Monday, December 26, 2005

Piety of Attention

This is mostly for my own use; I've wanted to work up a paper on this topic for a while, but the preliminary abstract and outline were tucked away, so I keep forgetting it. I hope that by having it up in my weblog I'll be more likely to do something with it. For the Romantic Passion allusion, see the fragment of Astell's later that I posted here. The 'narrow topic' allusion is to a comment that was made by someone who read an earlier version of the abstract; he said it was an unusually narrow topic, which I found funny since the topic is a general one about Mary Astell's entire corpus. (It was even funnier given that I had recently delivered a paper at the Hume Society, which was well received, half of which was devoted to how to interpret one word in one sentence of Hume's Treatise 1.4.2. No one suggested that that was a narrow topic.)

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Courting Truth with Romantic Passion and the Piety of Attention: On the Relation Between Astell and Malebranche
Brandon Watson

When we look at the various ways in which Malebranche influenced thinkers in early modern Britain, the issues that naturally tend to be considered are epistemology and metaphysics. It would be a mistake, however, to think this is the only way in which Malebranche had an impact on British thought. In this paper I consider another sort of influence by looking more closely at Mary Astell. One interpretation of Mary Astell’s relation to Malebranchean themes and ideas can be characterized like this. A major issue Astell takes up from Malebranche, through Norris, is the vision in God thesis, in which human cognition consists of illumination by divine ideas; she endorses it early in her work, but becomes more circumspect in her later works. This interpretation, which seems to be common, is initially plausible. The Letters Concerning Divine Love, her earliest philosophical work (co-authored with the ‘English Malebranche’ himself, John Norris), are very Malebranchean in tone, and Astell's epistemology does at times draw something from Malebranche. This interpretation, however, seems to be wrong. The Letters, although in some sense Malebranchean, are not really epistemological at all, and there is good reason to think the Malebranchean hints in the epistemology of later works are simply terminological. In acknowledging Astell's influences we should begin with her distinctive originality. Astell accepts certain Malebranchean expressions not so much because she is Malebranchean but because she can see Malebranche as roughly Astellian; that is, Astell uses themes from Malebranche's philosophy because, and only because, they are both congenial to her own original mindset and useful for her particular rhetorical purposes. Further, the Malebranchean themes she most often uses are not epistemological at all; what she takes up is less a perspective on knowledge than resources for her own perspective on love. However odd it may sound to modern ears, love is always the most important issue in Astell’s views, even where she touches on epistemology; her emphasis is therefore always ethical, even in her use of Malebranchean metaphysical and epistemological themes. (In this she is not far from Malebranche himself.) All of Astell's work can be seen as an outgrowth of her continual concern for the absolute importance of love for God and her continual resolve, in her words, to court truth with a kind of romantic passion. Recognition of this is key for both an accurate interpretation of how Astell is related to her philosophical influence and a complete understanding of the sort of impact Malebranche had on philosophy in Britain.

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The ‘Narrow Topic’ of the Piety of Attention: Astell’s Appropriation of Malebranche

I. Introductory Paragraph
a. Narrow Topic story
b. Thesis: When Astell makes use of Malebranche, it is primarily because he shares with her a philosophical approach that gives ethics a primacy over epistemology. Her use of Malebranche, in other words, is an effect of this approach.

II. The Piety of Attention
a. Malebranche’s Epistemology
1. Interior Teacher
2. Universal Reason
3. Universal Being (vision in God)
4. Universal Good
b. Ethical Primacy in Malebranche
1. Order and Idolatry
2. Attention and Piety

III. Astell’s Appropriation of Malebranchean Terminology
a. Malebranchean Themes in SPII
b. Comparison of SPII and Prior Works
(Basic Points here: Astell never unequivocally commits herself to the vision in God thesis. The vision in God thesis, however, is even in Malebranche merely an articulation of a deeper doctrine, that of Universal Reason or the Interior Teacher. Astell appears to share this deeper doctrine with Norris and Malebranche both; when she shows approval of the vision in God thesis, it is always as ‘commendable for piety’.)

IV. Courting Truth with a Kind of Romantic Passion
a. Ethical Primacy in Astell
b. Thoughts on Astell’s Relation to Malebranche

V. Conclusion

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