The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe: The Nature of a Contested Identity

The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe: The Nature of a Contested Identity


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521123891
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 01/07/2010
Series: Ideas in Context Series , #77
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Conal Condren is Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales, and a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of the Humanities and of the Social Sciences.

Stephen Gaukroger presently holds an ARC Professorial Fellowship and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities.

Ian Hunter is a Fellow of the Australian Humanities Academy and a research professor in the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland.

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The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-86646-0 - The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe - The Nature of a Contested Identity - Edited by Conal Condren and Stephen Gaukroger and Ian Hunter


Conal Condren and Stephen Gaukroger and Ian Hunter


Individuals and the societies in which they live establish and maintain identity in relationship to some sense of a past, principally of interest insofar as it is of practical relevance in the present. The relationship may be unreliable: memories may be mischievous, a heritage fanciful, a history fabricated, or so brutally abridged as to be mythic. Regardless of the confidence with which a ‘past-relationship’1 is assumed, however, its disruption can be deeply destabilising. These commonplaces about what Michael Oakeshott called the ‘practical past’ are no less pertinent to academic disciplines than they are to societies and individuals. The history of political theory, for example, still sometimes presented as an on-going tradition of debate and dialogue reaching back to the ancient Greeks, was invented as an authenticating lineage for the newly institutionalised university study of politics only around the end of the nineteenth century. Much the same might be said of the gatherings of canonic texts conventionally studied as histories of national literatures. In all these cases, the posited history retains its shape, momentum and character by the competing needs to affirm,reform or subvert a contemporary disciplinary activity. Such histories are often so present-centred as to be largely convenient lineages, anachronistic in predication of content and ‘whiggish’ in narrative structure.

In many ways the history of philosophy is at one with, and may have been a model for, the patterns of these adjacent academic genealogies. Aristotle set a precedent in isolating his own metaphysical position in counterpoint to figures such as Empedocles and Plato. But something approximating the modern history of philosophy was not born until the seventeenth century, when it appeared together with the history of theology, partly in an attempt to tame the incendiary absolute truths of systematic theology and philosophy by treating them as opinions held by historical sects.2 While it remained associated with ‘eclectic’ philosophy, the history of philosophy retained this relativising and pluralising tendency. Once pressed into the service of a priori philosophy by Kant, however, it was transformed into an historical apologetics for modern philosophical doctrine.3 It was Hegel, though, who showed just how far the past could be captured in the interests of promoting a present identity. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy he provided the very dialectical structure that explained how what was worthy led to him.4

Since then, and irrespective of whether Hegel's philosophy has itself been found acceptable, the history of philosophy has remained largely in the hands of philosophers as a tool of contemporary doctrinal exploration and justification. Certainly the difficulties in writing historically about a philosophical past have generated a substantial methodological literature from within philosophy; and in some defined sub-fields historical understanding may be enhanced by the use of specific philosophical techniques, such as the use of modern notation to elucidate medieval logic.5 Yet even here, the main point seems to be to see how far the translation of propositions into modern notational form can help us assess contributions to a discipline that have hitherto been obscured by the inadequacies of Latin.6

Leaving to one side the exploration of the past as a source of propositional treasure, the attitude of philosophers to their history has been instrumentalist in two ways. It may be taken as a relatively neutral territory on which they can meet ecumenically when otherwise divided. Most commonly, however, philosophy's history may be used as a pedagogical induction into the present, in much the same way that, according to Kuhn, histories of physics functioned in science education.7 Similarly, for many years post-Reformation German philosophers have had to trudge their way to Kant in order to be blessed with metaphysical respectability.8 Yet, as Kuhn also remarked of histories of science, when a new orthodoxy is established or an emergent school vies for recognition, the history has to be re-written. Thus fifteenth-century Italian rhetoricians are suddenly the precursors of structuralism;9 Hume the empiricist becomes a pragmatist, an emblem of the importance of William James's battle with idealism.10 Shadowy or discounted figures are shifted into the glare of attention by the need to situate developing interests. The rediscovery of Hobbes as a philosopher of language had much to do with a twentieth-century ‘linguistic turn’. In the same present-centred idiom, lamentation can be as important as celebration. What might seem wrong now can be articulated by blaming selective figures from the past. Thus, according to Richard Rorty, the whole of seventeenth-century epistemology put philosophy on the wrong track;11 and for others Cartesian dualism is still in need of exorcism.12

In some way, however, the history of philosophy is a little different from the histories of other academic disciplines. The self-consciousness and highly contested nature of modern academic philosophical enquiry helps ensure particularly varied perceptions of what the relationship between philosophy and its past amounts to. But there are two polarised claims between which it might seem all other positions must be located. At one extreme is the notion that philosophy is essentially an historical activity and therefore that philosophising well in ignorance of it is impossible. As R. G. Collingwood famously argued, to understand the answers philosophers have given, it is necessary to reveal the contingent and variable nature of their problems, even if history here is really the medium in which such problems are resolved.13 At the other extreme is the argument that a history of philosophy is impossible.14 For whereas historians infer and reconstruct from surviving evidence a philosophical proposition, the thought of a given philosopher is always in the present. The history of philosophy is always philosophy.

