From Civic to Liberal Republicanism: John Locke and the Dutch

September 29, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:19 pm   Category: Calvinism,Ethics,Happiness,Life,Money and getting gain,Politics

This is the 4th part in my series whereby I roughly follow Jerry Muller’s Thinking About Capitalism, in order to bring socio-economic and intellectual history to Jonathan Haidt’s political taxonomy.  Here is the political spectrum that I have been working with:


Last post I discussed how Machiavelli, Hobbes and various religious thinkers contributed to the transvaluation of Civic Republican virtue into the modern “virtue” of self-interest.  This post will discuss the ways in which the 17th Century Dutch experience in general and – even though Muller strangely ignores him – John Locke in particular transformed the aristocratic Civic Republicanism into the middle-class Liberal Republicanism that would later form the very heart of the American constitution.

Commercializing Civic Virtue

The unintentional pioneers of Liberal Republicanism were the 17th Century Dutch.  In the late 16th Century, the Dutch would rebel against the Spanish throne – thereby replacing it as the dominant economic power in the West – claiming that it did not represent Dutch interests or protect its Calvinist traditions.  This rebellion against Spanish Absolutism was not, however, motivated by a sense of Civic virtue, since the Dutch immediately invited various foreign monarchs to replace the recently deposed Phillip II, including the Austrian Hapsburgs, the French Bourbons as well as Queen Elizabeth of England.  It was only because (for various reasons) none of these monarchs were willing to assume sovereignty over these Northern Dutch states that they instead settled upon a republic.  This, however, was a republic in a VERY different sense than had been advocated by earlier thinkers.

Recall that up to that point, the major struggle in Western European politics had been between the landed aristocracy (who sought some version of Civic Republicanism) and centralized monarchs (who sought some version of Absolutist Monarchy).  The former ideology centered around the willingness and duty of aristocratic citizens to take up arms to defend their land and peasants.  These aristocratic citizens were, then, a knightly, warrior caste. In order to resist their military power, the monarchs thus found themselves compelled to raise taxes in order to pay mercenary armies (typically Swiss) to fight against these aristocratic knights.  This dependency on taxes thus forced the absolutist monarchs to be very friendly with cities (as opposed to the country towns) in general and merchants/banks in particular – these being the primary and most reliable sources of tax revenues. The Dutch, then, transformed this traditional struggle between nobility and king into a much more modern struggle in which there was no king at all, but was instead between the nobility and middle-class merchants.

Despite what the name might suggest, the Dutch Republic was much closer to Absolute Monarchism in many ways than it was to Civic Republicanism.  In stark contrast to the later, the Dutch citizenship

  • engaged in profit-motivated trade;
  • outsourced their military service to paid mercenaries;
  • transformed broad-minded participation in politics into a representation of and negotiation between interests within the political realm; and
  • balanced these interests – primarily between those of the agricultural economy of the country nobility and the commercial economy of the city merchants/bankers – within an institutionalized separation of powers.

The mercantilism that Adam Smith would later attack was not invented by the Dutch, but by placing so much political power in the hands of the merchant middle-class, they definitely perfected that system.  The history of how this came about is highly relevant to American politics, since is just is a genealogy of conservatism as understood by Americans.

In contrast to the Northerners (the modern day Netherlands), the Southern Dutch (modern day Belgium) had been unable to free themselves from Spanish rule.  The intolerance of this Catholic rule would spur a mass migration of Marranos (Jews, Moors and other Diasporic minorities) from Antwerp (the previous center of Northern European commerce) to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.  The increase in competition directly caused by this mass migration led to the 1602 founding of the world’s first publicly traded company: The Dutch East India Company.

The creation of this publicly traded company was specifically aimed at preventing competition in order to keeping prices high.  (The Dutch also had a strong tendency to hoard grain within their warehouses, waiting until the price of grain would get sufficiently high before they would sell it.)  This monopoly was not only state-sponsored, but was actually authorized by the state to wage war so as to defend its interests abroad – since these interests just were the interests of the property-owning citizenship of the Dutch Republic.  These foreign wars in the name of a self-interested citizenship were exactly what the Civic Republican tradition had been designed to prevent… But this Liberal Republicanism was quite clearly a strong departure from Civic Republicanism.

Muller sums up Dutch society as follows:

Holland was perhaps the first society in which a majority of households made that switch in the allocation of time toward production for the market [rather than production for household subsistence]… By 1669, the Dutch East India Company was the richest private company the world had ever seen, with over 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers, and a dividend payment of 40%… Historians estimate that in 1700, the per capita GNP… in Holland, was about 50% higher than in Great Britain, which itself was a relatively well-to-do country at the time.

