A Very Short Primer to Contemporary Philosophy

The “Gutenberg Bible”, the first substantial printed book in the West. I see it as a metaphor for faith being shaped by technology, a token of an incipient modernity.
(Image by NYC Wanderer / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Desaturated from original)

Historical modernity and modern philosophy are not in sync. The former begins at that great confluence of inventions, conquests, and discoveries that characterize the second half of the 15th century, most importantly, Gutenberg’s press, the fall of Constantinople, and the discovery of America; the latter begins only in the 17th century with Bacon, Hobbes and Descartes. The Renaissance humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the Protestant Reformation can be regarded only as a transitional period leading to modern philosophy proper in the 17th and 18th centuries. After Kant dies (1804), we can say that reason has failed, and that the foundations of the irrationality so pervasive today begin. It is that period of growing irrationality from Kant to after the Great Wars that we will call here contemporary philosophy; the period after that, you can give it the name you want.

 

The prime motivator for the twist in philosophy characterized by its modern variety can be said to be science. The long transitional period of the Renaissance matched quite marked secularization of society, where the omnipotency of God was being substituted by that of science. Of course, life remained attached to the divine and the Church, but the power of measurement, prediction and technology, which greatly enhanced the common man’s everyday life, was unquestionable. “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed”, said Francis Bacon philosophically, but he did so only in his 1620 Novum Organum; Nature was already being commanded anyway.

For philosophy to survive, it had to break free from its Medieval tradition, that is, from the shackles of objective reality and Christian dogma.

First, epistemology — or, the “theory of knowledge” — gains prominence over metaphysics, the darling of medieval philosophy and philosophy in general since Plato and Aristotle. “What is” gives place to “how do we know”, and the nature of knowledge supplants the nature of existence in the minds of man. Where does our knowledge of reality comes from? Can we attain knowledge of reality in the first place? How does our mind, or the subject, operates to gain knowledge? How can we avoid error in judgement? These were the sorts of questions philosophers were now trying to answer. And their answers were all over the place.

But if we can find any unity in their thought, or, at least, in the consequences of their thought, it should be in the fact that they all got cloistered inside their own minds, with little to no access to objective reality. By trailing very different routes, both rationalists and empiricists ended up isolated inside their own subjects.

Rationalists started from mind as the only possible source of truth, and, most expectedly, could not get out of it to face reality as such. From Descartes’ pineal gland God-knows-how (pun intended) connecting mind and body, to Leibniz’ monads — little “soul particles” composing the world — they tried desperately to reconcile the two irreconcilable worlds they had created.

Empiricists, in turn, started from the world itself, from sense perception as the only possible knowledge or, at least, the starting point for all knowledge. But if sense perception formed images, representations, or ideas in man’s mind, man had only access to them, not to reality per se. The subject ended up locked inside anyway. Moreover, sense perception varied from man to man, even from time to time for a single man, so not even the source of knowledge could be trusted; skepticism arose, as it repeatedly did in history.

But if man’s ability to know what is the case was being questioned, what ought to be the case was even more elusive. With knowledge and truth (theoria) in crisis, there was no more support for ethics and morality (praxis), especially not with the growing rejection of faith. Practical philosophy tried to find solace in the subject: in Descartes and Kant, the autonomy of the will goes to an extreme; in Hobbes and Hume, the passions pull all the strings of man. In any case, reality as such is forgotten.

But it was Kant who gave the final blow. His “Copernican Revolution” represented an about-face to the theory of knowledge: knowledge was not mind conforming to reality anymore; it was reality conforming to mind.

It is the attempt to cope with a world without objective reality that characterizes contemporary philosophy, that unfortunate subject of my next posts.

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