Wainwright on Berkeley and Edwards
March 16, 2017 — 5:39

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The second essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is “Berkeley, Edwards, Idealism, and the Knowledge of God” by William J. Wainwright. The aim of this article is to explore and explain similarities between Berkeley and Edwards in terms of the religious and cultural context in which they wrote, particularly the threat of deism and freethinking to these (relatively) traditional religious thinkers. This is an extremely interesting project, and it is for the most part well-executed, though the brevity of a single paper necessitates glossing over certain details, leaving some points underdeveloped, and so forth.

Wainwright’s central contention, I take it, is that Berkeley and Edwards share a concern with the ways in which God is coming to seem distant in a world governed by mechanistic science. The world is, increasingly, viewed as a grand machine that keeps rolling along without any outside assistance. Berkeley and Edwards regard it as insufficient to reason (as, for instance, Leibniz and Paley do) that behind a great machine there must be a great Engineer, for this may secure the existence of God, but it will not secure the nearness of God to the believer, or God’s immanence in the world. I am not very familiar with Edwards, but Wainwright’s account of Berkeley’s motivations and concerns is certainly sound. For instance, in the conclusion of the Principles Berkeley writes, “to an unbiassed and attentive mind, nothing can be more plainly legible, than the intimate presence of an all-wise Spirit, who fashions, regulates, and sustains the whole system of being” (sect. 151, my boldface) and that God “is present and conscious to our innermost thoughts” (sect. 155). Further, Berkeley tells us that “the main drift and design of [his] labours” was (among other things) to “inspire [his] readers with a pious sense of the presence of God” (sect. 156). Thus, for Berkeley, the mere existence of God is not enough. Similarly, in Alciphron it is said that the divine language argument “proves, not a Creator merely, but a provident Governor, actually and intimately present, and attentive to all our interests and motions, who watches over our conduct, and takes care of our minutest actions and designs throughout the whole course of our lives, informing, admonishing, and directing incessantly, in a most evident and sensible manner” (sect. 4.14). So Wainwright seems to be on firm ground (at least with respect to Berkeley) when he identifies the nearness of God as a key object of concern, and it is easy to see how the Berkeley-Edwards brand of idealism might be thought to do that. This paper is, in my view, quite a welcome addition to the literature. Too often, Berkeley’s religious motivations are treated as an embarrassment, as though the ‘real’ philosophy has been encumbered with a lot of nonsense from which we must separate it if we are to get the value out. Perhaps that may, in the end, turn out to be the case with respect to present-day philosophical value, but if we don’t see Berkeley’s religious vision clearly we’ll never understand his philosophy in the first place and our ‘disentanglement’ will go awry.

Of course, there are also differences between Berkeley and Edwards. Wainwright makes an interesting and plausible suggestion about the source of these differences: Calvinism. (Of course, Calvinism is always at the forefront with Edwards!) Now, I think Wainwright is a little oversimplistic here when he says that “Because Anglicans, like Berkeley, were not [theological determinists], he may have assumed that humanity’s contra-causal freedom required the existence of relatively independent and autonomous choosing substances” (41). Berkeley says almost nothing about human freedom, and what he does say (e.g., in the later sections of Alciphron 7) is pretty ambiguous. The theological debate between Calvinists and Arminians does not exactly track the metaphysical debate between compatibilists and libertarians (though it does track fairly closely), and not all Anglicans were Arminians. Indeed, prior to the Laudian reforms of the 1630s Calvinism had been the dominant view, and Archbishop James Ussher, the primate of Ireland at the time, had vigorously opposed the attempt to impose Arminianism. What was actually going on (several decades later) in the post-Restoration Anglican Communion was more that folks were keeping pretty quiet about the issues in the hope of keeping it from blowing up again. (Civil wars are not fun.) In my previous post I claimed that Berkeley was a latitudinarian. If so, that would explain why he is so carefully ambiguous on these points: part of the latitudinarian strategy was to try to make room for Calvinists and Arminians within the same church.

Nevertheless, Berkeley, while denying the existence of inanimate secondary causes and attributing the causation of sensory ideas to God, tries to carve out some room for genuine, autonomous human agency. Wainwright provides documentation that Edwards (unsurprisingly, for a radical Calvinist) has no such concerns. Indeed, in emphasizing our dependence on God, Edwards (in the quotes provided by Wainwright) appears driven nearly to Spinozism. I expect this issue regarding Edwards will be addressed further in some of the later essays.

An additional interesting point from Wainwright’s essay has to do with the theory of the world as divine language found in both Berkeley and Edwards. I don’t think Wainwright gets Berkeley’s version of that theory quite exactly right, but this is one of my pet issues and I’ll refrain from nitpicking about it here. More importantly: Wainwright notes that Berkeley believes that the status of the world as a language can be established by empirical and philosophical reasoning, and the fact that the world is a language shows that it must have a speaker. Hence the divine language can be used to establish the existence of God. Edwards, on the other hand, seems to take as a starting point a “two books” theology and a principle of typological interpretation. Thus the world, like the Bible, is a communication from God in the form of types and figures in which the presence of Christ must be discerned. This is justified primarily theologically.

I will conclude with one nitpick: Wainwright says that “Recent scholars agree that Berkeley and Edwards arrived at their idealism separately” (48n2). This claim is meant, I suppose, to underline the importance of identifying common contextual factors in order to explain the similar views of Berkeley and Edwards. In support of this claim, Wainwright cites the introduction to the science and philosophy volume of Edwards’ Works. Now this edition of Edwards’ Works was published from 1957–2008 and Wainwright does not indicate when this particular volume was released, so it is not clear what’s meant by “recent.” In any event, Edwards was taught philosophy at Yale by Berkeley’s disciple Samuel Johnson. (Based on the extant correspondence between Berkeley and Johnson, I do not think ‘disciple’ is too strong a word.) I don’t know what the state of the evidence is regarding whether Edwards actually read Berkeley’s works, but there is certainly a vector for indirect influence, at least. In places I took Wainwright to be implying that if we couldn’t uncover some shared contextual factors explaining the similarity of Berkeley’s and Edwards’ views that similarity would have to be regarded as sheer coincidence, and this is much too strong. Nevertheless, this point does nothing to detract from Edwards’ status as an original thinker, or from the interest of Wainwright’s analysis of Edwards’ similarities and differences from Berkeley.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

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