Jonathan Edwards Philosophical Influences: Lockean or Malebranchean?

By Copan, Paul | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Jonathan Edwards Philosophical Influences: Lockean or Malebranchean?


Copan, Paul, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


In Perry Miller's intellectual biography of Jonathan Edwards (1703-- 1758),1 he claims that when Edwards discovered and read John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1717, this was "the central and decisive event in his intellectual life."2 Indeed, Miller's book makes much of the influence of Locke and Isaac Newton on Edwards's thinking.

In their History of Philosophy in America, Elizabeth Flower and Murray Murphey make a similar claim to Miller (and this is not surprising as they frequently cite Miller's work on Edwards!). They assert that Edwards was "early converted to the teaching of Locke and Newton."3 Morton White declares that Locke's Essay "exerted an enormous influence on Edwards' thought" in that it provided the "general framework within which he worked."4

Moreover, one gets the very strong impression from reading Miller's biography that apart from the influences of Locke and Newton, New England was a fairly isolated enclave, cut off from exposure to new ideas from Britain and Continental Europe. Whether or not Miller intended to give this impression, it is certainly not accurate. For there existed certain "lifeline journals" which furnished notables like Edwards, Cotton Mather, and the American Samuel Johnson with the latest information on new books and advancing ideas.5

Taking an opposing view to Miller, Flower and Murphey, and White is Norman Fiering. In his book Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context,6 he argues that despite the impact of Locke's Essay in Britain and in colonial America, Locke is wrongly credited with having had a deep influence on Edwards. Unlike Miller, Fiering presents a far broader intellectual backdrop to Edwards's thought. He proposes that we think in terms of a milieu rather than individual influences; our knowing the unities makes knowing the specifics less urgent.7

Fiering suggests that if anyone actually exerted a significant influence on Edwards, it was Nicholas Malebranche and his most famous English disciple and translator, John Norris. In addition to Fiering, Charles McCracken points out that Malebranche's ideas had an influence on not only Edwards, but also Cotton Mather and the American Samuel Johnson.8

In this paper, I would like to examine the question: which philosophical influence on Edwards is most obvious-the Lockean or the Malebranchean? I shall contend that the Lockean source is, in the main, insufficient to account for what we read in Edwards's writings. On the other hand, a Malebranchean influence on Edwards is far more likely. Although, according to Fiering, there is no direct or external evidence that Edwards ever read Malebranche's works, Fiering believes that the similarities between Malebranche and Edwards are so remarkable that it seems quite plausible that Edwards read Malebranche-and that at a very young age.9 This should not come as a surprise as Malebranche's Search After Truth was translated into English in 1694 (in London) twice-one by Richard Sault and the other by Thomas Taylor, each translation done independently of the other.10

Richard Steele confidently asserts that Edwards "certainly knew" thinkers like Malebranche and Norris, inter alia.11 Moreover, in Edwards's later work, The Nature of True Virtue, he interacts with the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, who refers to Malebranche in his writings.12 Also, Edwards had read Andrew ("Chevalier") Ramsay's Philosophical Principles of Revealed Religion, in which he copies profusely from Malebranche.13

In any event, it seems clear that Edwards at least read John Norris's The Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, which is an exposition of Malebranche's views.14 Moreover, Norris not only found favor with the English Puritans, but was also one of the effective early critics of Locke.15

Admittedly, one can unfairly categorize the thought of someone like Edwards so rigidly as to disallow any originality or strategy of reasoning on his part. …

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