Philosophy - a Brief Assessment
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The Enlightenment OF the Enlightment!
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Although the intellectual movement called "The Enlightenment" is usually associated
with the 18th century, its roots in fact go back much further. But before we
explore those roots, we need to define the term. This is one of those rare historical
movements which in fact named itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily
in London and Paris, believed that they were more enlightened than their compatriots
and set out to enlighten them.
They believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition,
and tyranny and to build a better world. Their principal targets were religion
(embodied in France in the Catholic Church) and the domination of society by
a hereditary aristocracy.
Background in Antiquity
To understand why this movement became so influential in the 18th century,
it is important to go back in time. We could choose almost any starting point,
but let us begin with the recovery of Aristotelian logic by Thomas Aquinas in
the 13th century. In his hands the logical procedures so carefully laid out
by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle were used to defend the dogmas of
Christianity; and for the next couple of centuries, other thinkers pursued these
goals to shore up every aspect of faith with logic. These thinkers were sometimes
called "schoolmen" (more formally, "scholastics,") and Voltaire frequently refers
to them as "doctors," by which he means "doctors of theology."
Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, the tools of logic could not be confined
to the uses it preferred. After all, they had been developed in Athens, in a
pagan culture which had turned them on its own traditional beliefs. It was only
a matter of time before later Europeans would do the same.
The Renaissance Humanists
In the 14th and 15th century there emerged in Italy and France a group of
thinkers known as the "humanists." The term did not then have the anti-religious
associations it has in contemporary political debate. Almost all of them were
practicing Catholics. They argued that the proper worship of God involved admiration
of his creation, and in particular of that crown of creation: humanity. By celebrating
the human race and its capacities they argued they were worshipping God more
appropriately than gloomy priests and monks who harped on original sin and continuously
called upon people to confess and humble themselves before the Almighty. Indeed,
some of them claimed that humans were like God, created not only in his image,
but with a share of his creative power. The painter, the architect, the musician,
and the scholar, by exercising their intellectual powers, were fulfilling divine
This celebration of human capacity, though it was mixed in the Renaissance
with elements of gloom and superstition (witchcraft trials flourished in this
period as they never had during the Middle Ages), was to bestow a powerful legacy
on Europeans. The goal of Renaissance humanists was to recapture some of the
pride, breadth of spirit, and creativity of the ancient Greeks and Romans, to
replicate their successes and go beyond them. Europeans developed the belief
that tradition could and should be used to promote change. By cleaning and sharpening
the tools of antiquity, they could reshape their own time.
Galileo Galilei, for instance, was to use the same sort of logic the schoolmen
had used--reinforced with observation--to argue in 1632 for the Copernican notion
that the earth rotates on its axis beneath the unmoving sun. The Church, and
most particularly the Holy Inquisition, objected that the Bible clearly stated
that the sun moved through the sky and denounced Galileo's teachings, forcing
him to recant (take back) what he had written and preventing him from teaching
further. The Church's triumph was a pyrrhic victory, for though it could silence
Galileo, it could not prevent the advance of science (though most of those advances
would take place in Protestant northern Europe, out of the reach of the pope
and his Inquisition).
But before Galileo's time, in the 16th century, various humanists had begun
to ask dangerous questions. François Rabelais, a French monk and physician
influenced by Protestantism, but spurred on by his own rebelliousness, challenged
the Church's authority in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, ridiculing many religious
doctrines as absurd.
Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne, in a much more quiet and modest but ultimately more subversive
way, asked a single question over and over again in his Essays: "What do I know?"
By this he meant that we have no right to impose on others dogmas which rest
on cultural habit rather than absolute truth. Powerfully influenced by the discovery
of thriving non-Christian cultures in places as far off as Brazil, he argued
that morals may be to some degree relative. Who are Europeans to insist that
Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it
are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they
This shift toward cultural relativism, though it was based on scant understanding
of the newly discovered peoples, was to continue to have a profound effect on
European thought to the present day. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the
Enlightenment. Just as their predecessors had used the tools of antiquity to
gain unprecedented freedom of inquiry, the Enlightenment thinkers used the examples
of other cultures to gain the freedom to reshape not only their philosophies,
but their societies. It was becoming clear that there was nothing inevitable
about the European patterns of thought and living: there were many possible
ways of being human, and doubtless new ones could be invented.
The other contribution of Montaigne to the Enlightenment stemmed from another
aspect of his famous question: "What do I know?" If we cannot be certain that
our values are God-given, then we have no right to impose them by force on others.
Inquisitors, popes, and kings alike had no business enforcing adherence to particular
religious or philosophical beliefs.
It is one of the great paradoxes of history that radical doubt was necessary
for the new sort of certainty called "scientific." The good scientist is the
one is willing to test all assumptions, to challenge all traditional opinion,
to get closer to the truth. If ultimate truth, such as was claimed by religious
thinkers, was unattainable by scientists, so much the better. In a sense, the
strength of science at its best is that it is always aware of its limits, aware
that knowledge is always growing, always subject to change, never absolute.
Because knowledge depends on evidence and reason, arbitrary authority can only
be its enemy.
The 17th Century
René Descartes, in the 17th century, attempted to use reason as the
schoolmen had, to shore up his faith; but much more rigorously than had been
attempted before. He tried to begin with a blank slate, with the bare minimum
of knowledge: the knowledge of his own existence ("I think, therefore I am").
From there he attempted to reason his way to a complete defense of Christianity,
but to do so he committed so many logical faults that his successors over the
centuries were to slowly disintegrate his gains, even finally challenging the
notion of selfhood with which he had begun. The history of philosophy from his
time to the early 20th century is partly the story of more and more ingenious
logic proving less and less, until Ludwig Wittgenstein succeeded in undermining
the very bases of philosophy itself.
