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Gillespie, Michael Allen. The Theological Origins of Modernity.

GILLESPIE, Michael Allen. The Theological Origins of Modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. xiii + 386 pp. Cloth, $35.00; paper, $22.50--Modernity rests ultimately on theological rather than secular foundations, argues Gillespie. Proximately, those foundations can be found in the tension between necessity and freedom that manifests itself in the debate between Luther and Erasmus, later in the dispute between Hobbes and Descartes, and later still in Kant's third antinomy. Remotely, they lie in the nominalism and voluntarism of William of Ockham. Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences similarly saw in nominalism the origins of modernity, though Gillespie does not make reference to it.

On Gillespie's account, the development of modernity out of Ockhamism went as follows: The medieval synthesis forged by thinkers like Aquinas emphasized the divine intellect over the divine will, making God and His actions partially intelligible to human beings. In its realism, it was also committed to the idea of a general metaphysics or science of being qua being over and above the study of the particular realms of being: divine, human, and natural (which together comprised the branches of special metaphysics). Ockham's emphasis on God's will over his intellect made the divine nature unintelligible and forbidding, and God's dealings with man utterly unpredictable. Ockham's nominalism undermined the possibility of a general metaphysics, leaving the three branches of special metaphysics to compete for dominance.

Renaissance humanism represents the attempt to make sense of the world post-Ockham by privileging the human realm over the divine and natural realms. The anxiety over the human condition that results from the frightful nominalist-cum-voluntarist conception of God was countered by an appropriately nominalist and voluntarist understanding of man as a self-creating individual whose quasi-divine dignity sets him above the rest of the natural world.

The Protestant Reformation, in turn, would emphasize the divine realm over the human and the natural. The latter realms could not fail to be subordinate to the terrifying God of nominalism, overwhelming in His power and inscrutable in His will. This same God was, however, the source of Luther's spiritual anxiety. Since such a God might damn one no matter what good works one performed, assurance of salvation could be found in faith alone. This put the Reformation on a collision course with the humanists, whose emphasis on man's self-mastery was seen as Pelagian and whose commitment to free will was regarded as incompatible with divine omnipotence. Hence the debate between Luther and Erasmus, the latter defending free will and the former denying it.

In light of the Wars of Religion that followed upon the Reformation, Luther's solution to the crisis fomented by nominalism fell into disrepute. The subjectivism implicit in sola fide was to be countered by a new science grounded in mathematical objectivity, and the natural world studied by this science would now take precedence over the divine and human realms. With this third branch of special metaphysics finally taking center stage, modernity comes into being. However, its precise shape was still to be determined. Descartes and Hobbes shared the mechanical conception of nature that underlay the new natural science. But, where the dualist Descartes placed God and the soul outside the mechanical order, the materialist Hobbes interpreted God as but one, albeit grand, material substance among others, and regarded human thought as merely motions in the brain. The sequel was a reformulation of the Luther/Erasmus debate over free will. Having taken the soul to be outside the causal order of nature, Descartes, like Erasmus, was able to affirm freedom. However, for Hobbes, there could be no freedom other than the freedom to act as we desire, where the fact that we desire something is itself entirely determined by material forces outside our control. Calvin's doctrine of predestination is, in effect, reformulated by Hobbes in terms of the idea of God as a purely material first cause necessitating all events via an implacable mechanistic causality.

Finally, Kant would argue that these metaphysical disputes over God and free will cannot be settled by theoretical reason. Practical reason, however, could in his view resolve them for modernity's purposes by placing God, freedom, and morality within the noumenal world while acknowledging the reign of causal necessity over the phenomenal world. The failure of the Kantian solution is evidenced, Gillespie argues, by the turbulent philosophical, cultural, and political history of Western society after Kant.

Gillespie holds that the history he recounts is crucial for a proper understanding of world after September 11th. He ends the book by suggesting that the pro and con sides in the debate over globalization parallel the philosophical partisans of freedom and necessity, respectively. He also draws some comparisons between the postnominalist development of Western philosophy and similar developments in the history of Islamic thought.

Gillespie's account of the long-range consequences of nominalism is compelling and important, but the defense of his overall thesis and his suggestions for contemporary application are surprisingly underdeveloped. It is true that the modern dispute over freedom and necessity had, as a matter of historical fact, its roots in various theological controversies. But, is this a historical accident? Why exactly should the contemporary debate over this issue take heed of these historical antecedents? These are questions Gillespie neither asks nor answers. Furthermore, the remarks about globalization are sketchy, and the precise relevance of the Islamic parallels is left unclear.--Edward Feser, Pasadena City College.
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Author:Feser, Edward
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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