Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Review Sousedík

Stanislav Sousedík. Philosophie der frühen Neuzeit in den böhmischen Ländern. Stuttgart- Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 2009. 277 pp. EUR 158,00 ISBN 13 9783772824784
Now published:  Intellectual
History Review, 20: 4, 531 — 533
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/17496977.2010.525928

This is a history of philosophy of the early modern period that focuses on one cultural region, which is roughly equivalent to the present day country of Czech Republic. (The plural in the title: "Bohemian lands", means to include the regions of Moravia and Silesia.) The era of national histories of philosophy is over, so one should think -- but has it been replaced by a method of writing history that truly pays tribute to all angles of the civilized world? Standard histories of philosophy are still limited to the great names, identified with the great strains of philosophy. Geographically, when speaking about the early modern period, it's all about France, the Low Countries and England, Italy and Germany; and for the German countries it's about the Protestant principalities. Poland, the Habsburg Empire, Spain, Portugal, and Scandinavia don't seem to have a place on the map. It is currently the Ueberweg's history of philosophy, which is producing volume after volume for the 17th and 18th centuries at Schwabe in Basel, that takes a closer look at regional developments in philosophy. One method employed by the editors of this monumental history of philosophy is to look at the European countries by their divisions according to denominations. However, the constant shifting between insulation and influence among Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed philosophers appears to be one of the driving forces of the development of early modern philosophy. At the same time it is obvious that the 19th century approach to national history with its denominational bias fostered eclipsing the role of philosophy in Bohemia. František Palacký's history of Bohemia emphasized the Hussite movement to the effect that in philosophy "other phases of the Bohemian history remained outside of the attention of Czech historians" (11). In that climate Scholastic and Catholic thinkers were deemed by definition to be of secondary quality. Sousedík's book is a case study in denominational and regional intellectual history.
The early modern history of the Bohemian countries (1450-1790) is divided into two unequal parts by the Battle of White Mountain (1620), when the Hussites and other Protestants lost power and re-Catholization took effect. Since non-Catholic thinkers had to leave the country, Jan Amos Comenius, for instance, cannot play a role in this history (10). The time until ca. 1690 was particularly fruitful with a variety of original philosophers. The 18th century witnessed the gradual infiltration of Enlightenment philosophy.
During the first period Prague University welcomed Thomism alongside with Scotism and Lullism. Hilarius of Leitmeritz (1412-69) is the first Czech thinker presented in this book (30-33). Raised in the Hussite environment he converted to Catholicism after having spent some time in Padua from where he had brought Lullist manuscripts. During the reign of Emperor Rudolph II Lullism enjoyed a first popularity in Prague, which continued into the 17th century (Kaspar Knittel, S.J., 190-193). Rudolph's court (62-68) is well known to have harbored a great number of more or less orthodox personalities, including Giordano Bruno and Johannes Kepler. Among the local intellectuals was Johann von Nostitz, who preserved some of Bruno's writings. As everywhere else in Europe, the Italian Renaissance was the source of innovation. Bohuslav Hasištejnský z Lobkovic and Jan Šlechta in the 15th, Johannes Jessenius in the 16th/17th century divulged humanist anthropology, Neoplatonic cosmology (Francesco Patrizi), and Scholastic psychology. Influenced by both Catholic and Protestant sources, Jessenius introduced the current debate over political power in a treatise on tyranny (1614, 1620) that had immediate impact on the Constitution of the Bohemian state (68-75). (Cf. also recently: Tomáš Nejeschleba. Jan Jessenius v kontextu renesanční filosofie [Jessenius in the context of Renaissance philosophy]. Prague: Vyšehrad, 2008.) An important predecessor was the Hussite King of Bohemia George of Poděbrady who in 1464 had proposed a universal peace organization as an alternative to the competing powers of Pope and Emperor and as a response to the growing threat of the Turks (34-36). Jessenius's political thought would be continued by the Jesuit Karl Grobendoncq who followed Catholic thinkers in advocating (1666) the importance of the people while attacking Machiavellianism (206-213).