But that is a story for a different course. Here we are concerned with early
stages in the process in which it seemed that logic could be a powerful avenue
to truth. To be sure, logic alone could be used to defend all sorts of absurd
notions; and Enlightenment thinkers insisted on combining it with something
they called "reason" which consisted of common sense, observation, and their
own unacknowledged prejudices in favor of skepticism and freedom.
We have been focusing closely on a thin trickle of thought which traveled
through an era otherwise dominated by dogma and fanaticism. The 17th century
was torn by witch-hunts and wars of religion and imperial conquest. Protestants
and Catholics denounced each other as followers of Satan, and people could be
imprisoned for attending the wrong church, or for not attending any. All publications,
whether pamphlets or scholarly volumes, were subject to prior censorship by
both church and state, often working hand in hand. Slavery was widely practiced,
especially in the colonial plantations of the Western Hemisphere, and its cruelties
frequently defended by leading religious figures. The despotism of monarchs
exercising far greater powers than any medieval king was supported by the doctrine
of the "divine right of kings," and scripture quoted to show that revolution
was detested by God. Speakers of sedition or blasphemy quickly found themselves
imprisoned, or even executed. Organizations which tried to challenge the twin
authorities of church and state were banned. There had been plenty of intolerance
and dogma to go around in the Middle Ages, but the emergence of the modern state
made its tyranny much more efficient and powerful.
It was inevitable that sooner or later many Europeans would begin to weary
of the repression and warfare carried out in the name of absolute truth. In
addition, though Protestants had begun by making powerful critiques of Catholicism,
they quickly turned their guns on each other, producing a bewildering array
of churches each claiming the exclusive path to salvation. It was natural for
people tossed from one demanding faith to another to wonder whether any of the
churches deserved the authority they claimed, and to begin to prize the skepticism
of Montaigne over the certainty of Luther or Calvin.
Meanwhile, there were other powerful forces at work in Europe: economic ones
which were to interact profoundly with these intellectual trends.
The Political and Economic Background
During the late Middle Ages, peasants had begun to move from rural estates
to the towns in search of increased freedom and prosperity. As trade and communication
improved during the Renaissance, the ordinary town-dweller began to realize
that things need not always go on as they had for centuries. New charters could
be written, new governments formed, new laws passed, new businesses begun. Although
each changed institution quickly tried to stabilize its power by claiming the
support of tradition, the pressure for change continued to mount. It was not
only contact with alien cultural patterns which influenced Europeans, it was
the wealth brought back from Asia and the Americas which catapulted a new class
of merchants into prominence, partially displacing the old aristocracy whose
power had been rooted in the ownership of land. These merchants had their own
ideas about the sort of world they wanted to inhabit, and they became major
agents of change, in the arts, in government, and in the economy.
They were naturally convinced that their earnings were the result of their
individual merit and hard work, unlike the inherited wealth of traditional aristocrats.
Whereas individualism had been chiefly emphasized in the Renaissance by artists,
especially visual artists, it now became a core value. The ability of individual
effort to transform the world became a European dogma, lasting to this day.
But the chief obstacles to the reshaping of Europe by the merchant class were
the same as those faced by the rationalist philosophers: absolutist kings and
dogmatic churches. The struggle was complex and many-sided, with each participant
absorbing many of the others' values; but the general trend is clear: individualism,
freedom and change replaced community, authority, and tradition as core European
values. Religion survived, but weakened and often transformed almost beyond
recognition; the monarchy was to dwindle over the course of the hundred years
beginning in the mid-18th century to a pale shadow of its former self.
This is the background of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Europeans were changing,
but Europe's institutions were not keeping pace with that change. The Church
insisted that it was the only source of truth, that all who lived outside its
bounds were damned, while it was apparent to any reasonably sophisticated person
that most human beings on earth were not and had never been Christians--yet
they had built great and inspiring civilizations. Writers and speakers grew
restive at the omnipresent censorship and sought whatever means they could to
evade or even denounce it.
Most important, the middle classes--the bourgeoisie--were painfully aware
that they were paying taxes to support a fabulously expensive aristocracy which
contributed nothing of value to society (beyond, perhaps, its patronage of the
arts, which the burghers of Holland had shown could be equally well exercised
by themselves), and that those useless aristocrats were unwilling to share power
with those who actually managed and--to their way of thinking,--created the
national wealth. They were to find ready allies in France among the impoverished
masses who may have lived and thought much like their ancestors, but who were
all too aware that with each passing year they were paying higher and higher
taxes to support a few thousand at Versailles in idle dissipation.
The Role of the Aristocrats
Interestingly, it was among those very idle aristocrats that the French Enlightenment
philosophers were to find some of their earliest and most enthusiastic followers.
Despite the fact that the Church and State were more often than not allied with
each other, they were keenly aware of their differences. Even kings could on
occasion be attracted by arguments which seemed to undermine the authority of
the Church. The fact that the aristocrats were utterly unaware of the precariousness
of their position also made them overconfident, interested in dabbling in the
new ideas partly simply because they were new and exciting.
Voltaire moved easily in these aristocratic circles, dining at their tables,
taking a titled mistress, corresponding with monarchs. He opposed tyranny and
dogma, but he had no notion of reinventing that discredited Athenian folly,
democracy. He had far too little faith in the ordinary person for that. What
he did think was that educated and sophisticated persons could be brought to
see through the exercise of their reason that the world could and should be
Rousseau vs. Voltaire
Not all Enlightenment thinkers were like Voltaire in this. His chief adversary
was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who distrusted the aristocrats not out of a thirst
for change but because he believed they were betraying decent traditional values.
