Lecture Introducing 16th and 17th Century Philosophy


     Copyright © 2012Bruce W. Hauptli


1. The Periods in the History of Philosophy:


This course deals with the period from 1590 (the birth of Descartes) to 1716 (the death of Leibniz).  This period constitutes one-half of the period usually referred to as “Early Modern Philosophy”—that dealing with the “Continental Rationalists” (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz).  The second half of this period—which covers what is called “British Empiricism” (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume)—will be offered next semester. 


The first question you may have in this course is “What does the ‘early modern’ in ‘Early Modern Philosophy’ mean?”  The dividing of our history or culture into “periods” is, of course, arbitrary and subject to (much) disagreement.  Nevertheless, I believe the following “rough-and-ready” classification is widely adhered to in the histories of Western philosophy:


The Pre-Philosophical Period (prior to 600 B.C.E.):


According to C.M. Bowra, in their “Archaic Period”


the Greeks expressed their most significant speculations in poetry, and even when this was reinforced by sculpture and painting, their outlook was still largely shaped by their poetical education and the principles which it implied.  Even if the traditional myths left much unexplained, and even contradicted each other on important matters, they provided an approach to experience, a way of thinking in concrete images, which satisfied a people who had no reason to doubt that the gods were at work everywhere and that a knowledge of them explained most phenomena, both physical and mental.[1] 


The Ancient Period (600 B.C.E.-200 B.C.E.).  For more on the “pre-philosophical” and “ancient” periods, see my "Introduction to Plato" lecture supplement. 


The Roman Period (200 B.C.E.-400 A.D.). 


The Medieval Period (400-1400).[2] 


The Renaissance Period (1400-1600):


-the beginning marks of this transition period are found in literature (Petrarch 1304-1374), painting (Giotto), the discovery of old manuscripts in history, and in science (Galileo).  Castiglione’s The Courtier[3] (1528) is also significant.  In his “Renaissance,” Neal Gilbert maintains that “...the humanists were the heirs of a less ambitious but old and respectable Medieval profession, that of the dictatore or teacher of the art of letter-writing (ars dictaminis).  The Renaissance teachers of “humanities” placed a greater emphasis on ancient models than had the dictatores, but their teaching had much the same objective.  Their students often became official letter writers or speech-makers for the popes and princes.[4] 


-Stephen Toulmin notes that the Renaissance humanists were not anti-religious: “[Desiderius] Erasmus [~1466-1532] wrote an essay, In Praise of Folly [1511], which ridiculed dogmatism; yet he combined his loyalty to the traditional Church with being one of Martin Luther’s  [1483-1546] most valued correspondents.  Nothing would have pleased him more than to persuade his German friend not to press reforming zeal to the point of no return....Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592], who was a child when Erasmus died in the 1530s, criticized claims to theological certainty in a similar vein, as being presumptuous and dogmatic.  Yet he too saw himself as being a good Catholic and, on a visit to Rome, felt entitled to ask for an audience with the Pope.[5] 


-Toulmin goes on to note that “like the two classical philosophers to whom Montaigne compares himself, Pyrrho and Sextus, the humanists saw philosophical questions as reaching beyond the scope of experience in an indefeasible way.  Faced with abstract, universal, timeless theoretical propositions, they saw no sufficient basis in experience, either for asserting or for denying them.[6] 


-This period includes the Reformation (16th Century—1517: Luther’s 95 Theses (the three essential Protestant Doctrines advanced here were: authority of the word, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers).  This period includes the Protestant Reformation (Luther, Calvin, and others), the Radical Reformation (including Anabaptists [biblical literalists and spiritualists who had direct conversations with the deity—the Protestants were generally not too sympathetic with this orientation], Anglican Reformers (Henry VIII, Elizabeth I—her 39 articles of religion [Latin: 1563, English: 1571], were the official standard of the Reformed Church of England), and, perhaps, the Catholic Reformers (establishment of the Jesuit Order [1534], for example).  However these latter reformers may better fit into the category of the Counter-Reformation. 


-In addition, this period marks the beginning of the development of modern science, the “discovery” (and appropriation) of the “new” world, and the development of the modern nation state. 


The Modern Period (1500-1800), about which, of course, we will have much more to say in this course. 


