Immanuel Kant; Wikimedia Commons
The Philosophy of the 1700s
John Locke (1632 – 1704)
John Locke was a central person of the period of Enlightenment, and his thoughts inspired subsequent thinkers both in England and in France. Although, somewhat like Francis Bacon, he was quite involved in current matters of society and politics, his major work An Essay concerning Human Understanding is what he is most known for. He is in opposition to the rationalists’ thoughts that certain ideas exist in the minds of all people as something common and in-born. He also doubts the existence of any common, abstract principles. He thought that the soul, at birth, was a tabula rasa, a blank that acquired content from experience. Ideas are something the reason produces from the impressions the mind gets.
The senses passively register the impressions of the world. The reflections produce an active consciousness regarding activities and situations. Descartes’ distinction between res extensa and res cogitans here shows up again with Locke’s distinction between inner and outer experience. Senses and reflection are independent forms of experience, but it is the outer matter registered by the senses that sets reflection in motion. Without the senses, consciousness would have nothing to work with.
Experience cannot offer truth, only degrees of probability. This is what our choices in daily life have to base themselves on. As a teacher, Locke emphasizes the individual’s right to a free and natural development, an idea that Rousseau later would develop further.
George Berkeley (1685 – 1753)
Berkeley’s point of departure was Locke’s distinction between inner and outer impressions. He did not believe that this distinction could be made. In opposition to Descartes’ distinction between body and soul, Berkeley saw the body as part of the soul. Berkeley saw reflection as the basis for the impressions of the senses. His sensualism and his nominalism sought to disintegrate the world of matter into a world of ideas built of consciousnesses. He contends that it is superfluous to assume the existence of a world of matter that follows its own rules, and he denies that men have ever had abstract general notions. He says that we build our general notions from observations of particulars, from which we generalize. We cannot have a priori general notions of the type expressed by rationalists. This implies that all thinking revolves around definite, specific impressions. All thinking derives from the senses. Thinking and sensations are intertwined, not separate. The activity of the consciousness is what exists.
David Hume (1711 – 1776)
David Hume was an empirist, as opposed to a rationalist. He was the major philosopher of empirism. He uses the term perceptions to describe the content of consciousness. The perceptions are of two kinds, impressions and ideas. Here we see that perceptions are the primary aspect of consciousness, and ideas are derived from perceptions. This is in contrast to the rationalists, where ideas are a primary aspect of consciousness. Illusions and misunderstandings arise when perceptions are changed and combined into ideas. The relation between impressions and ideas corresponds to John Locke's emphasis on the relation between senses and thought.
The only sources of truth are the impressions, the empirical observations made by the senses. Reason builds on these impressions. Ideas have to reflect these observations. They are derived from them. Impressions are always more vivid than ideas. Perceptions may be simple or composed of several elements. Reason may produce ideas from other ideas and in that way create new impressions; the latter is called impressions of reflection, as distinct from impressions of senses. In Hume’s thinking, Descartes’ res extensa and res cognitans disintegrates, because in his view there is no reality beyond that produced by perception. The same goes for the notion of cause. The relation between cause and effect is a product of observations that are linked together by ideas, and they do not reflect any reality as such. The only realities are the impressions (observations made by the senses).
In life we have to accept this point of departure in order to arrive at truth in itself. Our decisions will be based on the perceptions and the uncertainty they entail. Experience gives rise to expectations, but does not provide certainty. Morals and politics have their basis on the utility and advantages they produce, and the practical rules they produce.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)
For Rousseau, emotions and feelings were more important than rationality. Simplicity and innocence brings happiness. A person who thinks is already on the road to destruction. Simple and modest people in the countryside were more to his liking than those with the manners and conversation of the capital. He contended that modern progress in philosophy, science and the arts had not had a favorable effect on the morality of people. The values of the modern civilization undermined ethics, faith and patriotism and destroyed the unspoiled natural being.
Education should focus on developing the natural personality of the child, in conformity with its needs. The aim is to remove obstacles, thus enabling the autonomous development of the child in accordance with the child’s own personal experiences. Reason and knowledge must come last. Rousseau treats the subjects of family life, marriage, intensity, love of nature and respect for nature, all these being subjects that the representatives of Enlightenment questioned. He thought that man should develop his own will in such a way that his will would be in harmony with the common will. In this way he would achieve true freedom.
