The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics

By Stephen H. Daniel | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Of the well-known philosophic minds of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jonathan Edwards ( 1703-1758) is perhaps one of the most successful in escaping the historiographic impulse to categorization. With Edwards, many historians are dealing with an unknown quantity, a philosopher whose atomism, idealism, and doctrines of will and beauty frustrate attempts to force him into the empiricist-rationalist continuum that characterizes much of the historiography of modern philosophy.

Part of his elusiveness lies in his appeal to practices that undermine the logical and ontological policies of empiricism and rationalism. Because those policies exhibit the same features found in Platonic, Neoplatonic, or Aristotelian ways of thinking, Edwards' reluctance to adopt them amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of the strategies often taken to define philosophy itself. In terms of those classical notions of logical reasoning or ontological categories, Edwards' doctrines often appear out of touch with those of his contemporaries, and even when he appeals to topics we now acknowledge as philosophically significant, he invokes lines of argument that are seen as more appropriate for a theologian than for a philosopher.

It has become all but a commonplace to say that in order to identify the distinctively philosophic character in Edwards' work, we must situate him somewhere in the empiricist-rationalist continuum, or at least emphasize the Neoplatonic aspects of his thought. By these means (it is argued) we can begin to appreciate Edwards' historical contribution to the topics he addresses.

Such a tactic, however, overlooks how Edwards' philosophy is much more indebted to the Renaissance logic of Peter Ramus and to the ontology of early Stoicism. It is no wonder, then, that once Edwards' ideas are removed from this tradition, they seem to have little bearing on the philosophical debates of the Platonists, Aristotelians, and Lockeans. Accordingly, he is often written off as a historical curiosity.

From the perspective of Stoic-Ramist ontology, the classical-modern problems of epistemology and metaphysics are born out of a misdirected search for some ultimate foundation in terms of which everything else can be understood. According to this Renaissance mentality, the will to discern ultimate principles is itself blind to how the search for them is always already embedded in changing social and linguistic practices that preclude the possibility of there being such foundations.

For example, the classical-modern distinction of thing, idea, and word ignores the policies of discursive exchange by which such a distinction can function in the first place. As long as no one questions the propriety of the thing-idea-word distinction, debates about materialism versus idealism or

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The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction 1
  • I - The Prospect of Semiotics 11
  • II - The Discourse of Typology 41
  • III - The Logics of Creation 66
  • IV - The Trinity and Creation 102
  • V - The Ontology of Original Sin 130
  • VI - Freedom and Moral Agency 152
  • VII - The Knowledge of Beauty 177
  • Concluding Remarks - The Propriety of Christ 197
  • Bibliography 201
  • Index 208
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