Some would maintain that there are periods after the Modern one, but I will leave this issue largely untouched.  According to some, the Modern period extends through the individuals we will study through the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume), and (in a period sometimes referred to as “Late Modern Philosophy”) beyond to Kant (1724-1804), Hegel (1779-1831), Comte (1789-1857), Mill (1806-1873), Darwin (1809-1882), Kierkegaard (1813-1885), Marx (1818-1883), Nietzsche (1844-1900), and into the contemporary period.  Some contend, however, that we live in the Post-Modern period.  As I said, this is another story—and any understanding of what post-modernism “is” would require some understanding of modernism anyway. 


2. The Medieval Period in Greater Detail:


To understand the Early Modern Period, we need a bit of historical background.  In his “The Recovery of Practical Philosophy,” Stephen Toulmin provides an excellent “introduction” to “Modern” Philosophy.  In making his point regarding the turmoil which arose in the late 16th and early 17th centuries (especially from 1610-1650), he makes a wonderful appeal to John Donne’s (1572-1631) “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) citing especially these lines of the poem:


And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to looke for it....
‘Tis all in peeces, all cohaerance gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee
None of that kind, of which he is, but hee.[7] 


To understand how this can provide a picture of the “early modern world-view,” however, we must first understand the “medieval world view.”  The best way to understand the medieval period is by adopting the metaphor contained in the title of Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being.[8]  This world view emphasized a static, traditional picture of the universe and of our place in it.  The universe was viewed as a rational whole.  There was a complete agreement of faith and reason.  This view emphasized talk of heavenly spheres, relied upon Aristotelian science and logic, upon feudal social conditions, and had could easily countenance the uniqueness condition entailed by the phrase “The Church.”  Each individual knew his/her place—sons and daughters did not have to worry about what their future career would be!  Latin commentaries of earlier authors were studied in the universities. 


In short, this world view offered a teleological conception of the universe where value and fact infused one another.[9]  Michael Matthews maintains that:


central to Aristotle’s thought is his concept of nature.  This was essentialistic and teleological.  Nature was not just matter moving around as a result of random pushes and pulls (materialism), nor was it an unintelligible and imperfect shadow of some other perfect realm (Platonism).  Nature was differentiated into various species and objects, all of them had their own internal and essential dynamic for change (including local motion).  Their alteration was the progressive, teleological actualization of a preexisting potential.  The universe was finite, closed, hierarchically ordered, and all its constituents were fixed.  Everything had its own preordained purpose. 

  In appropriate circumstances, the acorn would develop through an internally generated process of natural change.  Likewise, when not interfered with, heavy objects would naturally move to their natural place at the centre of the earth.  Science was largely concerned with the understanding of these natural changes in the world.  The contrasting violent or chance changes were of little interest to philosophers, as they did not reveal anything of the object’s nature.[10] 


Think of the difference between having the growth of an acorn and the falling of a ball-bearing as your scientific model and you can come to a better understanding of the contrast between the Aristotelian and Medieval world-views, on the one hand, and the early modern world view, on the other.  The Aristotelian notion of causation involves a compilation of four distinct notions:


the material cause—what a thing is made of,

the formal cause—how a thing is structured,

the efficient cause—what brings a thing about, and

the final cause—the goal/purpose of a thing. 


Together talk about matter and form are to answer the questions we can ask about what causes a thing to be what it is.  The full story here requires talk about the four Aristotelian causes—they provide a complete explanation both of what a thing came from and where it is going:





Where it is going

material cause

final cause

Where it came from

efficient cause

formal cause


While a full understanding of anything requires that we understand all four causes, the final cause is the most important one—Aristotle offers a teleological view!  Not everything lives up to its final cause however—consider two acorns which have the same internal character but are grown in very different environments.  Thus the talk of the other causes becomes quite important for him.  Talk of these other causes requires that we recognize that a thing may be judged against either an absolute standard (in terms of consideration only of the final cause) or against a more relativistic standard (which considers all the causes).  Here it sounds as if I am talking about Ancient Philosophy, however, rather than Medieval Philosophy!  To get the right perspective here, we need to stop discussing Aristotle and make a connection with St. Augustine [354-430]. 