He opposed the theater which was Voltaire's lifeblood, shunned the aristocracy
which Voltaire courted, and argued for something dangerously like democratic
revolution. Whereas Voltaire argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued
that inequality was not only unnatural, but that--when taken too far--it made
decent government impossible. Whereas Voltaire charmed with his wit, Rousseau
ponderously insisted on his correctness, even while contradicting himself. Whereas
Voltaire insisted on the supremacy of the intellect, Rousseau emphasized the
emotions, becoming a contributor to both the Enlightenment and its successor,
romanticism. And whereas Voltaire endlessly repeated the same handful of core
Enlightenment notions, Rousseau sparked off original thoughts in all directions:
ideas about education, the family, government, the arts, and whatever else attracted
For all their personal differences, the two shared more values than they liked
to acknowledge. They viewed absolute monarchy as dangerous and evil and rejected
orthodox Christianity. Though Rousseau often struggled to seem more devout,
he was almost as much a skeptic as Voltaire: the minimalist faith both shared
was called "deism," and it was eventually to transform European religion and
have powerful influences on other aspects of society as well.
Across the border in Holland, the merchants, who exercised most political
power, there made a successful industry out of publishing books that could not
be printed in countries like France. Dissenting religious groups mounted radical
attacks on Christian orthodoxy.
The Enlightenment in England
Meanwhile Great Britain had developed its own Enlightenment, fostered by thinkers
like the English thinker John Locke, the Scot David Hume, and many others. England
had anticipated the rest of Europe by deposing and decapitating its king back
in the 17th century. Although the monarchy had eventually been restored, this
experience created a certain openness toward change in many places that could
not be entirely extinguished. English Protestantism struggled to express itself
in ways that widened the limits of freedom of speech and press. Radical Quakers
and Unitarians broke open old dogmas in ways that Voltaire was to find highly
congenial when he found himself there in exile. The English and French Enlightenments
exchanged influences through many channels, Voltaire not least among them.
Because England had gotten its revolution out of the way early, it was able
to proceed more smoothly and gradually down the road to democracy; but English
liberty was dynamite when transported to France, where resistance by church
and state was fierce to the last possible moment. The result was ironically
that while Britain remained saturated with class privilege and relatively pious,
France was to become after its own revolution the most egalitarian and anticlerical
state in Europe--at least in its ideals. The power of religion and the aristocracy
diminished gradually in England; in France they were violently uprooted.
The Enlightenment in America
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, many of the intellectual leaders of the American
colonies were drawn to the Enlightenment. The colonies may have been founded
by leaders of various dogmatic religious persuasions, but when it became necessary
to unite against England, it was apparent that no one of them could prevail
over the others, and that the most desirable course was to agree to disagree.
Nothing more powerfully impelled the movement toward the separation of church
and state than the realization that no one church could dominate this new state.
Many of the most distinguished leaders of the American revolution--Jefferson,
Washington, Franklin, Paine--were powerfully influenced by English and--to a
lesser extent--French Enlightenment thought. The God who underwrites the concept
of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist God Rousseau
worshipped, not that venerated in the traditional churches which still supported
and defended monarchies all over Europe. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time
in France--a natural ally because it was a traditional enemy of England--absorbing
the influence of the French Enlightenment. The language of natural law, of inherent
freedoms, of self-determination which seeped so deeply into the American grain
was the language of the Enlightenment, though often coated with a light glaze
of traditional religion, what has been called our "civil religion."
This is one reason that Americans should study the Enlightenment. It is in
their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim
to become. Separated geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom
they were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive--and at first
less influential--than that in France.
The Struggle in Europe
But we need to return to the beginning of the story, to Voltaire and his allies
in France, struggling to assert the values of freedom and tolerance in a culture
where the twin fortresses of monarchy and Church opposed almost everything they
stood for. To oppose the monarchy openly would be fatal; the Church was an easier
target. Protestantism had made religious controversy familiar. Voltaire could
skillfully cite one Christian against another to make his arguments. One way
to undermine the power of the Church was to undermine its credibility, and thus
Voltaire devoted a great deal of his time to attacking the fundamentals of Christian
belief: the inspiration of the Bible, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ,
the damnation of unbelievers. No doubt he relished this battle partly for its
own sake, but he never lost sight of his central goal: the toppling of Church
power to increase the freedom available to Europeans.
Voltaire was joined by a band of rebellious thinkers known as the philosophes:
Charles de Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Jean d'Alembert, and many lesser lights.
Although "philosophe" literally means "philosopher" we use the French word in
English to designate this particular group of French 18th-century thinkers.
Because Denis Diderot commissioned many of them to write for his influential
Encyclopedia, they are also known as "the Encyclopedists."
The Heritage of the Enlightenment
Today the Enlightenment is often viewed as a historical anomaly, a brief moment
when a number of thinkers infatuated with reason vainly supposed that the perfect
society could be built on common sense and tolerance, a fantasy which collapsed
amid the Terror of the French Revolution and the triumphal sweep of Romanticism.
Religious thinkers repeatedly proclaim the Enlightenment dead, Marxists denounce
it for promoting the ideals and power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the
working classes, postcolonial critics reject its idealization of specifically
European notions as universal truths, and postructuralists reject its entire
concept of rational thought.
Yet in many ways, the Enlightenment has never been more alive. The notions
of human rights it developed are powerfully attractive to oppressed peoples
everywhere, who appeal to the same notion of natural law that so inspired Voltaire
and Jefferson. Wherever religious conflicts erupt, mutual religious tolerance
is counseled as a solution. Rousseau's notions of self-rule are ideals so universal
that the worst tyrant has to disguise his tyrannies by claiming to be acting
on their behalf. European these ideas may be, but they have also become global.
Whatever their limits, they have formed the consensus of international ideals
by which modern states are judged.
Created by Paul Brians March 11, 1998. Last revised May 18, 2000.
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For educational purposes - a brief outline of the Philosophies of modern times
starting with the Enlightenment
The characteristics of the Enlightenment are a scepticism towards the doctrines
of the church, individualism, a belief in science and the experimental method,
the use of reason, that education could be a catalyst of social change and the
demand for political representation. Its main social and political consequence
was the French revolution.
