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Overview of 17th Century Philosophy

A Study and Critique

The period of transition from medieval to modern philosophy ended with the 16th century. In the 17th, there appeared more or less rounded systems of non-Scholastic and anti-Scholastic philosophy. The most notable philosophers of this time were Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Rene Descartes. A common note in the philosophies of these three, a note common to all the philosophies of the last three centuries and right down to our own day, is the confusing of the realms of sense-knowledge and intellectual knowledge.

Bacon, Locke, and Descartes are at one in another point: the mistaken effort to remodel and rebuild the whole structure of philosophy, Now, the man who is confused on the proper spheres of sensation and intellection, and who, notwithstanding, blandly assumes that he knows enough to discard as useless all the achievements of his predecessors, is not only guilty of mountainous pride; he is deliberately destructive of that bond of continuity and endurance which is at once the test and the guarantee of true philosophy.

We shall here make a short and sketchy study of the chief doctrines of Bacon, Locke, and Descartes, and we shall glance briefly at the teachings of four other 17th century philosophers, Hobbes, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz.

1. Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans (1561-1626) was a native of London; he was educated at Cambridge. He was a lawyer, a politician, a statesman of sorts, and a philosopher. Such are the parts which history assigns him. Rumor imputes to him two others: that of a dipper into public funds for personal profit, and that of the writing of the plays commonly ascribed to Shakespeare. We are interested in Bacon solely as philosopher.

Bacon's Instauratio Magna or Great Reconstruction was a book which proposed to rebuild the entire edifice of philosophy. Bacon would first clear away, then build. To clear away, he would have man banish prejudices (that is, prejudgments, long accepted notions) because these are merely idols in the temple of the mind. There are four types of such idols: First, there are idols of the den, which are prejudices that come of one's own natural bent or bias and of one's own dullness. Secondly, there are idols of the tribe, or prejudices inherited, or born of early environment and education. Thirdly, there are idols of the marketplace, or prejudices acquired from the spirit of the times or from local influences. Fourthly, there are idols of the theatre, or prejudices that come of reading and esteeming the pre-Baconian philosophers, especially those of the Medieval era.

The clearing away process demanded by Bacon recalls the Socratic "confession of ignorance," but any resemblance in the two processes is superficial. Socrates was essentially a humble man; his clearing away of the self-esteem of the pupil was a lesson in the docility required for learning anything. All sound teachers commend the process. Huxley, who failed to follow his own prescription, enunciated it well when he said that a sincere student or scientist must "sit down before fact like a little child." But Bacon was, whether consciously or unconsciously, a proud man; his clearing away of "idols" was a snub to all thinkers who had lived before his time. Socrates said in effect, "Let us labor to rid our minds of faulty notions, especially the notion that we are wise or well informed." Bacon said in effect, "Now I'll take charge. Please rid your minds of the things I dislike very much."

Having cleared out the idols, Bacon would build. He would use the one and only scientific method, that is induction. He held deductive reasoning useless; he rejected metaphysics. The first thing of all that the builder must do is the arranging of subjects of study, the "lineup" of sciences. The Scholastics, following Aristotle, had made this subordinatio scientiarum an objective thing; they were guided by the objects studied; in this they were realistic and sane. Bacon made his arrangement of sciences subjective; he based it upon the powers or faculties of the investigator: memory, imagination, reason.

Having made out the list or schedule of sciences, Bacon would attack each with the most careful observation and experiment. He would draw up lists, and follow tables of ... essence or presence, deviation or absence-in-proximity, comparison, and absence or rejection.

If, for example, the investigator were trying to find the nature of heat, he would list all objects and activities in which heat is always present (Table of Presence); then he would make a list of things that lack heat but appear to bear in themselves no opposition to it (Table of Deviation or Absence-in-Proximity); next he would list hear-bearing things to show variations in degree (Table of Comparison); finally, he would list things incompatible with heat (Table of Absence or Rejection). Out of such slow and elaborate effort the investigator would learn at last the true cause of heat, and through its cause he would arrive at a knowledge of its nature.

Bacon was neither a great philosopher nor a notable scientist; he was a literary theorist about philosophy and science. His ambitious and impossible intention of making philosophy over foredoomed him to futility and failure. Three particular weaknesses marked his effort: First, a false subordinatio scientiarum; Second, an inordinate stressing of induction; Third, a constant confusion of sentient with intellectual knowledge.

