Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c1640-1700
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016, ISBN: 9781107105881; 694pp.; Price: £89.99
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
While the title of this book might give the impression that it is a 700-page tome on a peripheral genre of late 17th-century English literature, the non-specialist readership of Reviews in History ought not to be misled. By ‘histories of philosophy’ Dmitri Levitin actually means neither simply writings titled as such, nor even simply writings whose content is dominated by such a narrative. His remit, really, is learned propositions made ‘virtually everywhere’ (p. 30) by the English in the 1640–1700 period about ancient philosophy. And what counts as ‘philosophy’ here? Apparently any set of universalist statements made by non-Christians in antiquity – ‘Zoroastrian theology’ (p. 33) and Greek medicine, for example. Many readers will wonder whether these specifications result from an attempt strictly to ‘examine seventeenth-century histories on their own terms’ (p. 8), but they do allow Levitin to capture a wide and important slice of an indubitably central but usually sidelined realm of ideational and scholarly innovation in the later 17th century: the study of the past.
Levitin’s contribution is to provide an array of subtly analyzed, elaborately contextualized, extensively detailed, and often narrativally interrelated examples of the procedures and frameworks that characterized late humanist historical inquiry. He shows that English scholars used these procedures and frameworks to furnish novel accounts of the history of ancient philosophy in a wide variety of settings, from histories of philosophy proper to biblical criticism, apologetics, accounts of early Christianity, and debates on scientific method and theory. These distinctive visions of the past, he argues, were then marshalled in the service of important interventions in other arenas of learning. By making these connections Levitin hopes to recall for us one of the mundane realities of ‘intellectual culture’ (p. 3) in the early Enlightenment: that ‘to be able to speak of the philosophical past was a cultural expectation’ (p. 30). Drawing upon language skills that are unfortunately rare these days, he exhibits a very good command of the early modern primary sources, the ancient sources used by the early moderns under study, and the relevant secondary literature. Even experts in specific areas will learn from many of his footnotes. Particularly valuable is his ability to link and move between territories usually covered only in isolation by historians of science and historians of humanistic scholarship, and thereby add to a longstanding and growing literature that promises to one day bring us beyond an improperly dichotomized and ahistorically ‘disciplined’ understanding of early modern intellectual history.
When struggling with such a dense and intricate mass of material, readers will no doubt wish that there had been a clearer rationale to the order and internal organization of the book’s chapters. The basic subjects of the chapters, though, are clear enough. Chapters two and three, which follow the introduction, collect evidence on historical accounts of ‘eastern’ ancient philosophy (first ‘near-eastern’ and then Egyptian and Jewish) that originated in all the genres and agendas noted earlier. Levitin argues here that before 1680 and the supposed beginning of the early Enlightenment or crise de la conscience europeénne, the English had departed from the pagan-Christian syncretism of the Renaissance, primarily by historicizing the worlds of wisdom in the ancient Near East, and thus throwing doubt upon the crude connections their predecessors had drawn between pagan and sacred traditions, and the mistaken claims they had made about Judaic primacy in philosophy. Chapters four and five hone in on natural philosophy in particular, dealing first with disputes about method (in particular, experimental method) and second with arguments over matter theory and animating principles. These chapters provide interrelated examples of how on these crucial terrains of debate, the so-called ‘new philosophy’ of nature was in large part constructed on the basis of historical reflection about and re-interpretation of the ‘old’, thus producing much new evidence for the primacy of historical inquiry (as opposed to philosophy) in driving intellectual innovation in this period. Chapter six turns from science to debates about the early Christian past. It shows that the English had grappled very seriously with the problematic relationship between pagan philosophy and primitive and patristic Christianity before the final decades of the 17th century, and that the supposedly revolutionary scholarship of Jean Le Clerc was a continuation of earlier work and debate. All these lines of inquiry are necessary building blocks for a much larger project that is long overdue, but also long underway: the construction of a revised picture of the relationships among the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.
Even specialists will often find Levitin’s 100-page chapters and indulgent footnotes to be digressive and disorienting. The uninitiated may find the chapters unreadable. But it is crucial to appreciate the fact that the peculiarities of this book are mostly self-aware and deliberate, and they do have a considerable payoff. Levitin makes his viewpoint clear enough by expressing outright derision for ‘what Anglophone historiography so loves: an overarching “argument”’ (p. 546). Whatever its drawbacks, this position deserves our respect. Levitin’s embrace of particular continental European norms (or, one might add, the norms of long United States dissertations, which the form, content, and organization of the book also strikingly resemble) and a principled antiquarianism (one that often harks back to the virtues and the vices of some of the early modern texts he has studied) helps to maximize the book’s potential as a storehouse of erudition. It 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. The book’s core value results precisely from Levitin’s utter refusal ‘to subordinate the task of gathering and presenting evidence to that of producing an all-consuming argument’ (p. 21) and his focus on ‘singularity of experience and scholarly endeavour’ (p. 546). Levitin is rightly proud of the amount of work he has done, regularly alarmed at the deficiencies of scholars who have gone before him, and reluctant to leave much of either sentiment off of the printed page. However much some readers will grumble at this, as Levitin himself recognizes, ‘in an age when specialised research in the humanities is increasingly threatened’ (p. vii), we probably need more books like this one than we have.
Levitin thus goes to great lengths to position himself as an enemy of ‘labels’ (p. 4), ‘model building’ (p. 545), and generalizations. This splitter revisionism is captured by many of the chapters’ section titles – for instance, ‘Henry More and the non-existence of “Cambridge Platonism”’ (p. 128) – and their ending sentences, such as ‘Cambridge “Platonism” this was not’ (p. 368). The results of this study will prove immensely useful once they are incorporated more fully into positive insights. In fact, they fit rather seamlessly into general frameworks already abumbrated in recent years that Levitin does not address. By examining the often subtle differences between the views of individual thinkers on ancient intellectual history, Levitin continues on a number of fronts a long line of work that has exploded the tendency of early modern intellectual historians to understand the use of ancient texts in early modern Europe in terms of ‘isms’ when these texts were in fact marshalled to manifold purposes in the period, and studied in radically different humanist modes over the course of time. Levitin’s array of targets includes ‘Aristotelianism’, ‘Epicureanism’, ‘Hermeticism’, ‘Platonism’ (in particular, ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and its cousin notion, ‘latitudinarianism’), ‘rationalism’, and ‘empiricism’. Of course, while strictly speaking, ‘there was no such thing as “Epicureanism” in seventeenth-century England, only attitudes to Epicurus’ (p. 4), careful scholars often use such terms as shorthand for dominant readings of a corpus, as Levitin himself does at points. Nevertheless there is a crucial and simple point here that, usually left unheeded, cannot be repeated enough, because it has bedeviled generations of intellectual historiography in multiple fields: since texts have no single meaning or use, there are countless stories yet to be told about competing practices and the extent to which they constituted the intellectual history of the early modern and other periods.
Given Levitin’s attitude to the material and the historiography, it should come as no surprise that the book’s most original, cogent, illuminating, and occasionally devastating arguments are made on a very fine level of detail, to the point that they are nearly impossible to summarize with brevity. Bit by bit these arguments go a long way towards fortifying the familiar claim that late humanist traditions (and in particular, historical inquiry) were perpetuated by theologians, natural philosophers, and many other scholarly practitioners, in the process of intellectual innovation in these areas and others. In other words, while Levitin’s book certainly makes significant additions to our understanding of early modern scholarship, that is not its primary intended contribution. A bit like his avowed methodological model, Jean-Louis Quantin, Levitin has moved beyond some of the usual conventions in the historiography of scholarship in hopes of better enabling it to have a clearer impact on the mainstream concerns of intellectual historians, an impact that might arguably be far more profound than it has been. He wants to contribute to accounts of general intellectual shifts by tracing them to specific scholarly practices employed in specific contexts by specific individuals over time, but thinks this is best accomplished by moving beyond the tendency of Anthony Grafton and other exemplary historians of scholarship to focus on one scholar at a time. In this sense the book, which strings together elaborate commentaries on individual and often non-canonical writers instead of writing a separate article about each, is somewhat experimental, and its results are doubly instructive: they expose both the potential benefits and the considerable difficulties involved in bridging the gap between the history of scholarly practices and intellectual history proper.
Whatever the overall success of this experiment, its combination with Levitin’s broadly antiquarian commitments does come at a cost. Levitin does, after all, explicitly position his book against a series of ‘overarching’ and ‘all-consuming’ arguments that have been made in the past by Jonathan Israel, J. G. A. Pocock, and many others about late 17th- and early 18th-century intellectual history. And he partly justifies the book’s length and style by relating it to perhaps the most important question today in Enlightenment studies: what happened in the late 17th century, an account of which is the cornerstone of the interpretations of Israel, Pocock, and so many others? Did innovative European thinkers jettison their institutional and intellectual inheritance? Or did they actually perpetuate a long Renaissance and Reformation? Or, contrary to nearly all existing historiography of religion and intellectual life, did they do neither of these things, and is it necessary to adopt less binary ways of thinking in order to capture this moment of undeniable intellectual turbulence?
Levitin’s principles and motivating energies are such that he addresses these arguments and produces counter-arguments in a largely revisionist or deconstructive mode, and rather half-heartedly at that. His own general arguments, for instance, come immediately after he has derided the convention of providing them. These arguments are valuable, albeit also rather familiar and not fully substantiated within the book itself. He rightly recognizes ‘the continuing vitality in England of a European-wide humanist scholarly culture among not just scholars but the whole intellectual community’ (p. 546) and claims that ‘the greatest transformation of seventeenth-century intellectual culture was not the replacement of one philosophy with another, but rather the death of the ideal of the philosopher-theologian, an intellectual persona encapsulated in the person of the metaphysician’ (p. 546) – by which he appears to mean that the ‘Reformed scholastic’ (pp. 546–7) theologian lost prominence in English intellectual life in the later 17th century. Finally, and relatedly, he registers support for the position that the experimental variant of philosophy came to hold sway over other variants in this period, and helps us understand how this happened. He argues that the generally ‘tough lot of philosophy in our period’ (i.e., non-experimental natural philosophy) was the result of a process of historical conextualization in which this philosophy came to be understood as ‘a dangerous and even anachronistic throwback to paganism itself’ (p. 547). The evidence he assembles on this front certainly furthers the ongoing dismantling of a standard Enlightenment narrative, which ‘tends to favour the victory of “philosophy” over both theology and humanism’ (p. 547).
Similarly, when Levitin directly addresses the theses of his historiographical opponents, he does not muster the same analytical clarity and precision that often shine in his fine-grained case studies. He rightly assails histories of early modern classical scholarship written by classicists themselves for their ‘ahistorical value judgments and insensitivity to context’, urges us to ‘place scholarship within institutional and disciplinary contexts’, and even places the term ‘scholarship’ in scare quotes (p. 3). To be sure, his book does partly move beyond ‘the world of ‘“scholarship” narrowly conceived’ (pp. 11, 30) and it does far better than many of its predecessors in developing an historically appropriate standard for good scholarship and admitting the considerable overlap among what would today be understood as separate disciplines. But Levitin does not fully historicize or even define the category of scholarship itself, or those to which it is opposed, which for him include the work of ‘theologians and biblical critics’ (p. 114). On this front his remit often appears very narrow indeed. He is willing, for instance, to call ‘historical apologetics’ a ‘popular genre’ (p. 346) and to dub William Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses (1737–41) – which runs to 2,500 pages in its 19th-century edition and features a considerable scholarly apparatus – a ‘populist’ work (p. 229). Finally, since the book is essentially composed of a set of readings of individual texts composed by individuals, we do not quite get an analysis solidly founded upon an ‘institutionalized conception of early modern philosophy’ (p. 11). Some readers will worry that one set of ahistoricisms has too often been replaced by another.
Levitin’s main historiographical target, though, is not previous work on early modern scholarship but rather the broader notion of an ‘early Enlightenment’. The reader gets no clear or consistent sense of what understanding of ‘early Enlightenment’ Levitin is attacking, so it is necessary to piece it together. Levitin states out the outset (and confirms with a series of remarks in the main text – e.g. p. 95) that ‘it is a central claim of this book that the category [of early enlightenment] obscures more than it reveals about seventeenth-century scholarship’ (p. 8). It is hard to know what to do with such a claim, since it is unclear what historiographical tradition regards ‘enlightenment’ to be a purely or even primarily scholarly phenomenon, or, in any case, a phenomenon whose meaning could be understood within a context as specific as the historiography of philosophy. If anything, claims about an ‘early enlightenment’ and Enlightenment more generally have been about a retreat from scholarship as the preoccupation of educated Europeans and as a site of intellectual vitality (a claim Pocock has done much to dismantle). The arguments of Pocock and Israel with regard to the Enlightenment – Levitin’s main targets here – are not primarily arguments about the chronology of scholarly innovation. They are arguments about an emergent connection between critical scholarship and specific ideological positions. Enlightenment historians will be similarly confused by the charge that they have traditionally disconnected their ‘story of “enlightenment”’ from ‘institutional and cultural context’ (p. 164), since such connections have long been a core concern of practitioners in this field.
It may therefore be more useful to consider the book’s interface with big arguments on a slightly more detailed level. Here again, though, Levitin does not deal with the interconnections among religion, politics, and scholarship as subtly as some might desire. At points he appears to equate the category of ‘early enlightenment’ with the claim that many historians of philosophy in particular and scholars in general working after 1680 were ‘critical’ in a manner that their predecessors in the 1640–80 period were not, or that the post-1680 generation made some sort of clean break from previous scholarship by rejecting it. He places the term ‘critical’ in scare quotes when he refers to its use by historians who argue for radical discontinuity, and sometimes even when he is using it himself. At other points, he is willing to employ the standard of ‘critical acumen (judged by contemporary standards)’ (p. 40). But he neither tells us what he thinks it means to refer to ‘criticism’ in an historically specific manner nor identifies the ahistorical understanding of the term from which he dissents. In fact Levitin appears to associate ‘critical acumen’ not with a procedure or general attitude, but with some specific propositions: ‘the rejection of Jewish and Christian narratives of pagan-Christian syncretism, and new attitudes to the relationship between ancient and modern natural philosophy’ (p. 8). These propositions were certainly present earlier in the 17th century than historians of later periods have acknowledged, and here Levitin makes a very useful intervention. But such an understanding of ‘criticism’ cannot, of course, be extended beyond this particular context. Readers are left wondering, for instance, what ‘critical philology’ (pp. 53, 54) was.
What we do get in the absence of a broader re-interpretation of the history of criticism is a number of valuable case studies showing that many supposedly Enlightened figures, such as Jean Le Clerc, believed that their work was a continuation of pre-1680 lines of scholarly inquiry. Here again, though, the contribution is usually unclear, because of the way Levitin treats existing work in the field. This can again be seen most vividly in his criticisms of Pocock and Israel. In Levitin’s final chapter on histories of early Christianity, for instance, he rails against Pocock’s definition of ‘what we call the early Enlightenment – meaning the period during which Christian scholarship came to be dominated by critical method, in the formation of which Jean Le Clerc played a leading part’, and Pocock’s description of Protestant Enlightenment as the replacement of theology by its history. Pocock does not actually specify a chronology for these specific developments, and yet chronology is central to Levitin’s entire critique. Levitin might have dealt more fairly with Pocock by pointing out that just before the above quote from Barbarism and Religion, which Levitin cites, Pocock recognizes that his protagonist, Edward Gibbon, venerated and made use not only of post-1680 scholarship like that of Le Clerc, Beausobre, and Mosheim, but also the Jesuit Denis Petau’s Theologica Dogmatica (1644–50) – the very text that is fundamental to Levitin’s entire account of the emergence of critical perspectives on the early church in the English context.(1) Levitin deals similarly with Israel, his ultimate bête noire. Just a page before the passage in Israel’s Enlightenment Contested that Levitin repeatedly cites as the locus classicus for the historiographical tradition against which Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science is written, Israel concedes the following: ‘No doubt Enlightenment historians of philosophy were overly scornful of the humanists, insufficiently appreciating such bold critical spirits of their time as Scaliger and Casaubon’ – the very scholars whom Levitin credits with providing the dominant model of 17th-century humanist historiography.(2) This again isolates how Levitin misses the mark in his criticism. Israel’s and Pocock’s positions depend in large part upon an ideological bias; they do not primarily rest upon a precise chronology of scholarly rigor. Indeed what Israel seems to mean by ‘criticism’ for the most part is impious criticism. It is in the end unclear that Levitin has actually addressed Israel’s thesis head-on. After all, Levitin’s own book is rife with examples of how the theological commitments of his protagonists limited their critical acumen. While there are indeed serious problems with both Pocock’s and Israel’s accounts, this is not the best way to demonstrate it.
At other points, though, Levitin comes much closer to the heart of Israel’s secular liberalism and Pocock’s Whig-liberal perspective, and here his criticism sits on much firmer ground (and consists with arguments already made by other scholars). This occurs when he associates typical assertions about ‘early enlightenment’ with the claim that there was ‘an intrinsic connection between “criticism” and heterodoxy’ (p. 8) and notes, for example, ‘the connection between scholarship and the politics of toleration that has defined almost all work on Le Clerc’ (p. 532). It also comes through when he rightly assails the tendency in extant discussions of late 17th-century English intellectual history to ‘forge a strong (and sometimes reductionist) connection between intellectual change and politics’ by means of a ‘totalising, progressivist narrative’ (p. 13), one guided by the assumption that ‘intellectual change must stem from “outsiders”, and that all intellectual endeavour coming from political non-“liberal” groups must have been counter-innovative’ (p. 14). This, not wilful ignorance of the history of scholarship, is the central blind spot in Israel and Pocock’s work. When Levitin quips that if anyone deserves to be called the ‘Quentin Skinner of the early enlightenment’ in terms of scholarly method, it is not, pace Pocock, Le Clerc, but rather the non-juror Henry Dodwell (p. 540), he is upending traditional understandings of Enlightenment by exposing their liberal and secularist blinkers, not by exposing their chronological errors. In the end, then, Levitin’s most valuable revisionist claim is that anti-syncretist accounts of ancient philosophy long predated the 1680s, and while they were often apologetic in inflection, they ‘could hardly be described as “traditional” or reduced to the theology they subscribed to’ (p. 542).
This insight and others like it could have been taken much further in a positive and nuanced direction. Levitin quotes approvingly Pocock’s admonition to historians, in a review of Steve Pincus’s history of the Glorious Revolution, to avoid the ‘besetting sin’ of the Anglophones: an ‘unwillingness or inability to counter higher than two’ (p. 21). Yet many readers of Pincus will undoubtedly recognize in Levitin a familiar sort of zero-sum, dichotomous argumentation, in which scholarship and ideology do battle and case by case, one is ‘subordinated’ (p. 229) to the other. When Levitin presents his own alternative to Pocock’s and Israel’s sense of an intimate connection between scholarly innovation and particular ideological commitments, he simply rejects the validity of any significant claim about such a relationship, thereby accepting his opponent’s assumption that such a relationship could have only existed in crude form. He ‘finds far fewer connections between developments in intellectual life and in politics’ and ‘accords a much more prominent role to the history of scholarship’ (p. 16). He argues that early modern scholars were primarily ‘operating in a larger context that had nothing to do with “modernity” or overt political, ecclesiological, or other ideological battles: the scholarly fascination with the history of ancient paganism that so infected the republic of letters from the late sixteenth century’. They were mostly motivated, he argues, by sheer wonder: ‘the “ideology” that was most important to the transformation of attitudes to near-eastern philosophy was not a religious heterodoxy or “liberalism” that led to a “comparativist” mentality; rather, it was a curiosity about the subject matter … grounded in the culture of late humanism that had made the subject interesting in the first place’ (pp. 111-12). Levitin repeatedly writes of a concern for ‘truth’ that early modern scholars somehow kept separate from some of their deepest truth commitments, which were of course religious and political in nature. He asserts, for instance, that ‘Henry More’s scholarly assailants ‘did not base their attacks primarily on a political agenda, for they also held a much more fundamental belief: that More was wrong’ (p. 138).
Many readers will undoubtedly conclude from passages like this one that Levitin has simply discarded an ahistorical adoration of early Enlightenment radicals and polite Whig clerics for an equally ahistorical adoration of late Renaissance humanists. At the very least, Levitin seems to equate arguments for the influence of political and religious commitments on scholarship with the straw man that when such influence existed, one’s choice of procedures or one’s preference for rigor or laxity would be completely determined by those commitments. Such a position does not register the sophistication of available scholarship on this thorny problem, and it only makes sense if grounded in an exclusive and ahistorical understanding of truth. Readers will wonder whether Levitin’s own position is in fact rooted in both an over-identification with a subset of historical actors and a set of ahistorical commitments and categories, albeit an assemblage of sympathies, commitments, and concepts rather different from those adopted by Pocock and Israel. Indeed it is hard to avoid the impression that Levitin’s tendency to depoliticize, dehistoricize, essentialize, and causally prioritize scholarship and criticism in early modern Europe is related to the attitudes volunteered in the book’s opening pages. Here Levitin describes Trinity College, Cambridge, as a haven from the contemporary onslaught on serious humanistic scholarship, a process which of course has ideological roots, as do the responses to it. And he dedicates the book, which he describes as a ‘small attempt at serious historical science’, to four scholars who ‘lived most of their lives in a criminal state [the Soviet Union] that tried to deprive them of historical truth’ (pp. vii-viii).
There are, however, other episodes in Levitin’s own discussion that reveal his own discomfort with such a perspective and a partial awareness of how complex the relationship between early modern scholarly practices and political and religious commitments really was. He writes, for instance, that ‘it was precisely the tensions between’ the church’s investment in continental scholarship ‘and the demands of religious and theological apologetics that stimulated many of the most important developments in English attitudes to ancient pagan philosophy and its relationship to Judaeo-Christian ideas’ (p. 19). Relatedly, he argues that English nonconformists ‘struggled to amalgamate new continental scholarship with their theology’, and thus proceeded to ignore or condemn it along with its Anglican descendants (p. 153). ‘The reason for [Theophilus] Gale’s scholarly backwardness’ for instance, was that his ‘whole historical picture was subservient to theological ends that were becoming outdated in the Restoration’ (p. 150). And in general, he is aware that ‘apologetic works were still taken seriously not only as apologetics but also as scholarship’, and that ‘knowledge was a key step on the early part of a clerical career’ (p. 86). He also proposes that if there is a useful, consistent distinction to be made between scholarship and apologetics in such a world, it would have something to do with the ‘main purpose’ (p. 109) of a given work.
It is at these moments that we can see most clearly how the mass of evidence and fine-grained insights Levitin has assembled in this book can be fit into an alternative series of narrative and explanatory generalizations about late 17th-century intellectual history recently offered by scholars who have a keen interest in making such generalizations. In particular, Levitin’s findings comport well with a new historiography of the early Enlightenment and the ‘religious Enlightenment’ as a whole, not to mention a mostly older literature on authoritarian forms of Enlightenment. These attempts at big argument, which are distinct from the descriptions of ‘early enlightenment’ that Levitin attacks, take on board the pious erudition and political imperatives of the later seventeenth century. They demonstrate that humanism and theology had not been subordinated to philosophy, and many of them highlight the importance of England in the early Enlightenment. A happy future awaits the field as the fruits of Levitin’s formidable efforts are integrated into this existing body of work.
- J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, 6 vols. (Cambridge, 1999–2015), V, pp. 91–2. See also ibid., p. 379, where Pocock is willing to describe Gibbon’s ‘history of debate over Christ’s nature’ as ‘almost a digest of Petavius’.Back to (1)
- Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity and the Emancipation of Man, 1670–1752 (Oxford, 2006), p. 471.Back to (2)
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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)