Research Projects

I’ve added a few new projects to my “Research Projects” page. The members of these projects are investigating topics that are pertinent to the issues normally featured on this blog and will prove interesting to anyone currently researching Early Modern history/theology/philosophy, virtue ethics, and/or virtue epistemology.

  • Saint Louis University: John Greco and Eleanore Stump are the directors for the project The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility. Those familiar with their work will not be surprised by this multi-million dollar project devoted to research on virtue and epistemology:
    • Intellectual humility is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well.  It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others. If intellectual humility marks a mean between extremes, then related vices would be (on the one side) intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness, and overconfidence in one’s own opinions and intellectual powers, and (on the other side) undue timidity in one’s intellectual life, or even intellectual cowardice. The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility project will focus on a variety of philosophical and theological issues relevant to the topic of intellectual humility. This project aims to:  (1) Gain a better understanding of the nature and value of intellectual humility. (2) Employ and develop recent empirical research on intellectual humility and related subjects, especially the empirical investigation being conducted under the aegis of Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Science of Intellectual Humility” project.  (3) Investigate issues related to intellectual humility, such as its relation to other virtues and/or vices, its place in the broader context of virtue epistemology, the role of humility in disagreement, its connection to problems of religious pluralism, and its implications for issues of divine hiddenness.  (4) Lay the groundwork for further research on how to foster greater intellectual humility in individuals and civil society.

  • McGill University: A group of international scholars including Paul Yachnin, Torrance Kirby, Peter Marshal, and Mark Vessey are collaborating on the project entitled Early Modern Conversions: Religions, Cultures, Cognitive Ecologies.
    • Whether it is an awakening to a new faith, an induction into a religious cult or radical political movement, a sexual transformation, or the re-engineering of human beings as bio-mechanical “cyborgs,” conversion is a source of fascination and a focus of anxiety for people in the 21st century. We do not know if such conversions are inward turnings toward a better life or monstrous impositions upon unwitting victims. We cannot fathom how individuals or groups of people are able to convert to a new politics, religion, or way of life all at once and quite completely, as if they had never been other than what they have become. We would not want to part with the freedom of self-determination embodied in conversion, which seems to be its purest expression, even though we are troubled by what radical transformations tell us about the instability and changeability of human beings. The Conversions project will develop an historical understanding that will enlighten modern debates about corporeal, sexual, psychological, political and spiritual kinds of transformation. The project will study how early modern Europeans changed their confessional, social, political, and even sexual identities. These subjective changes were of a piece with transformations in their world—the geopolitical reorientation of Europe in light of emerging relations with Islam and the Americas; the rethinking and the translation of the knowledge of Greek and Latin Antiquity, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; changes in and changing uses of the built environment; the reimagining of God. Indeed, early modern people changed the world and themselves in ways that have been lost to view on account of the discipline-boundedness of much recent study of the past. By examining forms of conversion across disciplinary boundaries as a network of movements and transformations, we will develop an understanding of religious, cultural, and cognitive change that will provide a new account of early modernity and a foundation for a renewed understanding of the present age. The project will make use of new ideas about extended mind and cognitive ecologies. Cognitive ecologies are, according to team members John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine, and act, often collaboratively, on the fly, and in rich ongoing interaction with our environments.”

  • Cambridge University: The Cambridge Platonist Research Group, directed by Douglas Headley, Sarah Hutton, and David Leech aims to revive the study of this intriguing group of 17th century English philosopher-theologians who include Peter Sterry, Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More.
    • Cambridge Platonism is the term that has come to be used to identify the thought of a group of seventeenth-century English thinkers who had a major influence on modern thought, at a pivotal period in its development (between 1650 and 1830). The name (coined in the nineteenth century) derives from the fact that they were largely associated with the University of Cambridge and that there is a distinctively Platonist strand in their intellectual formation. The Cambridge Platonist Research group was set up in 2012 with the aim of reviving interest in the Cambridge Platonists and to initiate research into their thought and legacy.  The initial step to furtherance of these aims was made possible thanks to generous funding of by the AHRC, which financed the project ‘Revisioning Cambridge Platonism’. This took the form of a series of workshops in 2013, which brought together scholars from across disciplines and across the world. The first outcome of these meetings was the establishment of an interdisciplinary network of scholars with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists.  AIMS OF THE RESEARCH GROUP: (1) To maintain the network of people with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists. (2) To provide a forum for discussion of and disseminating information about the Cambridge Platonists. (3) Promote further research on all aspects of the thought and legacy of the Cambridge Platonists through the organisation of colloquia and editions of texts.


Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.