What Augustine had which Aristotle did not was a transcendental, absolute, and personalistic standard against which all judgments were to be measured—the Catholic deity.  In his version of the Aristotelian teleology, everything had its purpose and it was supplied by this deity.  That is, the Medieval Aristotelian view is offered within the Catholic context.  Here a discussion of a number of St. Augustine’s [353-403] views helps clarify this period.  At the end of the Roman period according to Peter Gay, Augustine


...recommended the gradual replacement of pagan by Christian classics, and the expurgation of all obnoxious passages from ancient literature, so his very commendation of the human understanding has a new and unclassical tone.  Ipsum credere nihil aliud est quam cum assensione cogitare—“to believe is itself nothing but to cogitate with assent,” might be read (and has been read by [Christian] apologists)[11] as the demand that religious faith be tested by rational investigation.  But the statement is antithetical to [the] antique [that is, Ancient]...conception of philosophy: it stresses, not the will to criticism, but the will to believe.  Augustine sees man as unhappy; puzzled by himself, his world, and his destiny.  All men want happiness, and all philosophers seek the way to it, but without divine aid all fail: “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee”—this famous exclamation from [Augustine’s]...Confessions is the exclamation of a tormented soul weary of mere thought, weary of autonomy, yearning for the sheltering security found in dependence on higher powers.  When Augustine speaks of understanding or reason, these words have a religious admixture: philosophy to him is touched by the divine.[12] 


Augustine’s dictum stands the…method of classical philosophizing on its head: God, who to the ancients was the result of thought, now becomes its presupposition.  Faith is not the reward of understanding; understanding is the reward of faith.  Man may search for the explanation of his situation by his humble reason; he may even try to order his moral conduct through the understanding.  But the explanation for the human condition is a myth—the Fall; the guide to his salvation is a supernatural being—Jesus Christ; the proof text for the primacy of faith over reason is a divinely inspired book—the Bible; and the interpreter of this Book is an infallible authority—the Church.  All four testify to the collapse of [ancient philosophers’] confidence in man’s unaided intellect. 

  Hence, nisi credideritis, non intelligetis: “unless you believe, you will not understand.[13]  This injunction is the center of Augustine’s doctrine on the relation of philosophy to theology, and through its enormous authority, it became the center of medieval speculation on the same subject, although the Scholastics, as the philosophers knew, provided intellect with much room for play....But faith [for Anselm] imposed on the believer the obligation to strive within his limited means to understand what he believes.  True faith is a kind of love, the highest kind of love, and a true lover does not love ignorantly: like all other medieval philosophers, Anselm accepted Aristotle’s dictum that man naturally strives for knowledge.[14] 


As Basil Willey points out, this conception of nature lead to views of science and motion which are unfamiliar to us today:


St. Thomas, following Aristotle, treats motion as a branch of metaphysics; he is interested in why it happens, not how.  He discusses it in terms of ‘act’ and ‘potency’, quoting Aristotle’s definition of it as ‘the act of that which is in potentiality, as such.’  Motion exists, then because things in a state of potentiality seek to actualize themselves, or because they seek the place or direction which is proper to them....To every body in respect of its ‘form’, is ‘due’ a ‘proper place’, towards which it tends to move in a straight line.[15] 


It is unnecessary to controvert theories of this kind as if they were ‘untrue’.  Their ‘truth’ is not of the empirical kind; it consists in their being consistent with a certain world-view.[16] 


Galileo  typifies the direction of modern interests, in this instance, not in refuting St. Thomas, but in taking no notice of him.  Motion might be all that the angelic doctor had declared it to be; Galileo nevertheless will drop weights from the top of a tower, and down inclined planes, to see how they behave.  It is undeniable that the scholastic theory of motion informs us nothing of the manner in which bodies move in space and time, and this was precisely what Galileo wished to determine.  He is concerned with quantities, not qualities; and his energy is thus devoted not to framing theories consistent with a rational scheme, but to measuring the speed of falling bodies in terms of time and space.[17] 


In the scholastic doctrine of the heavenly bodies we have an illustration of the strange fact that a belief can be metaphysically ‘true’ (in the sense of ‘coherent’ or ‘consistent’) and yet empirically false, that is, not in correspondence with what we call a ‘state of affairs’.  The received scholastic doctrine, for instance, taught that the heavenly bodies are unalterable and incorruptible.  This belief seems to have rested on the assumption (fact, as it then appeared) that the motions of the heavenly bodies were circular.[18] 


Thus the metaphysical theory of the heavens is confronted by comets, new stars, and sun-spots seen through the telescope; and Salviatus, speaking for Galileo himself, makes much of an alleged saying of Aristotle that we ought to prefer sense-evidence to logic.[19] 


