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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy ed. by Knud Haakonssen
  • Stephen Buckle
Knud Haakonssen, ed. The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp 1407. ISBN 0521418542, cloth, $250.

The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy is a massive achievement, and in more than one sense. The most obvious is its sheer bulk: two volumes totalling 1400 pages, including over 150 pages of bibliography and index and another 100 pages of biobibliographical appendix. This last item, as its name suggests, provides thumbnail biographies of all the main figures referred to in the volumes together with a list of all their main publications with publication dates and also a short list of main secondary sources—and so can be expected to be a lifesaver for harassed scholars desperately trying to track down a missing reference. It is also a pleasure to record that, in an age when production standards often slip disastrously low, these are volumes built to last, with a high standard of proofreading as well. (I found only three typographical errors, and only one of those—“skepticism” instead of “rationalism” (419)—produced an errant meaning.)

The main sense in which this is a massive achievement concerns, of course, the contents themselves. Knud Haakonssen has done an outstanding job in organizing the volumes and in collecting such a fine stable of contributors from Britain, Continental Europe, North America and Australia. This is a work of lasting value, with all the articles being genuine contributions to our understanding of eighteenth-century philosophy.

The problems for a reviewer are twofold. In the first place, this is a reference work and so not intended to be read from cover to cover. Hence the reviewer’s experience, of reading about much the same sequence of figures on topics A–Z, has a repetitive air that would not afflict those using it as it is intended. The second problem, of course, is the simple impossibility of giving an adequate sense of the contents in a short review. So I will concentrate, in the main, on topics likely to be of interest to Hume Studies readers.

The Cambridge History is organized into five parts: The Concept of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy, The Science of Human Nature, Philosophy and Theology, Natural Philosophy, and Moral Philosophy. The first part itself falls into two halves, theoretical and practical. The practically-oriented articles investigate institutional structures and their curricula and also the informal networks that provided the means by which many of the period’s most radical works found an audience. The theoretical articles begin with Haakonssen’s own overview of the period, in which he endeavours to break the hold of “the epistemological paradigm” imposed on the period by later generations. As we shall see, some of the other contributors [End Page 305] take this message to heart; but the other two articles in this section, by Werner Schneiders and Carl Henrik Koch, are more content to work with the broad epistemological categories. This divergence testifies to the truth of Haakonssen’s remark that “this is not a volume at peace with itself, nor was it meant to be” (21). For his part, Haakonssen puts his claim to work to draw out the connection then supposed to obtain between one’s philosophy and one’s life—and thereby to explain what otherwise looks like just bad philosophy in controversies of the period, the willingness to deploy the ad hominem.

Part 2, on the science of human nature, is by far the longest of the five divisions. It also contains the longest article in the work, “Human Nature,” by Aaron Garrett. This article is striking by approaching its topic from the perspective of its, for the time, margins or exclusions: it examines views of animals, wild children, the blind and deaf, race and national character, and women and marriage. This makes it a mine of fascinating information, but it nevertheless lacks a center in not offering any positive account of what a conception of human nature was a conception of. (It is often said, for example, that Hume had a “static,” Rousseau a “historical” conception of human nature—but both these claims must be...


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