Overview of Philosophy

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of Philosophy

The Long View.

In assessing the changes that occurred in philosophy in the Baroque period it is helpful to take a long view so that the depth and significance of the discipline's early-modern transformations stand out when contrasted against the traditional role that philosophy had long played in Europe's schools and universities. In the Middle Ages philosophy had developed in tandem with Europe's secondary schools and universities, the primary venues for higher education. To undertake advanced training in a university, students first completed a course of study in the liberal arts. The arts themselves were divided into two branches known as the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of the areas of study that would today be called the "language arts" and included instruction in grammar, rhetoric (style), and dialectic (reasoned argumentation). In the quadrivium, by contrast, were consigned all those branches of knowledge that were mathematical in nature: arithmetic, music (because it was the science of sound and proportional harmony), geometry, and astronomy. Mastering these disciplines required a student to read, and frequently commit to memory, a number of already existing ancient and medieval texts that had treated these disciplines. Although today many of the texts that these students read would be considered philosophical in nature, philosophical study, in and of itself, was never an independent course of study either in the medieval secondary schools or in the university. Once students had completed this liberal arts course they enrolled in a university, where they entered into a faculty of law, medicine, or theology, the primary branches of study that existed in most medieval and Renaissance institutions. In these various faculties, students continued to study the works of ancient philosophers and medieval authorities that had written works that had implications for their discipline. In these three faculties, medieval academicians frequently wrote texts that expanded the body of knowledge, and which touched upon issues that can be identified as "philosophical." Great medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, for instance, ventured into subjects like epistemology, the science of establishing the truth of one's observations. Medical authorities considered questions about natural philosophy, a branch of ancient philosophy that was concerned with matter, even as ancient ethical questions continued to be treated by theologians and legal authorities as well. In this way, philosophy was an important handmaiden to the three main disciplines that co-existed within the medieval university, and students were forced to undertake study of many philosophical texts as part of the routine undertaking of mastering their profession. Yet philosophy as a branch of study pursued for its own ends and purposes did not exist in medieval Europe.

Renaissance Humanism and Its Implications.

In the three centuries following 1300, educated Europeans' understanding of the entire body of ancient philosophical works deepened through the impact of humanism. This intellectual movement—born in Italian cities—first arose independent of Europe's universities and cathedral schools, the primary venue in which higher education occurred during both the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The humanists' stated aims of returning to the sources (ad fontes) were not as new as might be supposed. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for instance, theologians, physicians, and legal authorities working in Europe's universities had already begun to recover knowledge of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers' writings, a renewal that was often fed through contacts with Islamic and Jewish scholars. But as humanist scholars took on the task of understanding the entire body of ancient philosophical and scientific knowledge, they were concerned with examining these texts, not only for the insights that they might offer in theological, medical, or legal study, but for the moral and ethical insights they might offer for negotiating life in the new, more highly urbanized societies of their day. Humanists pioneered new techniques for studying texts—techniques like philology, which allowed students to explore the changes that had occurred in the uses of words and language over time. And they also established disciplined techniques for determining the veracity and authenticity of the many variant versions of ancient works that existed in Europe at the time. Still, humanist intellectuals were often very conservative in their ideas and methods. Like their medieval forbearers, they usually accepted the notion that the body of ancient philosophical and scientific works was a corpus of texts that might be profitably studied for the truths it contained on a number of subjects. They had, in other words, a fundamentally textual notion about truth. Instead of subjecting the ideas that they found in many works to detailed examination, questioning, and experimentation, they often tried to harmonize the readily apparent incongruities that they found in these works, thus building new, ever-more complex intellectual systems. As humanists' studies of ancient texts revealed the enormous complexity of Antiquity's ideas about the body, for example, long-cherished theories of Galen and his four humors were combined, rejected, or replaced with new medical theories drawn from Platonic, Aristotelian, and other ancient sources, inspiring movements like sixteenth-century Paracelsianism with its challenging new intellectual formulations. The aim of humanist study, as it had often been in the medieval university, was the weighing of traditional authorities and the finding of a path of harmonization and synthesis through this evidence. Although they had initially resisted the new intellectual tools and knowledge humanism provided, most European universities had by the early sixteenth century come to accommodate this New Learning within their curricula. By the end of the sixteenth century, humanism and the by-then traditional methods of Aristotelian scholasticism persisted side-by-side in Europe's universities, and despite the great fissures that the Reformation and Counter Reformation had produced in Europe, the university training of intellectuals continued to be almost everywhere a conservative amalgam drawn from late-medieval exchanges between humanism and medieval scholastic methods. Philosophy, in this system, was still not an independent course of study or discipline, but was instead a tool that was in every country and university expected to uphold the fundamentally traditional and conservative demands of the Christian worldview.

Early-Modern Changes.

