sceptical infidelity against the evidence of reason and sense… For this is not only derogatory unto the wisdom of God, who hath proposed the world unto our knowledge, and thereby the notion of himselfe, but also detractory unto the intellect, and sense of man expressly disposed for that inquisition.” Pseudodoxia Epidemica, London: T. H. for Edward Dod, 1646, pp. 17–18.Google Scholar
  41. 34.
    Hobbes’s actual friendship with White may date from later. There is, as yet, no firm evidence that the two were personally acquainted in Paris in the 1640s, although both had connections with the Mersenne circle. Certainly, in their later years in London, they “would wrangle, squabble and scold about philosophical matters like young sophisters”! Anthony a Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Philip Bliss, London: printed for F.C. and J. Rivington etc., 1813–20, Vol. 3, p. 1247.Google Scholar
  42. 35.
    Harold W. Jones, in his edition of Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, London: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1976, p. 162.Google Scholar
  43. 36.
    Harold W. Jones, in his edition of Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, London: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1976, p. 306, 38, 79.Google Scholar
  44. 37.
    White’s words, quoted by Hobbes, Harold W. Jones, in his edition of Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, London: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1976, p. 490.Google Scholar
  45. 38.
    See my “Who is ‘S.W.’? A note on the authorship of a 1659 Vindication,” Notes and Queries N.S. Vol. 30, 1983, p. 440–441.Google Scholar
  46. 39.
    A Vindication, p. 6.Google Scholar
  47. 40.
    Ibid., p. 107.Google Scholar
  48. 41.
    Ibid., p. 92.Google Scholar
  49. 42.
    Blaise Pascal, Pensées, London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1931, p. 120.Google Scholar
  50. 43.
    Exclusion of Sceptics, Preface, p. 2.Google Scholar
  51. 44.
    Joseph Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing, ed. Stephen Medcalf, Hove: The Harvester Press, 1970, pp. 65, 213–214.Google Scholar
  52. 45.
    A reliance on the senses was, of course, fundamental to the new experimental philosophy, and experiments were thought, at least by the more sanguine, to preclude sceptical uncertainties. So Thomas Sprat describes how members of the Royal Society carry out experiments “till the whole Company has been fully satisfi’d of the certainty and constancy; or, on the other side, of the absolute impossibility of the effect.” History of the Royal Society ed. Jackson I. Cope and Harold W. Jones, St. Louis: Washington University Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1959, p. 99 (my emphasis).Google Scholar
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    The Vanity of Dogmatizing, p. 52; cf. p. 34.Google Scholar
  54. 47.
    David Hume, History of England, Edinburgh: Hamilton, Balfour and Neill, 1754–59, Vol. 6, p. 290 (my emphasis).Google Scholar
  55. 48.
    John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975, pp. 45, 46.Google Scholar
  56. 49.
    Ductor Dubitantium, Vol. 1, p. 232.Google Scholar
  57. 50.
    Exclusion of Scepticks, p. 79.Google Scholar
  58. 51.
    Ibid., Preface.Google Scholar
  59. 52.
    Ibid., p. 55. Glanvill complains in turn that the charge of scepticism is a “common Imputation, which is almost every-where alledg’d against all Free Philosophers, who dare to think or say anything that Aristotle hath not taught.” “Of Scepticism and Certainty”, in Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion, London: By J.D. for John Baker and Henry Mortlock, 1676, pp. 38–39.Google Scholar
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    Exclusion of Scepticks, p. 73.Google Scholar
  61. 54.
    Ibid., Preface; p. 74.Google Scholar
  62. 55.
    Ibid., p. 73. White and Digby were friends of long-standing, and each acknowledged his intellectual debt to the other. White’s cosmological treatise De Mundo was published in 1642, Digby’s major scientific work, Two Treatises, in 1644, Paris: Gilles, Blaizot, and White’s Peripateticall Institutions (largely and abridgment of Digby’s work), in its original Latin edition, in 1646.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 29,26.Google Scholar
  64. 57.
    Ibid., pp. 51–53.Google Scholar
  65. 58a.
    White’s discussion was read and used by, for example, John Tillotson: cf. Works, ed. Thomas Birch, London: J. and R. Tonson, 1752, Vol. 1, Preface.Google Scholar
  66. 58b.
    See Henry G. Van Leeuwen, The Problem of Certainty in English Thought 1630–1690, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963, pp. 36–37.Google Scholar
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    Essays, pp. 48, 49.Google Scholar
  68. 60.
    Ibid., p. 50. A similar point, in a rather different context, is made by Abraham Cowley in his “Ode to Mr Hobs”: Tis onely God can know Whether the fair Idea thou dost show Agree intirely with his own or no. This I dare boldly tell, ‘Tis so like Truth, ‘twill serve our turn as well. 61. Essays, pp. 49, 50.Google Scholar
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    Vanity of Dogmatizing, pp. 193, 65.Google Scholar
  70. 63.
    Glanvill himself recalls “the mild carriage of my Pen, when ‘twas ingaged in a Defence of one of my Books, against the Assault of the Famous Albius” (i.e., Thomas White). Plus Ultra, London: for James Collins, 1668, Preface.Google Scholar
  71. 64.
    Essays, p. 45.Google Scholar
  72. 65.
    Cf. also Descartes, who graphically describes his own aim as being “only to provide myself with good ground for assurance, and to reject the quicksand and mud in order to find the rock or clay.” Discourse, Part III, The Philosophical Works, Vol. 1, p. 99.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Beverley C. Southgate
    • 1
  1. 1.Hatfield PolytechnicUK

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