Sowers of the seeds of doubt

The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, Volumes One and Two
August 6, 1999

This is, as we should expect from a further addition to the Cambridge Histories of Philosophy , a quite splendid, monumental overview of the philosophical thought of a century. It is greatly to be welcomed and will inevitably be invaluable for years to come. Current academic pressures are against good philosophical history. It takes much time to do, and research assessment fashions tend to inhibit careful intellectual description. But we would be lost without it. Inevitably in a work that has made full use of the studies of 33 contributors it does not quite succeed in presenting a narrative from an exactly identifiable point of view, but this really is a history, not an encyclopedia. The book is thus ordered by topics, rather than by famous names. This makes the addition of a final "Biobiblographical appendix" especially welcome, as is the rich additional bibliography.

Any history of philosophy poses the question where the boundary should be drawn between philosophy itself and a more general history of ideas and between what we might think of as an internal, as opposed to an external, context. Clearly any coherent narrative enforces a boundary. Beyond it philosophers may have motivating interests, within it constraining topics that shape the intellectual debate. Quite properly this volume places the foundation work for shaping the inquiries of the scientific revolution firmly within this boundary. The same applies to the metaphysical groundwork of theology, though many of the familiar 17th-century doctrinal disputes are given to an external context. It will surprise no one that the historical background to such disputes is sketched in by Richard Popkin in a characteristically limpid expository style, but what may be more surprising is that his familiar arguments for placing them within the philosophical boundary are given little space.

The structure of the narrative here is best indicated by listing its sub-headings. This runs "I: The context of 17th-century philosophy"; "II: Logic, language and abstract objects"; "III: God"; "IV: Body and the physical world"; "V: Spirit", and (in volume two) "VI: Understanding", and finally "VII: Will, action and moral philosophy". The introductory chapters by Richard Tuck and Stephen Menn tend to locate the philosophical topics firmly within the intellectual world of the great European universities. This is perfectly proper, and the effect is to stress deep continuity with an organised, constantly re-examined, intellectual past, focused by the issues of post-scholastic metaphysics. This perspective tends to highlight a certain kind of methodological conservatism, ironically one that chimes well with what tend to be the current patterns of philosophical interests of the majority of the contributors and perhaps their own institutions.

At the same time this provides an important corrective to a different view, equally institutionalised within 20th-century philosophy courses - associated with such influential figures as Richard Rorty - that epistemology, simplistically construed in terms of the question "how do we know?", somehow took over from more old-fashioned questions of ontology, in simple terms with "what there is". It is indeed hard to see how the first sort of questions could be addressed independently of the second. The detailed accounts provided here show why this must be so. Michael Ayers's refreshingly vigorous discussions of doctrines of theories of knowledge and belief are most welcome. As he puts it, the great errors in our interpretations of the 17th-century metaphysical debate derive from a simplistic interpretation of the period as giving rise to a "whole new discipline, or pseudo-discipline, epistemology-as-central-tophilosophy". Similarly, while many would see the greater part of the 20th-century debate as replacing these questions with ones concerned with "what do you mean?" the rich grounding section by Gabriel Nuchelmans, Peter Dear, Martha Bolton and Udo Thiel that sets an intellectual scene grounded in logic, and in what used to be called "philosophical logic", counters that distortion too.

This certainly serves to reawaken our sense of the continuity of an intellectual past with our present. However, this can only ever be achieved by at the same time allowing the past to be strange to us in its own way, and it is here that it is possible to have some doubts about the shape of the narrative.

In the words of the publisher, "by the end of the period the mechanistic philosophy has emerged and exerted its full impact on traditional metaphysics, theology, logic and epistemology". Space is certainly given to the force of contrary views, and importantly to figures who are not normally part of our current debate. The publisher's summary insists that the subject needs to be "set in the widest possible intellectual context (so) a full appreciation of Descartes, Spinoza or Locke can be achieved only by appreciating Kenelm Digby, Pierre Gassendi, or Nicholas Malebranch - all giants to their contemporaries". The contributors have, by these standards, fulfilled their brief admirably.

The most dramatic omission the reader may notice is that there is no topic area for political philosophy. What discussion there is of such issues tends to find its way through the rather narrow interstices of the metaphysics of action that provide the overarching theme of the (much shorter) final volume. One possible justification for this omission could well be that the area is already fully surveyed elsewhere, notably in Cambridge's publication of Quintin Skinner's masterly Foundations of Modern Political Thought . But while the editors do apologise for omitting discussion of specifically feminine contributions to the intellectual narrative on the grounds that it is done better elsewhere, no similar justification is actually provided. One dire effect of this is to marginalise the huge philosophical activity from the historical events of the time. In a century that opened with the burning of Bruno and the trial of Galileo, the innocent reader may be surprised at how little attention is given to the political issues implicit in the very idea of doctrinal authority.

A less dramatic omission, and one that will certainly be less apparent to the philosophical reader, is the very limited discussion of the artistic context of the philosophy of the period, whether with respect to literature or, more particularly, to painting. Two issues, while addressed, thus tend to slip into the background. One has to do with perception and its representation. The systematic inquiry concerning the nature of vision within Dutch painting might well, from this account, have been conducted on a separate planet. It may not be an accident that Locke concluded his famous passage concerning a sphere placed before the eyes as presenting "a flat Circle variously shadow'd" so that by "an habitual custom of judgement" we frame the idea of a sphere by remarking that this is "evident in painting". The other issue has to do with the conception of imagination. Virtually no major figure of literature is mentioned within the background material, and certainly one would get no sense that imaginative writers themselves raised questions concerning its status as a faculty. One marginal exception is John Donne, whose famous assertion that "the new philosophy puts all in doubt" is depressingly taken to be a reference to new Copernicanism, a view not sustainable by the most cursory reading of his text. However, even if in defining contexts margins matter, such cavils should be marginal. The major sections of this history, especially the contributions of Brian Copenhaver, Charles McCracken, Alan Gabbey, and J. R. Milton to the central issues of the developing conceptions of the physical world and its explanation, are indeed of lasting importance, not least for the extent that they demonstrate how deeply rooted in 17th-century metaphysics are most of our own conceptions and puzzles concerning the projects of science. Any good history illuminates our current understanding, and the core discussions of metaphysics here fulfil this condition. It would be good to think that current philosophers pause long enough to study this valuable work as they dispute with one another over their latest, ephemeral contributions.

Andrew Harrison is reader in philosophy, University of Bristol.

The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, Volumes One and Two

Editor - Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers
ISBN - 0 521 30763 5 (vol. one) and 57233 9 (vol. two)
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £90.00
Pages - 1,616

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