Joseph Butler Biography


Early Life

Born into a Presbyterian family, Joseph Butler was the youngest of eight children. He switched from Presbyterian to Anglican sympathies and entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1714. He was ordained deacon, then priest, in 1718, and from 1718 to 1776 he was a preacher at Rolls Chapel, where he delivered the sermons that were published in 1726 as Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel. In 1722, he added the rectory at Haughton-le-Skerne, and in 1726, he left this for Stanhope, County Durham. Here he wrote The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, which, assuming Deism to be right in its positive claims, argues for a continued journey to full Christian belief. The Deists accept belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God and in life after death. To this, Butler adds the claims of orthodox Christian belief. Appointed Clerk of Closet in 1736, he was in constant attendance to Queen Caroline until her death in late 1737. In 1738, he was given the see of Bristol, added the deanery of Saint Paul’s in 1740, and became Bishop of Durham in 1750. He died in 1752.

Life’s Work

Joseph Butler’s thought is systematically complex because he continually balances two themes—an enough theme and a not too much theme. People have, he contends, enough evidence to determine that there is a God whose existence explains the order and intelligibility of nature and the obligations of conscience and who has given them the Bible as his Revelation. However, there is not so much evidence that people are coerced by it to believe in God or to live in accord with God’s revealed will. Butler insists on both the reliability of people’s rational capacities to provide them with the knowledge they need in order to do their duty and save their souls and the limits of those capacities and the data available to them to leave people free to wander if they choose. More formally put, there are elements of both constrained rationalism and subdued skepticism in Butler’s thought. The key to understanding him is coming to see exactly what is balanced and how that balance is created.

Butler’s self-appointed philosophical task is to answer Deistic criticisms of orthodox Christianity. Deism is the view that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, morally good God who created the world and placed in human nature the capacities necessary for proving that God exists and determining God’s will, along with the capacity to live in accord with that will. It rejects any notion of historical revelation, partly because historical claims are inherently logically contingent and partly because historical revelation is inherently given to some particular people at some particular time and thus is not equally available to all people at all times. Claims of religious importance, Deists hold, are always universal. Such claims make no reference to particular persons, groups, events, or times. Butler sees no reason to accept this assumption.

One important theme in Butler’s works is that probability is the guide of life. By the word “probability,” Butler has in mind something much simpler than the full doctrine of probability later held by John Maynard Keynes and Rudolf Carnap. For Keynes and Carnap, for any two logically contingent propositions A and B, each has some objective probability given the other, even if their meanings indicate no mutual relevance. Thus “Sheep grow wool, not silk” and “Some ice cream is peppermint flavored” each has some specific probability given the other. Further, each has an intrinsic probability—a probability given necessary truths and nothing else. Even necessary truths and self-contradictions receive probabilities, 1 and 0, respectively, according to this scheme. Butler’s account has no such complexity. When Butler speaks of probability, he has in mind that we can possess evidence in favor of some proposition being true without that evidence being sufficient for us to be sure that it is true. Although Mary can see the dirt on the newly mopped floor, she cannot be sure that it was Tim who tracked it in, though she may rightly take the presence of the dirt as evidence that he did.

Butler’s theory of knowledge is implicit; he produced no systematic work in epistemology. He was strongly influenced by John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which says that probability “is likeness to be true, the very notation of the word signifying such a proposition, for which there be arguments or proofs to make it pass, or be received as true.” We can see that the statement “Nothing can have incompatible properties” is necessarily true; we need nothing more. However, for the statement, “The chair has one leg shorter than the others,” we need evidence. Some evidence is better than other evidence; sitting in the chair and finding that it is unstable confirms our visual sense that one is leg is short. A close examination of the chair provides better evidence than a quick look at the chair from a distance. Different degrees of evidence yield different “likenesses to be true.” Relative to at least the simpler among necessary truths, we can have certainty—justified complete confidence that what we believe is true. Relative to most of the logically contingent propositions that we believe, we lack certainty. This is not an escapable feature of things; it is an inherent part of our condition.

Butler is correct; any time you believe any logically contingent proposition whose truth, unlike your belief that you exist, is not entailed by...

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