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The Third Force in Seventeenth Century Philosophy.

This volume contains a collection of twenty-two essays composed by Popkin from 1979 to 1989 addressing themes in the history of philosophy. The content of the essays ranges in consideration from the kinds of skepticism found in Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, or Joseph Glanville to the "incurable skepticism" of Henry More, Blaise Pascal, and Soren Kierkegaard, to the influence of religious movements on such modern thinkers as Baruch Spinoza and Isaac Newton. The array of figures examined by Popkin and their connections with religious or epistemological skepticism are the means through which he proposes an alternative to the traditional approaches which have been taken to the interpretation of seventeenth-century thought.

According to Popkin, "the philosophical battle of the seventeenth century is usally presented as a contest between two philosophies--Cartesian rationalism and British empiricism--each of which was set forth in order to justify 'the new science'. . . . The new philosophy arose as a way of dealing with a sceptical crisis that engulfed European thought during the Reformation" (p. 90). The author's researches during the past decade have led him to conclude that there was another tradition reacting to that same skeptical crisis, a tradition which combined theology and modern science. The seventeenth-century figures whom Charles Webster called "the spiritual brotherhood," Popkin now labels "the third force": a group of thinkers who "tend to combine elements of empirical and rationalist thought with theosophic speculations and Millenarian interpretation of the Scripture," which were used to overcome the skeptical challenge (pp. 90-1). Among those classified as members of "the third force" are William Twisse, Jan Amos Comenius, Joseph Mede, Henry More, John Dury, Samuel Hartlib, Lady Anne Conway, and Sir Isaac Newton.

For Popkin, the importance of examining the third force (as an admixture of elements from skepticism, science, and millenarianism) is that it corrects a defect in our grasp of the intellectual influences operative in the seventeenth century:

We who have been raised in the Enlightenment tradition have seen the "making of the modern mind" in terms of what led to the Age of Reason--namely scientific empiricism and rationalism turned against the Judeo-Christian tradition. A framework has been constructed in which Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke fit, and the rest of their contemporaries do not. For better or worse, we have to take the third force thinkers seriously if we wish to comprehend the transformation that led to Newton's view of the world. If we can come to appreciate this mixture of religious and scientific thought, which seems so strange today, as a vital historical force three centuries back, we can then look at its continuations in the eighteenth century and onwards in the scientific Millenialism of Whiston, Hartley, and Priestley, and in the romantic mystical Millenialism of Swedenborg, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. When we can appreciate this important aspect of our intellectual heritage, we may be better able to understand where we now are and how we got here. (p. 119)

Popkin notes in his Introduction that the essays concern themes in the history of philosophy. A neglected theme, he argues, is the place of those who advocated third force ideas. Most important to Popkin, however, is the historical study of philosophy by philosophers. What he contests is that kind of philosophical study which detaches thinkers and their ideas from their actual historical contexts and places them into some ahistorical, ethereal realm (p. 269). In a crucial respect, this book is as much an exploration of neglected figures and their influence as it is an exercise in defending the seriousness of studying the history of philosophy. The defense is addressed to those who dismiss such study from being part of the philosophic enterprise (pp. 325ff.). But whether Popkin's present book is sufficient for that defense remains questionable for me.

Attention to the development and advocacy of third force theories during the seventeenth century is useful, and Popkin's insistence that theology or religion was a dominant issue is certain. What is less established, however, is the degree of influence exerted by third force proponents on philosophers of the first rank during the seventeenth century. Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza are the philosophers mentioned most frequently. But their connections with third force figures are often remote or only cursory. Moreover, investigations of the teachings of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza can lead to very different conclusions than the ones reached by the author. In many cases, he relies so heavily on historical connections that he allows circumstantial evidence to replace philosophic consideration. For example, in the opening essay, "Hobbes and Scepticism I," Popkin observes that Hobbes was "a central member in the circle of Mersenne and Gassendi" during his years in Paris (pp. 10-12). Whereas those thinkers devoted much attention to skepticism, Popkin locates only two passages concerning skepticism in the writings of Hobbes. "These two references," Popkin avers, "hardly make it seem that Hobbes cared very much about scepticism and sceptics," even though Hobbes was accused subsequently of being a skeptic about religious convictions (p. 13). The argument leaves the impression that since Hobbes knew of epistemological skepticism but did not make much fuss about it then he must not have been an epistemological skeptic; that in fact is the conclusion reached by the author (pp. 25-6). What Popkin ignores are the many very decisive reasons which might have prompted Hobbes to refrain from discussing skepticism at all. Nor does the author appear to have considered that Hobbes's epistemological and religious skepticisms may have been interconnected. In defending the seriousness of the study of the history of philosophy, I believe Poplin has made his case all too historical and thus ignored the most important reason for the historical study of philosophy. When undertaken with responsibility, the study of the history of philosophy does not mire one in historicity. Instead, the historical study of philosophy liberates the student insofar as it points toward that which is always and is fundamental rather than toward that which is transitory and grounded merely in opinion or prejudice.
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Author:Bagley, Paul J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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