Edmund Burke (1729 – 1794)
Throughout his life, Edmund Burke defended the practical endeavors against utopian fantasies. David Hume’s empirical philosophy of skepticism paradoxically paved the way for the Romantic period’s emphasis on feelings, which developed as a new form of mysticism. Empiricism is in its nature conservative, because it only recognizes empirical observations and does not recognize alternative thoughts because of their theoretical nature. The emphasis on habits, feelings and traditions, at the expense of reason, placed social and historical values in focus. Edmund Burke transformed Hume’s skepticism into arguments for humility and faith in traditions. While reason contained a tendency towards utopian thoughts, political empiricism with Burke developed into programmatic anti-utopy. According to him, policy cannot be constructed as a theoretical exercise – it grows out of experience. Rationalists are wrong because they do not take account of the role of illusions and prejudices in society and politics. The role of politics is to secure the endurable and prevent the unendurable.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716)
Leibniz was one of the last philosophers to work on a broad scale of sciences. After his time, science became more specialized, and it was increasingly difficult for one person to go in depth in more than one branch of science. In spite of his achievements on a very broad scale, Leibniz produced two works, Théodicée (1710) and Monadologie (1714), that are among the most read and commented works in the history of philosophy. For Leibniz, mathematics gives the ideal image of knowledge and method. He is by many considered to be the inventor of symbolic logic. He did not only wish to use mathematical methods to prove the validity of contentions, he also wanted to use it to find new combinations of ideas. He thus formulated the program of a philosophical school of thought that is still very much alive. He hoped to find the axiomatic basis of all metaphysical deductions, and through this deduct the possible combinations of thought that could be derived from this basis.
In spite of his strong rationalism, Leibniz did not spurn experience as a source of knowledge. He sought in general to conciliate opposites. There are several types of truths; some derive from reason and others derive from experience. The first truths are to be found in mathematics and logic. They are analytical and derive from the definitions of the notions involved. The others are contingent in the sense that their contradictions (negations) may also be true. Logic truths rest on definitions, while empirical truths rest on empirical observations.
Like Spinoza, Leibniz attempts to eliminate the difference between materialism and spiritualism. It remains unclear whether their metaphysics is materialism dressed as theology, or theology dressed as materialism. Descartes assumed that there were two types of substances, thinking and spatial substances. Spinoza contended that there was only one, God or Nature. Leibniz says that there are countless substances, which he calls “monads” (to be interpreted along the lines of Democritus’ atoms). With Leibniz there is a continuous transition from the conscious to the unconscious. His interest in, and some say invention of, infinitesimal calculus derives from this thinking.
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804)
In Immanuel Kant’s time, philosophy – still the queen of sciences – was increasingly surrounded by scientific discovery that invaded philosophy’s discussions of what exists and what does not exist (ontology) and the question of what we can know about existence (epistemology). Kant recognizes that the contribution of science in this discussion has established itself in a permanent way, but maintains the grip of philosophy as the home of wisdom. In relation to wisdom, science is only a tool. Philosophy offers unity and purpose to all sciences.
The whole field of philosophy is covered by these questions: What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for? What is man? Metaphysics answers the first question, moral teachings answer the second, philosophy of religion answers the third, and anthropology the fourth. Kant says that all questions relate to the fourth and that the solutions to all important questions are to be found in man himself. Being said in his time and day, this was a radical opinion. Kant emphasizes the authority each man has through his own reason. He should not listen to someone just because that person is considered to be an authority; the important thing is not who says something, but what he says. Many people follow other people, rather than following their own reason.
Kant thought that the choice between utopian rationalism and empiricism’s non-knowledge was a false choice. Kant was well acquainted with Newton’s physics, but it was important for him to limit the validity of the mechanistic laws in order to avoid that these laws would be applied to human life as well. He wanted to find a way out of the mechanistic consequences of Newton’s physics. He explored the place for free will and responsibility. The borderlines between freedom and necessity were a major concern for him, because – in his time – necessity (determinism) was the dominant idea, and this idea only offered faith as the way to freedom.
Kant redefined the relation between inner and outer reality. Mechanic laws could be valid for the outer reality the way we perceive it, but this would not preclude the idea of man’s inner freedom. Kant also introduced a distinction between “assumption” and “deduction” in logic reasoning, on the one hand, and “cause” and “effect” in a mechanistic reality on the other. He thought it was important to subject ideas to empirical criticism, and he contended that the rationalistic thinking in Germany in his time was not much better than the religious fantasies on heaven and earth produced by Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772). Reality has no other form than the form produced by observation and reason. Things present themselves to us in time and space; the things in themselves – Das Ding an sich – will never be known.
How can the senses and the thinking work together? Truth can only be ascertained by a contention’s compatibility with other contentions. The senses deliver the multitude of impressions, and the reason establishes relations between the impressions by making judgments. Kant has written three critiques, on the subjects of pure reason (truth), practical reason (what is good) and judgment (on beauty), respectively. He thus keeps the same division as Plato, between truth, goodness, and beauty. Only the will can unconditionally be called good. Goodness rests in the will, not in the aim that is intended, and not in the effects of an action. Kant’s categorical imperative states that the will behind your actions should be guided by the principle that you would be ready to accept this will as a law that would be applied to everybody, including yourself.