- Abelard in Four Dimensions: A Twelfth-Century Philosopher in His Context and Ours by John Marenbon
Marenbon’s latest book on Abelard is based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. The “four dimensions” in which Abelard is considered are Abelard’s past (his relationship to Anselm), Abelard’s present (the dating of Abelard’s works and tracing of Abelard’s position on divine freedom through several works), future (the continuing appearance of Abelard’s claim that God is unable to act otherwise from the twelfth to the seventeenth century), and our present (Anselm’s theory of meaning and metaphysics as related to contemporary theories).
There is judicious consideration of the influence on Abelard of Anselm on whether God could have redeemed humanity other than as he did, and on the notion that it is intention, not actions or their consequences, that have moral qualities. On the first topic, Marenbon shows that Abelard’s view of God as unable to act otherwise is not the same as, nor clearly influenced by, Anselm’s account of the Incarnation as following from “necessary reasons”; rather this view is an oversimplification. Marenbon argues that Abelard can preserve the Augustinian view that God could have redeemed humanity by some other means than the Incarnation (which Anselm cannot) because, though God must always choose the best way, if human beings had (as they could have) chosen differently, another path could have been ‘most fitting’ and God would have chosen it. It is not clear that makes as much difference as both Abelard and Marenbon think, as alternate possibilities are created not by God, who still must choose what is most fitting, but rather by human choice. (God, of course, makes human beings with free choice, but that, too, can only be because it is most fitting.)
In the next section, Marenbon carefully traces the reappearance of Abelard’s position on God’s being able to act other than he does through the Middle Ages and to Leibniz, where it functions mostly as an objectionable view to be overcome. While interesting, it is not clear what this shows of philosophical interest about either Abelard or the thinkers in which his views almost always anonymously reappear. Marenbon does emerge from the details to reflect on how Aquinas (137) and Ockham (133) think of the divine nature differently than Abelard does, but on Leibniz he obscures both their similarity and difference by placing [End Page 547] too much weight on the possibility of alternate divine acts responding to possibly different human choices in Abelard (143-44).
Marenbon’s excellent analysis of Abelard’s relationship to the “new” theory of meaning in Putnam and Kripke shows that, first, Abelard retains a sense of signification (like Frege’s notion of Sinn) as distinct from reference, and that, second, Abelard’s theory of reference assumes the world is made up of natural kinds and that the original impositor as well as later users grasp those natures, though confusedly. While Putnam and Kripke share the former view, they do not share the latter with Abelard. Though Marenbon overstates Abelard’s optimism about “the science of future generations” closing the gap between the confused knowledge of the original impositor and the complete account of the nature, he does show that Abelard still holds a view in which the natures of the world are created and known in their completeness by God, in which knowledge human beings have a share, though “confusedly and darkly” (166).
In the last chapter, Marenbon considers Abelard’s relationship to trope theory, the view that there are abstract particulars. Marenbon carefully shows that Abelard’s view is not materialist and reductionist to the same degree as modern theorists, for he retains an Aristotelian view of substance, and, even in his later writings outlining a more spare ontology, wants to have forms “play some explanatory role” without admitting them as things, because without them the “distinction between bare things...