Skip to content

Happy Birthday Joseph Butler

May 18, 2016


Years and years and years and years ago, when I was constructing my PhD thesis, I devoted an entire first chapter to the very great Anglican theologian Joseph Butler (1692-1752).  The relevance of Butler to my overall thesis was probably a bit of a stretch even at the time.  I sort of didn’t care  – I just wanted to write about him.

As it happens, most of my students these days these days reference the philosophy of J. Butler in most of their more theoretically informed essays.   Just not my J. Butler.

Interestingly, both Butlers were (are) committed to interrogating identity politics.  Had I but world enough and time I would write a little book about the intriguing intellectual continuities between the J. Butlers.

Even as a post-grad, I had some trouble joining up Butler with Cowper.  And when it came to publishing my Cowper book, Butler pretty much bit the dust altogether.  In the decades since then, I’ve never managed to reapply Butler or publish anything about him.  Butler is on a back burner so far back he’s in a different kitchen altogether.

Butler deserves to be remembered if only as one of the main intellectual influences on one of the greatest philosophers of all time – David Hume.  Hume’s famous “billiard ball” critique of causality is derived in part from Butler and it was from Butler that Hume evolved his sense of “custom” and “constant conjunction” to explain how we deal in practice with the fact that we can’t really prove that any one thing actually “causes” any other thing.  Or as Butler put it in Analogy of Religion (1736):

    Thus, a man’s having observed the ebb and flow of the tide today, affords some sort of presumption, though the lowest imaginable, that it may happen again tomorrow; but the observation of this event for many days, and months, and ages together, as it has been observed by mankind, give us full assurance that it will.

It was passages like this that made Hume think of sharing some of (carefully edited) work with Butler, the only contemporary theologian Hume could bring himself to respect.  Butler was a very careful writer – perhaps too careful – as the convoluted syntax of his own “advertisement” to his own Analogy evidences:

    … thus much at least, will be found, not taken for granted, but proved, that any reasonable man, who will thoroughly consider the matter may be as much assured, as his of his own being, that it is not, however, so clear a case, that there is nothing in it.

Butler was not a combative man, and not given to easy point-scoring.  When his prose is difficult, it’s because he felt his subject matter was too important to be spuriously clarified.  In his Analogy, his important Sermons, and his fascinating Dissertations on Personal Identity and the Nature of Virtue, Butler treats the idea of the self in terms of a kind of chain of continuity:

  Every person is conscious that he is now the same person he was as far back as his resemblance reaches: since when any one reflects upon an past action of his own, he is just as certain of the person who did that action, namely himself, as he is certain that the action was at all done.

Identity is a concept that is not continuous with the physical body since its sense persists long after all the cells in the human body are replaced.  Selfhood is not diminished by the loss of a limb or by a haircut.  Memory is central to selfhood and consciousness – a notion that is being eagerly explored by the writers of Westworld.

Butler meanwhile, takes this sense of selfhood as continuity further in a sequence of sermons which make a remarkable intervention into the field of ethics then dominated by pessimists such as Hobbes and Mandeville and the optimists such as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.  For Butler, the idea of whether virtue is ultimately “selfish” or whether selflessness was a necessary part of virtue ignores the fact that a sense of self itself is an eminently social concept.

   Men are so much one body, that in a peculiar manner they feel for each other, shame, sudden danger, resentment, honour, prosperity, distress; one or another, or all of these, from the social nature in general, from benevolence, upon the occasion of natural relation, acquaintance; each of these being distinct cements of society.  And behaviour, is the speculative absurdity of considering ourselves as single and independent, as having nothing in our nature which has respect to our fellow creatures, reduced to action and practices.  And this is the same absurdity , as to suppose a hand, or any part to have natural respect to any other, or the the whole body.

When bereaved people say they feel they’ve lost a limb, they are expressing an important truth.  An individual human being is not an atomised “self” but rather just one field of barely stabilised drives and imperatives.  An individual human being is an inadequate “self” – incapable of expressing a satisfying sense of identity.  A sociopath is therefore not “selfish” but rather someone with a truncated, wounded, and undeveloped sense of self.  Nor is a “social” sense an attribute which an individual “has” or is “born with” but rather sociality – the ability to expand circles of identification beyond the most immediate primal drive –  is a prerequisite for any possibility or imagining of self.

Societies are not harmonious.  Neither are individuals.  Both social and psychological harmony requires the balancing and reconciliation of jarring impulses.  But any psychology that treats the individual as an completely discrete and autonomous bounded field of study is doomed to fail.

Butler’s contribution to ethics is at least as intellectually impressive as that of Shaftesbury, or Hutcheson, or Hume or Smith.  William Gladstone, oddly enough, at the very end of his life put out an edition of Butler.  Butler refused to foresee the sceptical logic of his own critique of causality and Hume pushed Butlerian logic in a direction Butler would have recoiled from.  In terms of Ethics, however, Butler offers a credible and engaging response to problems posed by moralists who are far more famous than he was.

Butler does not separate moral from intellectual endeavour – every intellectual wrestling represents and ethical conflict.  Best of all, Butler loved doubt, because Butler recognised doubt as engagement.  Doubt is incompatible with cynicism or complacency…

… doubting necessarily implies some degree of evidence for that which we doubt.

Personally, Joseph Butler was a bit of a fusspot.  A querulous latitudinarian Anglican Bishop engaging with bigger personalities than he was using far too many subordinate clauses.

I sort of love him and will wish him happy birthday and to him I will return.  Promise.

P.S.  Joseph Butler was Bishop of Bristol, and I discovered the other day that I used to know the new Bishop of Bristol.  So there.






From → Uncategorized

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: