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'The language of the naked facts': Joseph Priestley on language and revealed religion

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:43 authored by Elizabeth S Kingston
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is usually remembered for his experiments in natural philosophy and celebrated for his isolation of the gas we now call oxygen. However, Priestley had a wide range of interests and published extensively on education, history, politics, political philosophy, language, theology and religion. He dedicated his life to elucidating a coherent set of epistemological, metaphysical and theological principles which he believed explained the human mind, the natural world and the nature of God and revelation. Recent studies of Priestley have emphasised the difficulties that arise from isolating the various aspects of his thought and the fruitful outcome of uncovering the many connections between his diverse areas of study. With this in mind, the present dissertation aims to elucidate the relationship between two aspects of Priestley’s thought that have not previously been studied together. It examines his theory of language and argument alongside his work on theology and the evidences of revelation. Chapter One provides an overview of Priestley’s epistemology, focusing on his work on induction, judgment and assent. Chapter Two looks at Priestley’s analysis of the role of the passions in our assent to propositions and the progressive generation of the personality, while paying particular attention to the origins of figurative language. Chapter Three examines Priestley’s theory of language development including the relationship between figurative language and the extension of vocabulary and the close connection between language and culture. Chapter Four demonstrates that Priestley’s discussion of the evidences of revealed religion is structured around his theory of assent and judgment. It also explains how assent to revelation is essential for the generation and transcendence of the ‘self’. Chapter Five brings all the themes of the dissertation together in a discussion of Priestley’s rational theology and examines his analysis of figurative language in scripture.


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