Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy

By Leon Chai | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Idealism

ACCORDING TO A TRADITION associated with virtually the earliest Edwards biography, the future minister and theologian seems to have discovered Locke Essay concerning Human Understanding sometime around 1717 -- which is to say, during his sophomore year at Yale. It is not difficult to imagine the young Edwards at that auspicious moment: bred within the narrow confines of a scholastic discipline that reached back to medieval sources, suddenly exposed to a new mode of inquiry less concerned with theological doctrine than with trying to ascertain how the mind perceives external objects. The result: a notebook entitled "The Mind", which displays the empiricist influences of Newton and Locke on a precocious philosophical intelligence.

More recently, various aspects of this story have come into question. The problems begin with internal evidence regarding the composition of "The Mind". At present, the most authoritative estimate defers its commencement to the second half of 1723 -- six years later than the date previously proposed. 1 Secondly, the exact period of Edwards's initial reading of Locke has also become a matter of some uncertainty. 2 In addition, the first real evidence of Locke's influence in the "Miscellanies" appears only with entries composed somewhere around 1724. But perhaps the most serious problem with the 1717 dating of "The Mind" has to do with the actual philosophical content of the notebook itself. In fact, what Edwards says there is in many respects diametrically opposed to the empiricism of Locke.

These considerations show that what is at issue in the dating of "The Mind" is more than just a question of chronology. In effect, the two chronologies reflect fundamentally different attitudes toward Edwards's philosophical sources. 3 From an empiricist standpoint, Edwards displays genuine originality. 4 After all, the figures traditionally associated with empiricism do not for the most part concern themselves with religious doctrine. By contrast, Edwards applies an empirical viewpoint to various aspects of religion. If we situate him in the context of other developments in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy, on the other hand, we see a very different picture. The fact that many thinkers in this period

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Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Contents *
  • Introductory 3
  • Part I - The Problem of Sensation 7
  • Chapter I - The Argument for Empiricism 9
  • Chapter 2 - Religious Affections 22
  • Part II - Ideas, Objects, Mind 37
  • Chapter 3 - Idea and Object 39
  • Chapter 4 - Idealism 56
  • Part III - The Ends of Causal Analysis 73
  • Chapter 5 - Causation 75
  • Chapter 6 - Freedom of the Will 94
  • Conclusion 114
  • Epilogue 117
  • Notes 121
  • Primary Sources 159
  • Index 161
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