5. Book Reviews and Notices
JOURNAL OF INTERDISCIPLINARY HISTORY OF IDEAS
E. Pasini 0
0 Reviews and Notices of Wolfe, Materialism: A Historico-Philosophical Introduction , Springer 2016; Floris Cohen , The Rise of Modern Science Explain , e2d015; Hanlon, Early Modern Italy: A Comprehensive Bibliogra, p2h01y6
- Section 4; Reviews - Book Reviews and Notices
c b n a
Volume 5 Issue 9
Section 1: Editorials
1. What’s in a CFP? (M. Albertone – E. Pasini)
Section 2: Articles
2. Marie Le Masson Le Golft (1749-1826). Le progrès des idées là où on ne l’attend pas (O. Perru)
3. Oasisité (L.A. Torres Rojo)
Section 3: Notes
4. Pour une approche historico-linguistique des documents
historiques. Croisements inter/transdisciplinaires en France
et en Italie (M. Margotti, R. Raus)
Section 4: Reviews
5. Book Reviews and Notices (E. Pasini)
Section 5: News & Notices
6. Activities of the GISI | Les activités du GISI (2016)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1 Cham, CH: Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2016, p. 144.
Charles Wolfe, Materialism: A Historico-Philosophical Introduction ,
ISBN 9783319248189, $54.99 (softcover).
No one philosopher or thinker ever seems to have liked to be deemed a
materialist, the author of this small and dense book remarks, with the exception of
that kind of hard-boiled figures thataaurtoeproclamé materialists. In modern
philosophy, it is not before the ᵗ1ʰ8century that such figures can be found, La
Mettrie being the first to adopt this ominous label as a device.
‘Materialism’ is a polemical term, and it is mainly “defined by
anti-materialists”. So the author wonders: “What then is materialism? Is there only one,
or are there many variants?” (p. 2). Materialism is not a topic totally new to
historical studies, and Charles Wolfe draws much, for instance, from Olivier
Bloch’s works. Additionally, the historical focus is extended by some major
theoretic enhancements: 2ᵗʰ0-century French thought and today’s philosophy
of the mind are the most conspicuous frameworks of reference. But Wolfe’s
own questions—and his answers—are, it seems to me, gone much beyond his
Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas 5(2016), 9, p. 5:1–5:8. Non peer-reviewed.
Although readers will find in this book mostly Early-Modern stuff, there are
three rambles into philosophical contemporaneity: a contrast between ‘French
materialism’ and present-time philosophy of mind; an enthralling genealogy
of 20ᵗʰ-century Australian materialism; a discussion of the phantom-limb
problem. This might hint that the dominant question on which the connection to
today’s debates is made is the relation between mind and brain, the reduction
of thought to its biologic-material conditions. It is not precisely so. Rather, in
this domain, the reflections proposed in this book revolve around the definition,
supported by historical evidence, of a ‘materialist’ sense of embodiment, and of
an “embodied determinism” (p. 39).
Determinism notwithstanding, in fact, materialism as a reduction to physics
is not the focus of the book: “physicalism is something of a negaLteiivtfeaden
in my story”, says the author at p. 4. Instead we might say thnatturalism is a
positive one, and a necessary development of this book would be some look into
the latter’s history as much as into that of materialism. And in the book there
remain still some open questions in naturalism’s whereabouts, like the relation
of materialism to mathematics, which is sadly exemplified here by Diderot’s
prophecy that analysis would not develop beyond D’Alembert.
With a theoretic historian’s gaze, the author picks elements that are
significant in quality and usefulness. As Wolfe himself says of his ambition, “I hope
that a short historical and philosophical overview which combines Aristotle
contra materialism, the problem of phantom limbs, evolution (…), brains,
machines and ‘hylophobia’ will serve some purpose” (p. 15). And Aristotle has
indeed in this book a prominent role. In the Stagirite’s works Wolfe shows
effectively the presence of a sophisticated relationship of material necessity and
natural teleology. In the more general part of this analysis, at times some
passages seem a bit on the rash side: “This substratum turns out to be matPtheyrs(.
I 9, 192a31-32, 34)—except ultimately he will decide that it is form” (p. 33). But
Wolfe is convincent in his effort to show that Aristotle’s perspective is not
inconsistent, and possibly corresponding, with what he calls an ‘enriched
materialism’ integrating a theory of levels of organization. Aristotle, who has no
Descartes or Lamettrie to abominate, although he has his handful of problems
with Democritus, does not, in Wolfe’s view, oppose life and meaning to dead
matter in the Modern simplistic way: “Aristotle in fact integrates the
materialistic level rather than denying it”. Instead of merely asserting internal teleology
against materialist chance and necessity, he “asserts the ‘for the sake of’ as
being the internal structure of matter itself” (p. 40). This viewpoint Wolfe sees to
be reconfigured in Renaissance with the addition of appetites to matter—maybe
with some obliviousness to the Medieval (Albertist) debate onetdhuectio
formarum e materia .
Historically, the most powerful objection to materialism has been precisely
“that it reduces the world of life to the world of dead matter” (p. 14), and
precisely this objection the history of materialism must here disprove. An attempt
to understand what might be in common in the diverse forms of materialism,
does not necessarily mean to assert its ‘truth’ in some meta-historical sense;
nonetheless this book, among other intents, seeksdtoojustice to materialist
thinkers. According to the author, there is “something gravely wrong” (p. 64)
with the picture of materialism according to which soul, mind, intentionality
would be simply denied.
Wolfe puts thus on display a variety of vital materialists, whose “goal is less to
explain life in terms of the basic properties of matter than to give a material basis
for life and animation” (p. 53). It is mostly in the Enlightenment, more generally
in 18ᵗʰ century thought, that such materialism of life is born, when theories
of living matter and self-moving atoms bridge philosophy and other, crucial,
disciplines and fields. This is, consequently, a work of history of philosophy,
but the history it tells is closely intertwined with the history of medicine and
the life sciences, and the amount of physicians that are featured nicely balances
that of philosophers.
This approach allows for original results. On a theoretical plane, biologism of
vital materialism takes hopefully the place of Althumssaetré’rsialisme aléatoire ;
on a historical plane, what had always seemed mere Cartesianism, can now be
seen as a theory of life: “La Mettrie’s reductionism is a reduction to the organic.
When he speaks of watches and springs – classic mechanist analogies – he is
careful to point out that the object of his analysis, the body, is a ‘self-winding’
machine” (p. 62).
Some innovative hints remain slightly more than such. In addition to the vital
character of Radical Enlightenment materialism, and to organic determinism,
“metaphysically, the dead materialism accusation misses something important,
in addition: the ontology of relations” (p. 82). This is not to be confused with
the usual meaning of ‘ontology of relations’ in the analytic logical and
meta5 : 3
physical domain; historically it is in turn to be found in the materialistically
developed Spinozism of Dom Deschamps and Diderot, as explainedleinidear
very underdeveloped part of this book—and of its conceptual web.
Speaking of the conceptual web, it may be noted that the book lacks a general
bibliography (quoted sources are listed at the end of each chapter, with some
– likely Springerian – quirks like Goethe listed under V as von), but has a
conceptual Index. The Index is concise but telling; the book, for instance, speaks of
laughter and not of abstraction (nor any other A- concept, but this is more
coincidential). In fact, although abstraction is mentioned a couple of times, laughter
has a much more momentous role. Indeed it allows Wolfe to tackle the problems
raised against materialism in ethical matters. “Materialism has long had a bad
reputation, on two distinct yet related grounds: that it reduces everything to
‘dead’ matter, and that it eliminates the ‘higher’, intellectual or spiritual parts
of life, and thereby cannot but be immoral” (p. 6). What kind of ethics can there
be “for ‘meat machines’?” (p. 62). In place of “hedonistic, ‘swinish’ brutality”
(p. 65), and also of the ethics ojofuissance which is so important to certainᵗ1ʰ-8
century materialis¹t,sanswer is found in a Rabelaisian tendency to laugh at
humanity (p. 72), that is indeed the proprium of a materialist thinker since the
time of Democritus. This brings materialist ethics on a par with the best of
classical attitudes, I would say, although leaving it for some aspects short of Marx’s
11ᵗʰ theses on Feuerbach, and maybe also of the same Feuerbach’s attention to
the human ‘heart’.
In the scientific intention, this is a book of historical philosophy of science
(and metaphysics), that, I would say, is proof to the fact that (to insinuate just
one idea of mine into this review) only the history of philosophy can truly
be experimental philosophy. I appreciate much intent, hypotheses and results;
but sympathize not with the size of the work—a thrice-bigger book would be
welcome. Except for its size, anyway, this is a Modernist book, in the literary
sense, for richness of ideas and characters, and for boldness of thought and
expression. When the author wants to say that La Mettrie’s corporeal mind is
not a blow to human self-esteem, for instance, he words it so, reminiscent of
¹ See f.i. Marie Leca-Tsiomis, “La morale diderotienne dans l’Encyclopédie n’est pas où on l’attend”.
Cultura. Revista de história e teoria das ideias 34 (2016): 19-30 (http://cultura.revues.org/
an Adornian phrase: “Instead, it fuels a fiery, sangdueimneaskierende Tendenz
proper to hedonistic, embodied agents” (p. 56). All this fullness of content and
expression makes undoubtedly for an intriguing and instructive reading.
2 parative History , Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U.P., 2015, p. 298. ISBN
Hendrik Floris Cohen, The Rise of Modern Science Explained. A Com
9781107545601, £18.99 (paperback).
