Glanvill, Joseph

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Glanvill, Joseph

(b. Plymouth, England, 1636; d. Bath, England, 4 November 1680)

theology, apologetics, history and philosophy of science.

Little is known of Glanvill’s early life. His father was a merchant; his family and early education, Puritan. He matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1652; obtained the B.A. in 1655; studied at Lincoln College both before and after taking the M.A. in 1658; and was ordained in 1660. The most important of Glanvill’s ecclesiastical livings was the abbey church at Bath, which he held from 1666 until his death. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 14 December 1664 and was the first secretary of a Somerset affiliate established in 1669.

Neither experimenter nor theorist, Glanvill made a few minor contributions to natural history. In number 11 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Robert Boyle gave a set of general headings for the natural history of a country, and in number 19 he followed it up with a long list of inquiries concerning the procedures used in mines and the geographical characteristics of mining regions. Glanvill sent in two sets of concise replies for the Mendip lead mines near Bath, obtained through interviews with miners and local residents. Later, in response to queries from Henry Oldenburg, he provided a report on the medicinal springs at Bath, again confined to factual observations except for one modest theoretical suggestion (for which he quickly apologized).

Glanvill’s principal contribution to the work of the Royal Society was to defend it against its critics. In a series of much-discussed works he argued that the new experimental philosophy was beneficial in practical terms, had already advanced knowledge beyond what antiquity could claim and would rapidly advance it still further, and was harmless—indeed, it was helpful—to the cause of religion. In the process he produced one of the earliest histories, and one of the earliest philosophies, of science.

While still at Oxford (where he was almost certainly familiar with John Wilkins’ “Invisible College,” although there is no record of his attending its meetings), Glanvill wrote an elaborate essay, published in 1661, called The Vanity of Dogmatizing. This was originally intended to be a preface, defending the use of reason in religion and attacking sectarians and enthusiasts, to a projected book on the immortality of the soul. The preface was to begin with a criticism of dogmatism in general and would lead into an attack on dogmatism and disputatiousness in religion. Throughout his career Glanvill was a prominent apologist for latitudinarian Anglicanism as well as for the new philosophy, and his two lines of apologetic endeavor were frequently intertwined. The fate of the intended preface suggests that defense of the new philosophy was a genuine and independent concern of Glanvill’s and no mere adjunct or instrument of his theological apologetics, for the philosophical part grew to book length, while the sectaries were disposed of in two chapters at the end. There Glanvill argues that “confidence in opinions” has led to acrimonious disputes about obscure doctrines, while the essentials of religion—devotion to God and practical love of neighbor—are ignored. The philosophical study of nature, on the other hand, promotes piety both by teaching us to admire more justly the work of the Divine Architect and by elevating the mind above sensual concerns. (The virtues traditionally ascribed to quasi-mystical, world-scorning philosophers are here—with incongruously traditional rhetoric—credited to such men as “those illustrious Heroes, Cartes, Gassendus, Galilaeo, Tycho, Harvey, More, Digby.” But of course Glanvill had to counter the claim of the enthusiasts that “vain philosophy” turns men’s thoughts from heaven to earth. In later works he chose to sidestep that charge.)

The book begins with a speculative discussion of Adam’s knowledge before the Fall. Glanvill reasons that a being created in God’s image would have senses that could perceive the hidden causes of things, as well as the wonders revealed by Galileo’s telescope. The “circumference” of his senses must have been “the same with that of natures activity.” But the Fall brought us very low; our ignorance is almost total. We cannot understand how the soul is united with and moves the body; we can give no account of sensation or memory; we cannot explain how plants and animals are formed, nor what holds the parts of material objects together. Not even the ingenious hypotheses of Descartes and Henry More—most admirable of philosophers—will do. The causes of our ignorance are many. Truth lies deeply hidden; our senses are weak; they deceive us or, rather, present misleading impressions, so that our precipitate judgment errs. Our attempts to imagine things which cannot be imagined, the mind’s liability to fatigue in close reasoning, and such affectional factors as personal vanity and reverence for antiquity—all these lead to hasty judgment, the source of all error. The mention of antiquity occasions a denunciation of Aristotelianism: it delights in controversy, its terms are ambiguous, its occult qualities explain nothing, its astronomy is silly, it has led to no useful inventions or discoveries, it is inconsistent both with itself and with true divinity. In all these regards we can expect better things from the “Neoterick endeavours” now under way.