The core period of the Enlightenment was second half of
the eighteenth century. The thinkers associated with the Enlightenment include
d'Holbach (1723-89) and the Encyclopedists in France, David Hume (1711-76) in
Scotland and Kant
in Germany. To understand the Enlightenment we have to look at what preceded
The battle of ideas that was to culminate in the Enlightenment
began in the seventeenth century. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) advocated the use
of scientific method and René Descartes (1596-1650) proposed a critical
The Enlightenment can be understood as the culmination of the move away from
the authority and dogmatism of the mediaeval and the awakening of modernity.
Medieval philosophy combined Christian beliefs with the ideas of Plato and
Aristotle. In the medieval world philosophers respected their predecessors and
accepted their methods. If a new discovery about nature contradicted one of
Aristotle's principles, for example, it would probably have been assumed that
it was the discovery that was in error.
Enlightenment thinkers were not content to accept appeals to Aristotle's authority.
It could be seen that using experimental methods science was progressing and
increasing our understanding of nature, which could not have been done without
rejecting some of Aristotle's assumptions.
It was not only Aristotle that was being questioned, using reason and logic
philosophers criticised political and religious ideas. What rational answer
is there for the justification of monarchy or that you should choose one type
of religion over another?
A Rationalist is a philosopher who believes that we can gain knowledge by the
use of reason alone, without reference to the external world.
Rationalism has a long history in philosophy, Plato (c. 427-347 BC) was a rationalist.
René Descartes (1596-1650), the "father of modern philosophy" was the
first modern rationalist. He felt that philosophy should move away from the
beliefs of the medieval scholastics and found itself on firm foundations. He
was looking for certainty, and used his method of doubt to try and find what
He imagined that his whole life could be a hallucination caused by a "malicious
demon". If this was the case, what could he be sure of? Descartes realised that
he could not doubt that he was thinking, as doubt is a type of thought. So,
without any reference to the external world Descartes was sure that he had found
a basic truth that could not be questioned. Of course once he released that
he was thinking he could no longer doubt that he existed (something must be
doing the thinking). This enabled him to build up a philosophical system based
on thought alone.
Once Descartes had reintroduced, critical questioning into philosophy the scene
was set for the hundred-year struggle that was to lead to the Enlightenment.
Other rationalist philosophers include Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel.
Empiricism is the belief that all knowledge comes from experience. The "empirical
world" is the world of the senses, i.e. the world we can see, feel, touch, hear
John Locke (1632-1704) thought that the human mind at birth was a tabula rasa
(blank tablet) on which experience writes the general principles and details
of all knowledge. This is completely opposite to the rationalists (see above).
Whereas a rationalist would attempt to find knowledge by thought alone, an empiricist
would use the methods of the experimental sciences.
This emphasis on science and experiment is one of the characteristics of the
Enlightenment. D'Holbach (1723-89) published his Systèm de la nature
(1770) in which he asserted that explanations of nature should not be sought
in traditional beliefs or the "revelations" of the church, but through the application
of scientific method
It was not until Kant (See later) that empiricist and rationalist strains were
The Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts
et des Métiers was published in seventeen volumes between 1751 and 1765.
Its aim was to provide information on every sphere of knowledge, and in particular
to promote the application of science in industry, trade and the arts. It is
seen by many as epitomising the sprit of the Enlightenment.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was the main editor. He was a
and wrote on philosophy, religion, political theory and literature. He was highly
critical of the church's influence on ideas.
Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778) also edited
and contributed to the Encyclopédie. He was anti-Christian and critical
of the clergy, the king and the privileges of the nobility. He was highly influential
in the rise of liberal thought in continental Europe.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote on music and political economy. Later
he quarrelled with Diderot and came to regard the Encyclopédie as the
work of the devil.
Rousseau was not alone. In 1752 and 1759 the Jesuits managed to suppress publication,
although in each case for only a short period. Diderot however remained firm
and by 1772 a further eleven volumes of plates were published. Diderot's ambition
"to change accepted habits of thought" was in largely successful.
The analytic/synthetic distinction
Some statements we judge to be true or false in relation to facts in the world,
for example that you are now in reading this book. That you are reading this
book is called by philosophers a synthetic truth.
Other statements we judge to be true due to the meanings of the words involved.
We can know that the sentence "All bachelors are unmarried." is true without
having to do a survey of bachelors, because the sentence is true by definition.
It is an analytic truth.
Synthetic truths are "truths of fact" and analytic truths are "truths of reason".
We use empirical methods to verify synthetic statements and rationalist methods
to verify analytic statements.
Kant was the first to use the terms Synthetic and Analytic. He pointed out
that all analytic truths are necessary, that is, they could not have been otherwise.
If you agree that the definition of a bachelor is an unmarried man, then it
stands to reason that all bachelors are unmarried.
Synthetic statements are not necessary. Philosophers use the word contingent
to describe something that is not necessary. It is not necessarily true that
you are reading this webpage: you could be reading a printout, for example.
It is important to make the analytic/synthetic distinction in argument. If
you try to argue that something is true you need to be clear about whether you
are saying something about the empirical world, or whether you are clarifying
the meanings of words. It would do you no good for example to hunt for a bachelor
who was married to try and refute the statement. It would be no help to you
to try and find a "good murder" to refute the statement that all murder is bad,
because murder is by definition bad.
Good philosophy must be based on good arguments, not arguments in the sense
of quarrels, but reasoned arguments. Logic can be understood as the science
of proper reasoning; what separates a good argument from a bad one. A useful
way to understand arguments and what makes them good or bad is to divide them
into two types: Deductive and inductive.
