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Joseph Glanvill

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Joseph Glanvill FRS (1636 – 4 November 1680) was an English writer, philosopher, and clergyman. Not himself a scientist, he has been called "the most skillful apologist of the virtuosi", or in other words the leading propagandist for the approach of the English natural philosophers of the later 17th century.[1] In 1661 he predicted "To converse at the distance of the Indes by means of sympathetic conveyances may be as natural to future times as to us is a literary correspondence."[2]

Joseph Glanvill, 1681 engraving by William Faithorne



He was raised in a strict Puritan household, and educated at Oxford University, where he graduated B.A. from Exeter College in 1655, M.A. from Lincoln College in 1658.[3][4]

Glanvill was made vicar of Frome in 1662, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1664. He was rector of the Abbey Church at Bath from 1666 to 1680, and prebendary of Worcester in 1678.[4]

Works and views


He was a Latitudinarian thinker.[3] Latitudinarians generally respected the Cambridge Platonists, and Glanvill was friendly with and much influenced by Henry More, a leader in that group where Glanvill was a follower.[5] It was Glanvill's style to seek out a "middle way" on contemporary philosophical issues. His writings display a variety of beliefs that may appear contradictory. There is discussion of Glanvill's thought and method in Basil Willey's Seventeenth Century Background (1934).

Rationality and plain talking


He was the author of The Vanity of Dogmatizing (editions from 1661), which attacked scholasticism and religious persecution. It was a plea for religious toleration, the scientific method, and freedom of thought. It also contained a tale that became the material for Matthew Arnold's Victorian poem The Scholar Gipsy.[6]

Glanvill was at first a Cartesian, but shifted his ground a little, engaging with scepticism and proposing a modification in Scepsis Scientifica (1665), a revision and expansion of The Vanity of Dogmatizing. It started with an explicit "Address to the Royal Society"; the Society responded by electing him as Fellow. He continued in a role of spokesman for his type of limited sceptical approach, and the Society's production of useful knowledge.[7] As part of his programme, he argued for a plain use of language, undistorted as to definitions and reliance on metaphor.[8] He also advocated with Essay Concerning Preaching (1678) simple speech, rather than bluntness, in preaching, as Robert South did, with hits at nonconformist sermons; he was quite aware that the term "plain" takes a great deal of unpacking.[9]

In Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion (1676) he wrote a significant essay The Agreement of Reason and Religion, aimed at least in part at nonconformism. Reason, in Glanvill's view, was incompatible with being a dissenter.[10] In Antifanatickal Religion and Free Philosophy, another essay from the volume, he attacked the whole tradition of imaginative illumination in religion, going back to William Perkins, as founded on the denigration of reason.[11] This essay has the subtitle Continuation of the New Atlantis, and so connects with Francis Bacon's utopia. In an allegory, Glanvill placed the "Young Academicians", standing for the Cambridge Platonists, in the midst of intellectual troubles matching the religious upheavals seen in Britain. They coped by combining modern with ancient thought.[12] Glanvill thought, however, that the world cannot be deduced from reason alone. Even the supernatural cannot be solved from first principles and must be investigated empirically. As a result, Glanvill attempted to investigate supposed supernatural incidents through interviews and examination of the scene of the events.

The supernatural

The Witch of Endor: from the frontispiece to Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphatus

He is known also for Saducismus Triumphatus (1681), an enlargement of his Blow at Modern Sadducism (1668), which was published after Glanvill's death by Henry More. The work decried scepticism about the existence and supernatural power of witchcraft and contained a collection of seventeenth-century folklore about witches, including one of the earliest descriptions of a witch bottle. Joseph made known the existence of witchcraft.[13] It developed as a compendium (with multiple authorship) from Philosophical Considerations Touching the Being of Witches and Witchcraft (1666), addressed to Robert Hunt, a Justice of the Peace active from the 1650s against witches in Somerset (where Glanvill had his living at Frome); the 1668 version A Blow at Modern Sadducism promoted the view that the judicial procedures such as Hunt's court offered should be taken as adequate tests of evidence, because to argue otherwise was to undermine society at its legal roots.[14] His biographer Ferris Greenslet attributed Glanvill's interest in the topic to a house party in February 1665 at Ragley Hall, home of Lady Anne Conway, where other guests were More, Francis van Helmont, and Valentine Greatrakes.[15] In the matter of the Drummer of Tedworth, a report of poltergeist-type activity from 1662 to 1663, More and Glanvill had in fact already corresponded about it in 1663.[16]

