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Arnold Geulincx. Ethics.

With Samuel Beckett's Notes. Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 146. Brill's Texts and Sources in Intellectual History 1. Eds. Han Van Ruler, Anthony Uhlmann, and Martin Wilson. Trans. Martin Wilson. Leiden: Brill, 2006. xlvi + 368 pp. index. illus. bibl. $129. ISBN: 978-90-04-15467-4.

Arnold Geulincx (1624-69) was a little-known but important voice in the post-Cartesian philosophical scene, and this translation of one of his major texts should contribute to the rising interest in his work. A rough contemporary of Spinoza, Geulincx took up a post at Calvinist Leiden University after being dismissed from Jansenist Louvain in 1658. In addition to producing works on logic and metaphysics, he sought to develop Descartes's account of the passions and to map an ethical framework on the basis of Cartesian natural philosophy. The Ethics is composed of a brief (if hilariously bombastic) dedication to the Curators at Leiden, a short address to the reader, and six treatises. It also contains extensive authorial annotations in the form of explanatory supplements attached mostly to the first treatise and composed by Geulincx after its separate publication in 1665. The Ethics as a whole was unfinished and published posthumously in 1675, with this translation based on J. P. N. Land's 1893 Opera Philosophica. This edition also includes Samuel Beckett's notes on Geulincx and a good introduction by van Ruler.

The first and largest treatise is the most innovative, presenting an ethics emphasizing virtue as love of reason and giving primacy to humility conceived as a negative form of "disregard of oneself." This emphasis on humility sets Geulincx's position against traditions emphasizing care of the self, and, more specifically, against Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic habitus theories that place happiness at the summit of human ethical striving, whether as an end in itself or for the sake of moderation. This disregard of the self derives from a deontology based on the dissociation of will from effective action and the denial of the latter to human capacity. In this vein, Geulincx takes one effect of a radical distinction between mind and body to be the impossibility of the self originating any movement at all. Given that "I do nothing outside of myself" and that "my action does not flow outside me," material change can be attributed to God alone. To explain this Geulincx introduces an image of will and matter in motion as two precisely synchronized clocks (famously appropriated by Leibniz in 1696), such that in the sequence of material changes my tongue moves at precisely the moment I will myself to speak. This position has sometimes led to Geulincx being cast as an occasionalist, but like Leibniz he conceives of divine omnipotence in terms of originating perfection (and thus "synchronization") rather than constant intervention by a conserving or directing force. The remaining five treatises provide a fairly typical catalog of virtues and vices framed in the additive mode of early modern neo-Stoicism but with the aim of attacking the principles underlying that system; develop a new teleological vocabulary to replace that of the late scholastics; elaborate an account of the passions to distinguish acting passionately from acting on the basis of passion; reinterpret the rewards of the virtuous life by emphasizing Geulincx's insistence on the alliance of virtue and reason; and, finally, present an unfinished practical epistemology of ethical observation meant to outline analytic tools for the examination of dispositions of the will.

Amid Beckett's interest in early modern philosophers (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Malebranche) lies his sympathy for Geulincx, with the most explicit references found in Murphy, Molloy, The Unnamable, and "The End." Beckett frequently quoted Geulincx's foundational ethical principle, "Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis." He was clearly fascinated by the neutral anonymity of Geulincx's brand of phenomenological mechanism and the associated principle of internal causation, as in Geulincx's claim, "I am a mere spectator of a machine whose workings I can neither adjust nor readjust. I neither construct nor demolish anything here: the whole thing is someone else's affair." Uhlmann, author of Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image (2006), includes a complete transcription of Beckett's notes on the Ethics, initiated in late 1935 and retained by Beckett until his death. The contents of the extensive notes are almost entirely composed of Beckett's direct transcriptions from Geulincx's text, however, they may prove invaluable for those interested in tracing Beckett's reading of Geulincx or probing his engagement with early modern philosophy in general.


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Author:Selcer, Daniel
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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