While the Dutch transformation of Civic Republicanism into Liberal Republicanism directly led to war and violence abroad against both “savages” and other East India Companies, it was, paradoxically, also the modern historical source for the Western “virtue” of domestic tolerance.  I put the word “virtue” in scare-quotes because neither Civic Republicanism nor Absolute Monarchism thought toleration of diversity to be a virtue in any sense.  The public discussion of religion, virtue or values in general were supposed to be either unanimous (Civic Republicanism) or kept out of public discussion altogether (Absolute Monarchism).  The Dutch, by contrast, sought to tolerate as much diversity as possible precisely because ethnic and religious minorities:

  • had been forced into trade and banking by their exclusion from owning land, working land or joining guilds;
  • had greater access to and familiarity with otherwise exotic, international markets; and
  • streamlined international trade as shared languages and mutual acquaintances vacillated greater trust within commercial transactions.

In other words, the “virtue” of toleration was justified primarily, if not solely in the self-interested terms of commercial profits and market shares.

It is within this context that 17th Century Amsterdam became the European center of intellectual innovation – a direct precursor to the 18th Century French Enlightenment.  Bertrand Russel noted in his A History of Western Philosophy that

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Holland in the seventeenth century, as the one country where there was freedom of speculation… [Descartes] lived in Holland for twenty years (1629-49)… Hobbes had to have his books printed there; Locke took refuge there during the five worst years of reaction in England before 1688; Bayle (of the Dictionary) found it necessary to live there; and Spinoza would hardly have been allowed to do his work in any other country.

It is especially illustrative that whereas the absolutist Thomas Hobbes had earlier sought political refuge from parliamentary forces within Absolutist France (1640-1651), the parliamentarian John Locke, would seek political refuge from royalist forces within Liberal Republican Amsterdam (1683-1689).  Two note-worthy events had historically separate Hobbes from Locke: 1) Isaac Netwon’s discoveries (1666-1687) and 2) The Glorious Revolution (1688) in which the British Nobility invited the Dutch William of Orange to invade monarchist England under the condition that he recognized the sovereignty of British parliament over the throne.  Locke actually returned to England on the very same boat as William’s wife, the soon-to-be Queen Mary, she being the royal blood according to which William’s actions had been legitimated within England.


The most relevant point to Americans is that the founding fathers of the constitution would, nearly 90 years later, be strongly influenced by the essays and treatises written by Locke during his political exile in Amsterdam.  These essays and treatises, in turn, had been a (rhetorically Newtonian) rationalization of what had occurred, largely by unplanned accident, within the Netherlands.  (As we will see in a later post, this distinction between the rationalization of experience and more radical attempts at legislating political revolution based in nothing more than abstract theory would later be elaborated upon by Edmund Burke.)

Maker’s Knowledge and Author-ity

A major theoretical difference between Hobbes and Locke was that while the former largely ignored God (religious beliefs were dangerous!), the latter grounded his entire philosophy in God’s authority as the Creator of the entire natural world.  According to Locke, all law – be it physical, moral or political – was the product of and thus subordinate to some creative act of will.  In the case of physical and moral laws, God had created such things as an act of Divine will, and it is this fact that explains both 1) God’s sovereignty over His creation and, less intuitively to us moderns, 2) God’s knowledge of His creation. Before unpacking the socio-political implications of this “maker’s knowledge”, I want to briefly discuss its philosophical implications, since 1) the socio-political implications were merely a special case of the former and 2) it gives us some critical distance from our own ideas regarding the relationship between knowledge and authority.

The doctrine of maker’s knowledge was a very widely accepted doctrine that went back long before John Locke – at least to the Italian Renaissance.  It was the claim that it was only by creating something that one could truly know that thing.  Thus, we humans know beyond any doubt how a knight moves within a chess game precisely because we humans made the rules to that game.  This same reasoning went for mathematical results, in that their absolute certainty was specifically due to the fact that we humans had invented the rules according to which the results were derived.  Like Hobbes, Locke believed that this same reasoning also applied to the positive laws that governed a polis; we could have no doubt about what the law of the land was for the specific reason that we human had made that law.  It was for this reason that early modern thinkers had seen no difference whatsoever between “political” authority and “scientific” authority since both such things flow always and only from a willful act of author-ship.

This claim can be understood in terms of the different stances that Hobbes and Locke took toward experimentalism within the scientific method.  Locke followed Newton and other Baconians in understanding scientific experimentation as a process of intelligent design in the strongest sense of that term.  Scientific experiments were an active mixing of one’s mind/will with some part of the natural world in order to gain a maker’s knowledge of one’s own experience in doing so, a maker’s knowledge that had an obligation to approximate that of the Original Maker.  To make this view a bit more explicit:

  1. Locke and Newton could be sure that there was a rational/moral order in the natural world because they knew that God had created it, and
  2. Locke and Newton could be sure that humans could comprehend this rational/moral order because their minds/wills were all made in God’s image.

