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date: 27 October 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article explains the coverage of this book, which is about the history of philosophy in Europe during the early modern period. This book explores the most important developments in the philosophy of the period as these are expounded both in texts that have since become very familiar and in other philosophical texts that are undeservedly less well-known. It attempts to make evident the fluid boundaries in the early modern period between deductions from experimental science and philosophical theory and considers the impact on philosophy of historical and political events.

Keywords: philosophy, history, Europe, early modern period, philosophical texts, experimental science, philosophical theory, political events

The history of philosophy does not provide natural divisions with which to demarcate the scope of this Handbook. Nonetheless, the period between the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus (1543) and Berkeley's reflections on Newton and Locke in the early eighteenth century coincides with one of the most fundamental changes in the history of our way of thinking about the universe. Accordingly, while alternative boundaries are possible, we have limited the range of these essays to the period from the middle of the sixteenth century to the years immediately before David Hume and the Enlightenment. This radical transformation of worldview was partly a response to what we now call the Scientific Revolution; it was equally a reflection of political changes that were no less fundamental, which included the establishment of nation‐states and some of the first attempts to formulate a theory of international rights and justice. Finally, the Reformation and its aftermath undermined the apparent unity of the Christian church in Europe and challenged both religious beliefs that had been accepted for centuries and the interpretation of the Bible on which they had been based.

The volume was conceived with several intentions. We wanted to survey a number of the most important developments in the philosophy of the period, as these are expounded both in texts that have since become very familiar and in other philosophical texts that are undeservedly less well‐known. We also wanted to extend the format well beyond that of histories of philosophy that consider only internal and logical relations between philosophical doctrines. Our objective was to make evident the fluid boundaries in the early modern period between deductions from experimental science and philosophical theory, and to consider the impact on philosophy of historical and political events—explorations, revolutions and reforms, inventions and discoveries. By including a number of essays that discuss the impact of scientific innovation and social and political change, we wished to give a more accurate representation of the meaning of philosophical doctrines as their inventors and proponents understood them, and one less distorted by an exclusive focus on a very limited range of questions such as external‐world (p. 2) scepticism, mind–body interaction, or necessity and causality. We hope thereby to have suggested some new questions for historians of philosophy to pursue and to have indicated areas that are ripe for further exploration.

Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature, which dominated teaching in the universities at the beginning of the early modern period, was based on a limited form of experience, which was directed at medium‐size objects and their observable properties. Such objects were understood as things (or substances), which were compounded of matter and form and of which various properties—both essential or inessential—were predicated. Proto‐scientific insights were codified in syllogisms, in which entailment relations were made manifest. Central to the Aristotelian apparatus were also the notions of natural dominance and subordination that were exemplified throughout the cosmos, including human societies. On such slim foundations the whole of Aristotelian metaphysics, logic, and politics were founded, although the full complexity of their ramifications and subsequent embellishments far exceeds what is summarized in this abbreviated summary.

The contributors to the Handbook discuss some of the many ways in which these long‐influential ways of describing reality were challenged and eventually replaced. The old categories of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ were treated with special critical scrutiny (Chapter 1), in which the recovery of ancient atomism and the emergence of modern chemistry played a crucial role. Descartes divided substances into only two kinds, extended and thinking (or material and mental), with divine substance existing outside the world and interacting with it only by lending its general concourse to the whole of creation. Other philosophers were ready to abandon the notion of material substance altogether in favour of the term ‘matter’, by supposing that the world consisted of nothing more than extended, massy particles, of an unimaginable smallness, either separated by a void or filling all of space. Some, such as Hobbes and Locke, suspected that this might be all there was in the universe. However, there were many other variations on this theme of fitting our understanding of reality into a conceptual scheme in which the category of substance was fundamental. Mental substance, the substrate or repository of ideas, might be considered the only substance, as Berkeley and perhaps Leibniz supposed; or, in a throwback to the Aristotelian notion of hylomorphs, living things, tiny bodies ruled by souls, which in turn composed larger hierarchies, might furnish the substance of the world. Alternatively, in Spinoza's scheme, divine substance and extended substance might be considered the same entity, within which all apparent divisions, including individual minds, had the status only of modes. This philosophical inventiveness is typical of the greatest period of metaphysics in our philosophical history.

Other challenges to traditional natural philosophy were motivated by the study of motion and its explanation. This involved a change of perspective in which the local motion of bodies was no longer explained by ‘causes’, but by patterns in changes in natural phenomena that were described as laws (Chapter 2). Two of (p. 3) the parameters by which motion was specified were space and time, which were reconceptualized on the basis of studies in terrestrial and celestial mechanics, especially by Galileo, Leibniz, and Newton (Chapter 3). The underlying interpretation of the natural world as ‘mechanical’ is examined in Chapter 4. Although those who used the term ‘mechanical’ failed to agree on a unique definition, their shared allegiance even to a polyvalent ideal encouraged natural philosophers, from Vesalius to Spinoza, to consider whether living beings, including animals, could be understood as biological machines that did not require a distinct ‘principle of life’ or soul to explain their complex functioning (Chapter 5). All these innovations can be seen collectively as a gradual substitution of the categorial framework of Aristotle by one derived from the experimental and mathematical sciences. This also involved abandoning the assumption that we perceive reality adequately by means of the unaided senses, and that an ultimate ontological description of reality is expressed exclusively by familiar terms in ordinary language. The traditional epistemic relation between natural philosophy and metaphysics thereby began a long‐term reversal.

