The decline of metaphysics

Stephen Gaukroger’s review of my book, The Kingdom of Darkness: Bayle, Newton, and the emancipation of the European mind from philosophy (September 23), is a puzzling parade of misrepresentations. He claims, for example, that I consider mechanics “through a set of ontological commitments”, and that I ignore the significance of Galileo, Huygens and the concept of force. This is diametrically opposite to my central argument that seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy should be divided into an “ontological” and a much more important “operational” one. Discussing the latter, I devote long sections to Galileo and many of his successors, including Huygens. I explicitly say that Newton’s study of force began with problems raised by Huygens (p508), and produce new evidence of the Newtonians’ reception of Huygens (p611).

Gaukroger says that I ignore developments such as Euler’s metaphysically committed “rational mechanics”. In fact I go out of my way to point out (p838) that Euler is an exception to my general thesis. (Did Gaukroger take his point from my book?)

Gaukroger’s comments about Thomism and Scotism are decades out of date, and reflects his tendency to interpret sixteenth-century philosophy (still largely untranslated) via thirteenth-century philosophy and theology (conveniently available in translation). As with several of his points, I am chastised for not repeating the idiosyncratic interpretations in his own work.

The two-thirds of my book – nearly 600 pages – that do not overlap with Gaukroger’s interests he simply brushes aside in a single paragraph. My entire account of Newton contains, apparently, only “some insights”, to be dismissed in one sentence. Gaukroger does not mention that these insights include a hitherto unknown “Rule of Philosophising” by Newton that I found in a torn Latin manuscript in Cambridge, or new evidence that some of Newton’s most famous ideas were developed collaboratively. On the value of such findings, and on the significance of the large-scale new interpretation that I offer of the whole basis of Newton’s thinking, I shall have to await the judgment of scholars who have the relevant expertise in the study of manuscripts and textual changes, and the patience to consider new information and new arguments.

Gaukroger is also silent about my extensive account of the European encounter with Asian philosophy, which I show to be essential for understanding Bayle and many others.

Much of my book is about institutions, whereas Gaukroger has devoted most of his career to philosophical arguments; His bluster about my putative “Platonic universe” is thus especially hollow. But nothing is so bizarre as his announcement that the fundamental claims of metaphysics were banned by the Treaty (sic) of Westphalia. Where my book attributes changes in the European system of knowledge to three centuries of complex interplay between educational and confessional structures, shifts in medical thought and practice, and the encounter with non-European thought, Gaukroger points to a single political event.

I can only marvel at two things – that seventeenth-century diplomats could cause such a philosophical revolution by the stroke of their pen, and that a modern historian can, by a stroke of his, set aside so many pages of new evidence and argument that does not fit his own assumptions.

Dmitri Levitin
All Souls College, Oxford

Chandler, Hammett and Shakespeare

If David Lehman does claim that “Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe even quotes Shakespeare at the end of The Maltese Falcon”, as Lois Potter suggests (September 23), then he’s inaccurate in two respects. The movie’s detective is not Raymond Chandler’s celebrated shamus, but Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. And when he says in the film’s final line that the coveted bird is “The … uh … stuff that dreams are made of”, he is misquoting Prospero’s observation in The Tempest that “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep”.

Michael Allen
Washington DC

Contemporary writers’ contributions to the refreshing of literary “brands”, notably Fleming’s Bond and Chandler’s Marlowe, were interestingly examined in Tom Williams’s article (September 9). No reference to the continuation of the Marlowe character is complete, however, without mentioning the earlier work by Robert B. Parker, who at the request of the completed estate Chandler’s Poodle Springs (1989), then produced a sequel to The Big Sleep called Perchance to Dream (1991). Although imitation is a sincere form of flattery, catching a writer’s exact style remained extremely difficult, even for Parker. Incidentally, his long series of socially astute novels featuring the well-read private investigator Spenser, written in further an succinct style, has itself now been continued (Parker died in 2010) by Ace Atkins in a series of ten novels.

Alex Faulkner
Lewes, East Sussex


With its talk of vacuums, empty spaces and holes, Rachel Fraser’s review of Roy Sorensen’s Nothing: A philosophical history (September 23) brought to mind a comment in Barbara Comyns’s Sisters by a River, a semi-fictional account of the author’s extraordinary childhood. The protagonist discovers great “all black” holes in two of her back teeth. “Sometimes at night ‘she worries’ if the holes would spread till I was all hole”. I wonder if Leibniz ever thought the same?