The second and third of these points still endure in modern philosophy, and they rob it of effectiveness and solid achievement. Bacon has gone into history as the originator of modern empiricism, that is, the system of those who place all faith in observation and experiment, playing up the role of the senses and minimizing the place of reasoning in the attaining of truth. Empiricism is sometimes called (with partial accuracy) by the name of sensism.

2. John Locke (1632-1704) was another notable exponent of empiricism. He was a native of Wrington in Somersetshire, England, and was educated at Oxford. His most notable piece of writing is An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding.

Locke had the characteristics of most of the articulate university men of his day; a petulant rejection of Medieval philosophy without understanding it; a self-confident notion of doing philosophy all over again from the ground up; a readiness to speak with an air of finality upon subjects imperfectly mastered.

Now, the desire to see philosophical doctrines so clearly expressed and proved that none may doubt them is human and natural and even admirable. But the assumption that all philosophy can be reduced to the clarity of A-B-C is fantastic. And the further assumption that all philosophers of past times have been woolly-minded blunderers is ignorance and intolerable "cheek." The old impatience, the old want of humility, which brought in Humanism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and all the other thin veneerings which have tried to pass for truth are evident in Locke as they are evident in Bacon, Descartes, and nearly all non-Classical Realistic philosophers from the 14th century to the present day.

Locke had doubtlessly in mind the recasting of philosophy, for he was not wholly pleased with Bacon's plan. Still, he seems to have had no detailed plan of his own. Indeed, he did not feel the need of any plan. He was convinced that, once the human mind had learned to grasp things clearly, once it knew its own powers and recognized its true limitations, once it was sure of the nature and extent of its knowledge, the developing of philosophy would be a sheerly natural growth. Thus, Locke's special interest was the critical question (the theory of knowledge), and he wrote of it in his famous Essay.

Keen as he was on clarity of knowledge, Locke did not escape the fatal confounding of sense-knowledge with intellectual knowledge. And so he proceeded to make confusion more confounded, so that one may take not only different, but opposite, doctrines from the premises his theories afford. Follow him in one set of principles and develop these to the end; you find yourself in idealism, the dream-philosophy which turns reality into shadow. Follow him in another set of thoughts, and you will be involved in sensism and positivism which takes the reality round us as the only thing there is, and denies value to the intellect and to reasoning (even to the reasoning by which you have reached this dull conclusion).

This impossible agglomeration of conflicting theories was proposed, explicitly or implicitly, by a man of undoubted mental gifts who was thwarted as the outset by his muddling of the basic question of all philosophy, the critical question. It is pathetic to realize that he knew it was the basic question.

Inevitably, Locke went wrong in his ethical doctrine, especially in point of the norm or rule of morality; for out of man's philosophy of reality and knowledge comes his theory of morals, and Locke's philosophy of reality and knowledge was wrong philosophy. Locke admitted the existence of a natural law, but it plays little part in his practical conclusions. His moral theory comes to this: our deliberate conduct is good and praiseworthy if it conforms to public opinion of what such conduct should be; otherwise it is evil and blameworthy. This is not only a cheap and futile theory, but it is impossible to apply, for public opinion is the most fluid and changeable of things, and what is a virtue at one moment might well be a vice at another. This theory of moral relativism is utterly false and destructive.

Locke is remembered for his distinguishing of primary and secondary sense-qualities in bodily things. In his study upon the nature of knowledge, he had constantly to face such questions as: are sense-objects really what they appear to be; is the grass really green; is the whirling wheel actually in motion; is the stone truly solid? Locke decided that there are certain qualities common to all bodies (impenetrability, extension, shape, rest, motion) and these are primary qualities which exist as objective things.

He said that there are also other qualities not found in all bodies alike (color, sound, taste, odor, temperature, resistance) and these are secondary qualities which are largely subjective, that is, not so much objective things as the perceivings or feelings of the person who senses them. Locke's distinction of sense-qualities as primary and secondary may serve us as a mere convenient list.

But his theory of their objective reality cannot stand. For we are wholly unaware of the primary qualities except through the medium of the secondary. And if the secondary be unreliable (being largely subjective) we have no reason to put any trust in the actuality of the primary qualities. Locke's theory on sense-qualities points the way to the self-contradiction of complete skepticism.

