- British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century by Sarah Hutton
Most of our histories of philosophy, in our books and especially in our courses, are what William James called “appreciative chronicle[s] of human master-strokes” (“The Social Value of the College-Bred,” McClure’s Magazine 30 , 419-22, 420). They resemble tours of grand and isolated monuments. Sarah Hutton’s magnificent British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century is a different kind of history, in which masterpieces are placed in conversation with books that are now neglected or all but forgotten. By means of this “conversation model,” Hutton provides what she justly terms “a ‘thick description’ of seventeenth-century culture, setting marginal and ‘major’ thinkers within [an]… integrated account of seventeenth-century philosophy which attempts to view it in its own terms, taking account of institutions, and the modes of circulation of ideas” (2). More so than any other survey of its place and time, Hutton’s book shows us (in the words of Leopold von Ranke) “what actually happened” (Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1535, volume 1 [G. Reimer: Leipzig and Berlin, 1824], v-vi, as translated in Fritz Stern, ed., The Varieties of History [New York: Vintage, 1973], 57). Ranke cautioned against “judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages,” and Hutton’s self-proclaimed “descriptive account” (5) deliberately avoids that kind of lesson-drawing. Yet her chronicle can be described as appreciative: not of the truths imparted by her chosen texts (which remain, as she emphasizes, a selection), nor of the present value of their arguments (hence her warning that readers “who look to past philosophers for insight into modern arguments are likely to be disappointed” ), but of the diversity and [End Page 677] complexity of her subject matter. Even readers familiar with the seventeenth century are likely to be surprised by the variety that Hutton’s affectionate curiosity unearths. In tracing the shifting cast of often-recurring characters, every reader will be helped by a biographical appendix that includes more than eighty figures.
The book is the latest entry in The Oxford History of Philosophy, described by the press as an “open-ended series.” It is now at six compact volumes and counting. Like earlier entries, Hutton’s is defined by period and nation. (In fact, the book covers four nations: England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.) Thanks to the conversation model, the defining divisions do not seem forced or artificial. They are permeable divisions, regularly crossed by lines of conversation that Hutton diligently follows where they lead: to Aristotle, who during the seventeenth century became, as she sharply observes, “just another ancient philosopher” (91); to Plato and the Hellenistic philosophers; to the scholastics; and to Grotius, Gassendi, Descartes, and others on the European continent.
Hutton’s book falls into two broad parts: chapters 5 through 10 present her main narrative; chapters 1 through 4 set the scene. In chapter 1, Hutton charts some of the changes that took place in the four main regions of the seventeenth-century landscape: logic, ethics, natural philosophy, and metaphysics. In chapter 2 she turns to the universities. A great deal took place beyond their walls, but they remained influential. Hutton recounts their seventeenth-century fate, in which “a basically Aristotelian curriculum [gave] way to modern developments through a process of continuous revision” (45). Chapter 3 explores the channels that made far-flung conversation possible: foreign study and travel; expatriate living; international correspondence (including the “international news network[s]” operated by Samuel Hartlib and the Royal Society ); the recovery of classical texts; and the publication of books and translations. The fortunes of Aristotelianism are the topic of chapter 4. At the century’s beginning, Aristotelianism was not a “monolithic block” but a tangle of “multifarious strands” (73). And by the century’s end it had not been entirely defeated, as John Sergeant’s criticisms of Locke’s “ideism” (85–86, 202–3) illustrate.
The main narrative begins with Bacon and Lord Herbert of Cherbury (chapter...