Neil Cooper
Ruskington, Lincolnshire

Jared and Ivanka

Michael Wolff’s wonderful review of Jared Kushner’s memoir says “everyone hated Jared” (September 9). But what about Ivanka? She’s not mentioned in the piece, but she’s an important figure in the book. Her father had wanted her to marry the American football star Tom Brady. Instead she picked the son of a New Jersey real-estate mogul who had gone to prison for his crimes. That was something her own father had always managed to avoid, and something that made Jared’s father “a loser”. But that loser insisted that Ivanka convert to Judaism before marrying his son. As Jared recounts in his book, Trump objected, asking: “Why does she have to convert? Why can’t you convert?” Marrying Ivanka was a triumph, and the first step in what Wolff rightly calls Jared’s “astonishing ascent”.

John Wiener
Los Angeles CA

Iron and Blood

Richard J. Evans, in his review of Peter H. Wilson’s Iron and Blood: A military history of the German-speaking peoples since 1500 (September 30), tells us that Wilson argues that “Germans did not possess uniquely martial qualities”. This statement is surely self- evident, as practically every European nation has declared war on one or other of its neighbors over the course of the past thousand years. Why should the Germans be singled out? As Evans rightly argues, Germanophobes like to quote Bismarck’s famous words, “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great decisions of the day be decided … but by iron and blood.” The words echo (and may even be based on) Oliver Cromwell’s equally famous declaration when he forcibly dissolved parliament (“You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go”). Cromwell’s Commonwealth was founded as much on iron and blood as it was on conscience and faith, and his Protectorate, like Bismarck’s Prussia, could just as easily be termed “An army with a state”. There is nothing unique about German history in that regard.

Sam Milne
Claygate, Surrey

The Queen’s reading

Alan Taylor (Letters, September 23) has trouble accepting that James Joyce was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite author, as reported by Rory Johnston (Letters, September 16). Mr Taylor immediately jumps to the conclusion that she could not possibly have read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Leaving aside the assumption that the Queen was unlikely to have embroiled herself in literary claims that could easily have ended in embarrassment, I suggest that she would have thoroughly enjoyed Dubbersa collection that contains some of Joyce’s finest writing.

Susan High
Creich, Fife


Robert Verkaik (Letters, September 30) objects to my criticism of his references in my review of The Traitor of Colditz (September 16). He states that his book provides “more than 250 references (endnotes)”, and speculates as to why I have, in his view, overlooked them.

With references, it is important not to confuse quantity with quality. Mr Verkaik provides sources, as stated in my review. The problem is how he deploys his references in support of his claims and quotes. Incorporating standard practices of referencing would have produced a better book. As it is, the reader is frequently presented with passages that evidently draw on multiple sources, but lack citations that effectively identify and delineate them. Weaknesses among the endnotes themselves compound the problem. For example, multiple citations contain errors in the essential catalog references. Others merely give the name of an archive and no details of the source consulted within. Appropriate adjustments to a subsequent edition may help to make Mr Verkaik’s research demonstrably sound.

Roderick Bailey

TS Eliot and William Hazlitt

In his letter about TS Eliot and Hazlitt (September 30), Stephen Barber speculates that George Santayana is the source of Eliot’s phrase “the objective correlative” because Santayana used the phrase “correlative objects”. In fact, the original phrase (which Eliot put between quotation marks, doubtless having forgotten the source, but being honest) was coined by Washington Allston, the first major Romantic painter of America, and published posthumously in his Lectures on Art, and Poems (1850).

Anthony Rudolf
London N12

Agatha Christie

I was surprised to read that Poirot and Miss Marple are “unambiguously queer” (Kathryn Hughes, September 9). Like many of your readers I was an avid adolescent reader of Agatha Christie. Both characters are sketchily drawn – Poirot is little more than a set of repeated quirks such as the sirops, tisanes, psychological moments, etc. I had no interest in the detectives’ personal lives (all I wanted them to do was detect), but if I had, I would probably have seen them as mildly eccentric old people who had outgrown interest in sex. Now that I have reached a similar stage of life, do I need to relabel myself?

Keith Jewitt

The post The decline of metaphysics appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment