British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century

British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century

British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century

British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century

Synopsis

Sarah Hutton presents a rich historical study of one of the most fertile periods in modern philosophy. It was in the seventeenth century that Britain's first philosophers of international stature and lasting influence emerged. Its most famous names, Hobbes and Locke, rank alongside the greatest names in the European philosophical canon. Bacon too belongs with this constellation of great thinkers, although his status as a philosopher tends to be obscured by his status as father of modern science. The seventeenth century is normally regarded as the dawn of modernity following the breakdown of the Aristotelian synthesis which had dominated intellectual life since the middle ages. In this period of transformational change, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke are acknowledged to have contributed significantly to the shape of European philosophy from their own time to the present day. But these figures did not work in isolation. Sarah Hutton places them in their intellectual context, including the social, political and religious conditions in which philosophy was practiced. She treats seventeenth-century philosophy as an ongoing conversation: like all conversations, some voices will dominate, some will be more persuasive than others and there will be enormous variations in tone from the polite to polemical, matter-of-fact, intemperate. The conversation model allows voices to be heard which would otherwise be discounted. Hutton shows the importance of figures normally regarded as "minor" players in philosophy (e.g. Herbert of Cherbury, Cudworth, More, Burthogge, Norris, Toland) as well as others who have been completely overlooked, notably female philosophers. Crucially, instead of emphasizing the break between seventeenth-century philosophy and its past, the conversation model makes it possible to trace continuities between the Renaissance and seventeenth century, across the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth-century, while at the same time acknowledging the major changes which occurred.

Excerpt

The seventeenth century was a defining period in British philosophy. This is the period in which for the first time, British philosophy was definitively put ‘on the map’, producing philosophers of international stature and lasting influence. Its most famous names, Hobbes and Locke, rank alongside such world-class philosophers as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in the modern philosophical canon. Bacon too belongs with this constellation of great thinkers, although his status as a philosopher tends to be obscured by his status as father of modern science. The significance of the British achievement in philosophy is underscored by the fact that the seventeenth century was a period of transformational change which is normally regarded as the dawn of modernity following the breakdown of the Aristotelian synthesis which had dominated intellectual life since the middle ages. In this period British philosophers are acknowledged to have contributed significantly to the shape of European philosophy from their own time to the present. Nowadays early modern philosophers are, to quote Donald Rutherford, ‘celebrated for the depth and rigor of their treatments of perennial philosophical questions’, and are acknowledged to have made ‘major contributions in almost every area of philosophy, and in many cases their conclusions continue to serve as starting points for present-day debates’.

Whatever the reason why we continue to value early modern philosophers today, it is not at all certain that we value them in the same way as their contemporaries, or that the debates of their time necessarily anticipate the concerns of the present. Furthermore, none of them worked in isolation. As Roger Woolhouse reminds us,

Noteworthy individuals, such as Bacon, Hobbes, or Gassendi, are not isolated mountains in a
flat desert landscape. They have an influence on an intellectual scene which encompasses a
whole host of lesser thinkers, and they act as focuses for movements of thought which find
powerful expression in them before passing on, often changed, or with added force.

The view that modern philosophy originates in the seventeenth century may be traced back to Hegel. But see Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes 1274–1671 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011), pp. 1–5, for a revisionist view.

Donald Rutherford, Companion to Early Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 1.

Roger Woolhouse, The Empiricists (Oxford: OUP, 1988), p. 67.

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