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Reviewed by:
  • New Essays on the Rationalists
  • Steven Nadler
Rocco J. Gennaro and Charles Huenemann, editors. New Essays on the Rationalists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii + 391. Cloth, $60.00.

Here is yet another collection of essays on early modern philosophy. The focus this time is on the Seventeenth century, in particular "the rationalists." What this apparently involves is, as the old-fashioned classification has it, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. But there is no overall theme to the essays, nothing uniting them besides the fact that almost all are devoted to those three thinkers and the fact that the volume was inspired by a summer seminar run by Jonathan Bennett.

What the editors mean by "the rationalists" (besides the extensional definition) is [End Page 437] thinkers "united in the belief that the intellect and human reason are powerful tools in our ability to know about the ultimate nature of mind and matter." What is supposed to separate "the rationalists" from "the empiricists" is "a belief in the power of human reason" (xv). This is a fairly weak claim; and I, for one, am skeptical that such categories are truly useful (or even valid—one would be hard-pressed to find a single issue on which Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz all agree and on which those who are usually called "empiricists" unanimously dissent). In the light of so much important and creative work done over the last twenty years in seventeenth-century philosophy, it would have been nice to see a volume devoted to "the rationalists" include at least one sophisticated discussion of the legitimacy and grounds of such a label.

The essays in this book are divided into three categories: Matter and Substance; Freedom and Necessity; and Mind and Consciousness. The contributors are a broad mix of scholars: some established and accomplished, others new and up-and-coming. The quality of the work is consistently high. There is a lot of detailed and careful work here, both in the attention to the historical texts and in philosophical analyses. However, not all of the essays are of great scope or interest; in fact, most are not. There is a definite tendency toward the small-scale (but not brevity): a concern with micro-problems (for example, the chapter by Clarence Bonnen and Daniel Flage, "Distinctness," is devoted to the question of what the "distinctness" of an idea is for Descartes) and an emphasis on theses and arguments (such as Geoffrey Gorham's examination of the "similarity condition" for causation in Descartes, "Causation and Similarity in Descartes,"). If there is indeed an "analytical" way of doing history of philosophy, that school is well represented here.

And then there are a couple of essays that stand out by transcending this narrowness of focus. The chapters by Catherine Wilson ("The Illusory Nature of Leibniz's System") and Don Garrett ("Teleology in Spinoza and Early Modern Rationalism") are, without question, the boldest and most interesting of the collection. Wilson argues that, in the light of Leibniz's changing and inconsistent views on substance, there really is no metaphysical "system" in his philosophy. Garrett, in what is, to my mind, the best essay in the book (although I think I disagree with him), defends an account of teleology in Spinoza's metaphysics, and then compares Spinoza's views on teleology with those of Aristotle, Descartes, and Leibniz; he concludes that Spinoza not only accepted teleological explanations of particular phenomena, but did so more strongly than anyone else in the modern period. Experts will, of course, disagree with the claims made by Wilson and Garrett; that is what this game is all about. But it is truly refreshing to see scholars such as these taking on large-scale issues.

It is worth noting that there is also a nice, indirect dialogue between two of the essays: Charles Huenemann's interesting account of a consistent necessitarianism in Spinoza ("The Necessity of Finite Modes and Geometrical Containment in Spinoza's Metaphysics,") and Edwin Curley and Gregory Walski's argument (in "Spinoza's Necessitarianism Reconsidered,") that, when it comes to the finite modes, Spinoza is not a strong or absolute necessitarian. What is truly unfortunate about the collection, however...


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