A good history of Epicureanism in early modern thought would be a welcome addition to the existing literature. Unfortunately, this is a gap that Wilson’s book does not fill. It suffers from a number of problems — some systemic and some detailed — that undermine its reliability. Her view of seventeenth-century issues is blinkered because she restricts her analysis to an account of philosophers who hold a place in the modern canon of the history of philosophy. This limitation coupled with a tendency to make anachronistic judgments prevents her from examining the abundance of alternatives that competed with Epicureanism in seventeenth-century philosophy. Further, she neglects to consider other traditions — such as late Scholasticism, alchemy, Renaissance humanism, Copernican astronomy, and Galileo’s new science of motion — that contributed directly to the development of a corpuscularian philosophy and an empirical and experimental approach to natural knowledge. Her own patently intolerant attitude towards theology prevents her from understanding that theological presuppositions were virtually axiomatic for most of the philosophers of the period.
That’s pretty rough, don’t you think? “She neglects to consider other traditions” is the most annoying move in the above citation – the book clearly limits itself to Epicureanism, therefore the charge that one neglects other traditions is preposterous, but let’s read on.
Many of the book’s flaws flow from the narrow range of Wilson’s definition of philosophy, a neglect of much recent scholarship, and what I can only call a perverse reading of some of the texts.
Wilson’s discussion of the mechanical philosopher and chemist Robert Boyle suffers from an incomplete reading of both his own writings and the wealth of recent scholarship about him. The sources of Boyle’s philosophy of nature are far more complex than Wilson suggests.
Because the book suffers from both a shortage of connective tissue binding the separate chapters into an organic whole and a general conclusion, there are problems of organization and unity.
This is just mean, I think, a kind of an academic bitch slap: “Not only is your book bad, you are also stupid to have written it, if of course one assumes you can write at all.” What is the deal with this? Next thing you know, Osler will be criticizing the cover of the book and the general smell of its pages. Where does such aggression originate? Be patient, faithful reader, I believe we have the answer.
Catherine Wilson is not taking this bullshit of a review without a fight – she has posted a response to Osler on PhilPapers, you can see the document here (.doc). It begins with the same reaction that I had to the review (confirming that I am not crazy):
My book, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, OUP 2008, is said to be unreliable, to lack connective tissue, to have problems of organization and unity, and I, the author, am said to be blinkered, anachronistic, neglectful, uncritical, old-fashioned, narrow, a perverse reader, and a historian who makes claims with no support.
I am surprised by all this. How could a reviewer get so little out of a book, especially one that, as MO notes, is based on previously published (and mostly refereed, I might add) articles and chapters appearing over the last 25 years?
It’s a bit of a weak start, basically an academic equivalent of “who do you think you are?!” – others read my work and approved of it, how can you suggest it’s all wrong in so many ways? But Wilson gets right to the point – this mean review is a reaction to Wilson’s own mean review of Olson twelve years ago:
Twelve years ago I wrote a somewhat critical review of Margaret Osler’s own Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy ( Dialogue 36 (1997), pp. 597-606.)… I invite anyone interested to look up that review and compare the language and tone with that of the NDPR review.
That is – “I might have been mean to Osler, but the language and tone were completely different.” Now, suggesting that Osler is motivated by revenge, a strange kind of revenge, before Wilson goes through the major objections and refutes them is a nice move aimed to show that Wilson is not below a good old fashioned punch in the ribs. Wilson then goes through a number of objections and responds to them.
What puzzles me here is, of course, the utter idiocy of exchanging mean remarks (admittedly most of them come from Osler) on such a topic without a real engagement with the issues at hand. The remarks themselves are quite lame and unimaginative – if you are going to openly abuse each other, dear scholars, why not do it with venom and style that was so prevalent and so masterfully applied in… well, I don’t know, let’s say SEVENTEETH CENTURY!