- Absolute Time: Rifts in Early Modern British Metaphysics by Emily Thomas
Emily Thomas’s book explores conceptions of space and time among various British early modern philosophers, with special emphasis placed on More, Barrow, Newton, Locke, and Clarke. One of the work’s strengths is its treatment of a number of neglected thinkers, such as John Jackson and Edmund Law, in addition to Clarke. Despite its title, the book treats issues in the metaphysics of space as much as it does time, and Thomas provides an engaging tour of a host of current debates in these fields. On the whole, Thomas’s book contains a number of productive discussions, and it could prove a catalyst for further investigations into early modern spatiotemporal metaphysics. Unfortunately, the book also advances many questionable interpretations of the historical texts, as well as a critical misapplication of the absolute/relational distinction, and these problems undermine many of the author’s principal arguments and conclusions. Only a brief analysis can be provided, however, and thus the following discussion will be limited to several of her key interpretations of spatial ontology. [End Page 557]
Following Jasper Reid and Robert Pasnau, Thomas argues that Newton and Clarke accepted holenmerism, the (textually unsupported) view that God’s presence in space is “whole in every part” but not actually extended. Thomas’s own contribution strives to defend holenmerism in the context of Newton’s hypothesis (in De gravitatione) where bodies are envisioned as movable properties in God’s extension (which thus implies that bodily and God’s extension are identical, contra holenmerism). Thomas responds that “the structure of space depends on the bodies that can be created in it” (124), but there is no textual support given for this contention. Moreover, Newton specifically argues that bodily shapes are “not a new production of that figure with respect to space, but only a corporeal representation of it” (Philosophical Writings, Cambridge: 2004, 22), so bodies do not change space’s structure.
More problematic is Thomas’s interpretation of Barrow and Locke, whom she classifies as modal relationists, the anti-absolutist view that space is merely the relation among bodies and possible bodies. Thomas references Gordon Belot’s work on modal relationism in her analysis (86, 125), but Belot is clear that modal relationism cannot admit the possibility of the world’s unison motion, since that scenario supports absolutism (Geometric Possibility, Oxford: 2011, 166). Barrow and Locke admit that possibility, however, with Locke concluding that if one can “frame in his mind, clearly and distinctly, the place of the universe, he will be able to tell us whether it moves or stands still in the undistinguishable inane of infinite space” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.xiii.10), and Barrow admits the same (Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, 1734, 172)—which Thomas acknowledges (87). Thomas claims the absolutist option is not endorsed in II.xiii.10 (146), but that misreads Locke’s discussion, and it also misses the point: a uniform motion of the universe is an impossible scenario under modal relationism, but Locke allows that possibility, although he admits that this possible motion is indeterminable given his brand of empiricism. The conflation of modal relationism and absolutism is also evident in her claim that Barrow’s account of time, which is normally interpreted as absolutist, does not require actual bodies (89).
Indeed, given Thomas’s own classification, Barrow and Locke fit her “weak absolutism” category, the view that space depends on God but is independent of body (10). Locke contrasts a relationist interpretation of space with his God-based alternatives (Essay, II.xiii.27), and he openly endorses the latter: for instance, he states that we cannot understand “the boundless invariable oceans of duration and expansion, which comprehend in them all finite beings, and in their full extent belong only to the Deity” (II.xv.8)—crucially, Thomas never mentions this passage. Barrow, too, links space directly to God: “God can create other Worlds beyond this, . . . there will therefore be given some Space wherein they may be placed and...