Secular Philosophy

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Secular Philosophy


Cartesian Rationalism. The Cartesian Rationalism of the seventeenth century was fundamental to Enlightenment thought and thus to many nineteenth-century philosophies. Cartesian Rationalism was developed by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a distinguished seventeenth-century French mathematician, who united algebraic and geometric mathematics by developing a method to transform algebraic formulas into plotted curves and to convert curves into algebraic equations. Before Descartes, algebra was the mathematics of discrete quantities, a method particularly suited to those who viewed reality as a composite of parts, while geometry was the mathematics of the spatial void, suited to the Platonists, who viewed nature as a unity rather than as a collection of countable parts. Descartes’ new method abolished this distinction, thus making it possible to view the world as a cosmic machine of interacting parts that act in harmony with each other in ways that can be comprehended by the rational mind.

Descartes’ Proof of God. Although he was also an ardent Roman Catholic, Descartes was a true mathematician, trusting only what could be rationally proved by mathematical reasoning. His philosophy began with the dictum “I think, therefore I am.” From this truth, which he considered to be self-evident, Descartes reasoned that as a thinking being he could conceive in his mind the possibility of a “more perfect being.” According to Descartes, since his mind could not have produced such an idea, there must exist a God that placed this idea of divine perfection into his mind. From these opening axioms—Mind exists, and God exists—Descartes deduced that since, as a perfect being, God would not deceive, sense perceptions given to rational beings can be trusted to give humans meaningful insights into the real world. Thus, from a starting place of universal doubt, Descartes constructed a philosophical system that not only affirmed the existence of God but also expressed confidence that Nature, like geometric curves and shapes, could be reduced into mathematical forms.

John Locke. While Descartes’ philosophical ideas were gaining influence on the Continent, in England an Oxford professor named John Locke (1632-1704) was developing a philosophical method known as Empiricism—a term taken from the Greek word for “experience.” Unlike Descartes, Locke rejected the Cartesian notion that humans are born with innate ideas implanted in their minds. Instead, Locke insisted that the mind is like a blank slate at birth and that sense perception is the source of true Knowledge. Like Descartes, however, Locke argued that the order of the world corresponded to the order of the mind and that absolute certainty could be reached by combining Empiricism with the Cartesian method.

David Hume. An eighteenth-century critic of Locke and Descartes was the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who argued that knowledge was much more limited than the rationalists claimed. For instance, notwithstanding Locke’s claim that knowledge based on experience could be trusted, Hume insisted that the scope of knowledge is limited because humans cannot experience such things as cause and effect. For example, Hume argued that when billiard balls collide, human eyes can witness the movement of balls in predictable patterns, but this observation does not prove that the motion of one ball caused the motion of the other balls. Rather, in this billiard-ball experiment all that is truly observed with the senses is a series of phenomena that human minds have linked together by the mental concept of cause and effect. To Hume, the principle of causation (that is, every event must have a cause) was neither self-evident nor demonstrable by experience. Causation, he said, has no basis in observation; rather it is the result of mere mental constructs. Similarly,

Hume doubted the ability of humans to experience real things, insisting instead that the senses perceive only the attributes of substances and not the substances themselves. Hume’s critique of the rationality of cause and effect and his insistence that humans cannot speak rationally about real substances challenged the philosophical premises of both the Cartesians and the Empiricists. His ideas also challenged the religious thinkers of his day by undercutting the traditional ontological and “first-cause” arguments for the existence of God.

Applied Science and the Idea of Progress. The Industrial Revolution and the advances in applied science that accompanied it persuaded many social commentators that the past was radically different from, and inferior to, the present. For growing numbers of nineteenth-century thinkers, history appeared to be the story of human progress. To these observers, the modern mind finally had learned to manipulate the forces of nature for human benefit. Steam power ended reliance on muscle power; electricity liberated workers from dependence on the sun; railroads and the telegraph challenged the constrictions of time and distance; the discovery of germs and the development of organic chemical fertilizers reduced disease rates and increased food supplies, thus expanding the human life span. Although not all people shared equally in the benefits of the age, growing numbers were enjoying levels of wealth and comforts formerly known only to kings. To these people progress was not only real but part of the structure of the universe.

