The Major Figures in the Development of Modern Thought

By Wood, Michael | International New York Times, September 13, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Major Figures in the Development of Modern Thought


Wood, Michael, International New York Times


A look at the major figures of a key period in the development of modern thought.

The Dream of Enlightenment. The Rise of Modern Philosophy. By Anthony Gottlieb. 300 pages. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.

A man is asleep at a table, his arms half-covering a drawing. Behind him a whole crowd of owls, bats, cats and less easily definable creatures hovers, crouches and flutters. One of the most humanoid of them is holding out a pen, and seems eager for the man to wake up. On the side of his table, written in large letters, are the words El sueno de la razon produce monstruos.

We are looking at one of the etchings in Goya's late-18th- century work "Los Caprichos." The sleep of reason produces monsters. Or is it the dream of reason? The Spanish word allows either meaning. Goya's note on the etching suggests he inclined to the former sense: The monsters arrive when reason is no longer alert. But the other reading has a long and persuasive history: When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.

"The Dream of Reason," the first volume in a history of Western philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, appeared in 2000, and took us from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The new work starts with Descartes and ends on "the eve of the French Revolution." Another book is promised, picking up the tale with Kant. Mr. Gottlieb's aim, admirably fulfilled, is to help us see what older and newer philosophers have to say to us but not to turn them into mouthpieces for what we already think we know. "It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes." This will be true no doubt of the post-Kantian volume as well. Even the shoes next door can look pretty strange if they belong to a philosopher.

Philosophy is many things, Mr. Gottlieb suggests, including much that we no longer call philosophy, but one of its recurring features is what William James called "a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly." As Mr. Gottlieb declares in the first volume, the idea of clarity has not always seemed foremost, but the stubbornness is everywhere. "The attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits" is the name of the project. Sometimes it fails entirely, and the dream "seems merely a mirage." At other times, though, "it succeeds magnificently, and the dream is revealed as a fruitful inspiration." The dream appears as either fantasy or revelation, and Mr. Gottlieb skillfully tells "both sides of the story." But what about the monsters?

Mr. Gottlieb reminds us that, for Bertrand Russell, Rousseau was responsible for the rise of Hitler, because his idea of a general will "made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people." Leibniz was inclined "to confuse his own mind with that of God." Descartes "was too quick to assume that whatever seemed to him to be necessarily true was in fact so." Hobbes was "almost charmingly naive" about the supposed rationality of sovereigns with absolute power. This last instance becomes especially strange when we think of Hobbes's eloquent elaborations of what people are like when left to their own devices ("no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time ... no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death") but then, as Mr. Gottlieb shrewdly says, Hobbes "wanted above all to scare people by stressing the anarchy that would prevail in the absence of government." He could idealize government on the same pretext.

Mr. Gottlieb is fully aware of the monsters in the dream, but doesn't allow them to dominate his book. He is committed to the positive aspects of inquiry, especially where scientific advances are involved. "It is by virtue of its engagement with the special problems posed by modern science that modern philosophy is distinguished from premodern philosophy. …

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