Chris Meyns

Participants in the Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy 2018, many of them partially obscured in an attempt to all squeeze together in the picture frame.

31 May 2018

Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy 2018 (#DSEMP18) Report

Early modern philosophy has had a rough couple of years recently. The pedestals of its famous big-name authors have been shaken. Credentials questioned. We’re not even sure anymore whether we should stick to that lovely, quaint old thing called the early modern ‘canon’. And then there’s this long queue of people and texts which, rightly or not (read: not), we’ve been neglecting all that time.

Should we shred the early modern ‘canon’?

The Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy 2018, which I organised together with Andrea Sangiacomo from the University of Groningen, slid right into these debates. Held on 30–31 May in Utrecht (and accessible via a live-stream bit.ly/dsemp18live) the programme had a line-up of fourteen talks and speakers from three different continents. In the event we sought to foreground discussions of questions and philosophers that regularly get pushed to the sides of ‘mainstream’ early modern surveys. Here’s a short report of what happened, with integrated videos of some of the talks.

A number of the talks focused on questions in metaphysics and natural philosophy. Karin de Boer (Leuven) confronted this topic head-on by discussing how Kant thought there could be a touchstone for metaphysical truths.

Nastassja Pugliese, who joined us via video link from São Paulo, demonstrated how Anne Conway’s theory of substance can be understood as a direct critique of Spinoza, where Adam Harmer (UC Riverside) inquired whether Anthony Collins can explain a body’s properties of texture.

Nathan Porter (Utah), also via video link, proposed that, contrary to common thought, Spinoza actually did have a theodicy.

More on the natural philosophy side, Iulia Mihai (Ghent) explained how the influential eighteenth-century philosopher Émilie du Châtelet motivated the principle of continuity, also known as the claim that ‘nature makes no leaps’. Both Stephen Howard (Leuven) and Boris Demarest (Amsterdam) focused on debates about sources of activity in nature. Howard turned to questions about the nature of force in Christian Wolff, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and Kant, where Demarest suggested in certain circles, animism was seen as the more ‘naturalistic’ of theoretical options.

Puzzles about mind and experience often loom large in the early modern scene, and this event was no exception. Hadley Marie Cooney (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed Margaret Cavendish’s refutation of Descartes on the question of animal consciousness.

Alan Nelson (UNC Chapel Hill) argued that John Locke held a category of ‘simple ideas of sense’ as a structural analogue to ideas of corpuscula.

Early modern social philosophical questions were confronted by Anna Markwart (Toruń) and Stephen Evensen (Biola). Markwart argued that Sophie de Grouchy’s theory of sympathy, unlike that of Adam Smith, was concerned with social well-being, and Evensen suggested that Kant’s categorical imperative is profitably viewed through the lens of procedural justice.

Of course, we could all use some early modern philosophical advice on how to lead a better life.

Can early modern philosophers give us some advice on how to lead a better life?

Botond Csuka (Eötvös Loránd) zoomed in on Joseph Addison’s instructions on how to improve one’s well-being through exercise, and Scott Harkema (Ohio State) joined Du Châtelet in claiming that human beings need a healthy dose of illusions in order to be happy.

Questions about method came up throughout the two days. Christia Mercer (Columbia University), who demonstrated how Descartes’ evil demon argument straight-out copies Teresa of Ávila’s (1515–1582) work, made this point programmatically, subtitling their talk: “… or Why We Should Work on Women in the History of Philosophy”. Mercer said that we should, among other reasons, because working on women philosophers will bring us greater historical-philosophical accuracy. ✖