Galileo admitted that he knew nothing about the ultimate nature of the forces he was measuring; nothing about the cause of gravitation, or the origin of the Universe; he deemed it better, rather than to speculate on such high matters, ‘to pronounce that wise, ingenious and modest sentence, “I know it not”‘.[20] 


3. The Transition to the Early Modern Period:


The Medieval “Great Chain Of Being” world-view came unglued for a variety of reasons.  A discussion of this transition must consider all of the following: the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the discovery (and exploitation) of the “new world,” and the rise of the nation-state:


(A) The Renaissance:


(i) Humanism:


looking back to golden ages for new picture of our nature and our place in nature.  A change in focus: individuals not institutions, and writing in the vernacular.  The Greeks and Romans are seen to have had for many centuries high civilizations not founded upon Christianity or revelation. 


As discussed below, the discovery of ancient texts included discovery of the ancient skeptical scholars, and in combination with the other factors under discussion, this led to a serious “skeptical crisis” which some scholars use as a defining characteristic of the age. 


(ii) New science:


its successes are directly proportional to its abstraction from value and the human—it is physics, optics, and astronomy which advance (not psychology).  Medieval science stated with propositions of the highest generality and, treating them as incontestable, proceeded to draw out their consequences.  Combustion was explained in Aristotelian terms by Medieval science—form, matter, and potential!  Epicycles and the movement of the planets and stars—forcing data to fit into a preconceived plan or pattern.  An example of the “new” orientation in science is provided by Galileo in his “Letters on Sunspots.  ´In a Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) he says:


this being granted, I think that in discussion of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands.  It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned.  But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.[21] 


Whereas the professors at Padua refused to look through Galileo’s telescope at the satellites of Jupiter because they knew it could not have any (that would conflict with theological premises), Galileo looked—the difference here is the presence or absence of an empirical spirit!  Of course, the theologians of Padua had the authority of the Bible to rest upon—and geocentrism is deeply entrenched in the Biblical view: on the first day, according to it the deity created the Earth, and it was not until day four that the sun, moon, and other stars were created.[22]  Clearly, defenders of geocentrism contend, the Earth can not be said to circle something whose existence is subsequent to its own existence.  Today’s internet has many sites which defend geocentrism.  For example, Gerardus D. Bouw maintains that:


to hear tell, geocentrism, the ancient doctrine that the earth is fixed motionless at the center of the universe, died over four centuries ago.  At that time Nicolaus Copernicus…a Polish canon who dabbled in astrology, claimed that the sun and not the earth was at the center of the universe.  His idea is known as heliocentrism.  It took a hundred years for heliocentrism to become the dominant opinion, and it did so with a complete lack of evidence in its favor.[23] 


Following a venerable and old tradition, Bouw maintains that:


the strongest geocentric verse in the Bible is Joshua 10:13:

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.  Is not this written in the book of Jasher?  So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hastened not to go down about a whole day. 

Here the Moderator of Scripture, the Holy Ghost Himself, endorses the daily movement of the sun and moon.  After all, God could just as well have written: “and the earth stopped turning, so that the sun appeared to stand still, and the moon seemed to stay….”  The wording would be no more “confusing” the reader than anything in Job chapters 38 through 41…. 

….The Copernican Revolution, as this change of view is called, was not just a revolution in astronomy, but it also spread into politics and theology.  In particular, it set the stage for the development of Bible criticism.  After all, if God cannot be taken literally when He writes of “the rising of the sun,” then how can He be taken literally in writing of “the rising of the Son?”[24] 


The success of the new science led to the sort of distinction between the realm of fact and that of value which is part of the[25] Modern world-view.  The Medievals did not draw, or (certainly didn’t draw in the same way) such a distinction.  Their teleological conception of the world had values and facts intimately intertwined and for the Medieval individual it was perfectly clear what was valuable and what was morally obligatory.  The success of the new science seemed, to be directly proportional to the extent that it abstracted from the value areas however.  Thus we seemed to have an increasingly adequate picture of the natural universe which left no room for values, desires, goals, or religion.  The Newtonian model was materialistic though only individuals like Hobbes were willing to make this the whole story. 


Here a metaphysical dualism arose—the universe was divided into the physical and the mental so that values, desires, and hopes seemed to go on one side while planets and bodies went on the other.  Of course, this bifurcation has important ramifications today.  Whatever its other consequences, however, this dualistic orientation allowed for the advancement of physical science without the loss of religion and humanism.  The “philosophical” problem came in the attempt to marry the two realms of fact and value so as to offer a unified view of ourselves and our world.  The problems here included:


how do the different “sectors” (mind and body) interact? 


is one (the mental or the physical) primary? 


is there a fundamental unity which undergirds this metaphysical diversity? 


how can freedom and determinism coexist? 


