John MARENBON.  Abelard in Four Dimensions: A Twelfth-Century Philosopher in His Context and Ours.  Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.  pp. 284. $34.00 pb. ISBN 10: 0-268-03530-X, ISBN 13: 978-0-268-03530-3.  Reviewed by Jill RAITT, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211

Fascinating. Challenging. A model of historical philosophy, and, I would argue, of historical theology. The four dimensions mentioned in the title are: 1) Abelard’s present, that is, his chronology and intellectual world, 2) his past in terms of philosophical influences on his own thinking, 3) his future, that is as his works influenced post twelfth-century philosophy, and 4) the relation between Abelard’s philosophy and philosophy today. The book is divided into three parts consisting of two chapters each: Part I: Abelard’s Present, Part II: Abelard’s Past and Abelard’s Future, Part III: Abelard and Our Present. 

          Of particular value is Marenbon’s care to avoid anachronism, especially with regard to Abelard’s “present,” but in each of the four dimensions. It is too easy for those who have little use for historical studies to assume that terms we use today were used with the same meaning hundreds of years ago. Even a historian steeped in the language and culture of the middle ages needs to be on guard against anachronistic interpretation. Marenbon is just as insistent that philosophers of any age resist a tendency to “plunder” the past for what they consider useful to their own enterprises without regard to the context of the ideas that they may extract from a non-historical reading as though they could invite Abelard to discuss analytical philosophy with them in the faculty lounge.

          Marenbon insists also that scholars must allow for the same development in an author’s thought that they experience in their own.  Comparisons between earlier and later works of Abelard make this clear if the reader is alert to the changes that any thinker undergoes during a lifetime. Chapter 1 argues for Abelard’s developing thought.
Chapter 2 analyzes Abelard’s “unpopular argument” and its reception or rejection by his contemporaries.  Abelard argued that “God cannot do otherwise than he does.” (emphasis Marenbon’s) But isn’t this a theological rather than a philosophical subject? Marenbon says that Abelard handled God questions philosophically, applying strict logic as in the “unpopular argument” that Marenbon presents in chapters 2 and 4, that is, as Abelard’s contemporaries regarded it and as future philosophers would interpret it from Peter Lombard to Leibnitz.  Chapter 3, Abelard’s past, deals primarily with Anselm of Canterbury whose works, especially his Cur Deus homo, was well known in Paris when Abelard taught there. Nevertheless Marenbon concludes that “Abelard knew more about Anselm’s thought than twentieth-century historians imagined,” he did not really engage Anselm without “especially trying to gain an accurate and full knowledge of this great, near contemporary’s ideas.” (116)

          Peter Lombard, called by Marenbon “the Lombard”, is particularly important because of his opposition to Abelard’s proposition that “God cannot do otherwise than he does.”  Although most theologians and philosophers followed Lombard in attacking Abelard’s proposition, Thomas Aquinas took it seriously and then proposed a strong counter argument that Marenbon analyzes carefully in terms of the lack of proportion between the infinite and the finite and concludes that Aquinas “is leaning heavily on the negative aspect of his theology and moving closer than usual to the position of a thinker like Maimonides, who denies that we can properly even describe God as ‘good’.” (137)

Part III contains chapters 5: Abelard and the ‘New’ Theory of Meaning, and 6: Abelard and Contemporary Metaphysics. In chapter 5, Marenbon discusses the commentaries on Abelard of Peter King and Christopher Martin regarding Abelard’s semantics. These are “radically diverse readings” that provide “an excellent real-life illustration to help think about one of the main methodological issues which faces all historians of philosophy. How should the dimension of Abelard or any other past thinker and his present be juxtaposed with the dimension of the thinker and our present?”

          Marenbon’s book is a scholar’s book for scholars, but it will be useful for upper-level undergraduates and graduate classes in philosophy and in theology.  Nearly 80 pages are given to the scholarly apparatus: List of Abbreviations (207-208), Notes (209-253), Bibliography (254-2690, Index of Passages in Abelard (270-274), General Index (275-284).