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From Stevin to Spinoza: An Essay on Philosophy in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 2, April 2003
pp. 276-277 | 10.1353/hph.2003.0012

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.2 (2003) 276-277

Wiep Van Bunge. From Stevin to Spinoza: An Essay on Philosophy in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2001. Pp. xii + 217. Cloth, $80.00

By 1660 there were probably more followers of Descartes in the Dutch Republic, population 1.4 million, than in France, population 20 million. Protestantism and prosperity encouraged high rates of literacy and the universities of Leiden and Utrecht were among the liveliest in the world. This vibrancy infused the metaphors that Descartes put into his great Discours de la methode published first in Leiden in 1637. In it he spoke about the beauty of cities that looked as if they had been built by a single architect and of the freedom to be found among people so busy with their business as to leave thinkers to their pursuits. Indirectly he spoke about his adopted homeland where he found many followers—some more eager than loyal. By the 1640s disputes raged in the Republic and the anti-Cartesian forces were led by the Aristotelian and anti-Copernican Gisbertus Voetius. What has been missing in our scholarship up to now has been any convincing account as to why these disputes occurred, and how they resonated within the Dutch context. Wiep Van Bunge's book takes a big step toward closing that knowledge gap.

Van Bunge convincingly argues that the vibrancy of the stadtholder-less period up to 1672 produced a willingness to entertain new ideas. It also did not hurt to have Descartes on the scene and active on behalf of his mechanical philosophy, even to the point of addressing the Utrecht magistrates publicly and asking that his critics be chastised. What is remarkable—especially given the resistance to Descartes seen at Oxford and Cambridge—was the speed with which Cartesian ideas entered the Dutch classrooms where as many as a third of the students came from abroad. Again Van Bunge provides context when he starts with the Dutch engineer Simon Stevin and demonstrates the vitality of mathematics for a commercial society but also for a militant one. (The Netherlands was at war with Spain up to 1609.) A recent exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, April to July 2002, also illustrates another aspect of mathematics in the Republic. Precisely in the 1630s when Descartes was putting the finishing touches on his Discours, Pieter Saenredam applied geometry to the interiors of the elegant Utrecht churches so as to give his paintings a regularity and precision worthy of the Cartesian dream of order and clarity. The Dutch commitment to discipline and order also made their army one of the most accomplished in the world. It was perhaps over-determined that Descartes, who had trained with it, would find such a sympathetic audience in the Republic.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Van Bunge's detailed study, first of Cartesianism and then of Spinozism in the Republic, concerns the political and ideological meanings to be extracted from the new philosophy. Hobbes also finds a place in the narrative, surprisingly taken up by republicans eager to construct a state that could control the passions. Abraham van Berkel, who put Hobbes's Leviathan into Dutch in 1667, gave the allegiance of his text and himself to Jan de Witt and the cause of the regents and the estates. We can only wonder what Hobbes would have made of the association. The republican affiliations of the mechanical philosophy in the Republic provide a distinctively Dutch context to the political writings of Spinoza, the most famous and outrageous Cartesian of the century. Van Bunge is especially deft in finding Spinozists and providing far more evidence than I could back in 1981 when I argued for a radical enlightenment within the late seventeenth-century Dutch context (see The Radical Enlightenment. Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans [London: 1981]). None of these positions with their deeply heretical implications could be taken lightly or without danger. Men lost their jobs or died in Dutch prisons for being pantheists or materialists.

Van Bunge's book straddles two genres. One is a somewhat classical history of philosophy and the other aims to look...

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