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Renaissance Philosophy.

The scholarly genre that concerns itself with the history of philosophy is one that, in European culture, goes back more than three centuries, to Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy and Georg Horn's Historia philosophica, both published in 1655. Yet until a very few years ago, the history of Renaissance philosophy has been ill served by this genre. Most accounts of Western philosophical history pass quickly over the centuries between Ockham and Descartes with a few sub-Burckhardtian platitudes about the humanists being "too busy acquiring knowledge of antiquity to produce anything original in philosophy" (Bertrand Russell, quoted 340). Since the Second World War, those who needed a detailed synthesis of the scholarship on Renaissance philosophy have had to resort to the third volume of Ueberweg-Geyer's Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, while those who wanted a reliable introduction to the subject that could be placed in the hands of university students have mostly turned to the relevant parts of Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy (1946-66). Both of these histories took a dim view of the accomplishments of Renaissance philosophers, and both have long been seriously out-of-date, being written before the explosion of work on Renaissance philosophy that since the 1950s has entirely transformed the field. The problem was recognized by Charles Schmitt of the Warburg Institute in the early 1980s, who set about resolving it with his characteristic energy and learning. He planned two large projects, The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, which aimed to synthesize existing scholarship through a comprehensive survey of Renaissance contributions to the main subfields within philosophy; and the volume under review, a shorter introduction to Renaissance philosophy designed to serve the needs of students and non-specialists. Owing to his untimely death in 1986, both projects had to be completed by other hands. The former volume was published by Cambridge University Press in 1988; of that work it is better to write nothing than too little (as the humanists were wont, diplomatically, to say). The latter volume has now been finished by Brian Copenhaver. It is pleasant to report that it is a brilliantly successful piece of work.

Renaissance Philosophy (a good two thirds of which is Copenhaver's work) is divided into six chapters: a chapter on "The Historical Context of Renaissance Philosophy"; two chapters dealing respectively with the Aristotelian and Platonic traditions; a chapter on the Renaissance revivals of the other philosophical schools of antiquity; a chapter on the new philosophies of nature in the late sixteenth century; and a final chapter on the historiography of Renaissance philosophy entitled "Renaissance Philosophy and Modern Memory". The present writer has a competence in only a few of these areas, but within them he has found Schmitt-Copenhaver to be remarkably balanced and reliable. The presentation of material is clear; the writing lively with welcome touches of wit. Though organized thematically, the reader will find fairly detailed treatment of about three dozen major philosophers of the period as well as a valuable map of the recent and not-so-recent historiography. The only gap - and it is a minor one, given its almost complete neglect in modern studies - is the absence of any account of the revivals of Thomism, Scotism and Albertism in Italian religious orders during the late fifteenth century.

Schmitt and Copenhaver aim not only to inform, but to persuade. Their message is that Renaissance philosophy has been unduly neglected by modern philosophers and historians of philosophy. They admit Renaissance philosophy has no world-historical geniuses to place beside the great men produced by Renaissance science, literature and art. They admit that the continuities between medieval and Renaissance philosophy are more striking than the discontinuities; they admit that, by and large, the traditional view which sees the seventeenth century as a new departure in Western philosophical history is correct. This is essentially to admit (though the authors do not) that philosophy did not have a Renaissance. But to say that philosophy did not have a Renaissance is not to say that philosophical inquiry was uninfluenced by the Renaissance movement, or that the conditions of philosophical inquiry went unchanged during the period of the Renaissance. Schmitt and Copenhaver show with great clarity and learning how the practice of philosophy was reshaped in important ways in the period from 1350 to 1600. By the end of the period, Renaissance philosophers were asking some very modern questions, even if they had yet to produce what sound to our ears like modern answers.

All this is useful, but it does not explain why modern philosophers should take any account of philosophers as apparently foreign to their own projects as Trapezuntius or Telesio. Schmitt and Copenhaver wonder aloud why modem philosophers have not succeeded in making Renaissance philosophers into what Richard Rorty calls "conversational partners," while figures from even more strange and remote periods - like Plato, Anselm or Aquinas - have managed to join in the discourse of contemporary philosophy. Schmitt and Copenhaver explain this by arguing that Renaissance philosophy has been victimized by a failure of historical memory. On the one hand, Renaissance philosophers have had no modern constituency - such as classicists or neoscholastics - to blow their horns. On the other hand, modern philosophy itself is deeply indebted to Renaissance philosophy, and therefore unconsciously wishes to suppress the memory of its parent in order to make its own accomplishments appear the more original. Schmitt and Copenhaver make a plausible case that many supposedly modern philosophical issues - the embeddedness of thought in language, the need to choose among incommensurate conceptual schemes, the problem of the fact-value distinction - have roots going back to the Renaissance.

In the end these arguments may not, after all, succeed in making Renaissance philosophers household names among their modern brethren in philosophy departments. It is still difficult to imagine Charles Taylor and Gianfrancesco Pico having much of a chat (though one could imagine a rather lively exchange between Machiavelli and Alasdair Macintyre). But Schmitt and Copenhaver have given us excellent reasons why historians of philosophy can neglect the Renaissance only at their penril.
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Author:Hankins, James
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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