In a deductive argument, the conclusion is said to be true if it follows from
the premises (starting statements). The best known form of a deductive argument
is the syllogism, the simplest of which consists of two premises and a conclusion:
- Premise 1 All Philosophers are Wise
- Premise 2 Socrates is a philosopher
- Conclusion Therefore, Socrates is wise.
However if the first premise was "Some philosophers are wise" we could not
be sure that Socrates was wise, as he may have been one of the philosophers
who wasn't. Deductive logic does not appeal to empirical evidence, so long as
the premises are true and the argument is valid then the conclusion must be
Inductive logic is concerned with making generalisations about the empirical
world based on observation. It is closely connected with experimental science
(an experiment is a particular type of observation). Let's say we were interested
in the personality of people with different astrological signs and we observed
that Virgo's were tidy. We may want to make a generalisation based on this.
However, although our observations may back up this generalisation we cannot
be sure that it applies to all Virgo's, only those we have observed. There may
be Virgo's in the future, or in some other country that are not like that.
The idea of determinism is that all events are the results of previous causes.
If we heated a bar of iron, and the bar expanded, we would say that the heat
was the cause of expansion.
The idea of a physically determined universe is associated with Sir Isaac Newton
(1642-1727). This is sometimes called the billiard ball view of nature: A billiard
ball will only move when acted on by another force such as another billiard
ball hitting it. If we could measure the exact velocity and angle of the first
billiard ball, we could predict the movement of the second.
The philosophical problem comes with human beings. If we were to accept the
empirical view that human beings are organised systems of matter and that our
minds are formed as a result of experiences then we may want to explain human
behaviour in terms of cause and effect.
If we knew enough about the biological make up of an individual, his early
childhood experiences and the social and historical circumstances he was born
into, then perhaps we could predict all of his actions. From this point of view
the idea of free will (the ability to choose) is simply the result of or ignorance
of all of the causal factors.
This is as much a problem for the present day as it was for the thinkers of
the Enlightenment. I may think that I am in love with a unique soul mate, but
it may be that my body is producing chemicals that make me fall in love in order
that I reproduce the species.
If there is no such thing as free will then we cannot apply moral concepts
such as good and bad. Morality can only exist were there is choice, i.e. that
a person could have done otherwise.
Of course, if we believe that human nature is something other than the result
of previous causes, then we may argue that people do have responsibility for
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is regarded as one of the most important philosophers
ever. A major figure of the Enlightenment he tried combine both rational and
empirical strands in his philosophy.
He wrote on the natural sciences, metaphysics (what reality is), morality and
He was impressed with progress in the natural sciences following Newton and
was concerned that philosophy in contrast was muddled and filled with disagreement.
His project was to try and find if philosophy could say anything at all.
He thought that the role of philosophy was to uncover how human beings understand
or categorise the world. One of his conclusions is that we make sense of the
world is through categories such as space and time. We impose these categories
on objects, and they are a property of our understanding rather than properties
In moral philosophy, he starts from the idea that all human
beings are rational and autonomous (free to make choices). From this starting
point he went on to say that universal moral laws are possible. (See
categorical imperative later).
Kant would have liked to have found a sound philosophical
basis for belief in God, however he found all philosophical attempts to prove
Gods existence unsatisfactory (See
Philosophy and the proof of God's existence).
For Kant whether God exits is a question of faith rather than reason.
All western Philosophy since the Enlightenment has been coloured by Kant, and
philosophers today are still actively engaged in debating his ideas.
The romantic period emphasised the self, creativity, imagination and the value
of art. This is in contrast to the Enlightenment emphasis on Rationalism and
It roots can be found in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.
Philosophers and writers associated with the Romantic movement include Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Freidrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854),
and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) in Germany; Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(1772-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in Britain.
Philosophically romanticism represents a shift from the objective to the subjective:
Science claims to describe the objective world, the world understood from no
particular viewpoint. Imagine three people looking at a landscape, one is a
farmer, another a property developer and the third an artist. The farmer would
see the potential for raising crops and livestock, the property developer the
chance to build houses and the artist at the shades and subtleties of colour
and form. None of these individuals is seeing the landscape objectively; they
are seeing it from a particular or subjective viewpoint.
The move from the objective to the subjective is a result of Kant's idea that
human beings do not see the world directly, but through a number of categories.
We do not directly see "things-in-themselves"; we only understand the world
through our human point of view. If we agree with Kant that we can never know
things-in-themselves, we may as well discard them. This leads to Idealism; the
belief that what we call the "external world" is somehow created by our minds.
The Enlightenment's emphasis on the empirical deterministic universe left little
room for the freedom and creativity of the human spirit. The romantic emphasis
on art and imagination is a direct critical reaction to the mechanical view
of some Enlightenment figures.
The romantic emphasis on the individual was reflected in ideas of self-realisation
and nature. Wordsworth thought that the individual could directly understand
nature without the need for society and social artifice, salvation is achieved
by the solitary individual rather than through political movements.
"Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains" Rousseau wrote in 1762.
He thought that civilisation fills "man" with unnatural wants and seduces him
away from his true nature and original freedom. Rousseau is credited with the
idea of the "Noble Savage" who is uncorrupted by artifice and society.
In "Émile" (1762) he describes the education of a free being who is
encouraged to develop through self expression the natural nobility and liberty
of the spirit.
In the "Social Contract"(1762) he attempts to describe a society in which this
natural nobility could flourish. The society would be based on a contract where
each individual would give all of his rights to the community, but all collective
decisions would be based on a direct democracy (a democracy where each member
has a chance to vote on every issue). As all are involved in decision making
this contract is seen as legitimate.
