The Philosophy of Bishop Stillingfleet
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The Philosophy of Bishop Stillingfleet RICHARD H. POPKIN EDWARD STILLINGFLEET(1635-1699), the Bishop of Worcester, is known only as Locke's opponent. Although he was a leading figure in seventeenth century intellectual history, he is now almost completely forgotten.1 He is only mentioned once in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy as the first person to write against Deism. 2 His texts have been ditlicult to locate, and have hardly been studied. Although Locke's answers to him comprise a large volume in Locke's Works, little interest has been shown in Stillingfleet's side of the story. His letters to Locke were last printed in the 1710 edition of his works. (I am now publishing a photoreproduction edition of the attacks on Locke, and a photoreproduction of the six volumes of his works is due soon.) In spite of this neglect, Stillingfleet was a quite interesting figure. He was not a simple moss-back, a religious reactionary, fighting progressive theories like Locke's. Rather, he was trying to maintain some basis for religious belief in the face of the intellectual upheavals in the seventeenth century. For over forty years he struggled against a wide range of philosophical and theological developments of the time that he saw as leading to scepticism and infidelity. Stillingfleet attempted to defend the reasonableness of Christianity in an intellectual world dominated by the new science, the new philosophy, the religious wars, the rise of irreligion, Bible criticism, and Spinozism. In the new scientific, philosophical and theological context he sought to show how an intelligent, reasonable man could maintain his religious views as more probable than their denials. And, he tried to show the perils involved in various new lines of thought. As he wrote to Locke, "in an age wherein the Mysteries of Faith are so much exposed by the Promoters of Scepticism and Infidelity, it is a thing of dangerous consequence to start such new methods of Certainty as are apt to leave men's minds more doubtJull than before." 3 Stillingfleet criticized various new views of thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke, and tried to show that they were unreasonable and x No section is devoted to Stillingfleet in Charles de R~musat's Histoire de la Philosophie en Angleterre depuis Bacon jusqu'gt Locke, 2 vols. (Paris, 1875). He is of course briefly treated by Locke scholars, but only in relation to Locke. 2 Ernest C. Mossner, "Deism," Encyclopedia of Philosophy ('New York, 1967), II, 328. 3 Edward StiUingfleet,The Bishop o~ Worcester's Answer to Mr. Locke's Letter (London, 1697), pp. 37-38. [303] 304 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY destructive. Instead he advocated a commonsense philosophy incorporating Aristotelian and Stoic elements, as an adequate basis for a reasonable view of the world. Stillingflect's critique of empiricism, in its Epicurean and Lockean forms, revealed some of the basic difficulties in this emerging philosophy. His own views in some ways foreshadowed the counter-philosophy that Thomas Reid was to offer a century later against the full-blown empirical scepticism of Hume. And Hume's essay "Of Miracles" can, I believe, be seen as the reductio ad absurdum of Stillingfleet's commonsense philosophy. In this paper I shall try to sketch out Bishop Stilhngfleet's philosophy, and to indicate the role it played in the history of British empirical thought. The Bishop's attack on Locke only occurred at the very end of his long and fruitful intellectual career. (He died during the debate in 1699.) To appreciate why he was so concerned with exposing the sceptical and irreligious tendencies in Locke's thought, and the potential conflicts between empiricism and the tenets of Judeo-Christianity, one has to look at his entire theological and philosophical career. Stillingfleet was one of the most erudite divines of the seventeenth century, a leading member of the brilliant group of Anglican theologians, including, besides himself, William Chillingworth, Bishop John Wilkins (the founder of the Royal Society), and Archbishop John Tillotson.4 Stillingfleet was extremely sensitive to the fundamental issues being raised in the religious, scientific and philosophical debates of the time, and tried, like his fellow Anglican divines, to develop a commonsense semirational, semiempirical defense...


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