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Response to Review of Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c1640-1700

I am grateful to Prof. Bulman for taking the time to write such a long review of my book. I am especially grateful for his comments that what is ‘particularly valuable’ about it is that I ‘link and move between territories usually covered only in isolation by historians of science and historians of humanistic scholarship’, and that the book ‘will undoubtedly be mined by later historians of scholarship, and one can only hope that intellectual and religious historians will make use of it as well’. I certainly share both this sense of what I was trying to do, and the same hope for how I hope the book will be read.

The long-format reviews in Reviews in History offer a unique venue for discussing, in much greater detail than usually possible, the scholarly steps taken within the book under review. It thus seems a shame that Bulman, a knowledgeable historian of late 17th-century England, has not taken the opportunity to do just that. Bulman had 4,500 words – around five times longer than the average scholarly review – to discuss the actual scholarly content of my book. That he has failed to do so is, I think, best conveyed by two quantitative measures. First, I might note that around half of my book concerns what would broadly be labelled the ‘history of science’. In an impressive feat of compression, Bulman conspires to discuss this portion in two sentences, mentioning not a single person, text, or empirical discovery that I have treated (the history of medicine, to which I devote roughly 50 pages, he does not mention at all).

But this reluctance to consider any of the empirical content of my book is not limited to this section. As a second measure of this, I might name some the central figures discussed in each substantive chapter (there are many more, whom of course I shall not list, alongside the many continental European figures whose influence on English ideas I also discuss at length). Chapter two (on histories of Near Eastern philosophy): Thomas Stanley, John Pearson, Meric Casaubon, G. J. Vossius, Lucas Holstenius, Edward Sherburne, Henry Power, and Thomas Hyde. Chapter three (on histories of Egyptian philosophy): John Wilkins, Alexander Ross, Benjamin Whichcote, Nathaniel Culverwell, John Smith, Henry More, Menasseh ben Israel, Joseph Beaumont, George Hughes, Edward Stillingfleet, Samuel Parker, Theophilus Gale, John Selden, John Owen, Edward Bernard, John Marsham, John Spencer, Ralph Cudworth, Thomas Tenison, Thomas Burnet and the tens of theologians and natural philosophers who responded to him, John Woodward, Edmund Dickinson, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley, Robert Huntington, Samuel Pepys, and William Lloyd. Chapter four (on histories of scientific method): tens of Latin natural philosophical textbooks, Kenelm Digby, Thomas Hobbes, Ralph Bathurst, William Harvey, Francis Glisson, Nathaniel Highmore, William Petty, many of the intellectual reformers of the Interregnum and their opponents, Robert Boyle, the scores of texts from the fierce debates about medical method that erupted in the 1660s and 1670s, Thomas Willis, John Locke, Thomas Sydenham, Thomas Sprat, Joseph Glanvill, Thomas White, Henry Stubbe, John North, Thomas Millington, Isaac Barrow, and Isaac Newton. Chapter five (on histories of natural philosophical doctrine): Pierre Gassendi, John Evelyn, Walter Charleton, Ralph Bohun, Thomas Gataker, More, Stillingfleet, Parker, and Cudworth (again), Digby and White (again), Harvey and Glisson (again), Walter Needham, Jan Baptist van Helmont, Willis and Boyle (again), John Twysden, John Mayow, William Simpson, Thomas Sherley, North (again), Newton (again, here with a fundamentally revisionist account of the famous General Scholium). Chapter six (on histories of the encounter between early Christianity and pagan philosophy): William Chillingworth, John Biddle, Henry Nickman, Francis Cheynell, Nicholas Estwick, Peter Heylyn, Henry Hammond, Herbert Thorndike, John Pearson, Hobbes (again), John Beale, Thomas Smith, the group of More, Meric Casaubon, Stillingfleet, Parker, Cudworth, and Tenison (again), William Beveridge, Matthew Scrivener, Richard Baxter, Samuel Gardiner, William Cave, George Bull, Henry Dodwell, scores of texts from the trinitarian debates of the 1680s and 1690s, Jean Le Clerc, and Pierre Allix. Now, I have obviously offered this tiresome list not to advertise the contents of my book, but to note Bulman’s singular failure to discuss them. For he has managed (I repeat, in a 4,500 word review!) to mention precisely three of them: More, Gale, and Le Clerc. Needless to say, I would not expect any reviewer to discuss anything approaching all of them. But given that some of them are very famous, and that I claim to say rather new things about them (e.g. Stanley, Marsham, Burnet, Boyle, Cudworth, Newton (!), Halley), one might have expected at least some analysis of these claims. That none is offered is, as I say, rather a shame, not least because Bulman – a fine scholar of 17th-century English intellectual and religious culture – would have been well placed to offer interesting comments on the substance of my arguments about them.

