Mind and body in early modern philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V043-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2016
Retrieved December 12, 2018, from

4. Materialism

Hobbes, as is suggested by his Objections to Descartes’s Meditations, was a sort of materialist about the human mind. We can see this in other works too, such as the early chapters of Leviathan (Hobbes [1651] 2012), in which he explains the various powers of the mind – sensation, memory, imagination, language, reason – without seeing any need to postulate an incorporeal part of human beings. Hobbesian materialism was a much less popular position than Cartesian dualism. Nevertheless, several other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European philosophers espoused materialist views.

Someone who knew Hobbes was Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. She published her own materialist philosophy in several books of the 1650s and 1660s, such as her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (Cavendish [1666] 2001). Cavendish disagreed with Hobbes and others who thought that the motions of parts of matter could explain why some material systems could think. Cavendish thought, instead, that matter was fundamentally and irreducibly thinking stuff. Combining this with the view that the world is wholly material, she thought that many things other than humans could, in their own way, think and have knowledge: not just animals, but also vegetables and even minerals.

Cavendish’s materialism, like Hobbes’s, is there on the surface for all to see. It is more difficult to know what to say about their contemporary, Benedict Spinoza. It is clear from his Ethics (Spinoza [1677] 1988) that Spinoza thought that there was just one substance, with attributes that include thought and extension. Seeing this, one might be inclined to think that he too was a sort of materialist, one who thought that the whole world was one extended, thinking thing. But this is far from the only way to read Spinoza, and many interpreters would strongly oppose the suggestion that he was a materialist. For example, one tradition of interpretation holds that he was an idealist, taking the attribute of thought as more basic.

Nevertheless, Spinoza clearly did hold that in some sense the human mind and the human body are identical – that they are ‘one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways’ (Spinoza [1677] 1988: II, prop. 7, scholium). And claims of mind–body identity are typically, these days, associated with materialism (see Mind, identity theory of). Moreover, he thought that the relations between mental things were exactly parallel to the relations between physical things: ‘The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things’ (Spinoza [1677] 1988: II, prop. 7). There is a causal structure in the physical world and a causal structure in the mental world, and they mirror each other exactly, though there is no causal interaction between them.

John Locke (1632–1704) seems to be agnostic about materialism in his An Essay concerning Human Understanding and other works. He does say, however, that it is possible that God gave ‘to certain Systems of created senseless matter, put together as he thinks fit, some degrees of sense, perception, and thought’ (Locke [1689] 1975: IV.iii.6). Thus, our minds might perhaps be material, even though God himself could not be. Locke did not, however, assert that materialism was true. Moreover, he rejected some materialist arguments (such as the argument that we should not believe in an immaterial mind because it is inconceivable).

Locke’s seemingly moderate concession, that a sort of materialism might possibly be true, caused significant concern. Thus Leibniz wrote that ‘Natural religion itself seems to decay [in England] very much. Many will have human souls to be material … Mr. Locke and his followers are uncertain, at least, whether the soul is not material and naturally perishable’ (Leibniz [1715] 1989: 320). In talking of Locke’s followers, Leibniz was perhaps thinking of John Toland (1670–1722) or Anthony Collins (1676–1729). Meanwhile Pierre Bayle noted Locke’s view in his popular Historical and Critical Dictionary, objecting (in note M to the article ‘Dichaearchus’) to what he took to be Locke’s combination of views: that thinking matter is incomprehensible and that God could make matter think (Bayle [1696] 1991).

One should not think, despite the above examples, that all early modern materialists were English speakers. There were, for example, several famous French materialists. These included Julien Offroy de la Mettrie (1709–51), author of L’Homme machine (Machine Man, 1747), and Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723–89), author of Système de la nature (System of Nature, 1770). Holbach, for example, argued that ‘those who have supposed in man an immaterial substance, distinguished from his body, have not thoroughly understood themselves’ (d'Holbach [1770] 1889: 1.48). Having reviewed various problems with the notion of an immaterial soul he concluded that ‘such a substance is a chimera; a being of the imagination’ (d'Holbach [1770] 1889: 1.49). He argued that the soul is, instead, ‘only the body itself considered relatively to some of its functions’ (d'Holbach [1770] 1889: 1.52).

Citing this article:
Duncan, Stewart. Materialism. Mind and body in early modern philosophy, 2016, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V043-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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