(B) The Reformation and Counter-Reformation:


In speaking of the “Renaissance” as we discuss the differences between the Medieval and Modern world-views, we are speaking of changes in worldly concerns, while in speaking of the “Reformation” we speak of a new, more individualistic conception of the other-worldly concerns—for the Modern’s it is individuals rather than institutions which are important.  The abuses of the Church (the selling of indulgences, good and bad popes, three popes, etc.) lead some to emphasize individual conscience rather than institutional dogma—the Reformation would allow each individual to interpret the Bible.  The Church becomes a rock on which people stumble as well as the rock of certainty.  Of course, the Counter-Reformation, also occurs.  It constitutes the attempt to reassert the authority of the Church.  In the mid-1500s, for example, Spain marches against the Low Countries to bring them “the virtues of the Spanish Inquisition”—to free them from Protestantism!  Whereas the Medieval period had its crusades in the Near East, the Early Modern period fought its religious within Europe. 


In his The History of Scepticism From Savonarola to Bayle, Richard H. Popkin maintains that:


the “new science” of Copernicus, Galileo, and Gassendi has “cast all in doubt.”  The discoveries in the New world and in the classical world had given other grounds for scepticism.  And the nouveau pyrrhoniens showed man’s inability to justify the science of Aristotle, of the Renaissance naturalists, and of the moralists, and of the new scientists as well.  The cumulative attacks of humanistic Pyrrhonists, from Montaigne to La Mothe Le Vayer, and of the scientific Pyrrhonists like Gassendi and Marande, left the quest for guaranteed knowledge about the “real” world without a method, a criterion, or a basis.  No type of rational inquiry into the truth of things seemed possible, since for any theory, or any dogma, a battery of apparently irrefutable arguments could be put up in opposition.  The crise pyrrhonienne had overwhelmed man’s quest for certainty in both religious and scientific knowledge.[26] 


Erasmus’ edition of the New Testament in Greek, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, showed that the best scholarly examination of available manuscripts could raise questions about the source of key religious doctrines.  Erasmus had omitted the proof texts about the doctrine of the Trinity and instead noted that this text did not appear in the earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament or in the citations from the Early Church Fathers.  He did not publicly question whether the doctrine was, in fact, part of Scripture or whether it was true. 

  The Polyglot Bible project, sponsored by Cardinal Ximines began in 1606 to publish the Hebrew and Greek texts of the New and Old Testament and he Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome, as well as the Aramaic paraphrases.[27] 


Humanistic scholars over the next century evaluated various manuscripts and sought to find standards for deciding what was the best or truest text.  With regard to secular authors such as Plato, Aristotle, and others, it was not a life-and-death matter.  If one had to make some alterations of the text on the basis of newly found manuscripts with regard to the Bible, this could become all-important.  It was made even more important by the Calvinist insistence that the rule of faith was Scripture.  If they were to hold this position they had to be absolutely sure of the text of scripture.[28] 


The challenge to the authenticity of the biblical text has like sceptical results.  If one doubts the authenticity of one passage, by what criterion does on justify accepting any other passage?  La Peyrère asserted that the Bible was inaccurate in claiming Adam as the first man, and inaccurate in claiming that all people now on earth are descendants of the seven survivors of Noah’s Flood.  La Peyrère based his charge of inauthenticity on internal evidence in the Bible, about people who are not descendents of Adam, such as Lilith and Cain’s wife; on the evidence of pagan history in relation to biblical history; and finally on the discoveries of people and cultures all over the world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who appear to have no relation to the biblical world.[29] 


[Samuel] Fisher had learned from various Jewish and Christian authorities…that vowel markings did not exist in the original biblical Hebrew and were introduced either by Ezra or by the Massorites.  Therefore the text has been changed, either at Ezra’s time or at a later day, and we do not have an exact fixed text of God’s Word at present.  So, according to Owen and his Calvinist allies, all revealed truth should be called in question. 

  If the later addition of vowels and punctuation showed the scriptural text had changes in some respect, a greater source of problems and questions came from the variants among the existing texts.  The Protestant Bible scholar Louis Cappel had compiled a list of thousands of variants in the Hebrew and Geek texts, a list that greatly impressed Isaac La Peyrère as well as Samuel Fisher.[30] 


In short, the excesses of the Roman Church, the “new views” of the reformers, the development of a more public “scholarship” regarding the veracity of the sacred texts (especially when combined with the discovery of a highly cultured ancient world), the uncovering of skeptical texts, and the development of the “new science” led to a serious and radical undercutting of the prior dominant Medieval view of the world.  This was only part of the story however. 


(C) The Discovery and Exploitation of the New World:


The discovery (and exploitation) of the “new world” is another important point to be noted in discussing the differences between the Medieval and Modern world-views.  The economic, cultural, and social effects of this “discovery” (and exploitation) are tremendous—there is now somewhere for individuals to “go” (they are no longer rigidly bound to their feudal place and station).  Moreover, it is a place of new opportunities, challenges, and riches and it offers individuals an opportunity to break out of the old molds.  It provides a “use” for the new science—navigation, use of physics to direct the engines of war, etc.  It fosters a new confidence in the individual abilities of people.  Europe begins to face West rather than East! 


Moreover, especially when coupled with a growing interchange and understanding of the distant Orient (which also occurred), this led to questions about the Medieval view: how did all these people fit into the Biblical account; how could these impressive, but non Christian, cultures flourish without the guidance of the Church; and how could the fact that their recorded histories did not fit at all into the Biblical timeline, be reconciled with the latter? 


Note the gigantic change which occurs as historically the focus shifts from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic! 


(D) The Rise of the Nation-State:


The rise of the nation-state provides a new kind of authority and a move away from the old order.  The rise of money-power which replaces guilds and, to some extent nobility.  Credit and investment become more common. 


4. Skepticism:


While all the above did not happen all at once, the combination of phenomena had an immense effect—one which we still feel today.  What is the cumulative effect?  I would sum it up as follows: insecurity, a desire for certainty (or authority), and a faith in individual abilities which somehow had to be rendered compatible with recognition of our fallibility. 

In short, the stability, security, teleology, and certainty of the Medieval period was lost.  This is the lament which is contained in the poetic reference earlier from John Donne.  The rediscovery of Greek skeptical texts facilitated the development of modern skepticism.  The Greek skeptics began with the ordinary distinction between knowledge and belief, and questioned whether we can offer any evidence which would lift claims which go beyond immediate experience from the latter category to the former one.  They recommended a “suspension of belief”—if we were really without justification for our knowledge claims, we should not make them.  Of course, the problem of justifying a standard of knowledge, of reality, or of morality did not arise as long as there was an unchallenged criterion.  But in an age of intellectual revolution, of course, this was just the problem. 


Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592] provides one example of a “modern” skeptic.  His The Apology for Raimond Sebond[31] [1580] is instructive as a beginning point for our reading of Descartes (since Montaigne is one of the skeptics Descartes is reacting to):


What can man know unaided?[32] 


The skeptic would suspend judgment where there is no certainty. 


The difficulty in explaining and stating the skeptics’ view. 


There can be no first principles nor certainty other than faith or revelation. 


We each experience things differently (wine for the sick and for the healthy). 


We get our knowledge through the senses, but:


-How do we know we have all the senses;


-Our senses are uncertain and libel to error;


-Dreaming argument; and


-Our mental and physical condition affects sensing thus raising the questions of error and subjectivity. 


What of reason? 


-each reason must be supported by another and this leads to a vicious infinite regress. 


5. Continental Rationalism Briefly Characterized:


Studies of the Early modern period generally divide the major thinkers into three camps: rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz), irrationalists (Pascal), and empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume). 


     While we are used to relying upon sensory experience as we acquire knowledge, the rationalists instead rely upon intellectual perception.  That is, they rely upon certain truths of reason.  As is the case in geometry and logic, these truths are known intellectually and not via the senses.  While today many hold that tautologies merely tell us about the use of words, the rationalists did not hold to anything like this.  They held that there are necessary facts and these provide the indisputable account and explanation of the basic workings of the universe. 


Note: the rationalists’ deductive methodology presumes there is a correspondence between logical implication and causation! 


Phrases like “truths of reason” and “the natural light of reason” do not carry a connotation of nonrational insight for the rationalists, but, rather, are meant to connote a cognitive, intellectual perception which is certain and beyond doubt.  An example from logic (e.g., establishing modus tollens, proving that triangles have 180o, or some such) helps us see what such a “perception” is like. 