These early modern thinkers thus bridged the gap between what have been called “tutelage” and “heteronomy” wherein our will/mind must submit or conform to, respectively, God and nature.  We must conform to the dictates and laws of nature, because nature is itself the dictate and law of God.  I hope it is clear how essentially all forms of modern “scientism” are themselves derived from this very religious – albeit, only semi-scriptural – view of the world and our place within it.

Hobbes, in opposition to Newton, Locke and the entire Royal Society, rejected all forms of experimentalism as a source of reliable truth precisely because he refused to endorse either of the two religious claims above.  Experiments were, indeed, the means by which men imposed their own mortal minds/wills upon the natural world through intelligent design.  It was for this reason, however, that any “truths” that they wrongly thought themselves to be “objectively” reading off of the experimental data were actually imposed upon the experiments through their own, imperfect acts of will.  (The modern term for this claim is that all experiments are “theory/interest laden”.) It was because of this refusal on Hobbes’ part to accept experimental results as definitive that he was repeatedly denied admission to the Royal Society.  Note well, however, what was at issue here: Hobbes’ rejection of intelligent design in the overtly religious sense unavoidably threatened the objectivity of natural science with relativistic constructivism.

Let us approach this point about maker’s knowledge from a different conceptual angle:  that of primary vs. secondary properties.  Galileo had followed the quasi-religious metaphysics of the Pythagoreans in believing that nature was essentially mathematical in nature (the claim that the “book of nature” is written in the language of mathematics can be found nowhere in Christian scripture).  He thus claimed that all qualitative properties were merely secondary and, as such, quite mortal projections onto an essentially quantitative natural world.  The romantics, by contrast, would later insist that quantitative properties were actually the secondary, projected properties, while post-moderns would insist that all properties, qualitative and quantitative alike, were equally human projections.

Unlike Galileo, Locke’s views regarding maker’s knowledge led him to attribute the difference between primary and secondary properties to who had created the property in question. Primary qualities were those that had been created by God’s mind/will while secondary qualities were those that had been created by our human minds/wills.  It was for this reason that all humans had both a natural inclination and a natural duty to approximate God’s primary qualities with our own secondary qualities.

Locke’s philosophy was, then, a semi-stable combination of an uncompromising acceptance of the divinity of natural law and an uncompromising refusal to equate any person’s mind/will with that divine law.  In this way, he argued for a skepticism and relativism that was universally bounded by the absoluteness of God’s physical and moral laws.  Since each person’s understanding of divine law (primary qualities) was be imperfect and relative to their own, private experiences (secondary qualities), and since no person had created the mind/will of another person (the word “consciousness” was actually invented by Locke’s friend, Ralph Cudworth), there was simply no means by which any mortal could ever exert author-ity over another mortal.

As such, no scientific or moral claim could ever be justified by anything other than a description of one’s own personal experience with the natural world, and no experience with that natural world was either perfect or exactly the same as any other person’s.  It is worth pointing out that Locke was utterly intolerant towards Catholics and Atheists because they, on the one hand, grounded authority in something other than personal experience, or, on the other hand, denied that God constrained this skepticism/relativism.

I think it will be useful to point out the important role that Locke’s strict separation between our mortal maker’s knowledge of human experience and God’s maker’s knowledge of natural law would later play in Western intellectual history:

  • Locke argued for a skepticism/relativism of mortal author-ity, constrained by and subordinate to nothing other than God’s absolute author-ity. (A religion of natural law)
  • Hume argued against God’s author-ity, leaving the skepticism/relativism of mortal author-ity totally unconstrained. (A rejection of religion and natural law)
  • Kant argued that there was only one, timeless and universal type of mortal author-ity, it being the one and only thing that pointed to God’s author-ity. (A religion of universal reason instead of natural law)
  • Hegel and Fichte argued that mortal author-ity was historical. (A religion of rational history)
  • Darwin argued that mortal author-ity was without direction, purpose or reason. (A religion of blind adaptation)
  • Nietzsche argued that, since God’s author-ity was dead, each person must make their own mortal author-ity. (A religion of the individual Ubermensch)

This timeline is only meant as a brief illustration of the deep, conceptual ramifications that follow from the different ways in which thinkers have attempted to equate, relate or otherwise prioritize 1) our minds, 2) God’s mind and 3) natural law.