This book is the welcome English translation (in cooperation with Chris
Emery) of prof. Cohen’Dse herschepping van de wereld (2007). It is an abridged
and less academic presentation of the ideas, and of the stories those ideas are
put to work explaining, contained in Cohen’s 2010 bookHoonw Modern
Science Came into the World. Four Civilizations, One 17 tʰ-Century Breakthrough . It
also is, as the author’s intention was, a very perspicuous book, that can be read
by students but is appropriate in general for scholars that are not historians of
How uncivilized Europe brought about what more refined and
technicallygifted civilizations would not accomplish, that is, modern natural science, is the
object of the book—a question many times raised and not once persuasively
answered. The ‘scientific revolution’ is considered here solely as a historical
phenomenon, that Floris Cohen divides into six equally historical developments.
The main focus is the period between Galileo and Newton, but much attention
is given to comparative history of science and technology then and in preceding
times, and some to further developments.
In the theory of science, what explanations are is much disputed. Whether
and when what happened or not, is inevitably the object of those kind of
explanations that sneaky philosophers of science would call a ‘just-so’ story. But this
¹ Cohen himself has told the history of the book on CambridgeBhltotgp:(//tinyurl.com/
5 : 5
is an obvious and rather useless remark. To parrot a comment made by Leibniz
about Cartesian chemistry, it is not that one could ask for a recipe like ‘take an
ounce of this and two cups of that, and out of natural necessity you will have a
As with any honest comparative historical analysis on a very general level,
what is proposed here is yet a discourse of the
‘while-some-were-doing-wrong,others-began-doing-right’ kind, although clad in the very sophisticated (and
plausible) system of theoretical and historical coordinates known to Floris
Cohen’s readers as Athens and Athens-Plus, Alexandria and Alexandria-Plus,
factfinding experimental knowledge, abstract-mathematical nature-knowledge, etc.
This apparatus allows to analyze in terms of conflicting approaches, and of
cultural similarities and differences in attitudes, much of what happened, as said,
or did not happen, in the history of the raising of natural science and connected
As a matter of fact, there is also more to it, as we can see with an example.
When talking about “mathematical science enriched with corpuscules”, Floris
Cohen writes: “An indespensable precondition for coupling the philosophy of
particles in motion firmly to one of the othe two modes of nature-knowledge
was first to strip it of its ‘Athenian’ knowledge structure” (p. 223). This can be
said out of the existence of constraints in the relationships between concepts
and in the putting of concepts to use. Of course such constraints are one of the
most elusive and interesting aspects of the history of ideas, but their nature is
all but clear to us yet.
Anyway, at least in a historical sense, it is true that in both in the 2010 book
and here what has happened is very clearly explained. It becomes so much
more clear than in so many other accounts, maybe, precisely because such
apparently esoteric constructs as ‘Alexandria-Plus’ are descriptive devices, much
more than ‘explanative’ in some sort of self-styled causal sense.
In the final part, Floris Cohen discusse briefly the idea that, duringᵗʰthe 19
century, the ‘near-fusion’ of the mathematical and the ‘exploratory-experimental’
sciences brought about a “Second Scientific Revolution”. As the author says, it
is rather “an ‘expression’—not yet a concept” (p. 278), and he and others are
still working on it. But it speaks for the combinatory power of his historical
constructs that they can provide not only descriptions, but hints of further
developments beyond their initial scope.
3 12ᵗʰ edition, 2016, p. 1109. Open access athttps://dal.academia.
Gregory Hanlon, Early Modern Italy: A Comprehensive Bibliography ,
One hundred pages and 3,000 titles more than the 2014 edition, this is a
didactic and reference tool of some importance for Early-Modern studies also beyond
its geographic confinement. It has been once again updated, and extends now
to more than 21,000 titles, listed according to the unchanged categorial
arrangement of: “1) General and Historiography; 2) Travel and Historical Geography, 3)
Politics & Administration; 4) Demography and Economy; 5) Social Stratification
& Behavioural Studies; 6) Religious History; 7) Language Arts and Erudition; 8)
Music and Spectacle; 9) Beaux-Arts and Architecture; and 10) History of
Science”. The most interesting chart that analyses English and French production
by category has also been updated.
Most of the introduction has not changed from the preceding edition. The
slight biologism put against a “cultural” conception of attitudes and behaviours
still brings to the question that in theᵗʰ1e1dition read as: “Does anyone still
believe this, in 2014?”—and has now become: “Does anyone still believe this, in
2016?” (p. 19). The (maybe appropriately) abrasive assessment of work in the
history of Early-Modern Italian science—“do we really need more studies on
Galileo?” (p. 20)—also stays. Small but significant changes lurch here and there.
Where the 11ᵗʰ edition said: “Still today, many Italian historians publish some
of their best work in French-language journals” (2014, 9), now we read: “Italian
scholars who hesitated between the two international languages until the 1970s
now publish outside Italy primarily in English” (2016, 9). As for what might by
some be considered history of ideas, Hanlon notes an “increasing focus on the
Italian origins of western atheism” (p. 19).
5 : 7
Louis-Michel Van Loo, Portrait of Dider,o1t767.