One of the founding fathers of the Royal Society, Wilkins’ early natural philosophical works contain defenses of Galilean and Copernican astronomy. Dissatisfied with the ambiguities of natural languages, Wilkins in his 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language developed an artificial language. In his Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, posthumously published in 1675, he argued that in religion and science, absolute certainty is beyond reach. Moral certainty or certainty beyond a reasonable doubt is all we have and need.
KeywordsRoyal Society Artificial Language Reasonable Doubt Historical Matter Founding Father
John Wilkins was born in Fawsley in Northamptonshire, in 1614. Having attended a private school in Oxford, he was admitted to New Inn Hall in 1627, but in October of that same year entered Magdalen Hall, which then had a reputation for Puritanism. Wilkins graduated B.A. in 1631 and M.A. in 1634 and tutored at Magdalen Hall until 1637, in which year he was appointed a vicar in his birthplace. He was ordained priest in 1638 and served some years as a private chaplain to, among others, George, eighth Lord Berkeley and Charles Louis, Prince Elector Palatine, the nephew of Charles I. In 1645, Wilkins was appointed preacher at London’s Gray’s Inn. During his years in London, he began to meet with a group of scientists often referred to as the Gresham College Group. This group brake up in 1648, the year in which Wilkins became Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. There, Wilkins gathered around him a group of scientists, including some of his former London acquaintances as well as men such as Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren. This Oxford Philosophical Club is often regarded as a forerunner of the Royal Society. In 1659, Wilkins was appointed Master of Cambridge’s Trinity College by Cromwell, his brother-in-law, but lost this position 1 year later with the restoration of Charles II. After the restoration, Wilkins held various positions in the Church. His return as a preacher to Gray’s Inn in 1660 brought him back to London, where he became a founding father of the Royal Society, serving as one of its secretaries in 1663 and supervising Thomas Sprat’s 1667 History of the Royal Society. In 1668, Wilkins was appointed Bishop of Chester. Suffering from kidney stones, Wilkins died in London on 19 November 1672 (for a detailed account of Wilkins’ life and career, see Shapiro 1969).
Wilkins’ earliest writings on natural philosophy are his 1638 Discovery of a New World and the 1640 Discourse Concerning a New World. These works do not contain new, but rather aim to popularize Galilean and Copernican astronomy. The latter work was written in response to Alexander Ross, a conservative Aristotelian who in his 1634 Commentum de terrae motu had rejected the motion of the earth. In 1648, Wilkins published a treatise on mechanics under the title Mathematical Magic.
Wilkins’ philosophically most important works are the 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language and his Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, which was posthumously published in 1675. In the first, Wilkins’ project was to develop an artificial language that lacked the ambiguities and redundancies of natural languages. In the first half of the Essay, he set out to enumerate all things that his artificial language must be able to denote, offering among others an extensive classification of plants and animal species. The book’s second half outlines a system of signs which Wilkins hoped would not only name these things but also reflect their nature and the relations between them. Wilkins’ attempt at developing an artificial language may have been inspired by the work of the Scottish scholar George Dalgarno, who in his 1661 Ars signorum had set out to construct a universal language. The works of Wilkins and Dalgarno were read with interest by Leibniz, who yet remained critical of the way in which these men had executed their projects.
In the Principles and Duties, Wilkins’ aim was to defend the principles of natural religion against skepticism and infidelity. To do this, he first distinguished between various degrees of certainty. Absolute certainty, he held, was not humanly attainable. The highest certainty humanly attainable was the certainty of sense perception or physical certainty. The next degree of certainty was the certainty of mathematical reasoning or mathematical certainty. Finally, the lowest degree was that of moral certainty. Moral certainty was certainty beyond a reasonable doubt, and examples of moral certainties are historical matters of fact and the existence of far-away countries.
Explaining that different degrees of certainty suffice in different sciences, Wilkins pointed out that in religious matters, we should not expect or look for more than moral certainty. The principles of natural religion may not be beyond every possible doubt, but they are beyond a reasonable doubt. And in religion as well as in history and cartography, such certainty was certainty enough. Wilkins here argues as a constructive skeptic: granting the skeptic that absolute certainty cannot be had, he proceeds to claim that this fact is not much to be lamented. A similar strategy and emphasis on moral certainty can be found in the works of Joseph Glanvill and in natural scientists like Boyle, who saw that trial and experiment will never yield absolute certainty, but a certainty beyond reasonable doubt at best (on the concept of moral certainty, see Van Leeuwen 1970).