Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Jolley on Descartes and Leibniz on the Image of God

I often find myself in disagreement with Nicholas Jolley; nonetheless, he often has excellent insights, and equally excellent formulations of them. The following is an example. He has just finished pointing out (rightly) that in a sense Malebranche's epistemology is chiefly inspired by the prologue to the Gospel of John. He then goes on to contrast Descartes and Leibniz:

The Book of Genesis, rather than St John's Gospel, furnishes the key text for Leibniz and Descartes; they invoke the doctrine that man (i.e. the human mind) is made in the image of God. Edward Craig has shown that the influence f this doctrine was pervasive in seventeenth-century philosophy, but obviously, as it stands, the doctrine is extremely indeterminate; some definite philosophical content must be introduced to fix the shape of the likeness. The choice of content varies from philosopher to philosopher. In the case of Descartes, Craig denies that it is a thesis about knowledge which fixes the shape of the likeness; it is rather a thesis about the nature of the will and its freedom. But this is an unduly restrictive reading of Descartes. In fact, the Genesis text is intimately bound up with Descartes's whole campaign against scholasticism. Much that is imost revolutionary in Descartes's philosophy of mind and knowledge is capture in his insistence on the doctrine that the mind is made in the image of God. As we shall see, the doctrine is even implicit in Descartes's choice of the term 'idea'.

The 'image of God' doctrine permeates much of Descartes's philosophy but it does not dominate it; contrary influences are at work, such as the creation of the eternal truths. In Leibniz's philosophy, by contrast, the Genesis doctrine achieves an almost complete ascendancy; it is pushed further perhaps than ever before....

[Nicholas Jolley, The Light of the Soul (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990) pp. 8-9.]

The references to Craig are to E. Craig's The Mind of God and the Works of Man. It is noteworthy that the Cartesian twist on the image of God has had a long shelf-life in philosophy; one finds even contemporaries appealing to it on occasion (Plantinga in particular comes to mind). As Jolley notes above, this isn't the only way to take it, but it shows how pervasive Cartesian thought is that the Cartesian interpretation keeps returning.

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