The state is seen to represent the common good or the general will. The general
will is not to be confused with the "will of all": The "will of all" is what
individuals think they may want and includes selfish motives. The "general will"
however is what people would want if they were rational and is seen as necessarily
If an individual does not want to obey the general will then he must be "forced
to be free". Imagine a group of people attempting to cross a bridge that is,
unknown to them, weak and dangerous. The gatekeeper refuses to let the group
pass and they feel that their freedom is being curtailed as they do not have
a full understanding of the situation. The gatekeeper is forcing them to be
free; if they were not stopped then they may have perished on the weak bridge.
Rousseau likens this situation to the person who does not understand why they
should obey the general will. To obey what is best for all is to maximise the
freedom for each.
Art and Imagination: Schelling and Coleridge
Schelling agreed with Kant that the only objects we have direct knowledge of
is consciousness. The external world is seen as an adjunct to what is most real:
the mind. The way that the mind will come to full awareness of itself is through
Coleridge was interested in the psychology of artistic creativity and was dissatisfied
with the empiricist idea that the mind was merely a passive absorber of impressions.
After reading Schelling and other idealists, he found a way to criticise the
over mechanical view of the Enlightenment.
The mechanical view of the mind is atomistic: it is simply the sum of its experience.
Coleridge saw the mind more in organic terms; it functions more like an organism
than an engine. An organism can be creative, but it is difficult to see how
an engine could create poetry.
Coleridge felt that his version of idealism could be reconciled with his Christian
beliefs, and that Kant's moral theories (See later) were in tune with Christian
Coleridge thought that intellectuals had an important role in disseminating
culture in order to bring society closer to a state of harmony.
Hegel and Geist
G.W.F. Hegel was the most influential of the German idealist philosophers,
perhaps the most important philosopher since Kant. He became a professor at
Heidelberg in 1816 and was Professor of Philosophy at Berlin from 1818 until
his death in 1831.
Like other idealists, he agrees with Kant that the mind is not simply a passive
absorber of the external world, but actively organises it. As the mind can not
know things-in-themselves, what becomes the real is Geist: mind, spirit or soul.
As Hegel says, "The Real is the Rational and the Rational is the Real".
Hegel sees Geist developing through history, each period having a Zeitgeist
(spirit of the age). These stages will eventually reach the telos (Greek for
"end") of self-understanding, that is when Geist comes to know itself.
It is only when Geist comes to know itself that we can be free: it is only
possible to be free if we understand reality. If we do not understand reality
we are not in a position to make a free judgement, we struggle in vain against
that which we do not understand.
For Hegel each person's individual consciousness or mind is really part of
the Absolute Mind, it is just that the individual does not realise this. If
we understood that we were part of a greater consciousness we would not be so
concerned with our individual freedom, we would agree with to act rationally
in a way that did not follow our individual caprice. By following the Real or
the Rational, each individual would achieve self-fulfilment.
Idealism Vs Materialism
Philosophy in continental Europe, following Kant, became increasingly idealistic.
However Kant's remarks about science and technology progressing, whilst philosophers
still disagreed with each other about almost every thing, could still be applied
to the nineteenth century just as much as to the eighteenth.
Following Hegel two different interpretations of Hegelianism spawned two different
groups: the "Old Hegelians" who uncritically accepted Hegel's views and the
"Young Hegelians" who wanted to continue the revolution of ideas using Hegel's
dialectics (see later). Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and Karl Marx (1818-83) where
the most influential of these.
Whereas Hegel thought that he had reconciled religion with his Idea of Absolute
Mind, Feuerbach wanted to see religion as an example of an alienated or estranged
consciousness. For Feuerbach, who wanted to resurrect something of empiricism
and materialism in his philosophy, religion is not a way of apprehending Geist;
rather it is a reflection of the way society is structured.
For Feuerbach it is man who creates God in his own image, and then falls down
and worships his own creation. This notion of God is that of an idealised human,
and by removing these ideal qualities from ourselves and projecting them onto
a religious object, we are estranging or alienating ourselves from our own essence
Marx, also a materialist, wanted to be more radical than Feuerbach. Whilst
Feuerbach saw religion as alienation and seemed content to leave society as
it was, Marx wanted to radicalise society; as he says: "The philosophers have
only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."
Hegel was not the only important post-Kantian Philosopher. Arthur Schopenhauer
(1788-1860) was a contemporary of Hegel. Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the
University of Berlin and decided to offer his lectures at the same time as Hegel.
As Hegel was the most famous philosopher of his age, it is no surprise that
Schopenhauer gained few students. Schopenhauer thought that the ultimate reality
is not Geist, but will.
Schopenhauer was influential on the young Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who
developed the theme of will. For Nietzsche the 'will to power' is the basic
driving force of human nature and philosophy. We could not imagine twentieth
century psychoanalysis without the influence of these two great thinkers.
We can see then three competing themes in nineteenth century philosophy: Idealism,
Materialism and Will.
As we saw in the previous section Hegel thought Geist came to know itself through
the progression of history. He called this process "Dialectical". A dialectical
process is one in which a starting position (the thesis) proves to be inadequate
and so throws up it's opposite (the antithesis). Both of these positions are
unsatisfactory, and progress will only occur when a superior understanding (the
A un-Hegalian example may help us to understand the dialectic. Lets suppose
that you have a motor bike, but only have a limited understanding of it. The
point of a motor bike is to enable you to travel (the thesis). You begin on
your motor bike in a state of ignorance; all you know is how to drive it. Sooner
or later, you will run out of fuel, the bike will stop: i.e. the opposite of
going (the antithesis). It is only when your understanding about the way that
the motor bike works includes the notion of refuelling (you achieve a synthesis
and understand the bike at a higher level) that you can get the thing to work.
Marx's Dialectical Materialism
Marx took from Hegel the notion of dialectical historical development, for
Marx it was societies that were developing rather than Geist.
Marx asserts that he wants to start from the "real" empirical world to produce
a scientific understanding of history. History progresses through a number of
epochs, each epoch having a particular economic arrangement. Examples of epochs
include feudalism (the economy being based on land ownership) and capitalism
(characterised by wage labour and the existence of capital).