Private Property and the Fiduciary State

The year after Hobbes died, Robert Filmore’s theological defense of Absolute Monarchy was published. Like many other thinkers of the time, he endorsed the Maker’s Author-ity of God over His creation.  He thus argued that God had given dominion over the world to Adam as an inheritance, he being the first born son.  This right, he argued, was passed down as a birth-right throughout the generations as parents had “created” their children, all the way down to the absolute monarchs of Filmore’s time.  (Genealogists were actually paid good money to “derive” their clients’ genealogies as far back to Adam as possible in order to situate themselves within the entailed social hierarchy.) Thus, whereas Hobbes had argued that, out of self-interest, we all give up all our rights to the sovereign so that it will protect us from each other, Filmore argued that the sovereign needed no such consent from us.  The absolute monarch was our rightful sovereign regardless of what our interests might be on the matter, since his sovereignty was his “divine right of kings.”

It is against this argument that Locke’s version of the social contract should be understood.  Contra Filmore, Locke argued that God had given dominion over His creation to mankind in general and that one’s birth was utterly irrelevant to the issue since we were all equally children of God.  For this reason, a sovereign was not at all like a father, a husband, a lord or a pope – all of these being comparisons that Filmore had explicitly made.  Rather, what mattered was the extent to which one mixed their mindful/willful labor with God’s creation.  Thus, in the exact same way that I gain exclusive author-ity – in the form of expertise – over the observable world in the scientific sense, I also gain exclusive author-ity – in the form of property – over the arable land in the economic sense.

Since property was a natural law that existed totally independent of any contract or agreement, Locke’s social contract theory was very different from Hobbes’.  For starters, Hobbes saw the state of nature in terms of the civil wars with which he was all too well acquainted.  Locke’s state of nature, by contrast, was much more like the open and unclaimed land of the American frontier.  (Rousseau’s state of nature, we will see in a later post, was that of the native Americans who were being forcefully displaced by the “civilization” of those American Lockeans.)

Since moral author-ity was built into nature by God Himself, and since property was individually created within that shared nature by us mortal author-ities, this made men much less desperate to give up their rights, if only because they had so many more of them to give up.  (Remember, there were no female citizens or property owners.)  Thus, while Hobbes advocated a total surrender of our rights to the sovereign, Locke suggested that we merely exchange our rights, but only to the extent that it is in our self-interest to do so.  Most important to Locke’s view was that the state did not have author-ity over our property since 1) it had not mixed its labor with that land, and 2) it was to protect that very property that men had created the state in the first place.  It is in this sense that we all have an inalienable right to life, liberty and property. (The Americans would substitute “the pursuit of happiness” for the last one):

Man being born … with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves… (Two Treatises of Government, Chapter VII, section 87-89)


There were three important corollaries to Locke’s view of the state, all of which were epitomized by the Dutch experience with which he was so familiar.

First, the law was not the servant of the prince, as Machiavelli had suggested, nor was it a tool by which the sovereign unilaterally protected men from each other, as Hobbes had taught.  Rather, it was an instrument of property owners by which they protected themselves against would-be thieves and appropriators.  The greatest threat to the social contract and collective well-being was not civil war, as Hobbes had thought, nor was it corrupt self-interest, as Aristotle had thought, but the appropriation of property from above: the absolutist monarch.  While Marx would later agree that the Liberal Republican state was specifically designed to protect property owners from thieves and appropriators, he thought that this was a bad thing.  Socialists would thus advocate an absolutism of the working class over this property owning class.

The second consequence of Locke’s view of property was that the citizen’s moral right to revolt against the state was not the product of any social contract, but was a natural and inalienable right. Locke’s view did not claim that if a land-owner hired a man to work his land, that the latter would thereby gain ownership of that land through his labor.  Rather, the worker had “only a Fiduciary power to act for certain ends” (the author-ity of a trustee).  The exact same went for the state: since the property owner only endorsed the state to the extent that it served his interests to do so (this itself was heresy to the Civic Republican), the former had the natural right to dismiss the latter when it did not remain bound to this mandate.  Recall that in the tradition of maker’s knowledge, all laws were subordinate to the mind/will that brought them into existence.  As such, men were completely free to overthrow any sovereignty or contracted law if such things violated natural law or the interests of the citizen – these two being very nearly one and the same thing.

The third consequence of Locke’s view of property was that it turned efficiency into a moral virtue.  Men had a right to property all and only to the extent that they mixed their labor with it.  (Given the caveat above regrading the fiduciary relationship of labor, it would be more accurate – not to mention more consistent with his epistemology – to say that an owner mixes his will with his property, not his labor.)  Thus, any nobles who owned land with which they were not mixing their will had actually forfeited their natural rights to that land.  In other words, wastefulness was a violation of natural law and, as such, a sin in Locke’s mind!