The influence of Descartes (whether direct or through Henry More) is plain, although it is also plain that Glanvill has picked and chosen among Cartesian doctrines. In particular he ignores Descartes’s claims for certainty and follows that strand in his physical writings which claims only to offer useful hypotheses and calls for experiments.

The next section of The Vanity of Dogmatizing, where Glanvill tries to show by an analysis of causality that we can have no certain knowledge of nature, begins to seem more like a crude anticipation of Hume. To have “science” in the dogmatist’s sense, we would need “knowledge of things in their true, immediate, necessary causes.” We have no immediate perception of causal connections; at best we observe constant concomitances. To know that a causal connection is necessary, we would have to know that alternatives are impossible; but what is impossible on one set of hypotheses (for instance, those of Aristotle, or Descartes, or common sense) will often be possible on another, and there are phenomena (e.g., sympathetic cure of wounds or control of another’s thoughts) which are impossible in all known thought systems yet are real. We do not know the true causes of things, the “first springs of natural motions”; and since even the proximate causes we know are often very dissimilar to their effects, the invisible “first springs” are probably quite unlike anything with which we are familiar. The argument is not logically tight. It is meant to be rhetorically persuasive, and much of it really aims only to show that no one is in a position to claim certain knowledge of nature. We can have certainty in mathematics, but it is about notions of our creation and not the world, and in the essentials of religion, which are “as demonstrable as Geometry” (although Glanvill does not tell how).

The Vanity of Dogmatizing was promptly attacked by Thomas White, a Catholic Aristotelian, as destructively skeptical and as, by its endorsement of the mechanical philosophy, an aid to Hobbesian atheism. Glanvill replied in 1664 by issuing a revised version, with additional essays directed at White and a long prefatory address to the Royal Society, the whole titled Scepsic scientifica. The way he had advocated is just that followed by the Royal Society: accumulating factual information (which only a theoryobsessed dogmatist could dispute) about natural phenomena while prudently refraining from premature theorizing. Moreover, we cannot guard against Hobbesian misuse of the “mechanical hypothesis” by appeal to a discredited Scholasticism; the only way is to show, as the virtuosos are showing, that when well worked out, the hypothesis provides overwhelming evidence for a wise and benevolent Designer.

The address won Glanvill election to the Royal Society and a reputation as a potentially valuable apologist. When Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society failed to silence the critics, Oldenburg encouraged Glanvill to write a supplementary defense, which appeared in 1668 under the title Plus ultra. Its main theme is that the experimental philosophy, and the Royal Society in particular, have accomplished more to advance useful knowledge in a few years “than all the Philosophers of the Notional way, since Aristotle opened his Shop in Greece.” The principal ways of advancing knowledge are by enlarging natural history and by improving communications. Under the former heading Glanvill includes “investigation of the Springs of Natural Motions as well as fuller Accounts of the... more palpable Phaenomena.” Recent additions to our knowledge of palpable phenomena are briefly cataloged; the emphasis is on the aids to “deep Research” provided by modern achievements in instrumentation and in chemistry, anatomy, and especially mathematics (under which he includes astronomy and optics). A rather detailed survey of these achievements is given, stressing experiment rather than theory. (While premature hypothesizing is continually deplored, Glanvill has no clear and consistent doctrine on the role of hypotheses in research.) As to communications, he mentions printing and the compass but dwells particularly on the Royal Society itself as a vehicle for cooperative efforts along the lines laid out by “the excellent Lord Bacon.”

Glanvill’s answer to the challenge “What have they done?” is twofold. It is unreasonable to expect too much too soon; to clear away the rubble of Peripatetic philosophy and establish organized inquiry with a sound method is a creditable work for one generation. But of course he has pointed to many accomplishments, claiming credit for the Royal Society and its members and sympathizers where he can. The contributions of Boyle are reviewed as a particularly strong recommendation.

As for the charge of irreligion, Glanvill cites all the prelates and other pious men who are members and repeats the argument that the new philosophy provides the best proofs for the Deity. Investigations into the works of nature are, indeed, religious duties, for they enable us to discover the means God has provided for alleviating man’s lot. They help to banish degrading superstitions, and they promote a religious temper of equanimity, charity, and modesty. To the charge that the new philosophy turns men from scriptural revelation to nature, he replies by (1) asserting that (considering the variety of revelations that are claimed) a solid natural theology must be established first and (2) simply affirming his reverence for the Scriptures.

