Article ID: CBB030705647

From the Logic of Ideas to Active-Matter Materialism: Priestley’s Lockean Problem and Early Neurophilosophy (2020)


Empiricism is a claim about the contents of the mind: its classic slogan is nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu, “there is nothing in the mind (intellect, understanding) which is not first in the senses.” As such, it is not a claim about the fundamental nature of the world as material. I focus here on in an instance of what one might term the materialist appropriation of empiricism. One major component in the transition from a purely epistemological claim about the mind and its contents to an ontological claim about the nature of the world is the new focus on brain–mind relations in the eighteenth century. Here I examine a Lockean trajectory as exemplified in Joseph Priestley’s 1777 Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit. However, Locke explicitly ruled out that his inquiry into the logic of ideas amounted to a “physical consideration of the mind.” What does it mean, then, for Priestley to present himself as continuing a Lockean tradition, while presenting mental processes as tightly identified with “an organical structure such as that of the brain” (although he was not making a strict identity claim as we might understand it, post-Smart and Armstrong)? One issue here is that of Priestley’s source of “empirical data” regarding the correlation and indeed identification of mental and cerebral processes. David Hartley’s theory in his 1749 Observations on Man was, as is well known, republished in abridged form by Priestley, but he discards Hartley’s “vibratory neurophysiology” while retaining the associationist framework, although not because he disagreed with the former. Yet Hartley was, at the very least, strongly agnostic about metaphysical issues (and it is difficult to study these authors while bracketing off religious considerations). One could see Locke and Hartley as articulating programs for the study of the mind which were more or less naturalistic (more strongly so in Hartley’s case) while avoiding “materialism” per se; in contrast, Priestley bit the (materialist) bullet. In this paper I examine Priestley’s appropriation and reconstruction of this “micro-tradition,” while emphasizing its problems.

Citation URI

Similar Citations

Chapter Dybikowski, James; (2008)
Joseph Priestley, Metaphysician and Philosopher of Religion (/isis/citation/CBB000760374/)

Article Paola Rumore; (2020)
Priestley in Germany (/isis/citation/CBB683415681/)

Article Charles T. Wolfe; Falk Wunderlich; (2020)
Joseph Priestley: Materialism and the Science of the Mind. Foundations, Controversies, Reception (/isis/citation/CBB161350544/)

Article Udo Thiel; (2020)
Priestley and Kant on Materialism (/isis/citation/CBB616453784/)

Book Monod, Paul Kléber; (2013)
Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (/isis/citation/CBB001213599/)

Chapter Taylor, Michael W.; (2014)
Herbert Spencer and the Metaphysical Roots of Evolutionary Naturalism (/isis/citation/CBB001202316/)

Book Thomson, Ann; (2008)
Bodies of Thought: Science, Religion, and the Soul in the Early Enlightenment (/isis/citation/CBB000952069/)

Article Falk Wunderlich; (2020)
Priestley on Materialism and the Essence of God (/isis/citation/CBB064750676/)

Book J. R. Milton; G. A. J. Rogers; (2021)
John Locke: Drafts for the Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Volume II: Draft C (/isis/citation/CBB488101486/)

Book Amanda Jo Goldstein; (2017)
Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (/isis/citation/CBB350652099/)

Article Falk Wunderlich; (2016)
Materialism in Late Enlightenment Germany: A Neglected Tradition Reconsidered (/isis/citation/CBB824246743/)

Chapter Stephen Gaukroger; (2014)
Empiricism as a Development of Experimental Natural Philosophy (/isis/citation/CBB971325669/)

Chapter Domski, Mary; (2012)
Locke's Qualified Embrace of Newton's Principia (/isis/citation/CBB001500340/)

Book Filippo Sani; (2022)
La lettera critica sull’educazione di Charles-Marie de La Condamine (/isis/citation/CBB871805894/)

Article Peter R. Anstey; (2016)
The Coherence of Cohesion in the Later Leibniz (/isis/citation/CBB522015706/)

Chapter Wykes, David L.; (2008)
Joseph Priestly, Minister and Teacher (/isis/citation/CBB000760372/)

Book Johnson, Steven; (2008)
The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (/isis/citation/CBB000954683/)

Book Priestley, Joseph; Rutt, J. T.; (2002)
Memoirs and Correspondence of Joseph Priestley (/isis/citation/CBB000330957/)

Article Eshet, Dan; (2001)
Rereading Priestley: Science at the Intersection of Theology and Politics (/isis/citation/CBB000102219/)

Authors & Contributors
Wunderlich, Falk
Anstey, Peter R.
Domski, Mary
Dybikowski, James
Eshet, Dan
Gaukroger, Stephen W.
Intellectual History Review
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
History of Science
Oxford University Press
Riverhead Books
University of Chicago Press
Yale University Press
Edizioni Anicia
Science and religion
Philosophy and religion
Priestley, Joseph
Locke, John
Newton, Isaac
Blake, William
Boyle, Robert
Darwin, Erasmus
Time Periods
18th century
17th century
19th century
Great Britain
United States

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment