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Idea and Ontology

An Essay in Early Modern Metaphysics of Ideas

Marc A. Hight

Publication Year: 2008

The prevailing view about the history of early modern philosophy, which the author dubs “the early modern tale” and wants to convince us is really a fairy tale, has it that the focus on ideas as a solution to various epistemological puzzles, first introduced by Descartes, created difficulties for the traditional ontological scheme of substance and mode. The early modern tale depicts the development of “the way of ideas” as abandoning ontology at least by the time of Berkeley. This, in turn, fostered an antimetaphysical bias as modern philosophy developed further, elevating epistemology to its current primary status in the field. Marc Hight challenges this account by showing how, though the conception of ideas changed over time, the ontological status of ideas remained a central part of the discussion about ideas and influenced how even later thinkers like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume thought about them. By his reading of important texts in early modern philosophy, Hight aims not only to provide a more accurate history of philosophy for this period but also to resuscitate the value of metaphysics for philosophical analysis today.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii-ix


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pp. xi


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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. 1-10

Traditional metaphysics has not fared well since its glory days in the early modern period. Gone is the fascination with developing an ontology that can account for our experiences in the world. Cartesian dualism, Leibnizian monads, Berkeleian immaterialism, and similar metaphysical investigations have been replaced by discussions of language, confident assertions that epistemology alone is first philosophy, and pronouncements that ontology...

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1. The Traditional Ontology

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pp. 11-36

Philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries operated within a substance/property ontology, narrowed to a substance/mode distinction, inherited from Aristotle via the Scholastics. Thus to ask after the ontological status of ideas among the early moderns is, at least initially, to ask where ideas fall within this traditional classification. Unfortunately, the issue is not as easy as asking whether particular...

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2. Descartes

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pp. 37-54

Conventional wisdom, like the early modern tale, holds Rene Descartes responsible for effecting a revolutionary break from the Scholastic tradition, particularly in the theory of ideas. Although he applied the term ‘‘idea’’ in a new way and built an innovative mechanistic theory of perception that capitalizes on this new use, it is not at all obvious that Descartes advanced a new and clear theory of the ontological status of ideas. We are, in the main, still...

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3. The Cartesians: Malebranche and Arnauld

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pp. 55-78

Nicolas Malebranche, although he considered himself a devoted Cartesian, was a potent critic of Descartes’ theory of ideas. In particular he denied that ideas could be modes, claiming that Descartes was simply unclear about their exact nature (OC 6:172, Re´ponse 24.)1 In this way, he hoped to enlist Cartesians in his cause without endorsing a particular claim he was convinced was in error. His hope was short-lived, however, as most Cartesians...

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4. Locke

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pp. 79-115

Descartes’ philosophy of ideas left unresolved the issue of how ideas were to be reconciled with the traditional ontology of substance and mode. A debate ensued, epitomized most famously by the Malebranche-Arnauld exchanges, but little apparent progress was made. As a result, some turned their attention away from questions of ontology altogether. By this I do not mean that ontological questions were rejected as unimportant but rather that some...

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5. Leibniz

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pp. 116-137

G.W. Leibniz, like Locke, also developed his theory of ideas in the aftermath of the famous dispute between Arnauld and Malebranche. That dispute turned on the ontological status of ideas. For Malebranche ideas are abstract and substantial things that reside ‘‘in’’ the mind of God. They are permanent entities preserved by Him even when not in use by finite beings. Arnauld takes ideas to be temporary modes of the...

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6. Berkeley

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pp. 138-176

With Locke and Leibniz we see the continuation of serious dissonance between the way of ideas and the traditional substance/mode ontology. Locke recognized the difficulties and sought to avoid them. Leibniz perhaps introduced important novelties into the way of ideas, but he did not explicitly engage concerns about their ontological nature. The Irish philosopher George Berkeley, however, confronted the metaphysical...

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7. Divine Ideas

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pp. 177-217

It has long been thought that Berkeley cannot consistently help himself to a theory of divine archetypal ideas in order to explain our perception of the sensible world. Positing the existence of such ideas in God allegedly creates skeptical problems, difficulties about the continuity of sensible objects, puzzles about the privacy of ideas, and worse. Introducing divine ideas allegedly inserts an intermediary between minds and ultimate reality, creating...

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8. Abstraction and Heterogeneity

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pp. 218-245

Given that we have a rough fix on how Berkeley treated ideas and of the significant philosophical benefit this reading provides to our understanding of Berkeley’s theory of divine ideas, we are now in a position to take note of other important developments in the ontology of ideas as they culminate in Berkeley. If I am right that Berkeley treats ideas as individual quasi substances, then we ought to expect some additional ‘‘fallout’’ from...

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9. Hume and Idea Ontology

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pp. 246-267

A fairly standard reading of Hume is that he is the first systematic critic of the doctrine of substance. The Treatise of Human Nature, especially book 1, part 4, initially seems to lend itself to being read that way. I do not deny that Hume was a critic of the concept of substance. But being a critic of the concept and its use by his contemporaries does not entail that Hume dismissed ontology. My relatively modest goal in this chapter...


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pp. 269-274


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pp. 275-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780271053219
E-ISBN-10: 0271053216
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271033839
Print-ISBN-10: 0271033835

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2008