At this point the curious reader may be wondering: how is this possible, and why has it occurred? I shall return to the question of ‘why’ at the end. For the time being, we have to ask: what has Bulman written about, if not the substantive content of my book? The answer is that three quarters of Bulman’s review is composed of a discussion of one historiographical topic: the existence, or otherwise, of a so-called ‘early enlightenment’. To achieve this strange twist, Bulman has to adopt a rather esotericist hermeneutic. My book, he says, is not really about what I say it’s about – attitudes to the history of philosophy in the 17th century – rather, he insists, my ‘main historiographical target … is not previous work on early modern scholarship but rather the broader notion of an “early Enlightenment”, and specifically the works of Jonathan Israel and J. G. A. Pocock. This is a disservice to my book; more seriously, it borders on being offensively dismissive of those scholars – many of whom have produced brilliant, seminal studies – with whom my book does primarily engage in its substantive chapters (rather than in the very short conclusion). Most of them, because they have not made the noisy and simplistic arguments of the type favoured by Professor Israel (or, even more dispiritingly, because they do not primarily write in English), do not receive the historiographical attention given to him, and so to do them the courtesy and justice they deserve, I should like to name those scholars with whom I see myself as most in dialogue in my book: Peter Anstey, Constance Blackwell, Anne Blair, Stefano Brogi, Paolo Casini, Justin Champion, Antonio Clericuzio, Conal Condren, Hal Cook, Alan Cunningham, Alan Debus, Sébastien Drouin, Steffen Ducheyne, Mordechai Feingold, Robert Frank, Alan Gabbey, John Gascoigne, Stephen Gaukroger, Guido Giglioni, Martial Gueroult, Niccolò Guiggiardini, Ralph Häfner, Mary Boas Hall, Wouter Hanegraaff, Peter Harrison, Kristine Haugen, John Henry, Hiro Hirai, Ian Hunter, Michael Hunter, Sarah Hutton, Alexander Jacob, Donald Kelley, Frans Korsten, Jill Kraye, Sicco Lehmann-Brauns, Cees Leijenhorst, Joseph Levine, Rhodri Lewis, Antonia Lolordo, Jan Loop, Christoph Lüthy, Ian Maclean, Noel Malcolm, Luciano Malusa, Scott Mandelbrote, John Marshall, G. G. Meynell, Anthony Milton, Sarah Mortimer, Martin Mulsow, William Newman, Arrigo Pacchi, Walter Pagel, Fausto Parente, Jon Parkin, Giovanni Piaia, Stephen Pigney, William Poole, Jean-Louis Quantin, Rhonda Rappaport, Paolo Rossi, Giovanni Santinello, Charles Schmitt, John Sellars, Richard Serjeantson, Nancy Siraisi, Steve Snobelen, John Spurr, Michael Stausberg, Daniel Stolzenberg, Guy Stroumsa, Adam Sutcliffe, G. J. Toomer, J. C. Walmsley, Charles Webster, and Catherine Wilson. Again, I need hardly say that I do not list them to show that I have read their works, or because they need me name-checking them, but because the actual content of my book is ‘in conversation’ with their work far more than it is with that of Professor Israel, describing whom as my ‘ultimate bête noire’ is deeply misrepresentative.

Of course, recognising that this is where the historiographical thrust of my book lies would have involved engaging with that content. Instead, Bulman prefers to cherry-pick quotations out of my conclusion (six pages out of 670), along with a few others which, he believes, justify him taking the ‘early enlightenment’ as the ‘real’ subject of my book (which he is then surprised to find me treating ‘half-heartedly’!). Of course, I do have some things to say about this subject, and so a review that self-consciously admitted that it would focus only on this topic at the expense of all others could have stimulated some interesting discussion. Unfortunately, Bulman’s comments even on this subject are characterised by a mixture of mis-readings and internal contradictions. For the sake of clarity, I will first deal with his specific concerns in a shortened, point-by-point format:

(i) Bulman does not like that I do not offer a general definition of ‘criticism’ as a ‘procedure or general attitude’, but only refer it to ‘some specific propositions’. At this point, I remind the reader once again that I wrote a book first and foremost about seventeenth-century attitudes to the history of philosophy, not about any other subject, including ‘criticism’ more generally. More pertinently, the answer is simple: I do not believe any such definition exists, because ‘criticism’ was only ever used to refer to such specific propositions in specific contexts. This is shown quite clearly by the work of Nick Hardy, which I cite repeatedly (and which will be published in extended form in 2017 as Criticism and Confession in 2017, by Oxford University Press). Not unconnectedly, I’m unsure about the meaning of his ambiguous criticism in the first paragraph that I have failed to examine 17th-century histories on their own terms. Bulman seems to mean that 17th-century thinkers would not have considered subjects such as ‘Zoroastrian theology’ as part of the history of philosophy. One wonders, then, why precisely that subject formed the whole fourth volume of Thomas Stanley’s History of philosophy (1655–62), and why every single 17th-century thinker that I am familiar with – both English and continental – disagreed with the claim that pre-Greek, oriental wisdom was not really ‘philosophy’, as it was made at the outset of Diogenes Laërtius’s Lives of the Philosophers, the single most important classical source for the subject (I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has a counter-example).

(ii) Bulman does not like that my argument against the usefulness of the concept of ‘early enlightenment’ is partially chronological, claiming that I misrepresent the positions of Professors Israel and Pocock in this regard. In the case of the former, this is a strange claim: Israel’s work is famous for assuming that everyone before c.1660 was incapable of any kind of independent thought, back-covering comments to the contrary notwithstanding. On the specific subject of my book, Israel repeatedly asserts that all pre-1680 histories of philosophy were beholden to ‘pious syncretism’, a contention that I have empirically disproved. I do not see what the issue is here.

The case with Pocock is, at least, a little more interesting. As Bulman notes, Pocock does acknowledge the influence of earlier figures like Denis Petau, as well as of a post-Erasmian humanist tradition of broadly ‘historical’ biblical criticism and patristics more generally. But – in addition to pointing out that he does so with the utmost brevity and very half-heartedly (1a) –it must be recognised that this basic point does not represent where our disagreement lies. Discussing Jean Le Clerc, Professor Pocock argues that his deeply contextualist reading of early church history, and especially of the Christian encounter with pagan philosophy, was relatively novel, and that it was stimulated above all by (i) Le Clerc’s engagement with the very-recently published ideas on language contained in John Locke’s Essay, and (ii) his tolerationist religious politics. By contrast, I argue that his specific conclusions were stimulated by earlier scholarship (not just that of Petau), and that his contextualist scholarly method owed far more to previous historical scholarship, much of it English, than it did to Lockean philosophy. (Needless to say, this does not mean that I think Le Clerc was not a tolerationist, or that his political views didn’t influence his conclusions at all, or that he didn’t make any new scholarly moves of his own). Now, it would be perfectly possible to argue that on this subject, Professor Pocock is right and I am wrong. But to deny that there is a disagreement between us seems very peculiar. Surely this is a clear disagreement about a specific issue, and one which includes an obvious chronological component?(2a)

(iii) Bulman claims that I consistently seek to argue that early modern scholars had some kind of dispassionate concern for truth that they ‘kept separate from some of their deepest truth commitments, which were of course religious and political in nature’. This claim is particularly bizarre, and depends on the most egregious use of selective quotation. For example, Bulman quotes me saying that ‘the “ideology” that was most important to the transformation of attitudes to near eastern philosophy … was a curiosity about the subject matter … grounded in the culture of late humanism’. But he might also have quoted the previous sentence, where I say that we also need to understand each scholar in their ‘local context’, where the different local contexts that I list are religio-political. This is what I do throughout the book, often offering ideological explanations for the scholarship of various figures, explanations that directly oppose prominent historiographical readings that have sought to ‘neutralise’ these figures. To give only three prominent examples, I argue (i) that Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy (the first book in English of its name) should not be understood, as it previously has been, solely in a neutral-scholarly sense, but should be placed in the context of the engagement with certain theological issues, especially concerning natural law, that concerned a group of thinkers both in England and on the continent in the period c. 1640–60; (ii) that Thomas Hyde, the first European scholar to write about the history of ancient Persian religion and philosophy on the basis of actual Persian sources, needs to be understood not as a dispassionate practitioner of the ‘modern comparative history of religion’ (as he has been by Guy Stroumsa, among others), but as a Restoration Anglican engaging with a particular set of textual and institutional traditions; and (iii) that Ralph Cudworth’s treatment of the early Christian encounter with Platonism was stimulated not, as his previous commentators assumed, by a bland irenicism, ‘latitudinarianism’, or Platonism, but (at least partially) by a quite vehement anti-Calvinism, which he shared with many of his far more intolerant contemporaries in the Restoration Church of England. If these are not examples of ‘ideological’ explanations for scholarship, I do not know what is. But of course, noting them would (once again) have involved engaging with the actual contents of my arguments (and of the arguments of the people I discuss), rather than just focussing on select ‘methodological’ statements. All that I meant by those statements was that studying the scholarly content of early modern texts is important, that a thinker who disagreed with another scholar’s political or religious ideas might nonetheless believe that that scholar had reached a correct historical conclusion, and that this can explain as much about intellectual change as ideological mapping. (This conclusion, incidentally, is now a consensus in the history of early modern science, where most agree that ideological mapping fails to explain scientific change; I see no intrinsic reason why it cannot be the case in the history of ideas more broadly, although of course, the test will be the evidence itself, rather than a general methodological principle).

But Bulman is so concerned to have me proposing an ‘anti-ideological’ methodology that he in turn also attributes an ‘ideology’ to me, based on a pseudo-psychological reading of my acknowledgements. If this sounds like high farce, I am sorry to say that that is exactly what it is. Bulman speculates that my gratefulness to my former institution, Trinity College, Cambridge, as a ‘haven from the contemporary onslaught on serious humanistic scholarship’ (his words) stems from some kind of ‘over-identification’ with certain actors of my story. Perhaps he has managed to stay blissfully oblivious to trends in British academia in the last decade, but I don’t think one has to have any particular affinity with Ralph Cudworth, or any other 17th-century scholar, to suggest that the humanities have indeed suffered terribly; my comment was an entirely innocent statement of gratefulness (and good fortune) at being based at an institution that could afford me relative insulation from these pressures. Even more farcical is Bulman’s next speculation: that my dedication to ‘four scholars’ from the former Soviet Union also magically reveals a fetishisation for certain aspects of early modern scholarship. The truth is, I fear, much more mundane: the dedicatees are not ‘four scholars’, but rather my grandparents, for whom, like many other young people, I have a lot of fondness (I note that in the acknowledgements to his own book, Bulman describes his grandfather ‘as an inspiring storyteller’ and his ‘greatest fan’ – I leave it to those more perceptive than me to expose how this explains Bulman’s historical arguments).

But behind all this silliness, there does hide a more significant intellectual point. For let us assume that my aim was what Bulman attributes to me: to celebrate the putatively non-ideological, curiosity-driven scholarship of the early moderns, out of some misguided parallel with 20th-century history. Surely, then, my book would have looked something like the work of earlier Eastern European scholars who did try and do something like that: one thinks, for example, of Leszek Kołakowski’s seminal Świadomość religijna i więź kościelna (1965), better known in its French translation, Chrétiens sans Église (1969). But, as Bulman himself recognises, my reading is precisely the opposite, for, as he congratulates me, I ‘rightly assail the tendency to “forge a strong (and sometimes reductionist) connection between intellectual change and politics” by means of a “totalising, progressivist narrative” guided by the assumption that “intellectual change must stem from outsiders, and that all intellectual endeavour coming from politically non-“liberal” groups must have been counter-innovative’. Or to put it less abstractly, if the intentions Bulman attributes to me were correct, why would I characterise Samuel Parker – perhaps the most intolerant and bigoted cleric in Restoration England, and thus the closest (one has to suppose, following Bulman’s reading) that someone comes to the analogue of a Soviet apparatchik – as a pioneer in the writing of the history of philosophy?

At this point, we can finally ask: why has Bulman adopted such a peculiar (and, at least when it comes to the pop psychology, embarrassing) way of reading my book? If I were to adopt Bulman’s own psychological approach to answering this question, I might propose various solutions. I might speculate, for example, that his love for the category of ‘absolutist enlightenment’ stems from his own desire to promote modern absolutism; maybe, in fact, he is covertly advancing the agenda of the recently elected President of his own home country?

Needless to say, such speculation would be ridiculous. Rather, the clues lie in the text of Bulman’s review, and specifically in his repeated, gnomic references to unspecified ‘recent scholarship’. That scholarship, is, of course, his own. The person whose main historiographical obsession ‘is the notion of an ‘early Enlightenment’ is not me, but Bulman. And it is Bulman, not me, who counts as his main interlocutors Professors Israel and Pocock. What is particularly ironic is that to the extent that our interests overlap, our interpretations have much in common. Like me, Bulman is concerned to show that many of the intellectual developments that one would consider ‘innovative’ – especially as they occurred in the writing of certain branches of patristics, biblical criticism, and oriental scholarship – stemmed not from ‘liberals’ and ‘outsiders’, but from the mainstream, and often from rather intolerant clerics. For me, this has an obvious interpretative corollary: the ‘early enlightenment’ model, which depends, almost by definition, on drawing totalising connection between intellectual innovation and religio-political liberalism, does not fit the facts. But Bulman, on the basis of the somewhat defeatist assumption that we should just work with the categories we already have (3a), attempts an elaborate act of scholarly escapism, in which he insists that the ‘early enlightenment’ concept retains its value even when stripped of almost all of its traditional meaning. This is of course not the forum to discuss whether he has succeeded or not; the point is that Bulman’s review of my book is only comprehensible when viewed from this very particular, idiosyncratic perspective. For example, Bulman’s strained attempts to separate my chronological and ideological criticisms of Pocock now make sense: his own argument agrees with the latter criticism (hence I am congratulated for ‘exposing … liberal and secularist blinkers’) but – since he still wants to have his enlightened cake and eat it – not with the former, which is accordingly criticised. The reality is that my argument is a totality: Pocock focuses on the post-1680 period because of his belief in a connection between politics and scholarship; to separate the chronological and the ideological criticisms is thus to miss the point both of his work, and of mine.(4a)

To summarise: Bulman’s review says virtually nothing about the actual content of my book, or its subject matter – histories of philosophy written in the 17th century. Instead, what it offers is effectively an assessment of how close I have come to his own interpretation of another subject, the ‘early enlightenment’, with points awarded for closeness, and taken away for distance.