Given the Dutch context in which Locke’s philosophy was developed, it should come as no surprise that his metaphysics and epistemology were both extremely well suited to the coming rise of capitalism.

Questions for Mormons:

  1. While Locke grounded science and property in maker’s author-ity, Darwin’s theory would totally destroy this entire conceptual package. What does Mormon revelation teach about the relationship between authorship and author-ity?
  2. Filmore grounded authority in the ascribed status of persons, while Locke thought that nothing other than largely impersonal experience carried authority. How do the LDS doctrines of priesthood authority and revelation relate to these two positions?
  3. Do the ideals of the United Order, or Zion in general most approximate those of Civic Republicanism, Absolute Monarchism or Liberal Republicanism? Why or why not?


  1. Fascinating write up. What does it say about me, or about truth in general if I feel the Spirit while reading about John Locke?

    So for the questions. I can’t understand question 1, and I was a bit lost in that part of your post.

    2. I’d say that early on, Joseph Smith ascribed authority to individual spiritual experience. He gave people tools to access their own personal revelations, and hoped for the best. I think this may have been because he came from a Locke-inspired humanist culture. When this didn’t work so well, with Mrs. Hubble etc, he established elaborate priesthood hierarchies inspired by Biblical models, which are obviously pre-modern.

    3. The United Order was hearkening back to the New Testament scripture in Acts that said that the church had “all things in common.” But I can’t help wonder if it wasn’t part of some kind of collective consciousness of the time that was inspiring many other 19th century Utopianisms. Where did Utopianism come from? Communism is also a kind of Utopianism. Was it a religious, Millenarian phenomenon, or was it a mix of religious zealotry with Liberal republicanism? What made 19th and 20th century people think that they could suddenly radically rework economic and social orders in ways that would eliminate poverty or usher in the Millennium? I’m sure it’s related to some of the economic and social orders you are describing, but I can’t help but think that the United Order comes from a different place, completely off your diagram. It’s more of a dream or a fantasy, or a revelation, than anything with heritage, history, or staying power within the broader world orders.

    Comment by Nate — September 29, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

  2. Nate,

    “I feel the Spirit while reading about John Locke”

    Depends on who you ask. If you ask John Locke, he would say that those feelings are utterly meaningless, since the only thing that has authority is empirical experience with nature. (His argument for God is that there is reliable accounts of miracles.) If you ask a Mormon, by contrast, they’ll think there is more to it.

    2. I’m not sure that’s the right understanding of Locke or Smith. For starters, Locke utterly rejected revelation. As for Smith, Kathleen Flake’s new paper makes the claim that priesthood was there since 1830.

    3. “the United Order comes from a different place, completely off your diagram”

    That might be true. This is only an useful guide from our 21st century perspective. While Muller ignores the “utopian” socialists of the early 19th century, I will have to discuss them a bit, if only to compare them with the united order. As for that passage in Acts, a great many of the ideological positions claim something very similar.

    1. If you didn’t understand, then I am in trouble. Basically, in the same way that I make the rules for my own house, and I know my own house better than anybody else, Locke says that this is how God makes the rules for and knows all of nature. Thus, all people must live by God’s rules, since we live in his house. Our property is similar to how we grant our children “stewardship” over their rooms within our house. (The analogy kind of breaks down for knowledge.)

    What the question was aimed at what that Darwin argued that creation did not need a creator, let alone entail that that creator automatically had perfect knowledge of that creation. Thus, not all of creation automatically has a sovereign. Also, creation does not automatically entail knowledge.

    Now bring this back to Locke’s two claims for the post. After Darwin, we do not get to assume that there is a rational order to be discerned in nature. After Darwin, we do not get to assume that our minds are capable of knowing any “natural laws” that might be built into nature. Indeed, even if there is some order built into nature (rather than being something that some humans project onto it), there is no reason to assume that we *ought* to try to understand it.

    Thus, I was asking what Mormons see as the relationship between creation and knowledge of that creation? I was also asking why, or if Mormon believe that we have a moral obligation to articulate the laws of nature?