Marx thought that each epoch contains economic contradictions that could only
be resolved by a movement to a new economic form. In capitalism for example,
there is the thesis of growing productive forces (technology and the work place
becoming more efficient). Marx thought that the factory system would create
unemployment and poverty as an antithesis. It is only when a revolution takes
place and replaces capitalism with socialism that the synthesis takes place.
Marx's most important contribution to philosophy, rather than social theory,
is his theory of ideology: that the dominant ideas in every epoch reflect the
economic system. In liberal capitalist societies, the emphasis on notion of
individual freedom is seen by Marx to be a consequence of the economic free
market. Individuals who have been seduced by this notion are said to have "False
From "Will" to "Will to power" Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
For Schopenhauer life itself is an expression of an ultimate force or energy,
he called "will". The self, he argues, is a manifestation of "will", although
many of our motivations are unknown to our conscious mind. This idea became
known as the notion of the "unconscious" which has been influential in Freudian
and Jungian psychology. He is often referred to as a philosopher of pessimism
as he thinks that this "will" has no purpose or aim: it is blind striving. His
ideas are similar to Buddhism as he feels that existence always entails suffering.
There are three ways that man can attempt to overcome this blind cosmic will
and achieve salvation. The first is to develop sympathy for others (a quality
singularly lacking in Schopenhauer's own life), secondly through the development
philosophic understanding and thirdly in the aesthetic contemplation of works
of art. It is this last route which has been most influential.
For Nietzsche the "will to power" is the most basic human drive, unlike Schopenhauer
he thought that this will to power is a creative force and that human beings
will progress to a new level of being.
Nietzsche is critical of philosophy since the Greeks and of Christianity. He
says that we have separated two important aspects of ourselves: The "Dionysian"
(celebratory and unconscious) and the "Apollonian" (conscious and rational).
It is only when the creative individual expresses his will to power by synthesising
these elements the he can progress.
Nietzsche is critical of any philosophy that claims to show us a final truth.
All "truths" for Nietzsche are interpretations of the world, necessitated by
biology. Language always approximates to reality; it is through language that
the will to power makes sense of its existence.
To analyse means to break something down into its constituent parts. Analytic
philosophy attempts to clarify, by analysis, the meaning of statements and concepts.
Analytic philosophy has been important in the in the English speaking academic
world since the beginning of the 20th century. Following Kant a split occurred
between Anglo-American academic philosophy and the philosophy practised on the
European continent. 'Continental' philosophy took off in an Idealist direction
with Hegel, took an existentialist turn via Nietzsche and Heidegger and entered
a less certain phase with post-structuralism.
Analytic philosophers on the other hand, saw the German philosopher Gottlob
Frege (1848-1925) as the most important thinker since Kant. Frege wanted to
put a rigorous logic at the heart of philosophy. He was influential in the philosophy
of mathematics, logic and language. He thought that the basis for mathematics
could be securely derived from logic and that a rigorous analysis of the underlying
logic of sentences would enable us to judge their truth-value.
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) combined Frege's logical
insights with the influence of David Hume's empiricism. Russell thought that
the world was composed of 'atomic facts'. Sentences, if they were to be meaningful,
had to correspond to these atomic facts. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) studied
under Russell, his early ideas influenced the Vienna Circle and help form the
logical positivism of the 1920's and 30's.
There is a radical break between the early and the later works of Wittgenstein.
In his earlier work Wittgenstein saw language as picturing the world, in his
later philosophy he understands language by using the metaphor of a game. This
change in direction spurred the development of 'Linguistic philosophy', in the
mid 20th century. Linguistic philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) thought
many of the traditional problems of philosophy could be dissolved by the careful
study of language as it is used.
By the 1970's there was a growing dissatisfaction with linguistic philosophy,
and philosophers began to show more interest in the philosophy of mind and the
application of philosophical methods to wider issues in politics, ethics and
the nature of philosophy itself. Richard Rorty (1931-) has used the methods
of analytic philosophy to deconstruct its assumptions. Rorty is influenced as
much by Heidegger as he is by Wittgenstein, and his approach echoes the ideas
of the post-structuralists. It may be that the future will see the concerns
of 'analytic' and 'continental' philosophies converge.
Bertrand Russell: Logical Atomism
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) began his philosophical career as an Idealist,
but was converted by G E Moore (1873-1958) to a common sense empiricism. He
worked with A N Whitehead (1861-1947) on the philosophy of mathematics, where,
like Frege, he attempted to show how mathematics could be derived from logic.
His work in logic led him to examine language. Russell thought that the grammar
of ordinary language was misleading. He thought that the world was composed
of atomic facts, and that propositions, if true, would correspond to these atomic
facts. One of the tasks of philosophy was to analyse propositions to reveal
their 'proper logical form'.
Russell thought that terms such as 'the average man' could lead to confusion.
In the sentence, 'The average woman has 2.6 children'; the term 'average woman'
should be understood as a logical construction. The term is not an atomic fact
but a complex mathematical statement relating the numbers of children to the
numbers of women. Russell thought that terms like 'the State' and 'Public Opinion'
were also logical constructions and that philosophers were mistaken in treating
these concepts as though they really existed.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): Tractatus
Wittgenstein came to study under Russell in 1912 and contributed to the theory
of logical atomism. His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published in 1921.
In the Tractatus Wittgenstein put forward the picture theory of meaning. A picture
may mirror reality by showing objects and arrangements of objects. Wittgenstein
argued that sentences, if they are to mean anything, must mirror reality in
the same way that a picture does. Sentences contain names that refer to objects
or states of affairs in the world. Like Russell, Wittgenstein thought that the
surface grammar of statements disguised their logical form. Through analysis
a true statement would be shown to consist in elementary particles which pictured
the world and logical constants such as 'if', 'not', 'and' and 'or'. A sentence,
which did not picture the world, was devoid of meaning.