Origins of Secular Philosophies. The optimism of the age negatively impacted religious thinking in two fundamental ways. On the one hand, the acceptance of the idea of progress caused some people to rethink the relevance of religious views that had been passed down from less advanced times. In addition, the idea of progress encouraged many to turn to science rather than to religion to find solutions for human predicaments. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) expressed these sentiments in Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity), when he declared that religions were man-made institutions that existed only to satisfy human needs. “Do you want to improve the people?” Feuerbach asked. “Then instead of preaching against sin, give them better food. Man is what he eats.” Alongside Feuerbach, other social thinkers formulated secular belief systems that challenged the prevailing religious worldviews. Among the most influential of these new secular philosophies of progress were Utilitarianism, Positivism, Evolutionary Materialism, and Marxism.

Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a moral theory first developed by the English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who presented his views in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, written in 1780 and published in 1789. The centerpiece of this work is the principle of utility. According to Bentham, an action conforms to the utilitarian principle if and only if it promotes more pleasure or happiness than pain or unhappiness. Good laws are those that increase pleasure and eliminate pain for the greatest numbers of people; bad laws do the opposite. Good laws add to human happiness, while bad laws subtract from it. Since the aim of government is to provide “the greatest happiness for the greatness number,” laws and customs that fail to increase pleasure should be discarded, even if they rest upon accepted traditional values.

John Stuart Mill. One of Bentham’s disciples was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who from 1830 until his death championed the utilitarian principles of happiness, individual liberty, equality, and the primacy of reason. His major works include A System of Logic (1843), an ambitious attempt to define the methods of science and to demonstrate the applicability of these methods to social as well as natural phenomena, and Utilitarianism (1861), a classic defense of the view that the primary human objective ought to be the maximization of happiness for the greatest number of people. Two influential later works were The Subjection of Women (1869) and Three Essays on Religion (published posthumously in 1874). In the former, Mill argued that if freedom is good for men, it is also good for women, an idea considered radical for its time. In the latter, Mill asserted that while the universe could not be governed by an omnipotent and loving God, it is likely that a less omnipotent force is present in the world. This position satisfied neither his supporters, who expected him to express a more visceral agnosticism, nor his critics, who denounced any form of religious skepticism.

Positivism. While Mill was advocating Utilitarian principles in England, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in France was developing a philosophy known as Positivism. Like Utilitarianism, Positivism invoked the name of science“as the sole legitimate source of authority”to advocate sweeping changes in social institutions. As a young man, Comte concluded that the human mind naturally passes through three main phases. According to his “Law of Three Stages,” the immature thinker attributes the cause of things to the spirit world; in the second stage the mind appeals to philosophy and to abstract forces of Nature to find understanding; and in the third stage the mature mind gains understanding through the scientific process of observing and correlating the concrete facts of existence. Comte detailed the implications of his “Law of Three Stages” in a lengthy series of publications that include Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842; Course in Positive Philosophy) and Systeme de politique positive (1851-1854; System of Positive Politics). In these works Comte argued that the history of humanity could be divided into three periods: 1) the age of theology, when human speculations were drawn from superstitions and religious prejudices; 2) the age of metaphysics, when the search for reality took the form of rational speculation unsupported by facts; and 3) the age of positivism, when dogmatic assumptions were being replaced by factual and scientific knowledge. Convinced that truth could be known only through observation and experimentation, Comte sought to create a science of society that would usher in the age of positivism. He named this new science “sociology.”

Evolutionary Materialism. In 1859 the English biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, setting forth a theory to explain changes that have taken place in species of animals over time. Darwin observed two facts of nature: more organisms of all species are born than the environment can support, and no two organisms are identical. From these observations he deduced that within nature a struggle for survival must occur among unlike organisms, and that the organisms best fitted to the environment would be more likely than their less-suited competitors to survive, reproduce, and pass on their genetic makeup. Over time, species evolve through a natural weaning process that eliminates those organisms least fitted to the environment. This provocative insight had an immediate impact on how scientists looked at the natural world, and it also had a major influence on the emerging social sciences.

