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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)

Abstract

“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.

Keywords

Seventeenth Century Fourteenth Century Sceptical Position Intellectual Debt Infinite Universe 
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Notes

  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
  6. 5.
    For some interesting references to Pyrrhonism in the Fourteenth Century, see Donald M. Nicol, “The Byzantine Church and Hellenic Learning in the fourteenth century”, Studies in Church History, Vol. 5, 1969, pp. 23–57.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    See Richard H. Popkin, op. cit., pp. 19f.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, in Works ed. Geoffrey Keynes, London: Faber and Faber, 1964, Vol. 1, p. 83.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    John Owen, Animadversions on a Treatise Intituled Fiat Lux, London: Henry Cripps; Oxford: George West, 1662, p. 149.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Sir Roger L’Estrange, Cittand Bumpkins, London: For Henry Brome, 1680, Part 2, p. 15. Cf. John Wilkins’ reference to scepticism being fashionable not only amongst intellectuals, but “amongst sensual men of the vulgar sort”! Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, London: T. Basset, H. Brome, etc., 1675, p. 1.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Novum Organum, London: Apud Joannem Billium, 1620, Book 1, Section LXVII.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Joseph Mede, The Works, ed. John Worthington, London: By James Flesher for Richard Royston, 1664, Vol. 1, p. iii. I am indebted to Richard H. Popkin for this, and the following reference.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    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
  14. 13.
    George Rust, A Discourse of Truth, London: For James Collins and Sam. Lowndes, 1682, pp. 178–179.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    Samuel Parker, A Free and Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophie, Oxford: By W. Hall for R. Davis, 1666, pp. 44, 86.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    William Ramesey, The Gentleman’s Companion, London: By E. Okes for Rowland Reynolds, 1672, p. 226. Cf. the observation in 1706 by the Earl of Carbury, that “since Des Cartes led the way Every New Philosopher thought himself wise enough to make a World.” William Nicolson, Diary, 14 January 1706, quoted by Joseph M. Levine, Dr. Woodward’s Shield, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977, p. 323, n. 24.Google Scholar
  17. 16a.
    Jeremy Taylor, Ductor Dubitantium, London: By James Flesher, for Richard Royston, 1660, Vol. 1, p. 232;Google Scholar
  18. 16b.
    Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1940, p. 211.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    Controversy-Logicke, n.p., 1659, p. 113 (my emphasis). White elsewhere scorns William Chillingworth, who “has his Religion tackt on him with such slight pins that he may change it ‘a la mode’.” Religion and Reason mutually corresponding and assisting each other, Paris: 1660, p. 5.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    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
  21. 19.
    Letter to a Person of Honour, Douai: 1659, unpaginated.Google Scholar
  22. 20.
    These words are from the title of White’s Religion and Reason: see note 17 above.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    Letter to a Person of Honour.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, in Stillman Drake ed., Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957, pp. 182–3.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    Thomas White, Peripateticall Institutions, English edition, London: By R.D. to be sold by John Williams, 1656, p. 339.Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    John Smith, The Excellency and Nobleness of True Religion, in Constantinos A. Patrides ed., The Cambridge Platonists, London: Edward Arnold, 1969, p. 187. Smith laments the separation currently insisted upon between “Metaphysical Truths and the Truths of Nature.”Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    The ironic, but not inaccurate, description by White’s critic, “S.W.”, A Vindication of the Doctrine contained in Pope Benedict XII his Bull…, Paris: 1659, p. 108.Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    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
  30. 27b.
    Paul Mouy, Le developpement de la physique cartesienne, 1646–1712, Paris, Liege: J. Vrin, 1934, pp. 26, 80–81.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    Peripateticall Institutions, p. 175.Google Scholar
  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
  35. 30b.
    Thomas White An Apology for Rushworth’s Dialogues, Paris: Jean Billain, 1654, p. 10.Google Scholar
  36. 31a.
    Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, transl. Stillman Drake, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970, p. 368;Google Scholar
  37. 31b.
    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
  53. 46.
    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
  60. 53.
    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
  63. 56.
    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
  67. 59.
    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
  69. 62.
    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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