The Empiricists

The Empiricists

The Empiricists

The Empiricists

Synopsis

"One of the great historic controversies in philosophy," according to Bertrand Russell, is that between empiricists--"best represented by the British philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume"--and rationalists. This book sets the empiricists in their contemporary and cultural context, examines their various approaches to philosophy, and highlights the significance of their ideas to 20th-century thinking. By focusing on what the "empiricists" actually have to say, rather than on their classification as such, Woolhouse incidentally shows how unreliable these conventional labels can be.

Excerpt

This book belongs to a series devoted to the history of philosophy from earliest to latest times, and the 'empiricists' referred to in its title do not include all those who have been so called. Like its companion The Rationalists, its period is bounded by an earlier volume on the Renaissance and later ones on philosophy since 1750.

According to Bertrand Russell, 'one of the great historic controversies in philosophy' is that between empiricists--'best represented by the British philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume'--and rationalists--'represented by the Continental philosophers of the seventeenth century, especially Descartes and Leibniz'. The controversy, as Russell describes it, concerns the relation of our knowledge, ideas, and thought in general, to experience on the one hand, and reason on the other; each school seeing more, or less, importance in the one or the other of these possible sources of knowledge and ideas.

The idea that the English Channel has intellectual significance was perhaps shared by Voltaire, who saw European and British philosophers as having temperamentally different styles. But the philosophers Russell mentions would not have accepted it. Berkeley and Hume were indeed both British, but they would not have seen themselves as falling, along with Locke, into a school diametrically opposed to Descartes and Leibniz on the Continent. Though Locke undoubtedly set many of the parameters of their thought, Berkeley and Hume are as often critical of him as they are in agreement with Nicolas Malebranche, a French Cartesian. Pierre Gassendi was French too, but Locke's philosophy shows marked similarities with his. Nor would these philosophers have characterized themselves or others primarily by these labels. They . . .

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