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Göttliche Gedanken. Zur Metaphysik der Erkenntnis bei Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza und Leibniz (review)
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In Göttliche Gedanken (Godly Thoughts), Andreas Schmidt provides an in-depth discussion of the metaphysics of knowledge and of mind in four early-modern rationalists: Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz. His topic overlaps with what is called “philosophy of mind” in contemporary Anglo-American circles, for he is quite interested in the relation between mind and body in these four historical thinkers. But as Schmidt effectively reminds us, the “mind-body problem” looks entirely different when embedded in the conceptual setting of the seventeenth century. In Schmidt’s reading, reflection on mind at that time begins with reflection on knowledge and our capacity to know. What must the mind be in order for us to have the knowledge that we have (and to lack the knowledge that we lack)? For a seventeenth-century rationalist, this question cannot be addressed without an investigation of the human mind’s relation to the mind of God (the knower par excellence). And this topic, in turn, has deep historical roots in theology and (especially) in scholastic philosophy. Schmidt’s investigation leads us through a number of systematic parallels between various arguments of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz and certain traditional theological ideas—for example the doctrine of the visio beatifica as found in Aquinas’s or Scotus’s use of formal vs. real distinction.

This brief description of the book might suggest a formidably dusty and possibly dry work of historical scholarship. But this volume is nothing of the kind. Schmidt is an analytically incisive writer with an absorbing story to tell—and he tells it in a lively, clear, and engaging fashion. Staying close to the philosophers’ texts, he systematically develops his arguments, considering questions, objections, and alternative interpretations along the way. The exposition is generally well informed regarding recent specialized scholarship on the four rationalists, and the argumentation is clear and tight. The result is an interesting approach to each of the rationalists that puts familiar issues and textual passages in a fresh and often intriguing light.

The book is straightforwardly divided into four sections, each dealing with one of the four thinkers. Approximately one hundred pages in length, each of these sections could be read (and can be recommended) as an independent monograph—a solid analytical commentary on some central issues in a single thinker’s system. Brought together in one volume, the four essays suggest some parallels and point toward interesting differences in the philosophers’ views of the relationship between the human mind and the mind of God. The most disappointing aspect of the book, though, is that the author seldom steps back to get a broader overview of all four thinkers—and thus seldom addresses connections, parallels, and contrasts in an explicit and systematic way. The reader is left to do most of the comparative analysis and to search for the unifying thesis.

But the individual analyses are exceptionally good. For example, Schmidt spends a lot of time on Descartes’ cogito, rehearsing various familiar interpretations before settling on (and arguing persuasively for) the view that sees the “I think” as a performative speech act whose utterance posits the subject (thus rendering the “I am” immune from error). Recognizing that his proposal might be thought anachronistic, he turns to Suárez and argues that the words of the priest (Hoc est corpus meum) were understood to operate in a similarly performative way. In his discussion of the Meditation III proof of God’s existence, Schmidt argues for an interesting connection between the a priori character of the idea of God and the epistemic assumptions underlying the Meditation II discussion of the cogito. And as he examines the epistemic role of the idea of God, Schmidt makes a convincing and interesting case that Descartes’ argument is solidly in the tradition of the visio beatifica.

Schmidt’s discussion of Spinoza is especially well versed in the current secondary literature, and moves the discussion forward with a combination of careful argument and historical allusion. On the question of how to reconcile the simplicity (Einfachheit) of Spinoza’s God with the multiplicity (Vielheit) of the infinite attributes, Schmidt rejects three possible approaches before settling on his own. Elaborating on an idea mentioned by...

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