Further controversies embroiled Glanvill, most notably that with Henry Stubbe, but the main points in his argument remained the same (and were repeatedly employed by other apologists). In his later years he wrote primarily on specifically religious and religiopolitical questions, and above all to combat disbelief in witches. As a pastor he observed that incredulity as to evil spirits usually led, if not to outright atheism, at least to religious indifference and scorn for the Bible. Further, he found that many unphilosophical worldlings, unimpressed by abstruse arguments for the existence of God, were shaken in unbelief by well-attested accounts of demonic activities. As early as 1666 he published a book on the subject, with his membership in the Royal Society advertised on the title page. Encouraged by Henry More (who edited and expanded the final version, Saducismus triumphatus, after the author’s death), he published a succession of enlarged editions. In the 1668 version (only) he proposed investigation of the spirit world and its laws as a suitable project for the Royal Society.

Glanvill’s argument has two steps. First, he tried to show that there is nothing absurd or inconceivable in the idea that there are evil spirits who act in the world. Those who say this is impossible can actually show only that we do not understand how it is done. But—and here Glanvill referred to the argument of Scepsis scientifica—there are many familiar phenomena whose causes we do not know. Matters of fact can be established only by sense or credible testimony; our inability to understand them is no ground for denying them. He buttressed this line of argument by offering conjectural natural accounts—in some cases vaguely mechanical—of how the spirits might work. He thought these explanations to be probably inadequate (much more likely the spirit world is governed by its own laws, of which we as yet have no inkling) but sufficient to show that the events in question are not impossible. The second step, of course, was to show that there are well-attested cases. To this end he offered a number of narratives, with detailed accounts of how he (or the source of his information) had observed the phenomena and tested for trickery and other purely natural sources of them. Bizarre as his occupation with witchcraft may now seem, it was consistent with his understanding of science and acceptable to most of his Royal Society colleagues.


Glanvill’s contributions to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society are “Answers to Some of the Inquiries Formerly Published Concerning Mines,” in 2 (1667), 525–527; “Additional Answers to the Queries of Mines,” in 3 (1668), 767–771; and “Observations Concerning the Bath-Springs,” in 4 (1669), 977–982.

Jackson I. Cope, Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist (St. Louis, 1956; 2nd ed., 1958), is an excellent study and gives a complete list of Glanvill’s works. See also Richard F. Jones, Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (St. Louis, 2nd ed., 1961), chs. 8 and 9; Henry G. van Leeuwen, The Problem of Certainty in English Thought, 1630–1690 (The Hague, 1963), pp. 71–89; and Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, 1958), passim.

On special topics see Richard H. Popkin, “Joseph Glanvill: A Precursor of David Hume,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 14 (1953), 292–303; and “The Development of the Philosophical Reputation of Joseph Glanvill,” ibid., 15 (1954), 305–311; and Moody E. Prior, “Joseph Glanvill, Witchcraft, and Seventeenth-Century Science,” in Modern Philology, 30 (1932), 167–193.

William H. Austin

Glanvill, Joseph (1636-1680)

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Glanvill, Joseph (1636-1680)

Chaplain to Charles II, prebendary of Worcester, philosopher, and one of the earliest fellows of the Royal Society. An orthodox clergyman of the Anglican Church, Glanvill was a self-avowed skeptic and enemy of dogma. He was the author of several books, including Scepsis Scientifica (1665) and Sorcerers and Sorcery (1666). He is best remembered as a precursor of modern psychical researchers and the author of Sadicismus Triumphatus (1681), which contains accounts of remarkable cases of witchcraft and details of the author's personal investigation into the poltergeist known as the Drummer of Tedworth.


Glanvill, Joseph. Sadicismus Triumphatus. London: Printed for J. Collins and S. Lownds, 1681.

Redgrove, H. Stanley, and I. M. L. Redgrove. Joseph Glanvill and Psychical Research in the Seventeenth Century. London: William Rider & Son, 1921.

Taylor, Sascha. Glanvill: The Uses and Abuses of Skepticism. New York: Pergamon Press, 1981.

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