Saducismus Triumphatus deeply influenced Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), written to justify the Salem witch trials in the following year. It was also taken as a target when Francis Hutchinson set down An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718); both books made much of reports from Sweden, and included by Glanvill as editor, which had experienced a moral panic about witchcraft after 1668.[17]

Jonathan Israel writes:

In England men such as Boyle, Henry More, Ralph Cudworth and Joseph Glanvill battled to stabilize belief in the existence and operations of apparitions and spirits as part of a wider drive to uphold religion, authority and tradition.[18]

These and others (Richard Baxter, Meric Casaubon, George Sinclair) believed that the tide of scepticism on witchcraft, setting in strongly by about 1670, could be turned back by research and sifting of the evidence.[19] Like More, Glanvill believed that the existence of spirits was well documented in the Bible, and that the denial of spirits and demons was the first step towards atheism. Atheism led to rebellion and social chaos and therefore had to be overcome by science and the activities of the learned. Israel cites a letter from More to Glanvill, from 1678 and included in Saducismus Triumphatus, in which he says that followers of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza use scepticism about "spirits and angels" to undermine belief in the Scripture mentioning them.

Saducismus Triumphatus was also translated into German in 1701.[20] The German edition was used extensively by Peter Goldschmidt in his similar work Verworffener Hexen- und Zauberer-Advocat (1705).[21] This work brought the Saducismus Triumphatus to the attention of Christian Thomasius, a philosopher, legal professor and sceptic in Halle. Over the next 21 years, Thomasius published translations of works by English sceptics: John Webster and Francis Hutchinson, as well as John Beaumont's An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, all of which were accompanied by vitriolic prefaces attacking Glanvill, Goldschmidt and their belief in witchcraft.[22]

Atheism, scepticism and Aristotle


His views did not prevent Glanvill himself being charged with atheism. This happened after he engaged in a controversy with Robert Crosse, over the continuing value of the work of Aristotle, the classical exponent of the middle way.[23] In defending himself and the Royal Society, in Plus ultra, he attacked current teaching of medicine (physick), and in return was attacked by Henry Stubbe, in The Plus Ultra reduced to a Non Plus (1670).[24] His views on Aristotle also led to an attack by Thomas White, the Catholic priest known as Blacklo. In A Praefatory Answer to Mr. Henry Stubbe (1671) he defined the "philosophy of the virtuosi" cleanly: the "plain objects of sense" to be respected, as the locus of as much certainty as was available; the "suspension of assent" absent adequate proof; and the claim for the approach as "equally an adversary to scepticism and credulity". To White he denied being a sceptic.[25][26] A contemporary view is that his approach was a species of rational fideism.[27]

His Philosophia Pia (1671) was explicitly about the connection between the "experimental philosophy" of the Royal Society and religion. It was a reply to a letter of Meric Casaubon, one of the Society's critics, to Peter du Moulin. He used it to cast doubt on the roots of enthusiasm, one of his main targets amongst the nonconformists.[28] It also dealt with criticisms of Richard Baxter, who was another accusing the Society of an atheist tendency.[29]