If only statements which picture the world, i.e. statements about facts, are
meaningful then statements about ethics, religion and much of philosophy are
not, strictly speaking, meaningful. This applies as much to Wittgenstein's ideas
in the Tractatus as other philosophical ideas. As he says at the end of the
Tractatus, "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone
who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used
them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away
the ladder after he has climbed up it."
The Vienna Circle: Logical Positivism
The Vienna Circle consisted of a group of philosophically minded scientists
and logicians. Moritz Schlick (1882-1936) was the official leader; other members
included Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Kurt Gödel
(1906-78). The Circle was heavily influenced by the work of Frege and Russell.
Wittgenstein, although not a member of the group, discussed philosophy with
Schlick and Carnap. The group was active from the mid 1920's. However, the combination
of Schlick's assassination by a deranged student in 1936 and the growing hostility
of the Nazis forced the Circle to disperse.
The logical positivism that the Circle practised can be
seen as a development of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Only verifiable statements
were meaningful, as Schlick put it: "The meaning of a proposition is the method
of its verification". Anything that was not empirically verifiable was meaningless.
Statements about God, ethics, art and metaphysics, were, for the Circle, literally
nonsense. This emphasis on positivism
was a reaction against the romantic Idealism that had been influential in German
philosophy. The role of philosophy was no longer to outline the self-awareness
rather it was seen as a handmaiden to science, content simply to clarify concepts.
Wittgenstein: Language Games
In the 1930's, Wittgenstein became critical of his earlier picture theory of
meaning. In his latter work, he uses a tool metaphor for language: the meaning
of a word is no longer it's relation to some atomic fact: the meaning of a word
is in its use. We use language in a variety of ways, to talk about science,
religion, art and so on. The latter Wittgenstein does not agree with the logical
positivists that only scientific statements have meaning: science is only one
way to talk about the world, only one 'language game'. A language game reflects
a human activity, a form of life. As well as a scientific language game, we
can participate in a religious language game, an aesthetic language game and
many others. Words derive their meaning from the function they perform within
the language game.
Words are no longer seen as having a particular essence, or to refer to a particular
object. A word may have a variety of usages: what these different usages have
in common Wittgenstein calls a 'family resemblance'. Members of a family bear
a resemblance to each other, but no two members of a family (apart from identical
twins) look exactly alike. The same is true for the use of words. The word 'game',
for example, is used to talk about board games, card games, Olympic games, soccer
games etc. These games do not hold one essential quality in common, rather there
are overlapping and criss-crossing similarities.
Wittgenstein thought that philosophical problems arise when "language goes
on holiday", that is, when we take a word and try to look at it in isolation
from its language game. If we try to define the essence of beauty or knowledge,
rather than seeing how these concepts are used in context, we will become confused.
The job of philosophy for the latter Wittgenstein is therapeutic: "The philosopher's
treatment of a question, is like the treatment of an illness". The "illness"
in question is the bewitchment of intelligence by language.
The Private Language Argument
Since Wittgenstein's death there has been much discussion around Wittgenstein's
assertion that there could not be a 'private language'. Philosophy since Descartes
began from the assumption that the most secure knowledge is based on our private
experience, indeed Descartes distinction between the mental and the material
rests on this assumption. The British empiricist Hume also begins from the starting
point of the certainty of the individual's private experience.
Wittgenstein sees language as a rule governed social activity. Wittgenstein
thought that it was incomprehensible to imagine an individual creating their
own private language. How would this person know if, when they used a word,
that they were using it correctly? To rely on their own memory would be "as
if someone were to buy several copies of the morning newspaper to assure himself
that what it said was true." As this individual has no way of externally checking
the way he is using a concept, he cannot be said to be using a language. If
a private language is not possible then the rug has been pulled from under the
feet of modern philosophy's Cartesian foundations. Meaning is no longer understood
as private or individual, but as public and social. The individualistic first-person
certainty which underlies both rationalist and empiricist approaches to philosophy
is shown to be in error.
Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
Richard Rorty (1931-) is an American philosopher who was trained in the analytic
tradition. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has been influenced as much
by Sartre and Heidegger as by Wittgenstein. Rorty has been able to articulate
the post-modern concerns of 'continental philosophy' in the language game of
Anglo-American academia. Rorty argues that ever since Descartes' "invention
of the mind" philosophy has attempted to provide rock solid foundations for
our understanding of the World. Kant thought that we interpret the world through
universal timeless categories. The distinction was made between a mirroring
non-natural mind and a mirrored natural world. The purpose of philosophy was
to expose the shape of this mirror.
For Rorty human understanding is not based some objective structure of 'mind'.
Rather we interpret the world through a variety of paradigms. If there is no
objective philosophical standpoint then the idea that philosophy should be seen
as the "queen of sciences", clarifying what counts as knowledge, is unsustainable.
For Rorty the aim of philosophers should be, "to help their readers, or society
as a whole, break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than
to provide 'grounding' for the intuitions and customs of the present."
1879 Frege publishes "Begriffsschrift"
1910-13 Russell & Whitehead Publish "Principia Mathematica"
1912 Wittgenstein comes to study with Russell at Cambridge
1918-19 Russell lectures on Logical Atomism
1921 Wittgenstein publishes "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus"
1922 Schlick awarded chair of Philosophy in Vienna, birth of the Vienna Circle
1925 Death of Frege
1929 Wittgenstein returns to Cambridge, resumes philosophy
1936 Murder of Schlick, Vienna Circle disperses from continental Europe.
1949 Ryle publishes "The Concept of Mind"
1951 Wittgenstein dies of cancer
1953 Posthumous publishing of Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations"
1970 Death of Russell
1980 Richard Rorty publishes "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature"
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