Friday, August 22, 2008

Ashworth, E. Jennifer. "Review of James Hankins, ed. CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO RENAISSANCE PHILOSOPHY." NDPR (August 2008).

Hankins, James, ed. Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy. Cambridge: CUP, 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy offers two challenges. The first concerns the very nature of philosophy: is it moral formation, esoteric wisdom, cosmological speculation, or, more prosaically, an academic discipline using logical tools to discuss metaphysical and epistemological issues? The second concerns our mistaken views of the Renaissance: was it a period in which Plato and the new philosophers of nature triumphed over medieval Aristotelian obscurantism, or was it "a swampland inhabited," among others, "by wild-eyed magicians and Naturphilosophen, as fertile in propagating new ideas as they were incapable of defending them" (p. 339)? The answer to the second question turns out to be, "on the whole, neither"; the answer to the first question is left as an exercise for the reader. With this welcome addition to its series of companions to philosophy, the Cambridge University Press continues its service to those interested in the lengthy period from the mid-fourteenth century to the early seventeenth century. The press has already produced the Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (1988) and the monumental Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy (1998), but these are aimed at a scholarly readership, and there has been little to attract students and non-specialists. It is true that the series of Cambridge companions to literature includes the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (1996), several chapters of which pertain to philosophy, but the philosophy series up to now had a conspicuous gap between the companion to William of Ockham (d. 1347) and the companion to Thomas Hobbes (b. 1588). In his attempt to fill this gap of two and a half centuries, the editor, James Hankins, faced a massive challenge. He had to come to grips not only with the multiplicity of schools and movements to be covered, but with the impact of various historical developments including the invention of printing, the rediscovery of ancient works, the European discovery of the Americas and the first voyages to China and Japan, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and changes in educational systems. Moreover, he had to strike a balance between providing the reader with necessary background information, introducing the reader to individual thinkers, and giving a general overview without getting swamped in details. At the same time, he had to ensure that the presentation of the material would appeal not only to intellectual historians but also to contemporary philosophers. Hankins tackled all these problems with considerable, if varying, success. The book has sixteen contributors, including Hankins himself, and, leaving aside Hankins' substantial introduction and conclusion, the remaining sixteen chapters fall roughly into three groups. Four chapters are designed to place Renaissance thought and thinkers into their historical context. Two of the most readable chapters in the book belong in this first category. Peter Harrison examines the impact of Protestantism on philosophy, with respect to such notions as justification, personal autonomy, and the status of moral law. Ann M. Blair provides many fascinating details about the organization of knowledge, from the writing of history to the provision of library catalogues and collections of natural specimens. In addition, Robert Black discusses the philosopher's place in Renaissance culture, and Hankins provides a useful overview of early humanism and scholasticism which concludes with a study of Petrarch. The second group of five chapters falls under the heading "Continuity and Revival." Luca Bianchi, Christopher S. Celenza and Jill Kraye provide useful, clear accounts of developments in the Aristotelian tradition, and of the revivals of Platonic and Hellenistic philosophy, while Dag Nikolaus Hasse offers a very informative study of the impact of Arabic philosophy. He adds a noteworthy appendix (pp. 134-136) which lists Renaissance Latin translations of Arabic philosophy from 1450 to 1700. The section concludes with an illustrated chapter on magic by Brian P. Copenhaver which is entirely devoted to Marsilio Ficino, without any mention of later authors such as Agrippa who also wrote influential works on magic and the occult. While this narrowing of the topic makes for enjoyable reading, it does not help the person who wants to know to what extent and why Renaissance thinkers were preoccupied with such matters. The third group of seven chapters falls under the heading "Toward Modern Philosophy" and is designed to provide the reader with an account of specifically Renaissance developments in philosophy. Instead of being organized around such familiar themes as epistemology, the mind-body problem, philosophy of science and so on, it combines some discussion of individual thinkers with focus on particular problems. . . . Read the rest here:

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