  1. ^ Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1973), p. 18.
  2. ^ Joseph Glanvill, Scepsis Scientifica, or The Vanity of Dogmatizing, chap. XXI, 1661 Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  3. ^ a b "The Galileo Project". Galileo.rice.edu. Retrieved 2016-03-03.
  4. ^ a b Concise Dictionary of National Biography
  5. ^ "Henry More (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 2016-03-03.
  6. ^ "The Scholar Gypsy: Tired of Knocking at Preferment's Door". Archived from the original on April 15, 2009. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  7. ^ Richard H. Popkin (editor), The Pimlico History of Western Philosophy (1999), pp. 360–2.
  8. ^ Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (1996), p. 235.
  9. ^ N. H. Keeble, The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-century England (1987), p. 244 and p. 246.
  10. ^ Richard Ashcraft, Latitudinarianism and Toleration, p. 157 in Richard W. F. Kroll, Richard Ashcraft, Perez Zagorin (editors), Philosophy, Science, and Religion in England, 1640–1700 (1991).
  11. ^ Jeremy Schmidt, Melancholy and the Care of the Soul: Religion, Moral Philosophy and Madness in Early Modern England (2007), p. 89.
  12. ^ Westfall, p. 116.
  13. ^ Burns, William E. (2003). Witch hunts in Europe and America : an encyclopedia. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313321426. OCLC 907016393.
  14. ^ Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (1999), p. 176.
  15. ^ Ferris Greenslet, Joseph Glanvill: A Study in English Thought and Letters of the Seventeenth Century (1900), p. 66.
  16. ^ "Hunter, Michael (2005) New light on the Drummer of Tedworth: conflicting narratives of witchcraft in Restoration England. Historical Research 78 (201)" (PDF). Eprints.bbk.ac.uk. pp. 311–353. ISSN 0950-3471. Retrieved 2016-03-03.
  17. ^ E. William Monter, Scandinavian Witchcraft in Perspective, pp. 432–3, in Bengt Ankarloo and Guctav Henningsen, Early Modern Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (1990).
  18. ^ Jonathan Israel, The Radical Englightenment (2001), p. 376.
  19. ^ Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1973), p. 690 and p. 693.
  20. ^ Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus Triumphatus, Oder Vollkommener und klarer Beweiß Von Hexen und Gespenstern Oder Geister-Erscheinungen (Hamburg: Liebernickel, 1701).
  21. ^ Verworffener Hexen- und Zauberer-Advocat
  22. ^ Julie Davies (2016) "German receptions of the works of Joseph Glanvill: philosophical transmissions from England to Germany in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century", Intellectual History Review, 26:1, 81-90, DOI:10.1080/17496977.2015.1032120
  23. ^ Nicholas H. Steneck (1981), "The Ballad of Robert Crosse and Joseph Glanvill" and the Background to Plus Ultra, British Journal for the History of Science, 1981, vol. 14, no. 46, pp. 59–74.
  24. ^ Roger Kenneth French, Andrew Wear (editors), The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (1989), pp. 151–2.
  25. ^ Stephen Gaukroger, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210–1685 (2006), p. 224.
  26. ^ Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (2007), p. 352.
  27. ^ Richard Henry Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (2003 edition), p. 213.
  28. ^ Michael Heyd, Be Sober and Reasonable: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (1995), note p. 156.
  29. ^ Jon Parkin, Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England: Richard Cumberland's De Legibus Naturae (1999), pp. 137–8.

Further reading

  • Richard H. Popkin, Joseph Glanvill: A Precursor of David Hume, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Apr., 1953), pp. 292–303
  • Jackson I. Cope, Joseph Glanvill, Anglican Apologist: Old Ideas and New Style in the Restoration, PMLA, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Mar., 1954), pp. 223–250
  • Richard H. Popkin, The Development of the Philosophical Reputation of Joseph Glanvill, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1954), pp. 305–311
  • Dorothea Krook, Two Baconians: Robert Boyle and Joseph Glanvill, Huntington Library Quarterly 18 (1955): 261–78
  • Robert M. Burns (1981), The Great Debate on Miracles: From Joseph Glanvill to David Hume
  • Sascha Talmor (1981), Glanvill: The Uses and Abuses of Skepticism
  • Richard H. Popkin (1992), The Third Force in Seventeenth-century Thought, Ch. 15 The Scepticism of Joseph Glanvill
  • Ryan Stark, Rhetoric, Science and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 30–46.
  • Shirley Jackson's short story collection, The Lottery & Other Stories, includes excerpts from Glanvill's Sadducismus Triumphatus.
  • Julie Davies, Science in an Enchanted World: Philosophy and Witchcraft in the Work of Joseph Glanvill (New York: Routledge, 2018).