- Les Lumières de Leibniz: Controverses avec Huet, Bayle, Regis et Moreby Mogens Lærke
The historiography of philosophy is a hot topic these days. One need only peruse the 2013 Philosophy and Its History, edited by Mogens Lærke, Justin E. H. Smith, and Eric Schliesser, or this journal’s debate between Daniel Garber and Michael Della Rocca (July 2015), to see that methodological issues in the history of philosophy are the subject of substantive contemporary discussion. In the volume under review, Lærke defends an approach to the historiography of philosophy that is fundamentally inseparable from the history of philosophy itself: historical perspectivism.
Lærke’s volume is a fait preuvefor historical perspectivism, four case studies that demonstrate its benefits: methodological exactness, sensitivity to internal context, and consistency with historical actualism. The introduction is a primer on historical perspectivism, which he describes as both a method and a technique (46). Its primary interpretive lens is not a figure, a piece of philosophical writing, or even an idea; it is a controversy, which Lærke defines as “any discursive exchange or utterance that involves multiple interlocutors and that centers on the interpretation of a text” (25–26). According to Lærke, a text is not merely a single philosophical work, but any unity that involves the intentional, rational, and (relatively) univocal transmission of ideas (15). This “textual imperative” means that the text is the basic unit of philosophical analysis; and controversies help to define the relevant texts, whether the text is the mos geometricusof Huet’s Demonstratio evangelica; the corps entier des sciences; a commentary on article 47 of the third part of Descartes’s Principia; or a commentary on a critique of a third author’s interpretation of the Kabbala denudate(chapters 2–5).
What makes these particular case studies hang together is that, consistent with historical perspectivism, they each provide an account of the controversy from the perspective of Leibniz. In each case, Lærke painstakingly reconstructs not only Leibniz’s perspective on the text in question, but also Leibniz’s perspective on the views of his interlocutors on the text. Lærke’s reconstructions bring little-known primary sources (e.g. Leibniz’s commentary on Bayle’s Projet et fragmens d’un Dictionnaire) alongside mainstream sources (e.g. Leibniz’s Théodicee) to analyze points of convergence, divergence, triangulation, or parallel development in the figures’ positions on the controversy in question.
According to Lærke, what makes Leibniz’s perspective a privileged one is his emphasis on the esprit(spirit) and conduite(behavior), or the intellectual attitudes and comportments, of his interlocutors, as opposed to their specific doctrines. One’s esprit, or stance towards one’s own intellectual life, and one’s conduite, or engagement with the intellectual lives of others, will either tend towards conciliation and mutual understanding, or disputation [End Page 338]and sectarianism. Leibniz’s preferred interlocutors are, of course, the former; they fit the profile of a labora diligenter, characterized by charity, ardor, diligence, lack of intellectual hastiness, non-negligence, moderation, dignity, ecumenicism, respect for ancient wisdom, and a commitment to the glory of God and human well-being. Thus, even those with whom Leibniz disagrees profoundly—for example, Bayle on the problem of evil—are still more valuable contributors to the Republic of Letters, according to Leibniz, than Leibniz’s most outspoken followers, insofar as Bayle instantiates the intellectual qualities that Leibniz wants to promote.
Lærke’s case studies are an impressive work of scholarship; as a Bayle specialist, I foresee returning to the chapter on Leibniz’s commentary on Bayle’s Projetmany times. It is not only the prodigious reference material that is useful, but also Lærke’s reconstruction of some intractable debates in Bayle scholarship (e.g. how best to understand Bayle’s statements on the reason-faith relationship, how best to understand Bayle’s religious beliefs). Taking a historical perspectivist approach—wherein we examine the...