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Response to Review no. 896

I thank John Wright for his detailed presentation of my book and his efforts to come to grips with an approach with which he clearly has difficulties. He would apparently have preferred me to have written a different type of book, and perhaps has read a different book from the one I thought I had written. I would chiefly like to rectify some misunderstandings, which may be due to the fact that I unfortunately left him ‘lost in details’. My aim was not to provide a general analysis of doctrines of the soul in the 17th and 18th centuries but to recount in its complexity the story of a particular debate, how echoes of it circulated, and how it fed into another one in very different circumstances – which help to explain the different form taken by arguments in France against an immaterial and immortal soul. This story is followed as far as the mid 18th century, my final chapter providing indications of later ramifications rather than looking at them in detail.

The misunderstandings evident in Wright’s review concern primarily what he identifies in his discussion of my second chapter as my ‘thesis’, which is apparently different from my ‘central thesis’ referred to at the beginning of his piece. I am not quite sure what he thinks this thesis is, but his presentation of this particular chapter mistakenly claims that its ‘central argument’ is ‘political’, although this ‘political analysis’ is then inexplicably ‘dropped’ in chapter three. In fact the pages Wright cites as arguing that the Latitudinarian bishops attacked the views of materialists from political motives discuss essentially the High Church heresy hunt, directed largely against Socinianism, and attack on occasional conformity. This chapter does not defend the somewhat simplistic view that the opposition to those who rejected an immaterial soul was motivated by political considerations; instead it attempts to set the political, theological and intellectual scene, including the confrontation within the Church of England, against which the debate about the soul took place in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. I am somewhat mystified as to why Wright thinks that the fact ‘that Whigs were both defenders and critics of the view that the soul is material’ should invalidate my analysis. My aim was to show the complexity of theological debates in these years, and in the section entitled ‘The Problems of Mechanism’ I look at the ‘intellectual reasons’ for believing in the doctrine of an immaterial soul and the theological reasons for Locke’s position in the debate with Stillingfleet. I was also trying to provide a more nuanced interpretation of the Boyle Lectures, and should point out that the sentence Wright quotes from p. 59 refers not, as he implies, to the question of the soul but to the role of reason. Similar remarks apply to the ‘aim’ that he sees me pursuing in chapter four: the quotation on p. 97 that he mentions was provided in order to indicate that the question needs to be investigated rather than taken as read – although I admit I could have put it more clearly. Indeed, as my discussion shows, mortalism (it is difficult to count Dodwell among the ‘key defenders of materialism’) could take different forms, and the motivations of Coward and Layton would appear to be primarily theological. As I wrote on p. 133, there is no reason for supposing that Coward wanted to undermine the Church. In this chapter as elsewhere the question of active matter looms large, as Wright recognises, but he seems to be attributing to me sweeping claims that I do not actually make. I invite him to re-read the passages concerning Baxter that he refers to (and those concerning Descartes that he does not mention), and the section on David Hartley in chapter six. Concerning the discussion in the latter chapter, I would like to make clear that the responsibility for the surprising statement about ‘Diderot’s far more egalitarian determinism’ is entirely Wright’s, as on p. 232 I refer to Diderot’s belief in natural inequality.

On the whole, he seems to be reading into my book a claim (what he no doubt sees as my ‘thesis’) about the link between materialism and political views which is, on the contrary, undermined by my study. What I ‘acknowledge’ according to him at the end of my book – namely the difficulty of connecting specific political commitments to a materialistic conception of humans – while not being its central theme, seems to me to be illustrated throughout. A more careful reading would perhaps provide ‘a clearer view’ of both my arguments and ‘the political and social issues thought to be at stake’.