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JOSEPH FLETCHER Leibniz, the Infinite, and Blake’s Early Metaphysics W ILLIAM BLAKE’S ENGAGEMENT WITH PHILOSOPHICAL DEBATES IS Evi­ dent as early as An Island in the Moon (1784), with its cast of charac­ ters that includes Suction the Epicurean, Sipsop the Pythagorean, and Quid the Cynic,1 and his self-conception as a philosopher is apparent in his an­ notations to the 1788 edition ofJohann Kaspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man: “we who are philosophers ought not to call the Staminal Virtues of Hu­ manity by the same name that we call the omissions of intellect springing from poverty” (E 601).2 Moreover, his first illuminated books are not po­ etry, but philosophical tractates that address crucial topics in eighteenthcentury metaphysics and epistemology.3 This paper contends that Blake’s critique and emendation of John Locke’s atomistic empiricism in those tractates, particularly in There is No Natural Religion (1788), bear striking similarities to Gottfried Leibniz’s criticisms of Locke, as articulated in his New Essays on Human Understanding (1765), and the ontology Leibniz pre­ sents as a corrective to Locke’s Newtonian metaphysics. Both Leibniz and Blake read Locke’s philosophy—which presumed the universe to be com­ posed of solid, inert corpuscles—as allied with that of Isaac Newton, with whom Leibniz famously debated via Newton’s representative, Samuel Clarke.4 Beyond their shared rejection of Newton’s ontology, I find the metaphysics ofLeibniz and Blake to be analogous in several aspects, partic1 . David Erdman claims that Blake self-identifies as Quid in the work. See Prophet against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times, third ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1977), 95, 97. 2. Unless otherwise specified, references to Blake’s text are from Erdman’s edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Anchor, 1988); I use the conventional abbreviation of “E” followed by the page number in the text. 3. In later works Blake’s philosophical inclinations are signaled by the fact that his famous triumvirate of enemies, Bacon, Newton, and Locke, are not poets or painters. 4. The exchange concerning metaphysics between the two men was published in English in 1717 as A Collection of Papers, which Passed between the Late Learned Mr. Leibnitz, and Dr. Clarke, in the Years 1715 and 1716 (London, 1717), Eighteenth Century Collections On­ line, http://www.gale.com/primary-sources/eighteenth-century-collections-online, accessed 16 December 2013. Subsequent citations to this work are cited in the text by page. SiR, 56 (Summer 2017) 129 130 JOSEPH FLETCHER ularly insofar as both Leibniz’s theory of monads and Blake’s early work belong in a panpsychist tradition, which posits an infinite mind-like nature to all material beings.5 Blake does not merely imitate Leibnizian ontology, however, and considering his divergences from Leibniz’s system allows for a clearer glimpse of Blake’s unique metaphysical position as developed in the tractates and as elaborated in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), wherein he advances not just panpsychism, but a more radical monistic version of pantheism, which denies the existence of transcendent, immate­ rial beings and conflates God with the material universe.6 Just as Blake’s artistic vision evolved, so did his metaphysics, and thus my focus here is on Blake’s early works, wherein I find the most analogies to Leibniz. I stress the term “analogies,” since there is no evidence that Blake read Leibniz directly—I am not claiming the latter as a direct source. Nev­ ertheless, it is hard to imagine that Blake would have been completely un­ aware of him, given that the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence was arguably the most famous philosophical exchange of the eighteenth century, as well as the fact that Joseph Priestley and Emanuel Swedenborg—both of whom Blake certainly read—refer to Leibniz in their works.7 Whatever his aware5 . David Skrbina, who traces the philosophical tradition of panpsychism to the preSocratics , writes, “Panpsychism, roughly speaking, is the view that all things have mind or a mind-like quality.” See Panpsychism in the West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 2. All objects have a sentient inner experience, according...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 129-155
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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