That philosophy cannot or must be historical are synoptic extremities that would apparently demand a more reasonable position between the two, with scholars recognising history and philosophy to be different activities, yet holding that they can be mutually enlightening. Thus Rorty, Schneewind and Skinner argue that while entirely past-centred canons of historicity lead towards a futile antiquarianism, a present-centred abridgement of earlier philosophical propositions results only in legitimating anecdotalism. The first endeavour fails to distinguish philosophy from intellectual quackery, the second reduces history to myth.15 All that seems to be required is an avoidance of these excesses.

Up to a point, a position such as this is appealing, not least because it invites an examination of evidence and cases of the interplay between historical knowledge and philosophical proposition. Yet, most broadly, it begs the question of whose criteria are to be used in judging an account of a philosopher from an earlier time insofar as philosophers and historians have diverging interests. If it is likely that philosophers will continue to expect their own standards and priorities to take precedence in their own history, it remains open to the historian to explore the linguistic and institutional means of asserting this precarious authority over a neighbouring discipline. What also remains unclear is the degree to which it is possible to avoid difficulties associated with the specific genre of philosophical history.

As a mode of intellectual history, philosophical history is so structured that historical events unfold as the means of resolving present philosophical problems. As Hegel put it: ‘The course of history does not show us the Becoming of things foreign to us, but the Becoming of ourselves and our knowledge.’16 ‘Our knowledge’ is supposed to arise from human subjectivity's on-going pursuit of self-clarification, and is in this sense timeless. Eighteenth-century Kantians were amongst the first to practise this kind of philosophical history. They treated the entire history of philosophy prior to Kant as if it were an attempt to overcome the impasse between an idea-less empiricism and a sense-less rationalism, even if this impasse was in fact internal to the structure of Kant's transcendental idealism.17 We can find the same basic approach in more recent histories that assimilate the most diverse texts and contexts to a narrative leading to Kant's discovery of the transcendental structure of subjectivity18 or the transcendent structure of a universal moral identity.19

A no less problematic feature of ‘presentist’ philosophical histories is their presumption that we already know what philosophy is – typically, some combination of the disciplines of epistemology, metaphysics and moral philosophy – such that its history is always a history of that which we call philosophy today. This is the presumption that all of the contributions to this book seek to question, by showing in different ways that we cannot read off early modern philosophies from current philosophical doctrines. What philosophy might be is a matter for historical investigation of the activities that have been called ‘philosophy’, regardless of whether to modern eyes these activities resemble post-Kantian epistemology, and regardless of whether they look more like theology, poetry, polemics or natural sciences.

Viewed from a post-Kantian vantage, be it an analytic or a continental one, the landscape of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century philosophy appears as a foreign country. Not only was there little interest in the problems of epistemology, but the range of disciplines classified as philosophy was larger and more diverse than it became from the late eighteenth century. After scanning a number of different classifications typical of the European universities, Joseph Freedman concludes that ‘the nine disciplines which most frequently appeared . . . were metaphysics, physics, mathematics, ethics, family life, politics, logic, rhetoric, and grammar’.20 Once we recall that physics typically comprised the main Aristotelian works of natural philosophy – The Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, Meteorology, On the World, and On the Soul – and that mathematics included the musical and astronomical disciplines in addition to geometry and arithmetic, and that politics could embrace jurisprudence, the full diversity of the philosophical domain begins to appear. The fact that this array included all of the disciplines apart from theology, law and medicine is a pointer to the degree to which the concept of philosophy was determined by what was taught in university arts or philosophy faculties. As Ian Hunter shows, any such determination of philosophy's scope could be contentious, often subject to the contingencies of overtly confessional dispute.

The situation is complicated further if one turns to England, a country whose universities were quite often peripheral to what people saw as philosophy and whose major figures worked outside a university environment. In common usage ‘philosophy’ might not refer to any discipline at all, but to the ends or purposes of many jostling claimants to wisdom. Similarly, the increasing importance of natural philosophy during the seventeenth century could mean that there might be no stable distinction to be drawn between medicine and philosophy, as was attempted within the context of university structures. The anatomist and physician Walter Charleton presented himself to his readers as a philosopher;21 William Harvey was admired as a philosopher because of his work on circulation.22

Historically speaking, then, it becomes increasingly implausible to see early modern philosophy as a single discipline or intellectual endeavour expressive of something like the human subject's struggle to clarify its consciousness or conscience. Some philosophical disciplines were indeed methods of self-clarification. Some, though, taught positive metaphysical or natural philosophical doctrines, still others the arts of logic, grammar and rhetoric, or of memory, navigation or computation. In certain times and places, a certain kind of philosophical persona could be cultivated by seeking self-clarification, yet other kinds of philosophical personae have been cultivated in other ways: by seeking union with God or knowledge of corpuscles, freedom from passion or the alphabet of all possible sciences, mastery of the classics or impartiality of legal judgment.

Such purposive and doctrinal diversity raises the question of whether the history of philosophy can be conceived as an object of enquiry without accepting what philosophers are in the habit of taking for granted. There is a way out of this apparent impasse, however, namely for the history of philosophy to take as its object those doctrines and disciplines that have been accepted as philosophical across a range of historical settings. By treating this acceptance as an object of historical investigation, we shift our focus from philosophical problems to the institutional contexts in which they are delimited, and from the subject of consciousness to the persona of the philosopher that is cultivated in such contexts.


In proposing to recover understandings of philosophy not easily assimilated to the current self-understanding of the discipline, this volume of essays argues for a new and more thoroughly historical approach to the history of early modern philosophy. It focuses on the complementary phenomena of the contested character of philosophy, and the persona necessary for its practice, that is, the purpose-built ‘self’ whose cognitive capacities and moral bearing are cultivated for the sake of a knowledge deemed philosophical.

To take an interest in the persona of the philosopher requires that we attend to the kind of intellectual work that individuals must perform on themselves in order to conduct their minds and persons in a way that is accepted as philosophical. By the same token it requires attention to the moral qualities needed for the education of others as philosophers. This interest is not sociological, as it makes no general assumptions regarding the organisation of societies in which philosophical personae are cultivated, or about the ‘structural’ functions this might serve. It is social, however, to the extent that modes of intellectual conduct are only recognised as philosophical in and for particular institutional settings: monasteries, seminaries, universities, courts, secret societies, epistolary networks, and so on. Further, this interest is historical, in the sense that the means of carrying out this intellectual and moral work – the modes of scepticism or assent, the forms of abstraction and argument, the image of the person one aspires to become by performing this inner labour – are historically transmitted and put to work under particular circumstances. These circumstances are frequently focused in a highly distinctive institutional milieu where an ensemble of disciplines that determines what counts as philosophy is taught, and where a particular philosophical persona is cultivated.

A philosophical persona is thus not what one has to have in order to solve problems universally recognised as philosophical. Neither is it a proxy for the philosophical ‘subject’, deduced, transcendentally or otherwise, from universal acts of cognition or judgment. Rather, recognition of a problem as philosophical only takes place within the milieu where a philosophical persona is cultivated, as a result of the intellectual and moral means employed for this, and in accordance with the larger historical context in which this milieu operates. To understand a philosophical problem thus means to engage in a process of self-presentation, an act of self-problematisation, or to advocate an idealised character to which potential philosophers should aspire. This kind of process is as evident in the Cartesian procedures for purging the mind as it is in the spiritual exercises of the Jesuit philosophy course, where a whole class of scholars is required to doubt the adequacy of their intellect in the face of their corrupt desires, as a means of inducing their need for authoritative philosophical doctrine.23 The existence of a philosophical problem is integral to the instituted practice in which the special kind of person who knows and resolves such problems – the philosopher – is groomed for office.

Any history of philosophy written from this perspective will not be an account of universal philosophical problems unfolding in time. It will not be an account of how the dialectic of rationalism and empiricism eventually resolved the relation between reason and the senses; or of how the discovery of the transcendent structure of thought finally established the true relation between the metaphysical and physical worlds, a story, to put it bluntly, of how this or that was solved, how we learned to get it right. Rather, it will be a more local and contextual undertaking, focused on uncovering the circumstances in which these ostensibly universal problems were posed for individuals in a manner that made their resolution contingent on the cultivation of a particular kind of philosophical persona.