The Jesuits arrived in Prague as early as 1556 and opened their first college in Moravia in 1565. They were successful in upholding the Catholic metaphysical tradition against the influence of Philipp Melanchthon, Peter Ramus, and others. After the defeat of the Protestants they dominated Bohemian Baroque Philosophy. The most important philosopher, perhaps of the entire period, was the Spanish Jesuit Rodrigo de Arriaga who taught at Prague University from 1622 through 1667. He advocated a version of nominalism with important consequences for metaphysics and philosophy of nature. For instance, he defined universal being as "that which -- though being one -- is multiplied in inferior instances" (89). He reduced the number of causes to efficient causality and almost identified matter with quantity, thus opening philosophy to Cartesian mechanicism (101-2).
An interesting counterpart was the Capuchin Friar Valerian Magni (1586-1661), a diplomat and philosopher influenced by Platonism and Augustinianism. On the basis of his understanding of consciousness he redefined the concept of space as "the evolution of an imaginary mass" (132). Sousedík argues convincingly that Magni developed an early version of philosophy of consciousness that was independent of Descartes (139). The same climate, in which ideas that were broadly accepted in Europe developed in unique way in Bohemia, had Johannes Marcus Marci of Kronland (1595-1667) flourish. Influenced by the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher he developed a philosophy of nature that explained the existence of finite beings through "substantial forms" (an Aristotelian theorem) reinterpreted as (Platonic) "operative ideas" (150). Therefore tangible beings were not necessarily seen as instantiations of eternal forms but as products of "evolution" (152). Marci responded to Arriaga's critique by endorsing his nominalist interpretation of matter and form.
The most obscure and prolific writer of Bohemian Baroque Philosophy was Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz (1606 -1682), who was active all over Europe and familiar with most philosophers of his time and served for some years as abbot of the Benedictine monastery Emmaus in Prague and as bishop of Hradec Králové. In ethics he defended probabilism, but his major contribution to philosophy was his analysis of language and mathematics. Taking up the fashion of cryptography he analyzed the structure of language from the point of view of formalization. He managed to find theoretical differentiations of dictionary, syntax, semantics, and logic. In a complex system he differentiated the various meanings of being/existence depending on their logical, modal, and existential claims (178-184).
Among the Scholastic traditions, Thomism was never strong in Bohemian countries (225-229), but Scotism was supported by Irish Franciscans who settled in Prague in the middle of the 17th century, Bernhard Sannig being the most important of them. The Franciscans were also the first group that was torn apart by nationalist tensions between Germans and Czechs (204-206).
The Premonstratensian abbey Strahov in Prague was an important cultural center, and in 1676 its abbot Hieronymus Hirnheim published his De typho generis humani (The Disease of Humanity), a critique of human knowledge in the tradition of Agrippa of Nettesheim, combining relentless skepticism with fideism (214-222).
Around 1700 Enlightenment entered Bohemian countries first through a representative of atomism, Peter Guttlaw of Strahov, then through the Franciscan Friar Wolter Schoppen who taught Cartesianism. Another Franciscan, Anton Kalckstein was the first in that region to publish a history of philosophy (236-238), a phenomenon that went along with the movement of eclecticism. Eventually Wolffianism took command and the peculiar profile of philosophy in Bohemian lands merged with mainstream European philosophy where questions of religion were deemed to be alien to philosophy (265).
Since most of the philosophers are widely unknown, it was necessary to mention at least some of them that are treated with diligence in this book. As the center of the Holy Roman Empire for some time, and the stronghold of Catholic Reformation most of the time, Bohemia was well connected with all intellectual and political movements of early modernity. Sousedík is at times overly cautious in not overemphasizing the merits of some philosophers. It is nevertheless obvious that Czech libraries conserve enormous philosophical and theological treasures. In his effort to assign each work its proper place in the intellectual history Sousedík manages to give extremely clear and helpful lectures on a variety of philosophical problems: Thomism versus Scotism, nominalism and philosophy of language, Cartesianism, atomism, political theory, etc. In an unobtrusive way this book is a specimen of a philosophical approach to philosophy's history and at the same time a handbook of the main issues of philosophy in its gradual transition from the late Middle Ages to modernity.
Paul Richard Blum
Loyola University Maryland

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