Monday, September 03, 2007

Harris, James A. "Review of Knud Haakonssen, ed. Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy." NDPR July 12, 2007

Knud Haakonssen's long-awaited Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy is an achievement equal in importance and stature to its illustrious predecessors in the Cambridge History of Philosophy series. It is impossible to imagine this book being superseded for years to come. It comprises thirty-six chapters collected under five headings: 'The Concept of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy', 'The Science of Human Nature', 'Philosophy and Theology', 'Natural Philosophy', and 'Moral Philosophy'. Immediately striking is the fact that the chapters are devoted to topics and problems, and not to individual philosophers or particular philosophical schools. This is exactly as it should be. A history of eighteenth-century philosophy that restricted itself to chapters on canonical figures, using standard means of categorisation, could do little or nothing to refashion our understanding of the period. It would merely give us again the eighteenth-century that subsequent philosophers and their epigoni have constructed as a means of making sense of and legitimating their own particular projects and agendas. Haakonnssen's book, by contrast, while of course returning again and again to Locke and Hume, Wolff and Kant, Condillac and d'Alembert, puts the familiar in the company of many of their rather less well known contemporaries. Hume's 'Of Miracles' is set by M. A. Stewart in the context of a debate about the rational basis of revealed religion carried by, amongst others, John Toland, Anthony Collins, Matthew Tindal, Thomas Woolston, Peter Annet, Arthur Sykes and Conyers Middleton. Udo Thiel describes reactions to Locke on personal identity from, not only Butler and Reid, but also Samuel Clarke, Berkeley, Collins, Edmund Law and Condillac. The result is untidy and distinctly unfriendly to the notion of the history of philosophy as linear and progressive. Old ideas and arguments refuse to die and disappear; new ones are by turns ignored, misunderstood, and traduced. . . . More at

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