- Absolute Time: Rifts in Early Modern British Metaphysics by Emily Thomas
Although the title of the book is Absolute Time, the subject matter is more properly about the confluence of early modern views on time, space, and the nature of God. Thomas provides a comprehensive history of primarily English thought on these topics in the century spanning roughly 1640 to 1740. The monograph is decidedly a historical piece of scholarship (this comment is not intended to denigrate it in any way). Those looking for careful philosophical arguments about the nature of time or for analyses of the quality of the views of the historical figures will be disappointed. Little attempt is made to assess the cogency of the various arguments discussed.
Those hoping for a careful and scholarly discussion of the major (and many minor) figures of the period writing about time, space, and the nature of God, however, will find a rich source of textual analysis on English thinkers from Henry More through Newton, Samuel Clarke, and slightly beyond. As much as one might wish for more philosophy of time and space in the monograph, the book does a reasonable job covering recent scholarly debates about these select historical figures. In that sense, the book is a clear contribution to the history of philosophy. Thomas’s two explicit theses are, first, that the complexity of the positions about time have been underappreciated and, second, that one may usefully group the absolutist positions of the period into three categories, loosely corresponding to views held by More, Gassendi, and Newton. Morean absolutism holds that time (and space) is really (as opposed to merely conceptually) identical with God. Gassendist absolutism depicts time (and space) as really distinct from God. Newtonian absolutism (or more properly what Thomas calls “Morean-Newtonian absolutism”) connects Morean absolutism with Newtonian language about space and time. This last view is difficult to articulate and captures an array of [End Page 615] detailed differences underneath the larger umbrella of Newton’s Morean-inspired views. As an aside, it is not clear that the book succeeds in defending the first of these theses; for instance, the wide-ranging discussion of the secondary literature suggests that scholars of the period are aware of the richness of the available positions, but more charitably the thesis is probably best conceived of as a heuristic for organizing the text.
Individual philosophers are introduced (more or less chronologically) with a biography before each. Thomas then engages the particular role each thinker had in the larger debate about absolutism with respect to space and time. At times the study reads rather like a roll-call of early modern Englishmen. Thomas, for instance, labels one thinker (Thomas Harriet) as “worth mentioning” even though, by the author’s own lights, he “has nothing to say on the metaphysics of space or time.” It is not always clear why some of the minor figures are mentioned beyond being additional examples of persons who held often similar positions.
Pride of place is given to More, Isaac Barrow, Locke, Newton, and Samuel Clarke. A number of the arguments regarding interpreting these figures will be of interest to scholars of early modernity. Thomas contends that More developed two accounts of time/duration and the analysis is textually savvy. The arguments, however, occasionally seem weaker than the history. For instance, Thomas argues that Gorham’s supposition (that More turned to absolutism with respect to time because of a parallelism with the rise of absolutist thinking regarding space) is false, because More settled on his account of time before deciding between three competing theories of space. Yet if those competing theories of space shared an absolutist thread—and arguably they do—then Gorham’s parallelism argument is not necessarily undercut. Thomas does provide an interesting reading of Barrow as a modal relationist, mostly based on resolving a difficulty in a single passage, which is likely to attract attention. Such are the disputes among historians of philosophy, and many of her interpretations are smart and plausible. But in the...