Joseph Priestley and the intellectual culture of rational dissent, 1752-1796
Recent scholarship on the eighteenth-century polymath Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) has focused on his work as a pioneering scientist, a controversial Unitarian polemicist, and a radical political theorist. This thesis provides an extensive analysis of his comparatively neglected philosophical writings. It situates Priestley’s philosophy in the theological context of eighteenth-century rational dissent, and argues that his ideas on ethics, materialism, and determinism came to provide a philosophical foundation for the Socinian theology which came to prominence among Presbyterian congregations in the last decades of the century. Throughout the thesis I stress the importance of rational debate to the development of Priestley’s ideas. The chapters are thus structured around a series of Priestley’s engagements with contemporary figures: chapter 1 traces his intellectual development in the context of the debates over moral philosophy and the freedom of the will at the Daventry and Warrington dissenting academies; chapter 2 examines his response to the Scottish ‘common sense’ philosophers, Thomas Reid, James Beattie, and James Oswald; chapter 3 examines his writings on materialism and philosophical necessity and his debates with Richard Price, John Palmer, Benjamin Dawson, and Joseph Berington; chapter 4 focuses on his attempt to develop a rational defence of Christianity in opposition to the ideas of David Hume; chapter 5 traces the diffusion of his ideas through the syllabuses at the liberal dissenting academies at Warrington, Daventry, and New College, Hackney. The thesis illustrates the process by which Priestley’s theology and philosophy defeated a number of rival traditions to become the predominant intellectual position within rational dissent in the late eighteenth century. In the course of doing so, it illuminates some of the complex interconnections between philosophical and theological discourses in the period.
- Theses