The Aristotelian tradition accommodated a hierarchy of souls, vegetative, sensitive, and rational, and ascribed life even to the stars, while Christians held the immortality of the soul as an article of faith that was revealed in the New Testament. Both presuppositions were called into question in early modern philosophy, and this opened up a variety of new positions for philosophers. Souls were said by Descartes to be restricted to individual human beings, by Leibniz to be omnipresent in matter, and were even mooted, by Gassendi, Hobbes, and Locke, to be material or products of the activity of matter. Consequently, the immortality of souls was both questioned and vigorously asserted (Chapter 6). Major revisions to the Cartesian doctrine included the notion that all ideas, and not only sensations and emotions, were caused or occasioned by states of the brain, and that other nonhuman animals had ideas in the sense of episodes of awareness and perhaps some rudimentary capacity to reason. Locke argued that the notion of the self did not depend on its being a distinct substance. The self could be grasped either introspectively as a primitive, but momentary datum of awareness, or criteriologically for the purposes of establishing responsibility for past actions.

The seventeenth century can also be seen, in retrospect, as embracing what Bishop Stillingfleet, in his reproach of Locke, called ‘the new way of ideas’, in which ideas were identified with mental events in human minds—sensory, perceptual, emotional or intellectual. Descartes, Arnauld, and Locke were prominently associated with this innovation. In contrast, Malebranche continued to locate ideas primarily in the divine mind, and to describe human thinking as an activity by which God's ideas are made available, in some way, to human minds (Chapter 7). Thanks, meanwhile, to developments in optics and the theory of vision, qualities, which had been classified as real entities in the Aristotelian scheme, were recognized as products of mind–body interaction that were observer‐dependent. This raised the (p. 4) question how the reality behind the appearances was to be described (Chapter 8). Scientific instruments, especially the telescope and microscope, broadened the range of experience and made the conclusion inevitable that the optical images available to human eyes were limited to those of the middle‐sized world. The passions could now be treated dispassionately, as possessing anatomical and physiological correlates and as part of the basic equipment of the living creature, and even as useful. Stoic ideals of impassivity and repression, though still important for philosophers like Spinoza, gave way to more favourable treatments of the emotions (Chapter 9). Aesthetics, no longer identified with the formal rules of poetic and dramatic construction and rhetorical technique, became a branch of psychology in which new references to taste, perfection, and harmony reinforced the emphasis on personal experience and judgement that was common to the natural and the human sciences of the period (Chapter 10).

Section III discusses some of the developments in epistemology, logic, language, and mathematics that facilitated or reflected the practices that helped shape the new natural philosophy. Inquirers faced a plethora of information and lore that required sifting to distinguish truth from error or superstition from credible tradition. The popularity of writings by Pierre Charron and Michel de Montaigne in the early seventeenth century provided the immediate inspiration, for authors from Gassendi and Descartes to Bayle, to search for a balance between extreme scepticism and what was often described as the dogmatism of the Schools (Chapter 11). It also motivated others, such as Pascal, to resort to fideism and the conviction that reliable knowledge was available only through divine revelation. The new mechanical philosophy, which was based on the posit of invisible corpuscles and their interactions, no longer provided for knowledge of essences that is derived a priori; it was thus impossible to make the transition to the new concept of nature while maintaining an Aristotelian definition of knowledge as ‘demonstration’. Hence the added urgency to redefine human knowledge so that uncertainty became one of its inevitable and acceptable features, and certainty was replaced by probability as an adequate achievement in knowledge of the natural world (Chapter 12).

The study of language and its relations to thought occupied many early modern philosophers, beginning with Bacon, who railed against the stilted and empty vocabulary of the Aristotelian Schools and the colourful metaphors of the occult, alchemical philosophy. Philosophers rejected rhetoric, demanding clarity and precision, and sought to convert language into a precise instrument for representing and communicating thoughts (Chapter 13). The concept of a proof or demonstration had been a fundamental feature of Aristotle's logic, on which innumerable commentaries were published and which was taught to generations of students. However, as Galileo had argued, the language in which the natural world was understood in the new sciences was mathematics, and this implied that the logic of the sciences could not be restricted to one that modelled the reasoning of Aristotelian physics. Chapter 14 traces the development of an ideal of ‘method’ (p. 5) that was inspired by Lull and subsequently found new expressions in many of the proponents of a new science, such as Bacon and Descartes. This required new mathematical methods, and new notations that facilitated developments in algebra and geometry.

