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Augustine's Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography.

Augustine's Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography. Edited by William E. Mann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xiv + 223 pp. Cloth, $65.00--The eight essays comprising this slim volume make a welcome contribution to our understanding of the philosophical context of and elements in Augustine's Confessions. The soul's ascent (chapter one), practical rationality (chapter two), happiness (chapter three), Augustine's aporetic method (chapter four), mind (chapter five), time (chapter six), scriptural interpretation and multivocity (chapter seven), and matter (chapter eight) form the respective themes. As such, the collection elucidates the philosophical aspects of Augustine's work, without, however, problematizing the genre itself and the extent to which the Confessions can be considered autobiography in the first place. There is, moreover, a tendency to abstract philosophical themes and/or issues from Augustine's Christian understanding. Thus Peter King concludes that "Augustinian ascent and Neoplatonic ascent are entirely different enterprises," and Thomas Ekenberg points out that Augustine's "conversion is not so much a voluntary act of his own as something done to him," resulting in the assertion that for Augustine "the will is not Augustine's own, and so is in a very fundamental way distinct from, and wholly independent of, his reason and his emotions." For Nicholas Wolterstorff, the realization that even after his conversion, "Augustine remains as miserable as ever," is not only a "surprise," but is "indeed a shock."

These are all issues that Augustine scholars have dealt with for centuries, as are time, hermeneutics, imagination, and creatio ex nihilo, though here they are approached without any real discussion of historiographical background or reflection on the work of previous scholars. Thought provoking they are, but as perhaps is of necessity in all such collections of essays, the book as such does not make an overarching argument, and the unifying factor is the focus on the Confessions and an abstract philosophical treatment. Thus Paul Helm demonstrates that Augustine's understanding of time cannot be described in H. D. Mellor's distinction between A-series and B-series categories of time, but there is no discussion of the aporia of time as such in Stephen Menn's essay on Augustine's aporetic method, the longest and best contribution in the volume, even though Menn does, at least tangentially and in passing, deal with memory. Menn's analysis of Augustine's aporetic method is insightful, even if it does not offer any major reevaluations of Augustine's positions, leading Menn, for example, to speculate that "the fact that our desire is a desire for God is constituted by the fact that it cannot be satisfied by anything else. If I am right, Augustine thinks that our intentionality toward God is founded on our desire for God, and our desire for God is founded on our frustration with everything else." For any one who has read Isabelle Bochet's Saint Augustin et le Desir de Dieu (Paris, 1982), a work not cited by Menn, or Augustine himself for that matter, this is hardly a shocking revelation. Nor is Blake Dutton's "Plenitude of Meaning Thesis," which he feels "is nothing short of astonishing," all that astonishing for anyone familiar with Augustine's De doctrina Christiana. If there is any overarching argument of the volume, it is perhaps that as expressed by Christian Tomau, that while Augustine "relies heavily ... on the methods and concepts of Neoplatonic metaphysics," he nevertheless embeds "it in his theology of creation and grace," thereby transforming "the Neoplatonic model itself and thoroughly Christianizing] it," which "is a conscious and critical adaptation of the philosophical heritage governed by the principles of the church fathers frequently described as the 'right use' ... of their surrounding culture."

While analytic philosophers might find this volume helpful, Augustine scholars will not, even as the individual contributions offer insights meriting further reflection for both. If this volume leads philosophers to a greater understanding of Augustine, and perhaps to further reading of Augustine himself and the wealth of scholarship dedicated to him, it will be a successful work indeed.--Eric Leland Saak, Indiana University-Indianapolis
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Author:Saak, Eric Leland
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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