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  • The Problem of Universals in Early Modern Philosophy ed. by Stefano Di Bella and Tad M. Schmaltz
  • Christopher Martin
Stefano Di Bella and Tad M. Schmaltz, editors The Problem of Universals in Early Modern Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. x + 352 Cloth $99.00.

Di Bella and Schmaltz write in their introduction that the early modern problem of universals originates largely in a turn away from ancient and late-medieval problems. The modern problem, they suggest, investigates universals by asking what it means to include them as contents of our thoughts (4). The collection of essays that follows demonstrates persuasively, however, that we should resist the impulse, no matter how heuristic, to regard each era as having its own—much less a single—problem of universals. Despite the variety and interest of other contributions to the collection, I focus here on essays that display greater continuity among the eras, and on two essays addressing thinkers whose position(s) on universals are remarkably difficult to pin down.

Four essays expose a significant degree of influence and continuity across the different philosophical eras. Mariangela Priarolo identifies aspects of Augustine's doctrine of illumination in Malebranche's account of the relation between general ideas in our minds and God's, and discusses the platonic suggestion, present in Malebranche as well, that epistemic and ontological questions about universals are inseparably entwined. The essay provides both a refreshing perspective on universals (general ideas precede our ideas about particulars) and a convincing reminder that we lose something when we unintentionally limit our interest in Malebranche to his occasionalism or theory of ideas. Brunello Lotti also returns to ancient and early-medieval roots by drawing upon the platonic archetypal theory of creation underlying Henry More's, Ralph Cudworth's, and John Norris's accounts of universals. According to the archetypal theory of creation, the created world is pervaded by an order (the ground for universals) that is impressed within it by God and which individuals imperfectly manifest (167). Lotti's discussion of Norris, an under-discussed thinker, is particularly worthwhile because Norris's near-equation of God with Being sets up, on Lotti's reading, a neoplatonic emanationist account of universals that contributes a different kind of Platonism to that of the early modern discussion. Stefano Di Bella discusses Leibniz's affinity for late-medieval and Renaissance nominalism while also paying respect [End Page 754] to a neoplatonic influence according to which, even if only particulars and not properties are real, particulars nonetheless serve as catalysts whereby we may access ideas of common properties and natural kinds in the divine mind. Tad Schmaltz rehearses Malebranche's Platonism and Arnauld's conceptualism as a battle for Descartes's legacy before turning to a particularly absorbing account of Pierre-Sylvain Régis's anti-conceptualist distinction between the matter of eternal truths (their embodiment in particulars) and their form (the action by which the mind considers these truths), on the one hand, and, on the other, Régis's and Robert Desgabets's revision of the Cartesian substance-mode relation as a relation between an atemporal essence (the substance) and its temporal instantiation (mode). Schmaltz's exploration of the universal-particular relation in form-matter and substance-mode terms offers another reminder that lesser-discussed figures sometimes contribute original and provocative perspectives on familiar topics.

Several essays discuss thinkers who, while contributing insightful perspectives on the issue in general, do not seem to have held a definitive account of universals. Samuel Newlands, for instance, splendidly captures Spinoza's strenuous disregard for universals and, accordingly, is baffled and at pains to explain how Spinoza might then account for his universals-commitment-laden understanding of attributes and common notions (Newlands acknowledges but sets aside formal essences). Although Newlands mounts a plausible anti-universal interpretation of these topics, we should entertain the possibility that Spinoza's critique of universals is directed more at the means by which other thinkers arrive at them and, more suggestively, that Spinoza's understanding of attributes and common notions, which are more central to his overall project, dictates whatever account he may have about universals—rather than, as Newlands would have it...


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