The new natural philosophy also required a range of other ‘instruments of knowledge’ (Chapter 15). They included not just physical instruments, such as the telescope or microscope, but all those epistemological instruments by which human cognitive faculties were trained, extended, or otherwise emended to exploit their innate capacities to acquire knowledge. These instruments included new mathematical techniques that were developed by Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz, and they threw into sharp relief a fundamental issue that could no longer be evaded. The validity of inferences had been traditionally confirmed by their transparency; there was an expectation that one could ‘see’ how each step in a proof followed from its predecessor. The absence of such transparency or picturability, especially in the infinitesimal calculus, raised a question about whether the validity of mathematical techniques must be tested by comparison with the intuitive inferences of traditional logic, or whether the results achieved by employing such instruments justified their use and thereby extended the scope of what should be described as ‘rational’ (Chapter 16).

For morals and politics, the new philosophy of nature was equally consequential. Virtue and vice remained fundamental categories for the moralist, and Stoic and ascetic Christian ideals continued to be influential, especially amongst philosophers in the Cartesian tradition. They were softened, however, by an awakening interest in the social emotions, and in the relationship between moral goodness and happiness (Chapter 17). The postulate that human beings were fractious, covetous, and endowed with a strong drive towards self‐aggrandizement was associated with Hobbes, and his writings produced a strong counterflow in the form of assertions and demonstrations of altruism and benevolence as natural endowments of human beings (Chapter 18). The doctrine that qualities are perceiver‐relative, combined with an increased awareness of other ages and cultures, made moral relativism an attractive position, even while its less attractive implications were grasped at the same time (Chapter 19). The problem of moral and legal responsibility became acute as the mechanical philosophy, thanks especially to Hobbes, was extended to human psychology; as a result human choices, rather than being represented as acts of an autonomous faculty (the will), were explained in terms of desires and preferences, a position that was intolerable to theologians (Chapter 20).

Paradoxically, both scepticism and Cartesianism provided new arguments to establish the equal capabilities and entitlements of women and men (Chapter 21); this conclusion was assuredly not available under the Aristotelian assumption that entities were form–matter composites, and that women were less perfect animals than men and required to be ruled by them. In this debate, traditional metaphysics (p. 6) was seen once again to support prejudices rather than evidence‐based arguments. More broadly, the conviction that the theory of government ought to be made independent of theology and metaphysics and derived from the conditions of human flourishing prompted a reexamination of the natural law tradition (Chapter 22), and fostered new accounts of citizenship, subjecthood, and monarchy that laid the groundwork for republican conceptions of the balance of powers and, after centuries of warfare and massacre over religious division, a demand for toleration, liberty of conscience, and free speech (Chapter 23).

The role of faith‐transcending reason and the proper attitude to take towards the paradoxes and evidence‐transcendent posits of Christianity: transubstantiation, the Trinity, the resurrection, reward and punishment of the dead, heritable original sin, all required rethinking in the early modern period, and the final section considers three issues that were prominent in philosophical discussions of religion. Chapter 24 examines three ways in which God was conceptualized by leading philosophers of the period. The rationalist God was conceived, by Leibniz and Malebranche, by analogy with a rational human being whose actions are explained by their purposes; the voluntarist God, in contrast, was conceived by Descartes and Arnauld, as not being constrained by anything that we might describe as reason. Finally, Spinoza equated God with an eternally existing, infinite nature. The diversity in the objects or content of religious belief was matched by a similar diversity in epistemic descriptions of faith. The challenge to a centralized teaching authority or magisterium that originated in the reformed Christian churches coincided with developments in biblical studies that offered new interpretations of the Scriptures, on which Christian teaching had been based for centuries. When combined with parallel reviews of what had formerly been the dominant ideal of knowledge, these revolutionary changes within different Christian churches highlighted the question whether religious belief is a special kind of knowledge, or whether its status should be described in other terms (Chapter 25).

The political implications of the diversity of religious beliefs within emerging nation‐states soon became apparent in discussions of religious toleration, especially where it had been accepted that the religious affiliation of rulers should determine that of their subjects. Chapter 26 examines the implications for religious toleration of various non‐cognitive views of religious belief, especially those adopted by Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle. Even for those for whom religious belief was a form of knowledge that made claims about transcendent truths, the sheer diversity of churches and creeds, and the obvious consequences of intolerance, helped to foster a form of religious toleration that reflected the theory of limited political authority, based on the consent of citizens, that was defended by Locke at the end of the seventeenth century.

Surveying our volume we are aware that there are important philosophical issues in the early modern period that we were unable to address adequately or indeed (p. 7) at all; correspondingly, it is inevitable that, in a volume such as this, discussions in one chapter will overlap with those of others. We hope that the detection of our omissions will encourage readers to fill those lacunae with new research and future publications, and that cross‐references to chapters or pages that discuss related topics will assist readers who consult the book selectively. (p. 8)