Collier, Arthur (1680–1732)

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Arthur Collier, an English idealist philosopher, was born at Langford Magna, Wiltshire, where his father was rector. In 1697 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, but transferred in 1698 to Balliol. He took orders and in 1704 succeeded to the family living at Langford Magna. Such events as mark his life were of a private character. He was in constant financial difficulties, arising, it is said, from his own impracticality and the extravagance of his wife; his writings did nothing to bring him into contact with a wider world since scarcely anybody read them. He was buried at Langford on September 9, 1732.

Collier makes no mention of John Locke. He read George Berkeley (with whose views his own partly coincide), but only after the publication of Collier's major work, Clavis Universalis (1713). René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, and Collier's neighbor John Norris were the philosophers who particularly interested Collier, although he was also considerably influenced by Francisco Suárez and other late scholastic philosophers.

Malebranche and John Norris had argued that perception provides us with no direct evidence for the existence of an external world. They did not deny, however, the existence of such a world, even though it is an embarrassment to their metaphysics. They retain it for theological reasons. Collier agreed with them in rejecting the view that perception reveals an external world to us but went on to argue that the very conception of an external world is self-contradictory.

Philosophical Views

In the Introduction to Clavis Universalis Collier begins by explaining just what he wishes to assert and what to deny. His starting point is that what we perceive is "in the mind"; the objects of perception, that is, depend upon the mind for their existence. In denying their externality Collier is denying their independence or self-subsistence; he is not at all denying that they exist. "It is with me a first principle," he writes, "that whatsoever is seen, is." Indeed, even what is imagined must exist, since it is an actual object of mind. Collier does not deny, either, that what we perceive seems to us to be independent of our minds. But, he suggests, this "quasi-externeity" also characterizes what we imagine as much as what we see. The difference between types of objects of perception lies only in the degree of vividness with which they are perceived.

Collier is not, of course, alleging that our mind causes the ideas which it has. Ideas, he says, exist in the mind qua perceiver, not qua voluntary agent. Nor is he asserting that the ideas which other people perceive are internal to my mind. "The world which John sees is external to Peter, and the world which Peter sees is external to John." Peter's world and John's world may be similar, but they are numerically different. The crucial point for Collier is that every object must be "in-existent" to some mind; every object has existence, but no object has "extra-existence."

To establish his main conclusions, Collier makes use of two main lines of argument, to each of which a book of the Clavis Universalis is devoted. In the first book he sets out to show that we have no good reason for believing that objects exist externally to mind. It is generally supposed that we directly perceive them to be external, but the "quasi-externeity" of objects is no proof, he argues, that they are really external. Everybody admits that in hallucinations, for example, we can suppose objects to be external which are not in fact external. As for the Cartesian argument that there must be an external world because otherwise God would have deceived us when he implanted in us so strong an inclination to believe that there is, Collier points out that according to Descartes himself we are constantly mistaken about what is and what is not a property of the external world. If we can be mistaken about the externality of colors, for example, without God's veracity being impugned, why not about the existence of objects?

Thus far, Collier's argument has been in some measure an argumentum ad hominem ; he has supposed it to be an intelligible hypothesis that there is an external world and has argued only that there is no good reason for accepting that hypothesis. In the second book he goes further. The concept of an external world is, he says, riddled with contradictions. To establish this point, he calls upon the commonplace skeptical arguments of his time, which had ordinarily been used, however, to demonstrate that the concept of the physical world is as full of mysteries and obscurities as are the concepts of theology rather than to show that it does not exist. Philosophers have demonstrated, Collier argues, that an external world must be finite and that it must be infinite, that it must be infinitely divisible and that it cannot be infinitely divisible, that it is capable of motion and that it cannot be capable of motion. Faced with this situation, we have no alternative but to declare that the very concept of an external world is self-contradictory. Finally, he argues, no intelligible account can be given of the relation between an external world and God. Stress its dependence on God's will, and its externality vanishes; stress its externality, and it takes on the attributes of God.

In a letter to the publisher Nathaniel Mist, Collier pushes his argument slightly further. The subtitle of Clavis Universalis was, he now says, misleading insofar as in it he professed to provide "a demonstration of the non-existence or impossibility of an external world." This suggests that the existence of an external world is a possibly true, even if in fact a false, hypothesis. The correct account of the matter is that the doctrine that an external world exists is "neither true nor false"; it is "all-over nonsense and contradiction in terms," the very concept of an external world being self-contradictory.

Religious Views

Collier's other publications consist of A Specimen of True Philosophy, in a Discourse on Genesis (1730), which is designed as a preliminary essay to a complete commentary on the Bible, and a series of seven sermons published as Logology (1732). These works are primarily theological. Collier's metaphysical views are more clearly formulated in the brief "Confession" he wrote in 1709 but did not publish. There is, he says, one substance, God, which is "being itself, all being, universal being." The existence of everything else is dependent upon the existence of God not only causally but also in the sense that particular things have no substance of their own. However, although everything but God is ultimately dependent on him, everything except Christ is also relatively dependent on something else; qualities "in-exist" in objects, objects in the mind, and the mind in Christ, through whom God made the transition from universality to particularity. Not unnaturally, Collier was accused of Arianism. He thought of himself, however, as reconciling the Arians and the orthodox by admitting Christ's dependence on God but asserting his priority to all created things and even to time, Christ's begetting being "the first pulse of time."

In Great Britain attention was first drawn to Collier's work by Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, but he has never exerted any real influence, being overshadowed by Berkeley. In Germany he attracted some attention as a result of an abstract of the Clavis Universalis published in the Acta Eruditorum (1717) and a German translation by John Christopher Eschenbach in 1756. He is quoted by Christian Wolff, and it is sometimes supposed, without any real evidence, that the Kantian antinomies derive from his work.

See also Arius and Arianism; Berkeley, George; Descartes, René; Idealism; Locke, John; Malebranche, Nicolas; Norris, John; Reid, Thomas; Stewart, Dugald; Suárez, Francisco; Wolff, Christian.


For Clavis Universalis see Ethel Bowman's edition (Chicago: Open Court, 1909) or Samuel Parr, Metaphysical Tracts of the Eighteenth Century (London: E. Lumley, 1837), which also includes A Specimen and a brief précis of Logology. Antonio Casiglio has translated Clavis Universalis into Italian, with notes (Padua, 1953), and has included as an appendix to an article on Collier's True System an Italian translation of that work in Sophia 23 (34) (1955): 302321. Collier's "Confession" is in Robert Benson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Arthur Collier (London: E. Lumley, 1837).

See also John Henry Muirhead, The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy (London and New York: n.p., 1931); Georges Lyon, L'idéalisme en Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: F. Alcan, 1888). On Collier and Berkeley see George Alexander Johnston, The Development of Berkeley's Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1923), Appendix I; for Collier and Immanuel Kant see A. O. Lovejoy, "Kant and the English Platonists," in Essays Philosophical and Psychological in Honor of William James by His Colleagues at Columbia University (New York: Longmans, Green, 1908), and H. J. de Vleeschauwer, "Les antinomies kantiennes et la Clavis Universalis d'Arthur Collier," in Mind 47 (187) (1938): 303320.

John Passmore (1967)

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Collier, Arthur (1680–1732)

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