    Comment by Jeff G — September 29, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

  3. “Feel the spirit while reading about John Locke.” I ask because faith in LDS authority is predicated upon empirical spiritual experiences (empirical at least from a personal perspective.) Priesthood authority was indeed part of the church from the beginning, but what I gathered from reading Rough Stone Rolling, is that Joseph Smith originally had idealistic notions about advocating spiritual gifts and probably presumed that inviting people to use spiritual gifts would bring people together, without having to administer too strong a central authority. Like the empiricism of science, spiritual empiricism would be self-evident to those who experienced it and gradually form an accepted consensus. Growing up in a post-Revolutionary culture saturated with concepts of natural law and inalienable rights, I imagine Joseph probably applied this universality to the spiritual things he was coming across. Initially at least. The truth is that spiritual experience is anything but universally empirical.

    Regarding Darwinism, I don’t see how it “totally destroys” Locke’s ideas about natural law and God’s sovereignty, that is if God is partly an expression of the immutable laws of physics and natural selection. Isn’t there some kind of philosophy that combines Locke’s “natural law” and the laws of physics?

    Darwinism might say that “creation doesn’t need a Creator” but that doesn’t mean that creation doesn’t need “something.” It doesn’t need anthropomorphised Gods, but it does need a set of universal laws, and it needs matter and energy. And scientists are becoming increasingly aware that the laws of natural selection are governed by something more than mere random chance, whose mathematical probabilities are too vanishingly small to have created life. There are properties of “emergence” which we don’t fully understand.

    Comment by Nate — September 30, 2016 @ 5:06 am

  4. “faith in LDS authority is predicated upon empirical spiritual experiences (empirical at least from a personal perspective.)”

    But this is simply an abuse of the term. Empirical experience is when one mixes their mind/will with nature. Thus, feelings, inner/mystical experiences are totally ruled out by empiricists such as Locke. Describing spiritual experiences as “empirical” is simply an attempt at appropriating the prestige of a cultural movement that was specifically aimed to subverting spiritual experiences.

    “Like the empiricism of science, spiritual empiricism would be self-evident to those who experienced it and gradually form an accepted consensus. ”

    I agree that Smith probably agreed with this. Locke sure didn’t, however.

    “Regarding Darwinism, I don’t see how it “totally destroys” Locke’s ideas”

    Darwin, more than any other figure, destabilized deism. It should be understood that Locke absolutely accepted the great chain of being, he just rejected the idea that different men were on different levels of that chain (apparently women were still on a different level for him, though). Within the great chain of being, creation always flowed downwards. It was for this reason that a creator had knowledge and sovereignty over their creation “below” them. Darwin totally destroyed this idea that creation flows downward. As one of Darwin’s 19th century critics put it vividly:

    In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin’s meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all of the achievements of creative skill.

    If absolute ignorance an create, then obviously the idea of maker’s knowledge goes out the window. It creation can bubble up from below, then maker’s sovereignty also loses its foundation.

    Yes, we can still say that there might have been a creator, and that this creator might have had some foresight (this is exactly what David Hume – a sort of midpoint between Locke and Darwin – argued for) and that this might involve some type of sovereignty, but this is all drastically different from the intellectual package of maker’s knowledge where such things were all necessarily entailed.

    The basic point to take from Newton and Locke is that without a creator, what reason do we have to believe that there are natural laws rather than mere regularities?

    Comment by Jeff G — September 30, 2016 @ 9:00 am

  5. I think I see what you are saying. Could you articulate the difference between “natural law” as Locke and Newton would have understood it, and “physical laws” as Darwin understood them? If Darwinism describes the mechanics of creation, it still doesn’t explain the existence of the physical laws that somehow allow such a creation to emerge, nor where the material universe came from in which those laws find themselves. It seems to me that Darwin simply kicked the can further down the road, but when that road is infinite, I don’t see how it matters.

    Comment by Nate — September 30, 2016 @ 9:20 am

  6. Well, Darwin wisely stayed out of philosophical issues like that. A better person would be David Hume who took empiricism all the way to its logical conclusion: we’ve never seen a God, natural law or causation. We just experience one thing after another and notice various correlations… and that’s it.

    As for Darwin, he did not refute all belief in a creator. What he (and Hume) did destroy, however, was any faith that we could derive the existence or attributes of the creator based on nothing other than empirical observation of the natural world. This was why Kant totally rejected natural religion for rational religion.

    I think that Mormonism rejects both forms of religion since they both reject revelation and priesthood as valid.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 30, 2016 @ 11:17 am

  7. Yes, both forms reject revelation and priesthood. But I think both Locke and Darwin saw nature as revelation, just revelation about different things. Correct me if I’m wrong, for Locke, nature was a revelation about a divine, top-down order. For Darwin, nature was a revelation about bottom-up emergence. I still think that Darwinism merely describes a universe which was, from the beginning, somehow great enough, and beautiful enough, and finely-tuned enough, to create philosophers and symphonies for itself. That kind of universe is worthy of worship, whether it is before or after the Big Bang.

