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  • Cartesianism Revisited1
  • Eric P. Lewis (bio)

In the summer of 2006 Daniel Garber opened the FME International Seminar in Early Modern Thought by commenting: "This has become the place to be." The unexplained utterance generated smiles among the small room full of scholars, and could easily have been written off as an innocent bit of self-lauding or an ironic reference to the remoteness—even obscurity—of the seminar's site.2 The list of seminar participants contained half a dozen philosophers from prestigious universities dotting the globe. Their research garnered a wide, if not deep, following. However, the dozen or so others listed on the program included graduate students, and tenured and non-tenured faculty who labored in greater obscurity in several academic disciplines. Together, these scholars seemed an unlikely group to define the remote town in Romania (at least at that moment) as "the place to be" for researchers of early modern thought.

The seminar title, "Disseminating Knowledge in the Seventeenth Century: Centers and Peripheries in the Republic of Letters," though innocuous enough, is indicative of a style of philosophical research that until fairly recently remained marginalized within the majority of English [End Page 493] speaking philosophy departments.3 The fact that Garber, chair of the department of philosophy at Princeton, could confidently make his opening proclamation underscored a methodological struggle to which he successfully dedicated a career. Garber recently explained:

What my generation of historians was reacting against was a bundle of practices that characterized the writing of the history of philosophy in the period: the tendency to substitute rational reconstructions of a philosopher's views for the views themselves; the tendency to focus on an extremely narrow group of figures (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume in my period); . . . the tendency to treat the philosophical positions as if they were those presented by contemporaries; and on and on and on."

(Garber 2004, 2.)

The young and old present at the seminar likely wished that more of Garber's generation acted in concert with him; yet the emphasis of "peripheries" and "disseminating knowledge" is precisely the result of this philosophical style.

Similar conferences have cropped up over the last decade, often self-consciously struggling with the terminology of "outsiders" and "peripheries" as they have explored the role of the contemporaries of Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz.4 Philosophers such as Walter Charleton, John Davies, Bernardo Telesio, Pierre-Daniel Huet, Pierre-Sylvain Regis, and Robert Desgabets, to name a few, were in no conventional way "outside" their respective intellectual communities, yet they have been largely excluded from modern discourse about early modern philosophy.5 The participants of these conferences typically focus much less on the perceived internal coherence of a text such as Descartes' Meditations than on understanding the text through the reactions of the author's contemporaries; or, conversely, understanding a primary philosopher as a reaction to his contemporaries. They share an assumption that lay behind Garber's criticism: [End Page 494] researchers can better recover the meaning of a text when their efforts are applied to intellectual context. The fact that Garber proclaimed to a group of scholars, united in their study of "centers and peripheries," that they were in "the place to be" is nothing if not ironic as these scholars and their research subjects become better recognized on the "inside" of their respective philosophical circles.

No shortage of words has been spilled by philosophers concerning the merits of this increased emphasis on context.6 The late Margaret Wilson called Garber and Michael Ayers to task for comments they wrote in the introduction to The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. As editors, Garber and Ayers claimed that commentators in the "analytic tradition" not only ignored the philosophical complexities of their subjects and "distorted [philosophy's] achievements, but also often denied themselves the tools necessary for the interpretation of the very words and sentences they continue to expound" (Garber and Ayers 1998, 4).7 For her part, Wilson promoted a "softening of the ideological division, rather than to advocate any general thesis, factual or normative, about the relation of philosophy and history" (Wilson 1992, 195). But Wilson worried that the "detail and...


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