In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this situation changed rather quickly, and philosophy as an intellectual discipline in and of itself began to emerge from the long role it had played as a handmaiden to theology, medicine, and the law. Three important transformations can be seen throughout the period. First, philosophy was persistently separated from theology as a series of thinkers in the period questioned the received wisdom their societies accepted from traditional Christian, medieval, and ancient authorities. Second, as it acquired a new independence from the longstanding concerns with supporting received opinion, philosophy moved closer and closer to modern science. And finally, as a new independent discipline of intellectual inquiry, philosophy flourished, not primarily in Europe's schools and universities where a conservative worldview inherited from the medieval and Renaissance past made the new speculations seem dangerous. Rather this new discipline came to be a pastime practiced by a new professional intelligentsia that was concerned with influencing public opinion.

The Attack on Received Wisdom.

During both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, churchmen had insisted that all philosophical speculation reconcile itself to the truths of Christian faith. And although Protestant and Catholic leaders continued to try to uphold religious orthodoxy in the seventeenth century, they soon lost their ability to dictate the boundaries of permissible thought to those outside the clergy. As a result, intellectuals with increasingly secular, rather than religious views, began to jettison the long-standing effort to reconcile their thoughts with the teachings of the Christian churches. State authorities continued to monitor the materials being published, and some "freethinkers" or "libertines," as they were called, were incarcerated, and in some extreme instances, put to death. But across the seventeenth century, philosophers paid less and less attention to Christian sensibilities. For truth, philosophers turned instead to the Scientific Revolution. In the seventeenth century the Scientific Revolution was most associated with achievements in two areas, both involving applied mathematics. The invention of new instruments such as the telescope and the microscope, both of which represented the application of geometry to optics, allowed for the accumulation of far superior data concerning the natural world than most educated people had previously thought was possible. New mathematically derived theorems, such as Johannes Kepler's laws of planetary motion, and ultimately Isaac Newton's theory of gravity, helped make sense of the new data. Philosophers were enthralled with this new scientific wisdom and with the methods of scientists generally. The achievements of the latter, it was said, allowed "moderns" to see much further than the "ancients." In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, humanists had often led the assault on scholasticism and the monopoly on thought that churchmen alleged they maintained. Now seventeenth-century scientists assumed the leadership in this attack.

The Impact of the Press.

In this process the venues in which philosophical combat were waged also changed. In medieval Europe, universities and their lectures halls provided the only forums for the discussion of philosophical ideas. But in the early-modern period, universities were often closed off from the new scientific and philosophical debates because their intellectual discourse continued to be dominated by the demands of Christian theology. Seventeenth-century philosophers, though, were heir to the invention of the printing press, a relatively new medium that humanists and reformers had already relied upon in the sixteenth century to promote their ideas. As they engaged in battle with traditional university scholasticism, scientists adopted the same tactics that Erasmus, Luther, and a host of others had used profitably in the sixteenth century. They took their ideas to the press, where they could sway a far larger group of readers without having to jockey for a place in a university lecture hall. The new role that the press attained as a vehicle for promoting the scientific and philosophical ideas of the time meant that by the eighteenth century universities had become marginal in many places to the process of intellectual discourse. The proliferation of newspapers and journals, combined with the emergence of a cultural tradition of learned debate in salons and coffeehouses, produced across Europe an extended community of reading, thinking individuals who collectively made up "public opinion." Intellectuals now appealed to this new court of "public opinion," and those intellectuals who dominated in the new commonwealth of printed letters were publicists as much as they were thinkers. The new intellectual figure of the eighteenth century was most brilliantly embodied in the figures of the French philosophes, men like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who were brilliantly capable of shaping public attitudes and ideas because of their brilliant writing. These figures made their living by promoting their ideas to as large an audience as possible. And while governments did not always obey the dictates of the new court of "public opinion," they certainly kept track of its ideas and demands. The philosophers of Enlightenment thus indirectly influenced government actions by their successful attempts to mold public opinion.

The Rise of Science and Shifting Topics in Philosophy.

The important role that philosophy played in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century societies can be seen in the many shifts that occurred in the discipline's discourse over the period. Science was at the heart of many of these disputes, as the philosophers of the period considered the role that the new natural knowledge played as a source of truth independent of the once traditional certainties of religion. The rise of science produced new philosophical movements like Deism, an English invention that eventually was espoused by many of the intellectuals of the French Enlightenment. Deism reconciled a belief in the existence of God with the new insights scientific inquiry had produced. It taught that the fundamental order and harmony revealed in the universe pointed to the existence of a higher being, yet at the same time it abandoned the traditional theological teachings of Christianity. God may have created the universe, but in the world of the late seventeenth-or eighteenth-century Deist, he was now a far-off figure that had left man to his own devices to shape the world as man saw fit. Elsewhere the rise of the new science in the seventeenth century prompted bristling debates about the relative superiority of scientific and religious truth, even as it led to new attempts to chart the contours of society with methods similar to those the scientists had used to unlock gravity and the distant reaches of the solar system. By the middle of the eighteenth century, this intellectual ferment had helped to produce the Enlightenment, a cultural movement that celebrated the triumph of rationalism over what its proponents identified as the superstitions of the past. Although linked by certain affinities of topics, the movement was very different in the various national states in which it flourished. It had a profound impact, however, upon the birth of the modern notion of political philosophy, and the theories that still guide the modern disciplines of sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics can be traced to debates that originated during this era.

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Overview of Philosophy

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