    Comment by Nate — October 1, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

  8. The interesting background to all this is what they meant by law which was a very simple a deductive in nature law. The types of patterns we deal with today or even phenomena in which simple laws manifest in complex ways (say fluid turbulence) go completely against the epistemological assumptions Locke and company make.

    Put an other way something may be knowable but simply not knowable in the fashion Locke and others wanted which largely was modeled on Aristotilean logic (and later the types of mathematics Newton introduced)

    It’s interesting looking at Hobbes rejection since of course Locke’s ideas go back to the greeks – the majority of the philosophers of which would have been considered atheists. (Not all were such as in neoplatonism of late antiquity) The greeks whether the Stoics or neoPlatonists end up with God ‘knowing’ and being knowable in a fashion quite different than developed in post-Augustinian Christianity. That is if Hobbes worry was religion (and I’ll confess to not knowing a lot of Hobbes) he lost out by not considering the greek solutions to the problem.

    Comment by Clark — October 3, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

  9. A few other brief comments. First, I’m not sure I buy your presentation of Darwin. I’ll confess I just don’t know the history of Darwin the man close enough to say much there. However using him as a type for Darwinian thinking embedded in science. That is a very strong way to this day of conceiving of science is the authority of reality over our more contingent beliefs. Put an other way that aspect of Locke’s thought remains part and parcel of a major strain of scientific thinking. Arguably the strongest. About all that happened is that, as with the ancient greeks, God is booted out and what’s left in his place is a neutered God that is reality itself.

    Such a conception of Reality as God that was part and parcel of the Stoics and neoPlatonists and returned to prominence by Spinoza seems to undermine a lot of critiques of Darwin.

    Comment by Clark — October 3, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

  10. Jeff (4) I think I’d rather put it that Darwin destabilizes a certain conception of reality prominent especially in physics due to the success of Newton’s Laws of Mechanics combined with the traditional prominence of deductive logic. Chance gets introduced. That then a few decades later comes to physics as well.

    Where I disagree is in how to consider the place of chance. It’s true that most 17th – early 19th century deists tended to think of deism in terms of a strict determinism of logical necessitism. That gets seriously undermined. Although again the roots of chance are again still going around. Certainly Epicurus and his atoms with swerve have it amongst the greeks. Epicurus’ thought, as with so many greek thinkers, is revived in the Renaissance. Admittedly his thought isn’t as popular as other like the Stoics, Aristotle, or the Platonists. However when you get to the pragmatists who start to really us Darwin’s new science to rethink a lot of philosophy you also get some pretty explicit utilization of their ideas about chance. (This is the era from the 1860s – 1890s)

    Comment by Clark — October 3, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

  11. I don’t have much time….


    Darwin did not himself care much at all about philosophical issues like makers knowledge, natural law, etc. In the later parts of his life, he tended toward atheism, but 1) he kept this utterly private and 2) his reasons had more to do with personal loss than theory.


    Makers knowledge says that creation entails/requires perfect knowledge. Darwin mostly definitely challenged this claim with his demonstration of blind, purposeless and ignorant design.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 4, 2016 @ 2:47 am

  12. Jeff perhaps I’m merely quibbling. More or less I’m just saying Darwin was part of a trend. It’s around this time Epicurus becomes popular who injects the greek notion of chance into ontology.

    I also think you have to deal with free will in Jacobus Arminius and how that relates to God’s purposes and knowledge. That’s far from a clean break for a variety of reasons. It’s not simple since of course there were many disputes among Arminians on how to understand free will and foreknowledge. They may have been mostly united against Calvinist determinism but they typically were uncomfortable moving towards what today we’d call Open Theism. Yet this place of God and ontological freedom really becomes a topic of debate prior to Darwin. Some even argue it makes Darwin possible although I’m just not knowledgeable of that era of modernism to say whether that’s accurate.

    Comment by Clark — October 4, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

  13. Well the doctrine of makers knowledge hit it high water mark during the 17th and early 18th century with Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Vico all making explicit use of the idea. It existed before but it really took off in the early modern period. I’m not sure that we could ever attribute a long term decline to the idea.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 4, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

  14. Right, but I guess what I’m saying is that it was important in early modernism but then the success of Newtonian mechanics took it’s place. Darwin’s big move was making something that took non-determinism seriously in the scientific sphere. Indeterminism was there in early modernism but never really became significantly in terms of scientific discourse. While that originates with this idea of creation by God along lines of necessitism it comes to take a life of its own even when debates in theology were starting to shake things up more. (And again I think we have to be careful not to overestimate the place of Arminianism but we can also underestimate it)

    Again though I’ll fully confess to not knowing the connection of all this to Darwin beyond claims I’ve read. I know his religious background was more Unitarian. But most Unitarians of the era tended towards a deism that partook heavily of what you can the theology of Maker. That is they saw the universe as rational.

