Idea and Ontology

Idea and Ontology: An Essay in Early Modern Metaphysics of Ideas

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Idea and Ontology
    Book Description:

    The prevailing view about the history of early modern philosophy, which the author dubs “the early modern tale” and wants to convince us is really a fairy tale, has it that the focus on ideas as a solution to various epistemological puzzles, first introduced by Descartes, created difficulties for the traditional ontological scheme of substance and mode. The early modern tale depicts the development of “the way of ideas” as abandoning ontology at least by the time of Berkeley. This, in turn, fostered an antimetaphysical bias as modern philosophy developed further, elevating epistemology to its current primary status in the field. Marc Hight challenges this account by showing how, though the conception of ideas changed over time, the ontological status of ideas remained a central part of the discussion about ideas and influenced how even later thinkers like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume thought about them. By his reading of important texts in early modern philosophy, Hight aims not only to provide a more accurate history of philosophy for this period but also to resuscitate the value of metaphysics for philosophical analysis today._x0000__x0000_

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05493-3
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-10)

    Traditional metaphysics has not fared well since its glory days in the early modern period. Gone is the fascination with developing an ontology that can account for our experiences in the world. Cartesian dualism, Leibnizian monads, Berkeleian immaterialism, and similar metaphysical investigations have been replaced by discussions of language, confident assertions that epistemology alone is first philosophy, and pronouncements that ontology is dead. Hilary Putnam has even delivered a talk in a distinguished lecture series entitled “Ontology: An Obituary” (2004, 71–88). It is not that metaphysics is no longer studied or held inhistoricalesteem; rather the guiding assumption...

    (pp. 11-36)

    Philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries operated within a substance/property ontology, narrowed to a substance/mode distinction, inherited from Aristotle via the Scholastics. Thus to ask after the ontological status of ideas among the early moderns is, at least initially, to ask where ideas fall within this traditional classification. Unfortunately, the issue is not as easy as asking whether particular individuals treated ideas as substances or as modes. The substance/mode ontology was “breaking down” in the early modern period under the stress of difficulties generated by theorizing about the nature of ideas, and this makes it hard to delineate conceptual...

    (pp. 37-54)

    Conventional wisdom, like the early modern tale, holds René Descartes responsible for effecting a revolutionary break from the Scholastic tradition, particularly in the theory of ideas. Although he applied the term “idea” in a new way and built an innovative mechanistic theory of perception that capitalizes on this new use, it is not at all obvious that Descartes advanced a new and clear theory of the ontological status of ideas. We are, in the main, still in familiar conceptual territory. He tells Hobbes in the Third Replies that “I used the word ‘idea’ because it was the standard philosophical term...

    (pp. 55-78)

    Nicolas Malebranche, although he considered himself a devoted Cartesian, was a potent critic of Descartes’ theory of ideas. In particular he denied that ideas could be modes, claiming that Descartes was simply unclear about their exact nature (OC6:172, Réponse 24.)¹ In this way, he hoped to enlist Cartesians in his cause without endorsing a particular claim he was convinced was in error. His hope was short-lived, however, as most Cartesians either ignored Malebranche or else rejected his theory of ideas. Antoine Arnauld, a renowned Port-Royalist, entered into a lengthy debate with Malebranche not only about the nature of ideas...

  9. 4 LOCKE
    (pp. 79-115)

    Descartes’ philosophy of ideas left unresolved the issue of how ideas were to be reconciled with the traditional ontology of substance and mode. A debate ensued, epitomized most famously by the Malebranche-Arnauld exchanges, but little apparent progress was made. As a result, some turned their attention away from questions of ontology altogether. By this I do not mean that ontological questions were rejected as unimportant but rather that some philosophers chose to spend their time attempting to solve other problems. Aside from the dispute about the status of ideas, there were other issues, including how ideas could represent. Perhaps, it...

  10. 5 LEIBNIZ
    (pp. 116-137)

    G. W. Leibniz, like Locke, also developed his theory of ideas in the aftermath of the famous dispute between Arnauld and Malebranche. That dispute turned on the ontological status of ideas. For Malebranche ideas are abstract and substantial things that reside “in” the mind of God. They are permanent entities preserved by Him even when not in use by finite beings. Arnauld takes ideas to be temporary modes of the mind. Both figures pull Leibniz in opposite directions. He agrees with Malebranche that ideas cannot be identified with particular thoughts; ideas must be objects to which the mind is related...

  11. 6 BERKELEY
    (pp. 138-176)

    With Locke and Leibniz we see the continuation of serious dissonance between the way of ideas and the traditional substance/mode ontology. Locke recognized the difficulties and sought to avoid them. Leibniz perhaps introduced important novelties into the way of ideas, but he did not explicitly engage concerns about their ontological nature. The Irish philosopher George Berkeley, however, confronted the metaphysical problems more explicitly. In that process he encountered no less difficulty than his predecessors. In fact, some of his most interesting and ingenious philosophy stems from the conflict between the epistemological roles of ideas and their ontic grounding. Nevertheless, like...

    (pp. 177-217)

    It has long been thought that Berkeley cannot consistently help himself to a theory of divine archetypal ideas in order to explain our perception of the sensible world. Positing the existence of such ideas in God allegedly creates skeptical problems, difficulties about the continuity of sensible objects, puzzles about the privacy of ideas, and worse. Introducing divine ideas allegedly inserts an intermediary between minds and ultimate reality, creating another veil of perception in a new form. Ardently committed to removing skepticism, Berkeley cannot endorse any theory that even hints at representationalism. J. D. Mabbott concludes, “It does not seem likely...

    (pp. 218-245)

    Given that we have a rough fix on how Berkeley treated ideas and of the significant philosophical benefit this reading provides to our understanding of Berkeley’s theory of divine ideas, we are now in a position to take note of other important developments in the ontology of ideas as they culminate in Berkeley. If I am right that Berkeley treats ideas as individual quasi substances, then we ought to expect some additional “fallout” from that view. That is, my interpretation should make a difference more broadly in his philosophical system given the centrality of ideas within it. Indeed it does....

    (pp. 246-268)

    For many adherents of the early modern tale, Hume represents the final break from the traditional ontology. Richard Watson, for instance, writes of the transition from Malebranche and Berkeley to Hume in just this way.

    Attempts to escape the weight of ontological status for ideas are characterized as attempts to break out of the ontological pattern of substance and modification. Everything is either a substance or a modification. As long as this principle is adhered to, the way of ideas is doomed. One could say that ideas are nothing or at least that they are not entities, or one could...

    (pp. 269-274)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 275-278)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 279-279)