But, in an attempt to salvage something useful from this discussion, I think that there is one final point that is worth making. The point begins with a mundane issue: style. Here, of course, much is in the eye of the beholder. Needless to say, I do not claim that my book is going to be particularly accessible to non-specialists (it is, after all, an academic monograph). But then one might also think that, to be comprehensible to anything but the most niche audience, a review of a book should actually discuss its contents, rather than focus on one specialised historiographical squabble. But all this conceals a larger, and far more important, point. The great revolution in what we can very loosely call ‘the history of scholarship’ has been that historians have come more and more to concern themselves with what early modern scholars were actually doing. That is to say, we do not simply reduce their ideas to a political-ideological stance, or believe the throwaway methodological rhetoric of their prefaces and dedications, which – we have come to recognise – was largely offered as ex post facto justification, and often had little to do with the actual process of their work. Rather, we now assess the content of their texts, and try to explain how they actually arrived at that content, not least by trying to recreate them at work. The locus classicus for such an approach is Anthony Grafton’s two-volume intellectual biography of Joseph Scaliger (1983–93). (If Bulman thinks my book overly long and ‘self-indulgent’, one can only wonder what he makes of that seminal work, which, even though it ostensibly treats only one scholar, is 300 pages longer than mine). As Grafton’s genre-defining book shows, such an approach inevitably generates far more complexity than one that favours reductionist-ideological explanations in which everything any scholar says can be explained as being ‘really’ about their political or religious beliefs. In the wake of Grafton’s works, we can, I believe, identify what we might very loosely call two ‘schools’ of the history of scholarship, and its application to intellectual history more broadly. One believes, as I do, that the devil is in the detail (so to speak); that the old broad sweeping categories are simply too blunt to explain the evidence (and indeed, that they have their origins in specific ideological positions, often originating in the 19th century), and that the key to understanding intellectual change is to understand what scholars were actually doing: mine is only one of several works that has attempted this kind of scholarship in recent years.(5a) One result of such an approach is that 17th-century scholarship (and ideas more generally) are treated on their own terms and objects of worthwhile historical study in their own right, rather than proxies for grandstanding claims about ‘modernity’, and so on. The other approach is to keep believing that the broad categories have explanatory force, that totalising explanations are possible, and that scholarship will be advanced by arguing about who was or wasn’t ‘enlightened’ (and then further subdividing everyone into radical, moderate, conservative, clerical, absolutistic, etc.). If readers, and especially younger scholars, are to take any one broader point from this exchange in Reviews in History, it is that they will have to decide which approach they consider more fruitful.


  1. E.g. J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion: the Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, vol. v, Religion: the First Triumph (Cambridge, 2010).Back to (1a)
  2. For what it’s worth, the fact that the same objections to Prof. Pocock’s interpretation of Le Clerc have recently been raised independently of my work suggests that my reading of that interpretation is not entirely fanciful: see K. Collis, ‘Reading the bible in the “early enlightenment”: philosophy and the ars critica in Jean Le Clerc’s early theological dialogues’, Erudition and the Republic of Letters, 1 (2016), 121–50.Back to (2a)
  3. W. Bulman, Anglican Enlightenment: Orientalism, Religion and Politics in England and its Empire, 1648–1715 (Cambridge, 2015), xii: ‘…like it or not, the Enlightenment is here to stay. Whatever its value as a term of analysis, it seems unwilling to retreat in the face of relentless scholarly subdivisions, warnings, and denials. We might as well make the best of it’.Back to (3a)
  4. Speaking of missing the point: Bulman accuses me of claiming that ‘Enlightenment historians… have traditionally disconnected their “story of ‘enlightenment’ from ‘institutional and cultural context’”’, citing my p. 164. This would indeed be a bizarre claim for me to have made. But it is worth quoting my words in full. They concern not a description of modern historical work on the enlightenment, but one 17th-century scholar, John Marsham, about whose works (on Egyptian chronology) I conclude: ‘The attempt to place Marsham in a story of “enlightenment” simply does not do justice to the world in which he was operating. He is much better placed by placing his work’s subject matter in institutional and cultural context’. (My historiographical target at this point is Adam Sutcliffe’s discussion of Marsham, which attempts to make Marsham’s chronological studies an ‘enlightened’ attack on the bible). I then explain that that context is technical chronology as it was practiced in 17th-century England, e.g. by Marsham’s friend John Bainbridge, and how this in turn explains Marsham’s differences from other types of contemporary historical writing. So, unless Bulman is going to argue that technical chronology was a particularly ‘enlightened’ activity, it seems rather difficult to see how his reading of my words can stand.Back to (4a)
  5. For what I consider to be some seminal examples (many others could be cited), see e.g. J.-L. Quantin, ‘Anglican scholarship gone mad? Henry Dodwell (1641–1711) and Christian antiquity’, History of Scholarship, eds., J.-L. Quantin and C. Ligota (Oxford, 2006); S. Mandelbrote, ‘Isaac Vossius and the Septuagint’, in Isaac Vossius (1618–1689): between science and scholarship, ed. E. Jorkink and D. van Miert (Leiden, 2012); K. L. Haugen, ‘Hebrew Poetry transformed, or, scholarship invincible between Renaissance and Enlightenment’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 75 (2012). 1–29; A. Bevilacqua, ‘The Qur’an translations of Marracci and Sale’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 76 (2013), 93–130.Back to (5a)