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This book, by the late Jesuit theologian Xavier Tilliette, discusses how philosophers from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries—including Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Fichte, and Hegel, as well as a number of minor figures—engaged with the doctrine of the Eucharist. It needs to be said that the book is difficult: very French in its style, written in the expectation that the reader can handle a good deal of untranslated Latin and will have extensive prior familiarity with the philosophical tradition. Even the patient reader who has that familiarity will find it hard to discern clear formulations of many of the positions under discussion or direct arguments for Tilliette’s conclusions. For some, however, the book will be worth the effort, especially for the way it brings to light a surprising and generally unappreciated strain in the history of Western philosophical thought.

Tilliette’s narrative begins with René Descartes, who, in the Objections and Replies appended to his Meditations on First Philosophy, considers two sets of questions concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation. In medieval scholasticism, that doctrine was formulated in terms of the Aristotelian categories of substance and accident: Though the consecrated host was substantially the body of Christ, the accidental qualities of the original bread and wine remained. Descartes, having rejected Aristotelianism in favor of a strictly mathematical conception of material nature, proposes in his Replies that the continuing appearance of bread and wine results from the identity of the surface of the divine body with that of the elements it replaces. Here, the “surface” is the, as it were, outward-facing part of a material thing, which affects our sensory organs and so gives rise to a perception of it. Different things with identical surfaces—like an ordinary object and a lifelike sculpture of it, for example—can give rise to the same perceptions. As Descartes puts it, “a given surface must always act and be acted upon in the same way, even though the substance that was beneath it has changed.”

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