In the broadest sense, rationalists (as opposed to the empiricists) had a “faith” in a priori deductive reason. 


Geometry and Certainty. 


In order to have certainty, it was necessary that the beginning points of a deductive argument be beyond question.  This is the function of Descartes’ “natural light.”  In general such philosophers believed in self-evident truths. 


Innate ideas: provide human reasoning with its beginning points. 


-Ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes). 


-As John Nelson notes, “…certain conceptions of universal principles and/or non-sensory objects are innate, in the sense of being either images present in the mind at or before birth or inborn dispositions of the mind to form conceptions under certain circumstances.  Since these conceptions, taken as either images or dispositions, exist chronologically before sensory experience, they are a priori in the literal, temporal sense of the term.  Since they are not composed from or testable in sensory experience, but since they provide the basis for all scientific knowledge, they are also a priori in the logical and epistemological sense.[33] 



Notes: [to return to portion of text a note applies to click on the note number--emphasis has been added to several of the citations]

[1] C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience (N.Y.: Mentor, 1957), p. 177. 

[2] This includes the Medieval Renaissance (1100-1300): where there was translation of Greek texts (Euclid, Ptolemy, Aristotle); study of Aristotle’s methods of observation, experiment, and logical reasoning; and work to reconcile faith and the new forms of reasoning.  Aquinas (1226-1274) was especially concerned with the latter.  William of Ockham (1300-1349) denied Aquinas’ project because religious claims must be taken only on faith—he rejected Medieval metaphysics and contended that non-revealed claims must be based on experience. 

[3] One of the most influential manners books ever written.  Here rude military virtues of the soldiers’ camp and castle gave way to the graces of the “civilized” court. 

[4] Neal Gilbert, “Renaissance,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v.7, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), p. 176. 

[5] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1990), p. 25. 

[6] Ibid., p. 29. 

[7] Cited by Toulmin on pp. 341-342 of his “The Recovery of Practical Philosophy,” The American Scholar v. 57 (1988), pp. 337-352. 

[8] Cf., Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1936). 

[9] Teleological explanations occur when past and present events are explained in terms of future events (they are “goal-oriented” explanations).  They are often contrasted with mechanical explanations which hold that present and future events are to be explained in terms of past mechanical events and their consequences.  The contrast is well-stated by Wilber Long in his entry under “teleology” in Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert Runes (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1960), p. 315. 

[10] Michael Matthews, The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), p. 6—emphasis is mine. 

[11] Christian “apologists” were theologians who endeavored to offer rational arguments and proofs for Christianity. 

[12] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1966), p. 230.  Emphasis added to passage twice. 

[13] Gay’s footnote here reads: “this much-quoted passage is from the Septuagint version of the Bible, from Isaiah, VII, 9.  All other versions translate the Hebrew differently.  The King James Version has, “if you will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.”  The Septuagint is an ancient Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures that was made by between seventy and seventy-two translators between 208 and 130 B.C.E.  Emphasis is added to the cited passage. 

[14] Ibid., pp. 230-231. 

[15] Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (New York: Columbia U.P., 1967), p. 16. 

[16] Ibid., p. 17. 

[17] Ibid. 

[18] Ibid., p. 18. 

[19] Ibid., p. 20. 

[20] Ibid., p. 21. 

[21] Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” [1615], trans. Stillman Drake, in The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York: Free Press, 1966), p. 62. 

[22] The Bible, Genesis I, 1-20. 

[23] Gerardus Bouw, “Why Geocentricity?”, http://www.geocentricity.com/geocentricity/whygeo.html, last modified May 7, 2001, and accessed on May 5, 2011. 

[24] Ibid. 

[25] I would say “our” world-view here, since the Modern view is, I believe, largely ours.  But some say we live in a “post-Modern” era.  Discussing this, however, would make this introductory story far too long. 

[26] Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism From Savonarola to Bayle, revised and expanded edition (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2003), p. 97-98. 

[27] Ibid.,  pp.220-221.   

[28] Ibid., p. 220. 

[29] Ibid., p. 223. 

[30] Ibid., p. 236. 

[31] Cf., Michel de Montaigne, The Apology for Raimond Sebond, trans. Donald Frame, in The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Palo Alto: Stanford U.P., 1958). 

[32] Note that Montaigne’s text makes it clear that if we do receive divine “assistance,” we can achieve knowledge. 

[33] John Nelson, “Innate Ideas,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 4, op. cit., p. 197.

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