- The Metaphysics of Henry More by Jasper Reid
As Jasper Reid argues in his book, there are plenty of reasons for taking More’s philosophy seriously, both as an example of early modern metaphysics and a speculative effort in its own terms. More’s metaphysics was experimental, fictional, and theological at once, for it deliberately and passionately engages with the study of nature, stories of preternatural apparitions and the mysteries of revealed religion (creation, Trinity, the Incarnation, transubstantiation, redemption). More’s philosophical inquiry feeds on experiments, stories, and visions, and these become an organic part of his metaphysical equipment. This, of course, was a hazardous and edgy undertaking, which no doubt contributed to the bad reputation associated with the style of More’s philosophizing. Perhaps due to his poetic vein (the question of its aesthetic value is not relevant here), More was prone to linguistic exuberance. A quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the name of More is not rarely associated with neologisms and all sorts of verbal creations. Unsurprisingly, his metaphysics is dotted with technical terms of his own invention: ‘indiscerpibility,’ ‘spissitude,’ ‘holenmerianism,’ ‘hylarchic,’ and ‘biusianic’ (to give a few examples).
Reid is at his best when he shows the reader the extent to which More’s mind was keen to explore the farthest frontiers of the human mind and able to test the limits of intelligible reality. This, however, never happened to the detriment of sensible experience or by circumventing the boundaries of ordinary language. Indeed, there is a sense of intuitive immediacy, of almost a literal kind, in the way in which More handled the most abstract ideas in his philosophical arguments (God, space, the journey of the individual soul from and to God). In this, More’s boldest piece of metaphysical prowess consists in an unconventional theory of spiritual extension, understood as an indivisible, penetrable, and active substratum. The notion of spiritual extension, on which Reid published a groundbreaking article (“Henry More on Material and Spiritual Extension,” Dialogue 42 : 531–58), can be taken as the signature of More’s metaphysics. The universe is a plenum, a seamless continuum of spatial energy, where each single soul is always in a state of vital union with a corresponding unit of congealed (“inspissated”) matter (described as the “fluid possibility” of divine creation), be that matter an earthly, aerial, or ethereal vehicle. In this universe, nature is imagination at its primordial level, sheer productivity detached from a perceiving and thinking subject and yet informed by purposeful guidelines, almost automatic in its modus operandi (“as if you should conceive an Artificers’ imagination separate from the artificer, and left alone to work by it self without animadversion” [323, quoting from More’s philosophical Poems]). This notion of nature is what More came to call the “hylarchic spirit,” one of the most controversial items of his metaphysics, but the one through [End Page 502] which he especially demonstrates his willingness to provide an up-to-date consideration of the material world, using the results of both experimentalism and mechanism.
More was a philosopher abreast with the latest trends in science, philosophy, and religion. He was one of the first in England to react to Galileo, Descartes, and Spinoza. In many contemporary endeavors in the field of philosophy, More detected a clear tendency toward materialism. In a way, his philosophy can be seen as a lifetime attempt to address the great challenge launched by Hobbes’s contention that an immaterial substance is a self-contradictory notion. Given the many contacts that More established with a large number of contemporaries (famous and less famous) and the profusion of references that each of his treatises contains, his works are like conceptual pop-up books, in which almost every page develops a set of contextual and historical information that encapsulates the intellectual climate of the time. And yet, more than for any historical, antiquarian, doxographic, and exegetic reasons, More deserves to be studied as a philosopher in his own right.
Reid’s book is...