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How philosophers boil philosophy to its essence, and why.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By MARK BLITZ
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Idea and Ontology

An Essay in Early Modern Metaphysics of Ideas

by Marc A. Hight

Penn State, 278 pp., $55

Much as the mere WEEKLY STANDARD might aspire to be eternal, ontology is not among its readers' obvious interests. After all, no one ever emerged from the McCain camp to sniff that Sarah Palin thinks that a Heidegger is an exotic melon, competing species of barracuda, or the capital of Argentina. (Good thing, too, for imagine preparing her for a debate with the intellectuals' intellectual, Joseph Biden.)

The flood of stories about the Republican's future mercifully lacks the cry that we need a fresh metaphysics to bring to the American people. No pundit has suggested that Yes We Kant should have been McCain's campaign slogan. Perhaps We Can, Circumstances Permitting, seems more prudently Republican--or at least it would have been back when the GOP knew how to inspire political confidence by defending financial sobriety.

Ontology seems more to be the Democrats' thing, in any event. Bill Clinton's nonchalant it-depends-on-the-meaning-of-is was doubtless a high crime, with or without blue-dress evidence, and Barack Obama's we-are-the-ones-we-have-been-waiting-for is the kind of Hegelian head-scratcher only a William Ayers could unravel. (Or is it, perhaps, merely an IRS employee's lament for his missing refund check?)

Marc Hight's Idea and Ontology is free from such political concerns. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the analysis of ideas among early modern thinkers is not only epistemological, but also ontological. In fact, we can hardly understand the role of ideas in how we know unless we have a view of what they are. This early modern view is a version of the medieval distinction between substance and accident or mode. A substance is independent and enduring, while its modes attach to but are not independent of it. For ideas as the early moderns saw them, a central question is whether they are merely modes of the mind.

Hight traces his theme, with impressive acuity and learning, from Descartes through Hume, and includes in his analysis Malebranche, Arnauld, Locke, Leibniz, and Berkeley. Much of his study is devoted to Bishop Berkeley, whom Hight takes seriously and helps us take seriously. Berkeley's view that "the essence of sensible things is to be perceived," or that "ideas just are the 'things' in the world" seems less preposterous in Hight's telling than in the caricature of Berkeley held by those who have heard a little about him but know still less.

Hight is able to show how Berkeley accounts for the continued existence of objects when we are no longer perceiving them, relying on Berkeley's view of God. Ontologically, he argues that Berkeley makes ideas quasi-substances, writing "as if" ideas are like modes because they are ontologically dependent on minds, and like substances because they are "robust objects that in perception appear volitionally independent of minds."

Hight's purview in Idea and Ontology is largely confined to other analytic philosophers who have written on his theme, and his goal is to expand their vision. This makes his book technical in places, although never so technical that an intelligent reader acquainted with early modern thought cannot benefit from it. More, there is a certain delight in following clever and resourceful arguments, distinctions, and qualifications, not just among the primary thinkers but among the secondary scholars as well. One should never underestimate the inventiveness occasioned by the need to defend one's views.

Hight's perspective is nonetheless somewhat more narrow than it should be. I missed, in particular, two directions that he could have taken, if only briefly.

One is giving some attention to Martin Heidegger, whose thought springs to mind when the topic is ontology, and who has much to say about early modernity, especially Descartes and Leibniz. Heidegger explores the modern standpoint of subjectivity and its correlative objectivity, an exploration that is necessary if we are to understand why ideas and perceptions would appear to be what substantially is in the first place. Heidegger also traces the connection between subjectivity and projecting truth as certainty, a view that grounds our contemporary science and technology.

Considering this might have led Hight to discuss more fully why modern philosophy is so centered on epistemology, despite its continuing ontological concerns. More directly, looking at Heidegger might have led him to examine more fully the independence and duration that he believes characterize substance.

The other direction would have been for Hight to connect his analysis of ideas with other issues important to thinkers such as Locke, whose discussion of ideas is tied to his attempt to reduce clerical influence and advance enlightenment and individual natural rights. The link between the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Two Treatises of Government can be fruitfully explored.

Such exploration might have controlled Hight's occasional tendency to reduce his thinkers' concerns to the technical and scholarly ones of contemporary professors. There is a bit too much academic talk of ontological commitments, as if thinkers and their thoughts will soon be lobbying for marriage licenses. The authors he discusses had reasons for their deepest views, however, not mere commitments to them. These gaps not withstanding, Marc Hight has written a commendably intelligent and useful book.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.