One thing Locke did in a masterly way. He refuted innatism, the theory that our knowledge is inborn, and that it advances in us, not by the acquiring of anything from without, but by its inward growth or development. Apart from his refutation of innatism, Locke's contribution to philosophy is negligible; indeed he is a confusing and a destructive force.

3. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) has been called the father of modern philosophy, a title which would have more meaning if "modern philosophy" had any sort of consistency or would stand still long enough to be identified. For all that, the title is justified. For "modern philosophy," although it is composed of wildly variant theories, is one in its tentativeness, its hesitancy, its dubious tenure. And the man who injected the note of doubt as a positive element into human thinking was a delicate little French mathematician named Rene Descartes. Descartes -- whose Latinized name Cartesius explains the fact that his theories are called the Cartesian philosophy -- will be gratefully remembered by all school pupils as the inventor of analytical geometry.

Descartes had a great mind, but he had the mental shortcomings of his time: the contempt for classical realistic philosophy (which he took no trouble to understand); the lack of careful distinguishing between the essentially different types of human knowledge, that of sense and that of intellect; and, above all, the consuming desire "to shatter philosophy into bits and then remold it nearer to the heart's desire."

Descartes was a mathematician. He wished to make philosophy a kind of mathematical science; at least, he wished to express it with mathematical clarity. As geometry beings with self-evident truths called axioms, philosophy must begin with some basic truth which is so evident, so inevitable, that it cannot be doubted even by a fictitious doubt of the mind. Descartes found that we may doubt, or pretend to doubt, everything except ourselves doubting. In other words, I can doubt everything by an effort of mind; but I cannot doubt that I am making an effort of mind.

That I exist as a thinking individual is the primal and indubitable truth. Descartes formulated it thus: "Cogito ergo sum" (Je pense donc je suis; I think therefore I am). But the ergo (or the donc or the therefore) has not the implication of a reasoned conclusion. No, the two facts of existence and thought are simultaneously and inevitably recognized. Upon the fact of the thinking existence, as upon the one fundamental certitude, all philosophy must be built up.

Upon this foundation Descartes proceeds to build accordingly. I think. My thoughts are reduced to elements; ideas and judgments and feelings. Ideas and feelings are what they are; they are true in themselves. But when I make judgment upon thoughts and feelings I may go wrong. I am only safe in judging upon such ideas as I recognize to be wholly objective, not my own making or devising.

Now, I find that I have an idea of absolute perfection, of absolute actuality. I could not have made up this idea, for its perfection is beyond my powers. Therefore this idea must have been impressed upon me by the existing reality which is absolute perfection. Such a being exists. Thus am I aware, with full certitude, of the existence of God. No God, the all-perfect, would not, in fact, be all-perfect if He were in any sense a deceiver. Therefore, He has given me reliable, and not deceiving, knowing-powers. These, of course, are limited, for I am limited myself. My senses and my mind may not present reality to me perfectly, but what they present is reality. Of the bodily world I can be sure, at the least, that it actually exists as an extended or bodily reality.

The human mind, says Descartes, is essentially thought. A bodily being is, in its essence, extension. Plants and brutes are not truly alive; they have no life-principle or soul; they are splendid automata, fine pieces of machinery which the Creator works. Man has the only type of soul there is: it is a thinking, a reasoning soul.

Descartes is wholly wrong, despite the fact that his intellectual powers were splendid. He starts wrong, and the farther he proceeds along the way of his theory, the farther off he veers from the straight line of truth. Such is the tragedy of a logical mind after a false start.

Descartes find the thinking individual the indubitable reality. But is thought more immediate and sure than feeling? Besides, if I am sure only of myself thinking, I can develop no philosophy; for I have no self-evident certitude (in the Cartesian sense) of the value of my thinking. I cannot argue, as does Descartes, that the inevitable thought of an infinite being proves the existence of such a being as the cause of the thought; for, according to Descartes, the principle of causality is subject to doubt. Nor can I argue that God's existence is proved by my knowing-faculties, and then prove my knowing-faculties reliable because God would not deceive me; this is reasoning in a circle, proving A by B and B by A. (The fallacy of the circular argument or begging the question.)

