Friday, March 20, 2009

A cool quote from Richard Hooker (1593), and some belated evidence for a Kuhnian speculation on forms/laws

Yesterday, I presented a paper on Newton in a Newton seminar at Duke/UNC co-hosted by Andrew Janiak and Alan Nelson. Among the folks in audience were David Miller and Marc Lange (whom I mistook for a student), so discussion was very stimulating. The student commentator, Matt Priselac (UNC), offered superb subtle criticism of my arguments. The main point of my paper (sorry for self-promotion, but I'll get to the point shortly) was that Newton's use of "emanation" in his famous unpublished piece DeGravitatione (lovingly known as DeGrav) should be understood as a form of formal causation (thus, being able to split the difference between folks like Ted McGuire, Ed Slowik, and Dana Jalobeanu who treat it as a Platonizing efficient cause and folks like Howard Stein and Andrew Janiak that treat it as a form of conceptual necessity); depending on how one reads the emanation thesis in DeGrav one's understanding of Newton's metaphysics of space and its connection to theology shifts. [Let's leave aside how revealing DeGrav really is of Newton's mature views.] But I use my exegetical claims as a jumping off point to make claims about Newton on measurement. Anyway, my main bit of evidence is a striking quote from Bacon's New Organon ( 2.I-II; emphasis in original):

"On a given body, to generate and superinduce a new nature or new natures is the work and aim of human power. Of a given nature to discover the form, or true specific difference, or nature-engendering nature, or source of emanation (for these are the terms which come nearest to a description of the thing), is the work and aim of human knowledge. Subordinate to these primary works are two others that are secondary and of inferior mark: to the former, the transformation of concrete bodies, so far as this is possible; to the latter, the discovery, in every case of generation and motion, of the latent process carried on from the manifest efficient and the manifest material to the form which is engendered; and in like manner the discovery of the latent configuration of bodies at rest and not in motion.... For though in nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies, performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law, yet in philosophy this very law, and the investigation, discovery, and explanation of it, is the foundation as well of knowledge as of operation. And it is this law with its clauses that I mean when I speak of forms, a name which I the rather adopt because it has grown into use and become familiar."

For the purposes of my paper the quote is useful because i) it links the source of emanation with the discovery of form and a nature-engendering nature (thus giving me contextual support to claim that when Newton uses emanation he can be thinking of (Baconian) formal causation; ii) the context makes clear that Bacon is willing to reformulate a notion of form separate from final causes (which he thought useless); iii) Bacon introduces talk of law as an epistemic doctrine about forms (which are ontologically composed of matter); iv) Bacon’s rescue of a notion of form anticipates important aspects of Boyle’s use. Along the way, I pointed out that this passage can help us start put some flesh on Kuhn’s old speculative story about how talk of forms was transformed into talk of laws during Scientific Revolution. (Newton’s switch away from emanation to (in Cartesian language) discussion of laws of motion in Principia can be seen as culmination of this.)

Now after the seminar Marc Lange called my attention to a lovely quote from Richard Hooker (1593--note the date!):
Whereas therefore things natural which are not in the number of voluntary agents... do so necessarily observe their certain laws, that as long as they keep those forms which give them their being, they cannot possibly be apt or inclinable to do otherwise than they do; seeing the kinds of their operations are both constantly and exactly framed according to the several ends for which they serve, they themselves in the meanwhile, though doing that which is fit, yet knowing neither what they do, nor why: it followeth that all which they do in this sort proceedeth originally from some such agent, as knoweth, appointeth, holdeth up, and even actually frameth the same. (Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book I.iii.4.)

As Lange remarks: “Shades of Hempel and Oppenheim from 350 years later!” Lange discusses the Hooker passage briefly in chapter 1 of his forthcoming book "Laws and Lawmakers", (OUP). On my reading of context Hooker is claiming that natural things are law-like in virtue of God's unknowable general providence. (Cf. Descartes in Meditations!) The form is a manifestation (if I may use that term) of God's providence. What's especially interesting is that Hooker's nature is very much knowable because it is part of maker's knowledge; yet Hooker transforms that traditional (medieval) doctrine because he does not seem to be interested in discovering 'local' final causes. So, not unlike Spinoza (who must have familiar with the Bacon passage quoted above—I have to check if he read Hooker while preparing his TTP), Hooker has an account of what one might call 'blind' forms (‘blind’ because divorced from final causes) that are responsible for the law-following order we find in nature. It is, of course, especially interesting that Hooker connects forms to modality in the way he does. I wonder if Hooker is an actualist (like Spinoza), for whom the possible is constrained by the actual, or if he has a more 'Leibnizian' conception of modality (the actual is just one of a universe full of possible ones).
Damn, I may have to read Hooker soon. Given the evidence from Hooker and Bacon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the building blocks of the modern conception of (scientific) law are to be found deep in the Renaissance.
Either way, it should be clear that Descartes’ project is in many ways nowhere near as revolutionary as he often makes it seem.

I wanted to mention some fascinating material from Newton on measurement, but this has gone too long as is.

2 comments:

  1. I'd love to hear what you have to say about Newton and measurement.

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  2. Susan, if you email me (nescio2@yahoo.com), I'll send you the paper.

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