Social Darwinism. The individual most responsible for transforming Darwinism into Social Darwinism (or Evolutionary Materialism) was the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose ten-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy (1855-1896) is an attempt to bring together biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics into a single grand evolutionary system. Central to this work were the modified Darwinian ideas that within natural (male-dominated) human societies: 1) more men exist than the market can support; 2) men are gifted with varying degrees of ability; 3) a struggle for survival, therefore, must take place among unlike men; and 4) if government and religious institutions do not interfere with the law of nature, the fittest men will survive, reproduce, and pass on their superior genetic traits, which will lead to social progress. Conversely, however, if “do-gooders” interrupt the natural-selection process by giving preferences to the less fit, Spencer argued, social stagnation or even racial suicide would follow. Like Bentham, Comte, and Marx, Spencer affirmed the idea of progress, but his “perfect world” glorified individual, not collectivist, goals. Moreover, like the other “scientific” philosophies of progress,

Spencer’s philosophical system of Evolutionary Materialism reserved no place for the conception of God because God was not knowable as a “positive” fact.

Marxism. Marx rejected the possibility of a gradual transformation of society for the good. His socialist predecessors had called for holding property and means of production under control of society as a whole and distributing income equally to all, and they believed that the reorganization necessary to reach such goals could be brought about peacefully. Marx, however, insisted that such “utopian” thinking was both deluded and dangerous and asserted that “socialism cannot be brought into existence without revolution.” From the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Marx accepted the premise that conflict precedes progress. Unlike Hegel, however, Marx was convinced that humans are motivated primarily by their basic economic needs (food, shelter, and clothing), not by rational thinking. Whereas Hegel insisted that ideas drive history, Marx declared that ideas are rationalizations of economic impulses and that the engine of history is not the clash of ideologies but the clash of economic classes. According to Marx’s theory of history, civilization began in a state of primitive communism (in which members of a group own all property in common and share equally in the fruits of their labors) and then had progressed through stages characterized by slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Marx pointed out that each new epoch was preceded by class warfare: the successful protest of slaves gave birth to feudalism; the successful protest of serfs led to capitalism. Then he prophesied one final turn of history; exploited workers would rise up to destroy capitalism and establish an advanced system of communism, which, Marx promised, would be characterized by a “classless society” and by the “withering away” of the state. Marx”s call to arms was sounded in the Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (Manifesto of the Communist Party), which he wrote with Friedrich Engels in 1848, the year of widespread uprising throughout Europe: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!”

Das Kapital. In volume one of his major work, Das Kapital (1867-1894), Marx offered a detailed commentary on the causes and manifestations of the coming revolution. In the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” a section based more on theory than on research in primary sources, Marx asserted that history demonstrates “a progressive diminution in the number of capitalist magnates”“a corresponding increase in the mass of poverty, oppression, enslavement, degeneration and exploitation” and “a steady intensification of the wrath of the working class.” Thus, Marx boldly asserted, by concentrating wealth in the hands of the few and by exploiting the misery of workers, capitalists were “digging their own graves” and preparing the world for the coming worldwide communistic revolution. Although Marx claimed that these predictions were based on science, in actuality his expressions were the words of a poet and moral philosopher who was more interested in proclaiming his understanding of truth than in investigating it.


M. M. Bober, Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History (New York: Norton, 1965).

T. B. Bottomore, ed. and trans., Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (London: Watts, 1956).

James E. Crimmins, ed., Utilitarians and Religion (Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 1998).

Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History (Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1959).

Paul Johnson, “Karl Marx: Howling Gigantic Curses,” in his Intellectuals (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988).

Ronald H. Nash, ed., Ideas of History (New York: Button, 1969).

Ronald L. Numbers and John Stenhouse, eds., Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion and Gender (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Richard E. Olsen, Karl Marx (Boston: Twayne, 1978).

Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).

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