In nearly every point, the philosophy of Descartes is misleading, and in most points it is plainly false. Yet this philosophy, or welter of theories, has had a tremendous influence upon human thinking for nearly three hundred years.

4. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English politician and philosopher, was, in the main, a follower of Bacon. He insists on the distinction between sense-knowledge and intellectual knowledge, and then immediately mixes them up confusedly, to the extent that he attributes a sort of intellect to brute animals.

In political theory, he holds that man is not naturally a social being, but that civil society (i.e., the State) is the result of a social contract or social compact. He teaches State absolutism, and declares that the civil power must regulate all our activities, even those of religion. In his theory of knowledge, Hobbes is a nominalist; in physical philosophy, he is a materialist.

5. Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715), Parisian philosopher and ecclesiastic, thought it impious to say that a creature is the cause of its activities, since God alone is to be regarded as the source of all action. Creatures furnish the occasion ("the stage setting") for God to intervene and cause them to act or operate. This quite fanciful and fallacious theory is called occasionalism.

Further, Malebranche taught that our knowledge (in its elements, that is, ideas) comes from the inborn idea of God, in the light of which other things are understood. For the logical order (that is, the order of thinking or knowing) must follow the ontological order (that is, the order of things). As God is first in the ontological order, He is first in the logical order. This doctrine is known as ontologism.

6. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Dutch Jew, followed Descartes in an attempt to set forth philosophy in a mathematical fashion. His philosophy amounts to pantheism which is involved in his definition of substance as a reality which does not require the idea of any other thing in order to be understood. Spinoza inconsistently insists on the existence of the individual soul and its immortality, together with its obligation to practice virtue.

Spinoza is a somewhat pathetic figure. Ousted by the Synagogue, unacceptable to the Gentiles, he shrank from public notice and was content with the humble employment of a polisher of lenses, a trade which returned him what sufficed for his simple requirements and gave him many hours of freedom for the study of philosophy.

Spinoza has the appeal of genius misunderstood and maltreated. He has a particular attraction for the dilettanti and the parlor-philosophers. But with all regard for the man's sincerity, and with proper commiseration for him as the butt of meanness and persecution, we must recognize his teachings as false and pernicious.

7. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1648-1716) has been described as "the most extraordinary example of versatile scholarship on record." He was a mathematician, and the inventor of differential calculus. He was a linguist, a historian, a theologian, a philosopher. Yet for all his splendid mind and great learning, he was wrong in his fundamental philosophical theories.

He taught that the world is a composite of material and spiritual things, all of which are made up of unextended elements called monads. Each monad is independent of the others, yet each, by the law of pre-established harmony, reflects in itself all the modifications or changes that occur in every other.

Soul and body in man are like two clocks, each keeping perfect time (by the law of pre-established harmony) but without any real influence upon each other. The soul is a monad; it reflects in itself, as do all monads, the entire cosmos, not by the influence of other things upon it, for such influence does not exist, but by being the sufficient setting or occasion for such reflection through the operation of the law of harmony. The soul is unaware of most of the things reflected in it; time and experience, however, bring it a clear and usable knowledge of some of the images, and these are its ideas. Thus Leibniz taught a sort of innatism.

God's pre-established harmony moves man's will to determine action, yet in such wise that man remains free (physical premotion).

Leibniz offers cogent proofs for the existence and perfections of God, arguing from the contingency of the world of creatures to the necessary existence of a Self-Subsistent Power and Infinite Intelligence. Leibniz also acknowledges and reshapes the "ontological argument" of St. Anselm, and reasons that if a Self-Subsistent Being is possible, it must actual. Leibniz holds that God, by reason of His complete and boundless perfection, had made this world the best world possible (cosmological optimism).

Leibniz's doctrine on the constitution of the world is called monadology. It is a theory in conflict with both reason and experience. Yet it intrigues unwary minds, particularly because the doctrine of pre-established harmony cuts many difficulties from the path of physicist and philosopher. But it is a doctrine of unreality. Monads are unextended, non-bodily, and hence the universe has no true existence as an extended reality; it becomes illusory, a dream-world. Thus Leibniz is but a step removed from idealism which denies value to the findings of the senses and reduces the world to a set of mental images. The philosophers of the next generation took that step.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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