    Comment by Clark — October 4, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

  15. I think you’re putting the kart before the horse. People did not give up makers knowledge and divine natural law because of Newton’s success. Rather, they gave it up primarily because of Hume (who explicitly attacked it) and Darwin (who non-explicitly put the final nail in the coffin), and then fell back upon the success of Newton as a means of salvaging the Truth (with a capital T) of the new science.

    It was at this point that science stopped being an “art” in the sense of being artificial and proclaimed itself to be something less contingent. Art is not contingent – so the argument went- if our minds are made in the image of the creator. Once the creator was dropped from the story, there were problems with the claim to absolute truth rather than mere interpretation.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 5, 2016 @ 3:45 am

  16. No you missed what I was saying. Newton’s success took the basic ontological principles that came from ‘maker’s knowledge’ and codified them in mechanical determinism. The clockwork universe. Even radically new theories like Maxwell’s laws still really are operating in that metaphor of a clockwork universe. The metaphor shifts from the universe being reasonable in the sense of thought and construction and shifts to being mechanical while maintaining the same basic ontological universals. But once you have the clockwork universe you can keep the ontology while rejecting the religion.

    However even at the time this is all happening the free will debate with its ontological implications is preparing the ground for Darwin. (Even though, as I noted, Darwin comes out of an Unitarian tradition that largely adopted the maker knowledge type of deism)

    Comment by Clark — October 5, 2016 @ 7:45 am

  17. To add, the big ontological shift is really the dropping of Aristotle’s teleology. With a maker’s universe even if conceived of in more deist like conceptions such as with Platonism or Hegelianism that element of teleology is still present. With Newtonian determinism the clockwork universe drops that teleology. That’s an important intermediate step for Darwin. I think Arminianism also limits teleology a lot as well although obviously there people are far more conflicted due to other theological demands.

    So the story is really how culturally intellectuals come to drop the teleology that was so part and parcel of Christianity and Aristotle/Plato.

    When Nietzsche says God is dead, more so than anything else it’s this teleological conception he is getting at that remained in a lot of German idealism. Admittedly he is able to say that because of the place of Darwin in science.

    The mid 19th century is interesting precisely because of this battle over teleology. The more Hegelian movements like Marxism maintain it. The more scientific movements reject it.

    Comment by Clark — October 5, 2016 @ 7:52 am

  18. To add, I’m not disputing the movements that de-theologized science like Hume who undeniably is important. Indeed Scottish Realism as a whole is tremendously important. Just that it’s the ability to think in purely mechanical terms which Newton enables (along with the rising prevalence of complex mechanical devices like clocks) that shifts the metaphor.

    Comment by Clark — October 5, 2016 @ 8:00 am

  19. Sorry that I haven’t been reading all that closely. My wife and I just moved, so we’re still settling in.

    Again, not having read very closely (sorry), it seems like our differences largely derive from our different questions. I am more interested in how these philosophers legitimized their claims to Truth to society at large and do not care much at all about “realism”, “nominalism” or any other such problems that are only relevant to the humanistic 1%. If you could unpack the social relevance of these positions for the other 99%, I would be very interested. (This is what I was trying to do – but my post was already too long.)

    Newton and Locke claimed to be gaining equal access for all us mini-gods to God’s morally binding laws. This is the reason why the general public was supposed to care what these men had to say (this is much more so for Newton than for Locke who’s claims had much more practical relevance for the average Joe).

    I was pointing out that 1) science was originally ID incarnate, so to suggest that ID is, by definition, not science is patently false, and 2) once we throw out all the religious baggage that these people presupposed, there is no reason at all to think that 1) science is anything more than one interpretation among many or that 2) science has any claim on our attention, let alone our assent.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 7, 2016 @ 4:45 am

  20. The significance of realism is more or less a debate about what part our mind and culture contributes to an idea or structure and what part is “out there in the world.” I suspect you wouldn’t care as much since I get the strong sense you don’t think realism is really possible. That is all there is are the mind components and our social power plays over who’s ideas ‘win.’ From a scientific perspective though I think it’s quite important to distinguish natural kinds from social construction. Otherwise you end up with what tends to happen in gender studies in how they look at scientific claims. They are judged not in terms of empirical success but social success (in terms of their political aims).

    So put an other way, it’s disagreeing with ‘there is no reason to think science is anything more than one interpretation among many.’

    Comment by Clark — October 10, 2016 @ 7:51 am

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