Philosophers of the Enlightenment

Philosophers of the Enlightenment

Philosophers of the Enlightenment

Philosophers of the Enlightenment

Excerpt

Although the nine philosophers in this volume can be described as Enlightenment philosophers (or, at least, as philosophers who touch on the Enlightenment in some way), it would be a mistake to think that therefore they have a project, or set of ideas, in common. There are similarities, of course, resemblances -- their inclusion together in the volume would otherwise be arbitrary -- but there are also differences, divergences. The first to be considered is Leibniz who, with his belief that the truth is revealed to pure reason rather than to the senses, cannot be placed at the centre of the Enlightenment. Nor can the last, Fourier, with his concern to develop a science of man that explains the spirit and the imagination. Within the thought of both, however, there are elements which link them importantly to the Enlightenment. Even within that group usually held to be essentially of the Enlightenment, the British Empiricists, there are important differences. Students new to the philosophers of this age, therefore, would do well to be alert to this diversity. Here as elsewhere the search for common ideas, common beliefs, is limiting and misleading.

The dominant element in Enlightenment philosophy is the belief that the methods of the natural sciences should also be those of philosophy. To understand why this should have been believed, it is necessary to appreciate the enormous impact of Newton. With his theory of gravity, he had made it possible to explain the material world. The movements of all the bodies in it, regardless of size, could be explained by a few fundamental laws. This spectacle of the material world triumphantly fathomed was intoxicating, particularly perhaps for philosophers, whose own subject was beset by obscurities and confusions. It was believed that the mechanical model of investigation and explanation, if brought into philosophy, would be as liberating and clarifying there as it had been in physics. A science of the material world had emerged, so why not of man also?

For the mind to be susceptible to this kind of empirical . . .

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