Some Themes in Early Modern Philosophy
We will be addressing a number of recurring themes as we read and think about the early modern philosophers. Here is a quick list of some problems whose history we will trace:
The problem of skepticism, of how we can know anything about the world outside our own minds (or perhaps even about our own minds themselves), is perhaps the central problem in much of early modern philosophy. It is of enormous importance for understanding Descartes, Hume, and Kant; nearly as important for understanding Berkeley; and at least lurking in the background in Locke. The only philosophers we will discuss who do not seem particularly concerned about skepticism are Spinoza and Leibniz.
2. The sources of concepts
We will adopt more or less uncritically the traditional division of the early modern philosophers into rationalists and empiricists. This topic and the next concern the main differences between rationalism and empiricism. With regard to the source of our concepts, the rationalists maintain that some concepts are innate; that is, that we do not need to acquire them, but rather possess them, at least implicitly, from birth. The empiricists maintain, to the contrary, that all of our concepts must be derived in some way from experience.
3. The sources of knowledge
Knowledge is not just true belief. For a true belief to count as knowledge, one must be justified in believing it. (Some philosophers would question this, but let's assume it for the moment.) But how are our beliefs about the world to be justified? According to the rationalists, at least some of our knowledge, including the most important kinds of knowledge, can be justified completely a priori, that is, independently of experience. The empiricists, on the other hand, maintain that all of our substantive knowledge must be justified on the basis of experience. The only a priori knowledge whose existence they concede is knowledge of trivial truths ("all squares are rectangles" and the like).
4. Subjective vs. objective
What features of our world-view are our objectively there, and which are just features of our subjective point of view? Rainbow, 1-ary/2-ary, causation, space and time . . . ?
5. Mind and BodyDescartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant are all deeply concerned with the nature of the mind or self, and with its relation to the body. Are mind and body separate substances, as Descartes thinks, or merely different aspects of the same substance, as Spinoza thinks? In either case, how do the two interact or relate to one another?
6. Free WillClosely related to the mind-body problem is the problem of free will. The modern philosophers are deeply impressed with the progress in the natural sciences, and some of them, especially Descartes and Leibniz, contributed significantly to it. The scientific picture of the physical universe that seemed to be emerging was a thoroughly deterministic picture: every event was completely determined by earlier events together with the laws of nature. How did this emerging scientific picture of the physical world mesh with the traditional conception of the freedom of the will? Descartes thinks that the mind is a nonphysical substance, not bound by the laws of nature, and hence that the will can be free even though the universe in which it operates is deterministic. Spinoza regards his Ethics as in part a recipe for attaining freedom of a certain sort, but he does not think that there is any such thing as free will in the traditional sense. Rather, freedom consists in an adequate understanding of the fact that everything we do is necessary; understanding this frees us from our bondage to the passions. Locke and Hume are both "compatibilists," who think that our freedom is not endangered by the fact that all our actions are necessary. (Kant is also a kind of compatibilist, but of a very distinctive sort; more on his view later.)
7. Religion and ScienceWhere does God fit in? Do we know there is one? If so, how? Can we square a religious view of God's activity in the world with a scientific conception of nature?
Last update: January 14, 2009
Curtis Brown | Early Modern Philosophy | Philosophy Department | Trinity University