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Durham University

Department of Philosophy


Publication details for Dr Emily Thomas

Thomas, Emily (2013). Catharine Cockburn on Substantival Space. History of Philosophy Quarterly 30(3): 195-214.

Author(s) from Durham


In the early eighteenth century, the English philosopher Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679–1749) put forward an extremely unusual account of space. The originality of her account is best appreciated by contrasting it with others of the period; to this end, I introduce Cockburn's metaphysics as an attractive solution to a formidable theological problem peculiar to early modern conceptions of substantival space.
Substantivalism is the thesis that space or spacetime is a concrete, irreducible being, to be listed on the contents of the universe as an entity in its own right. Early modern substantivalists face a peculiar problem: on many conceptions of space, space is held to possess properties traditionally ascribed only to God. Consequently, as Berkeley argues above, substantivalism can lead to blasphemy. Identifying space with God leads to what I will label Spinozistic "pantheistic blasphemy"; and postulating the existence of something in addition to God with divine properties—in effect, a second God—leads to what I will label "polytheistic blasphemy." Although these concerns are rarely made explicit, I suggest that those early moderns who endorse substantivalism have taken care to avoid both horns of Berkeley's dangerous dilemma. These substantivalists generally use one of two strategies, both of which have their philosophical costs. René Descartes accepts that space is a substance but, by identifying space with matter, denies that it has any divine properties; this entails the counterintuitive consequence that space empty of matter is impossible.