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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 126-127

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Book Review

Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment

T. J. Hochstrasser. Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 246. Cloth, $54.95.

In a worthy addition to Cambridge's Ideas in Context series, T. J. Hochstrasser undertakes an excavation. His aim is to provide a description, and to demonstrate the importance within the German Frühaufklärung, of a largely forgotten philosophical approach: eclecticism. Hochstrasser argues that the triumph of Wolffian rationalism in the Protestant universities in the middle of the eighteenth century occluded the importance of eclecticism for Kant, who in turn occluded it for everyone afterward. But the price of forgetting eclecticism is high. Not only are we left with no account--or a skewed account--of the development of German thought from the first stirrings of the Enlightenment to the emergence of the Critical philosophy, but our understanding of the development of the historiography of philosophy is badly compromised. For among their many accomplishments--in natural jurisprudence, in university reform--the eclectics were the first critical historians of philosophy, their distinctive genres being historically aware treatises on natural law and Whig histories of natural jurisprudence. Hochstrasser's study traces the development of eclecticism, from the work of its founders, Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius, through a devolution in the hands of Thomasius's later disciples, to the eventual oblivion in the middle of the eighteenth century. This review will focus on the beginning of this narrative, as Pufendorf is the leading figure in the book.

Eclecticism began with Pufendorf's attempt, in his mature work on natural law, to reconcile his conflicting inheritances from Grotius and Hobbes without simply endorsing the work of either. He was impressed both by Grotius's explanation of the law of nations in terms of human sociability--but also by Hobbes's criticisms of Grotius, rooted in the latter's analysis of the state of nature. At the same time, he wished to reject Grotius's method of induction from sociological observation and Hobbes's minimally constrained voluntarism. Contributing further to his perplexity was his increasing disaffection from the geometric approach he had adopted in his Elementa Jurisprudentiae Universalis.

The way out of this impasse, Hochstrasser contends, was revealed to Pufendorf in correspondence with Hermann Conring, the leading constitutional lawyer of his time, and Johann Böcler, Grotius's most erudite commentator. Böcler chastised Pufendorf for his neglect of history, and both of Pufendorf's correspondents pointed out his need for some non-Hobbesian criterion by which he could validate his first principles, whatever they turned out to be. Stung particularly by Böcler's remarks, Pufendorf returned to the Stoics and there discovered a via media between Hobbes's pessimism and Grotius's optimism: a synthesis anticipating Kant's doctrine of "unsocial sociability." For the purposes of Hochstrasser's study, the key aspects of Pufendorf's solution are these: first, it avoids mere voluntarism; second, it does this by means of a moral epistemology that sharply distinguishes natural law [End Page 126] from moral theology; finally, the validating criterion for Pufendorf's first principles is located in critical appropriation of the history of moral philosophy. These were to be hallmarks of Pufendorf's school.

On the first and second points, Hochstrasser seems to me substantively correct, though I think he misunderstands the nature of Pufendorf's escape from mere voluntarism and thereby underplays the religious dimensions of Pufendorf's theory. Among recent Anglo-American commentators on Pufendorf, only Robert Adams has in my view properly construed Pufendorf's thought: that it involves a command theory of obligation proper, but posits the natural advantageousness of some hierarchies as a buttress against mere voluntarism. Hochstrasser is thus right to insist, against Leibniz, that Pufendorf's account of obligation is coherent. But he is wrong to suggest that "there was nothing in Pufendorf's theory . . . to oblige him to introduce fear of punishment by a superior . . . " (105). He is...


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