John Norris - Encyclopedia

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JOHN NORRIS (1657-1711), English philosopher and divine, was born at Collingbourne-Kingston in Wiltshire. He was educated at Winchester and Exeter College, Oxford, being subsequently elected to a fellowship at All Souls'. His first original work was An Idea of Happiness (1683), in which, with Plato, he places the highest happiness or fruition of the soul in the contemplative love of God. Malebranche's Recherche de la veritd, which had appeared in 1674, made a strong impression upon him. Malebranche, he says, "is indeed the great Galileo of the intellectual world." He had also studied the works of Descartes himself, and most of what had been written for and against Cartesianism. Of English thinkers, More and Cudworth, the so-called Cambridge Platonists, had influenced him most; and in 1685 his study of their works led to a correspondence with the former, published after his death by Norris as an appendix to his Platonically. conceived essay on The Theory and Regulation of Love (1688). He also corresponded with Mrs Astell (q.v.) and Lady Masham, the friend of Locke, to whom he addressed his Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life (1689). Some time before this Norris had taken orders, and in 1689 he was presented to the living of Newton St Loe, in Somersetshire. In 1690 he published a volume of Discourses upon the Beatitudes, followed by three more volumes of Practical Discourses between 1690 and 1698. The year 1690 is memorable as the year of the publication of Locke's Essay, and the book came into Norris's hands just as his volume of Discourses was passing through the press. He at once appreciated its importance, but its whole temper was alien from the modes of thought in which he had been reared, and its main conclusions moved him to keen dissent. He hastened to "review" it in an appendix to his sermons. These Cursory Reflections constitute Norris the first critic of the Essay; and they anticipate some of the arguments that have since been persistently urged against Locke from the transcendental side. Though holding to the "grey-headed, venerable doctrine" of innate ideas as little as Locke himself, Norris finds the criticism in the first book of the Essay entirely inconclusive, and points out its inconsistency with Locke's own doctrine of evident or intuitively perceived truths. He also suggests the possibility of subconscious ideation, on which Leibnitz laid so much stress in the same connexion. He next complains that Locke neglects to tell us "what kind of things these ideas are which are let in at the gate of the senses." In other words, while giving a metaphorical account of how we come by our ideas, Locke leaves unconsidered the intellectual nature of the ideas or of thought in itself. Unless we come to some conclusion on this point, Norris argties, we have little chance of being right in our theory of how ideas "come to be united to our mind." He also saw the weakness of Locke's doctrine of nominal essences, showing how it ignores the relation of the human mind to objective truth, and instancing mathematical figures as a case "where the nominal essence and the real essence are all one." The last twenty years of Norris's life were spent at Bemerton, near Salisbury, the former home of George Herbert, to the living of which he had been transferred in 1691.11n1691-1692he was engaged in controversy with his old enemies the "Separatists," and with the Quakers, his Malebranchian theory of the divine illumination having been confounded by some with the Quaker doctrine of the light within. In 1697 he wrote An Account of Reason and Faith, one of the best of the many answers to Toland's Christianity not Mysterious. Norris adopts the distinction between things contrary to reason and things above reason, and maintains that the human mind is not the measure of truth. Reason, according to him, is nothing but the exact measure of truth, that is to say, divine reason, which differs from human reason only in degree, not in nature. In 1701 appeared the first volume of the systematic philosophical work by which he is remembered, An Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World. The first volume treats the intelligible world absolutely; the second, which appeared in 1704, considers it in relation to human understanding. It is a complete exposition of the system of Malebranche, in which Norris refutes the assertions of Locke and the sensualists. In 1708 Norris wrote A Philosophical Discourse concerning the Natural Immortality of the Soul, defending that doctrine against the assaults of Dodwell. After this he wrote little. He died at Bemerton, and a monument was erected to his memory in the parish church, with an inscription in which he is spoken of as one who "bene latuit." Norris was neither an original thinker nor a master of style. His philosophy is hardly more than an English version of Malebranche, enriched by wide reading of "Platonic" thinkers of every age and country. His style is too scholastic and self-involved. His Theory of the Intelligible World is an attempt to explain the objective nature of truth, which he blamed Locke for leaving out of regard. By the intelligible world Norris understands the system of ideas eternally existent in the mind of God, according to which the material creation was formed. This ideal system he identifies with the Logos - the second person of the Trinity, the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. For it is these ideas and their relations that are alone the object-matter of science; whenever we know, it is because they are present to our mind. Material things are wholly dark to us, except so far as the fact of their existence is revealed in sensation. The matter which we say that we know is the idea of matter, and belongs, like other ideas, to the intelligible world. When stripped of its semi-mythical form of statement, Norris's emphatic assertion of the ideal nature of thought and its complete distinction from sense as such may be seen to contain an important truth. As the disciple and correspondent of More, he is, in a sense, the heir of the Cambridge Platonists, while, as the first critic of Locke's Essay, he may be said to open the protest of the church against the implicit tendencies of that work. He occupies a place, therefore, in the succession of churchly and mystical thinkers of whom Coleridge is the last eminent example.

See Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (ed. Bliss), iv.; Biographia Britannica; Leslie Stephen in Dictionary of National Biography; J. Tulloch, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the 17th Century (1874), who calls Norris "as striking and significant a figure in the history of English philosophy" as another idealist, Berkeley.

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