“Thou Knowest Not The Works Of God”: Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) And John Locke On Learned Ignorance -- By: Paul Schuurman

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 72:1 (Spring 2010)
Article: “Thou Knowest Not The Works Of God”: Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) And John Locke On Learned Ignorance
Author: Paul Schuurman


“Thou Knowest Not The Works Of God”: Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) And John Locke On Learned Ignorance

Paul Schuurman

Paul Schuurman is Assistant Professor in the History of Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This article is based on a paper presented at the conference “Early Modern Philosophy in Britain and the Netherlands, 1500—1800: Philosophers and Philosophies, Universities and Learned Societies, Books and Journals, “Rotterdam, 26—2 8 March 2007; Annual Conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, organized by Martin Bell, Bart Leeuwenburgh, and Paul Schuurman. The author would like to thank the conference participants and his colleague Aza Goudriaan for their stimulating remarks.

I. Introduction

On Monday 7 March 1678, during his visit to France, John Locke wrote an extensive French entry in his Journal on the best method of studying the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Locke gives a long list of works by Descartes, his followers, and his detractors. In the last category Locke mentions a work by Gisbertus Voetius that contains everything that can be “said against Descartes.”1 This is the only mention of Voetius that I have been able to discover in Locke’s writings. Indeed, the father of philosophical empiricism seems to have precious little in common with Voetius, who as a professor of theology at the University of Utrecht worked hard to produce a Reformed version of the very scholasticism that would be attacked so vigorously by Locke, and whose orthodox Calvinism inspired him to wage a war against gambling, dancing, the theatre, and deviating hair styles. Yet the Dutch Aristotelian and the English proponent of the new philosophy shared to a remarkably high degree the same concept of docta ignorantia or learned ignorance.

II. Voetius

In 1655 Voetius produced two scholarly disputations called “De Docta Ignorantia,” but he had expressed the wish to discuss the subject on at least two earlier

occasions, in 16392 and in 1643.3 Voetius’s point of departure is his desire to combat vain curiosity. Ignorance as such is not good and we all naturally desire knowledge, but there are many things that should remain shrouded from mortal beings in their present life. Voetius repeats the warning of Thomas Aquinas that our thirst for knowledge should not degenerate into a hopeless quest that goes beyond the capacity of our faculties.4 Unbounded cu...

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