Synopsis : John Locke’s contribution to moral philosophy in the Essay concerning Human Understanding included a highly contentious rejection of innate ideas on the grounds that they did not enjoy universal consent. Among the opponents who attacked his position, Bishop Stillingfleet and the third Earl of Shaftesbury offered sustained replies that drew on a narrower conception of consent to evade Locke's critique. Two different models for engaging in philosophical controversy emerge in this dispute. But the story becomes more complex when Pierre Bayle’s perspective on these issues is considered. Bayle shared Locke's displeasure with arguments from common consent, yet Shaftesbury exempted him from criticism. The question is why?
Daniel Carey began his presentation by sketching the problem of common vs universal vs general consent. Things can be proved if you appeal to common sense : everyone assents to something, philosophically (such as the existence of God or the foundation of Natural Law). But at the same time such issues provoked debates that make clear how they were conducted in the period. Shaftesbury, who was a nobleman, rarely named his opponents (we have to go to his correspondence to find out what he really thought of Locke). The dispute between Locke and Stillingfleet, on the other hand, is more in the spirit of a tennis match, such as described by Bayle in Continuation des pensées diverses, a dispute that occurs in the world of print.
Daniel Carey retraced the steps of the argument by common consent, going back to Cicero, who had used the argument of common consent about the existence of God in De natura deorum. Grotius, likewise, used the argument about common consent, mixed with an a posteriori argument which reinforces the validity of the argument (be it about natural law or the existence of God). Consent comes from the more refined and polite nations. For Cudworth and Moore, belief is grounded in nature.
Locke’s Essays on the Law of Nature insists that these laws are known from Reason and not from other sources including common consent. For Locke, there is no such thing as common consent. He voices this as a topical argument (which he develops about the sati). But in Essay, I, he explains that there are two sorts of innate things : the idea of God, and moral principles. If an idea is innate you must show common consent, which in turn leads to the conformity of action. Locke insists on the conformity of action because actions are the interpreters of what people think : hence, the lack of conformity is crucial.
For Stillingfleet, there must be a deity because the idea of a deity is common to us. Locke does not object to the argument about the existence of God from common consent, but he wants to get rid of the idea of innateness.
Shaftesbury, in turn, never refers directly to Locke in his Soliloquy, although his critique which springs from the consideration of travel literature, and of certain philosophers censured for their beliefs, seems to have been written with Locke in mind.
For Bayle, « Locke est victorieux ». He also attacks the argument about common consent : « que la multitude d’approbateurs n’est pas une marque de vérité » reads chapter 4. And in chapter 5, he explains that common consent was used by Cicero as a proof to justify innateness. For Bayle, it is important to undermine the dogmatic argument while showing that Locke’s critique does hold. Bayle indeed adopts a line of argument developed from Locke. For Bayle, common consent is not a criterion of truth, nature is not sufficient. How could people with innate ideas end up with wrong ideas of God ?
Daniel Carey concluded on two points : the idea of a common ground between Bayle and Shaftesbury, because Shaftesbury does not need common consent either : he wants to retain natural preconceptions (valuable instincts) but not common consent to prove them. And patterns of dispute show a great range of quarelling. The absence of a quarrel between Shaftesbury and Bayle is in itself interesting, and the withholding of a quarrel sometimes as significant as the quarrel itself.
25 Novembre 2014