Wollaston, William

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Wollaston, William (1659-1724): English Philosopher.

Wollaston was born in 1659 in Coton-Clanford, Staffordshire. He attended Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was an impoverished but dedicated student. Failing to find a preaching position, Wollaston taught school in Birmingham for six years from 1682. In 1688 he unexpectedly inherited the great wealth of an identically named cousin, but had to support various parasitical relations. Marrying, he moved to London, where he lived quietly if studiously until his death in 1724.

Wollaston’s sole publication Religion of Nature Delineated, on which his fame rests, appeared privately in 1722, and publicly two years later. Wollaston defends the unconventional view that many actions we perform implicitly assert propositions. Thus, if I steal your horse, the wrongness of my action is explained by my (implicitly) making the false claim that the horse is mine. Wollaston’s theory is furiously mocked by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature (1740). Hume claims that Wollaston’s theory excludes all moral wrongs that do not induce a false judgment. For example, a thief who stealthily yet obviously steals would be doubly protected from being judged immoral—if unobserved his actions do not declare anything, whereas if he is seen he honestly portrays himself as a thief!

Wollaston was an early and influential proponent of ethical rationalism, against the dominant sentimentalism of British ethical thought. While Hume’s criticisms may not be wholly fair, Wollaston is best remembered as the object of Hume’s scorn.

Further Reading:

O. Joynton, “The Problem of Circularity in Wollaston’s Moral Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 22 (1984): 435-443.

Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University