For this reason, disputes over philosophical problems quickly become disputes over what is to count as philosophy and what it is to be a philosopher. In this regard, early modern Europe witnessed a whole series of protracted border conflicts over the scope of philosophy and the duty of philosophers. These included disputes between the scholastic logician and the humanist rhetorician, the Aristotelian physicist and the Galilean astronomer, the philosopher and the jurist, the arts professor and the metaphysician, the court Neoplatonist and the university Aristotelian, and the philosopher and the theologian. Such disputes were in turn informed by the moral habitus of overlapping institutional environments and by the larger political and religious conflicts in which these institutions played their roles, especially those conflicts associated with the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and the building, or more haphazard formation, of princely territorial states.


There are a number of broad points arising from this shift in perspective. First, it has some precedent in recent scholarship on the history of ancient philosophy, in which attention to the presented way of life of a philosopher, an exercise or activity of the psyche, has been shown to be integral to what was specifically argued.24 Aristotle's synoptic comments on the interrelationship between logos, the word or discourse, and ethos, the presentation of the speaker through these words, offers one kind of support for the view that, in antiquity, the relation between the identity of the speaker and the standing of the discourse was not a contingent matter. The attention given to his own dress and comportment in explaining why he did not succeed Plato as scholarch at the Academy, for example, is another.25 The essays of this volume show a continuity of concern with the nexus of persona and argument, highlighting the manner in which philosophical disputes could be about a way of life, and the qualities, aptitudes and education necessary for its conduct. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ancient notions of philosophical personae were preserved or recovered and made central to the elaboration of philosophical debate, a point illustrated, for example, in the chapters by Hunter and Friedeburg. Issues of living a certain kind of philosophical life and exhibiting a specific philosophical moral decorum persisted. Moreover, this authenticating dimension to the business of philosophising could, as in antiquity, be displayed and advertised beyond words, through the semiotics of dress and cultivation. So the philosopher of the early modern world was bearded and modestly if not shabbily dressed, a constellation of values and priorities.26 He, and it was nearly always a he, was also likely to be afflicted or driven by a certain psychological disposition, the tyranny even, of melancholia (see the essay by Curtis), or the hubris of presuming to think like God.

Second, the way of life was held to involve responsibilities to something beyond the interests of the individual philosopher. This locus of duty varied, as did the (sometimes interchangeable) terms used to express it. Philosophy involved responsibilities to truth, to Man, to God, to Nature, perhaps to a sovereign or else to God through a religious order; it could therefore be presented as an office. As a result, it was easy to assimilate notions of philosophy as conduct and activity to adjacent intellectual and practical offices understood through much the same moral vocabulary. The office of the philosopher was fashioned through the same general language as that of the judge, the spiritual director, the counsellor or the ruler (see the essays by Saunders and Friedeburg). Indeed, the language of office, inherited and augmented from antiquity – consider Platonic analogies between the midwife and the true philosopher, or Christian-Aristotelian figurations of philosophy as theology's handmaid – was pervasive or implied in disputing philosophical personae. This was something that helps explain what has been noted above, that the word ‘philosophy’ had a range of use well beyond any putative coherent discipline. The long-standing topos for exploring the nature of the philosophical life, the choice between its active or contemplative modes as the best means towards its ends, had implications for religion and civic commitment. Arguments about the nature of philosophy could be conveyed through discussion of the responsibilities of institutionalised offices, and the model for the active philosophical life might be little different from the office of civic counsel. Conversely, the paradigm of the contemplative life could be the monk or nun exercising offices to God. Attention to the issue of religious character, as Harrison argues in his essay, makes clear why post-Reformation denominational divisions

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Table of Contents

List of contributors; Acknowledgements; Introduction; 1. The persona of the natural philosopher Stephen Gaukroger; 2. The university philosopher in early modern Germany Ian Hunter; 3. The persona of the philosopher and the rhetorics of office in early modern England Conal Condren; 4. From Sir Thomas More to Robert Burton: the laughing philosopher in the early modern period Catherine Curtis; 5. 'Vaine philosophy': Thomas Hobbes and the philosophy of the Schools Richard Serjeantson; 6. The judicial persona in historical context: the case of Matthew Hale David Saunders; 7. Persona and office: Althusius on the formation of magistrates and councillors Robert von Friedeburg; 8. Descartes as sage: spiritual askesis in Cartesian philosophy John Cottingham; 9. The natural philosopher and the virtues Peter Harrison; 10. Fictions of a feminine philosophical persona: Christine de Pizan, Margaret Cavendish, and philosophia lost Karen Green and Jacqueline Broad; 11. John Locke and polite philosophy Richard Yeo.

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