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  • Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy
  • Mogens Lærke
Miklós Vassányi. Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy. International Archives of the History of Ideas 202. Dordrecht-New York: Springer, 2011. Pp. xv + 434. Cloth, $189.00.

This volume retraces the development of world soul theories throughout the early modern period. Already described by Plato, the notion of a world soul is traditionally associated with neo-Platonism, mainly Plotinus. It is, however, not an unequivocally Platonic doctrine. While Aristotle himself rejected the notion, it resurfaced in Averroistic readings of the Aristotelian notion of the active intellect. The early modern reception of these ancient doctrines is extremely rich. At the beginning of the period, it appeared mainly in philosophers with esoteric inclinations working in prolongation of the humanistic tradition. This heterogeneous field of doctrines included, for example, Bruno, Böhme, the Cambridge Platonists, and the Christian Kabbalists. Later, throughout the eighteenth century, world soul theories gradually moved to the philosophical center stage, culminating with Schelling’s Von der Weltseele (1798).

Vassányi’s objective is to account for “how the Weltseele-concept evolved from an almost universal initial rejection in the early German Enlightenment towards an almost unanimous acceptance in early German Romanticism” (8). The first part is dedicated to Leibniz and Wolff, but also the considerably less well known post-Leibnizian, Gottfried Ploucquet. The second part focuses on eighteenth-century physico-theology, from the French naturalists to Kant. The third part begins with an account of esoteric world soul theories as they can be found in Böhme and, later, in Öttinger. Next follows a long discussion of the relations between monopsychism and substance monism as envisaged by Spinoza’s critics and followers, including Bayle, Wachter, Leibniz, and Hemsterhuis, all the way up to Lessing, Mendelssohn, and Herder. This subsection is followed by a discussion of the role of Bruno in Jacobi, Maimon, and Schelling. The fourth and last part of the work takes a further look at world soul theories in Baader and, again, Schelling.

The amount of material gathered by Vassányi is quite astonishing. Most importantly, the volume introduces us to a great number of minor figures who contributed substantially to shaping the field, thus helping counter the misconception that the history of philosophy consists in a set of doctrines represented by groups of “great minds” communicating with each other in some abstract philosophical space, disconnected from the concrete interlocutors and texts in relation to whom and to which their thoughts took shape. In this study, on the contrary, the reader is constantly placed on the concrete historical ground where the doctrines were elaborated.

The book does, however, also suffer from some flaws, mostly on the level of form and presentation. Vassányi’s book is a good example of what sometimes happens when publishers leave authors to their own devices when preparing their manuscripts. The book is clearly not written by a native English speaker and would have benefited from professional copy-editing. Just to give a few examples from the first forty pages: ‘fundament’ is used instead of ‘foundation’ (25); ‘sustentation’ is used instead of ‘sustenance’ or ‘conservation’ (34); the Latin ‘concursus’ is translated by ‘succour’ rather than ‘concurrence’ (26, 31); the title of Leibniz’s Principes de la nature et de la grâce becomes, in English, Principles of Nature and Mercy rather than the standard … of Nature and Grace (37), and so on. A more substantial complaint concerns the overall structure. The author constantly hesitates between organizing according to chronology, themes, and doctrines of individual philosophers. Any one of these organizational principles is of course valid and natural enough, but I fail to understand the deeper principle behind the mixture of the three. Incidentally, I suspect that this may be what has occasioned the long chapter headings (e.g. chapter 3 of part I is entitled “The Distinctive Philosophical Content of the Concept of an ‘Anima Mundi’ in Leibniz and his Followers. Arguments of this School against the General Theory of Anima Mundi. A Broader Natural Philosophical and Metaphysical Discussion of their Answer Positions”). The chapter...


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