Mechanical failure

The standing of philosophy radically changed in the second half of the seventeenth century. Its central role in European intellectual culture began to diminish, coming to a head in the eighteenth century, with David Hume’s attack on the aspirations of metaphysics. What gave rise to those initial changes is the subject of Dmitri Levitin’s The Kingdom of Darkness, which offers an original perspective on the causes of the decline of metaphysics. It outlines a two-part liberation of European intellectual history from the strictures of philosophy, starting around the second half of the seventeenth century. One emancipation comes via natural philosophy and the other via Christian apologetics.

At first glance the publication of a 1,000-page book on the fate of philosophy in the early modern era, densely argued, extending beyond the usual cast of writers and replete with discussion of thousands of primary sources, should be a cause for celebration. Worries immediately arise, however. These come less from what Levitin discusses than from what he does not; one surprising gap stands out from the beginning. In the introductory essay to his Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy (2006), Knud Haakonssen detailed the limitations of seeing the history of philosophy only in terms of metaphysics and epistemology, at the expense of moral and political reasoning. His analysis has guided many scholars of intellectual history since. Not Levitin, though. We need to “get past mythology to the reality of early modern intellectual life” and avoid inexact, anachronistic use of the term “philosophy”, he tells us at the beginning of The Kingdom of Darkness. He then proceeds to make the staggering announcement that he is not concerned with “ethics or political philosophy, which in any case were minor (and usually quite trivial) parts of philosophical pedagogy and writing at this period” – that is, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philosophy was conceived of in this period, he, as comprising metaphysics and natural philosophy, with the addition of logic as a propaedeutic.

Not only is this manifestly untrue, it vitiates his project, which is to demonstrate that the emancipation of the European mind was achieved through its emancipation from philosophy. It guts philosophy as understood at the time, removing the core that holds it together. The comprehensive scholastic textbooks that appeared in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries included sections on metaphysics, natural philosophy, dialectic and ethics. This was not just a matter of completeness: it was the point of the exercise. The Christian scholastic systems aimed to offer a comprehensive account that made sense of every aspect of one’s life, connecting, and everything providing a rationale for, that one knew and believed; as did the metaphysical systems, such as those of Baruch Spinoza and G.W. Leibniz, which sought to displace revelation as a guiding principle in favor of reason. Understanding the point of the exercise is a prerequisite of any satisfactory account.

The problems are compounded as we move to one of Levitin’s main themes, the relation between natural philosophy, which is concerned with the natural realm, and metaphysics, which is concerned with the natural and supernatural realms. A good deal more clarity than the author evinces is needed here. To take just one example, he wrongly elides two different forms of scholastic metaphysics. On one side is Thomism, which construes metaphysics as a theologically neutral discipline based on reason alone, which should be used to reconcile natural truths (natural philosophy) and supernatural truths (revelation). And on the other is Scotism, which construes metaphysics as the science of being qua being, unifying natural and supernatural truths, in the process promoting ontology and a theologically based metaphysics. Scholastic textbooks tended to follow the latter, whereas Descartes, for example, largely followed the former. Levitin seems to be curiously oblivious to this distinction, treating all versions of early modern metaphysics along Scotist lines.

At the same time the characterization of natural philosophy in The Kingdom of Darkness is too rudimentary to support his ambitious programme. Even though Levitin emphasizes the importance of mechanics – the geometrically formulated account of motions and the forces for them – everything is read through a set of ontological commitments. One is left at a loss to understand the profound differences between investigation in mechanics, a precise, mathematically formulated discipline, and in natural philosophy, a largely speculative form of enquiry. The problem of how mechanics latches on to the world is raised, but there is no account of how it is answered in, for example, Galileo’s pioneering account of free fall, which established the complex and highly ingenious procedures for translating from mathematical into empirical terms and in effect initiated modern physical science. Similarly, Levitin’s treatment of ontology is far too limited to deal with what was the dominant ontological question in pre-Newtonian mechanics, namely how to deal with force. Christiaan Huygens’s struggles to circumvent questions of force in his attempts to supply a pure kinematics are ignored (Levitin’s treatment of Huygens’ key work, his Horologium of 1673, is superficial), yet it is these brilliant and formative writings that provide the connection between Galileo and Newton.

Even more problematic is the claim that philosophy – metaphysics – ceases to be functional in physical studies by the end of the seventeenth century. Levitin shows no awareness at all of developments in eighteenth-century mechanics. Leonhard Euler’s attempts to ground rational mechanics, and the notion of inertia in particular, in a detailed metaphysics of space, time and motion are the most important. But they don’t fit into Levitin’s story of emancipation from philosophy/metaphysics, and are consequently ignored.

The author’s account of the second set of questions, regarding the abandonment of metaphysics in Christian apologetics, is one of the most puzzling parts of the book. There was indeed what might be termed a politico-religious abandonment of metaphysics in the middle of the seventeenth century, but it was not precipitated by the long line of purely doctrinal disputes to which Levitin devotes his attention. It was not just a question of doctrinally generated challenges, but of a development that had previously been marginalized to metaphysical thinking: the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive in European history and the culmination of a hundred years of the wars of religion that took the form of an uncompromising struggle between Christ and the Antichrist. This war devastated much of the European landscape, brought famine, fighting and disease, and resulted in millions of deaths. Some areas of the German landmass lost two-thirds of their population.

In the wake of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), attention was focused on how such conflicts could be avoided. The treaty had sought to move confessional claims out of the public realm into a private space, and this crushed the claims of metaphysics to provide fundamental principles on to establish the truth. The separation of politics and religious ethics prompted a rethinking of the nature of morality. Leibniz, for example, sought a metaphysical reconciliation of the two, reinstituting reason as a universal arbiter. For Samuel von Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius, by contrast, the period of religious dispute was instead a theater of social warfare. One feature of the response of Pufendorf and Thomasius was their refusal to try to ground morality in a universal philosophical set of virtues, instead of developing a conception of morality in terms of the ethics of office (individual duties and responsibilities).

It is here that we have the rejection of a philosophical/metaphysical understanding of the world: in the inability of such an understanding to come to terms with thirty years of mass slaughter. There is no mention in The Kingdom of Darkness of either the Thirty Years War or the Treaty of Westphalia, not even an index entry. In Levitin’s Platonic universe, Christian apologetics rules, and such unpleasantries as mass slaughter are irrelevant to understanding the struggle between claims to put the world to rights.

Up to this point I have focused on the first third of the book. Making up the rest are two book-length essays on Bayle and Newton. The former, one must note, has much in common with the standard work in the area, Elisabeth Labrousse’s two-volume Pierre Bayle (1963-4), though Levitin does provide a full contextualization of the famous articles in Bayle’s Dictionnairehistorique et critique, such as those on Epicurus and Spinoza, and his account of his debate with Jean Le Clerc. These are genuinely revealing. By contrast, the section on Newton does not merit the 300 pages it takes up, and while it contains some insights, these would have been better radically condensed into two or three papers in learned journals.

The author rarely says in ten pages what can be said in 100. At the same time the book is laced with ex cathedra statements, often accompanied by abrupt dismissals of other scholars. Regarding Bayle scholars with whom he disagrees, he writes: “to be quite frank, much of the scholarship that makes such claims is not worth engaging with”. On the positive side, however, there is no doubt that he has investigated a huge number of obscure primary sources, and if we read these in terms of how various doctrines and theories were refracted through a wide contemporary readingship, this should result in a more fine-grained understanding of the period. For this Dmitri Levitin is to be thanked.

Stephen Gaukroger‘s The Failures of Philosophy was published in 2020

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