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   Experiencing the Humanities

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7. The Rise of
Enlightened Reason


Chapter Seven of Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell



Chapter 7 of Experiencing the Humanities by Richard Jewell

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The Enlightenment was, in its broadest sense, a period of Western history when the Roman Catholic Church broke into a number of different Protestant churches and several Roman Catholic factions, a rising middle class of small- business people began to seek political rights, and education and the arts began to spread beyond a tiny minority of ruling and religious classes.

In philosophy and theology, part of the Enlightenment was to reject the idea that religion--and belief in God--were a priori starting points for developing a belief system. "A priori" means "innate," "basic," or "coming first--before experience." The earlier theologians of medieval times believed that there were innate qualities or beliefs--such as belief in God and the existence of a soul in humans-- that were a priori true. These a priori beliefs did not need proving. They were self-evident or evident through faith. However, with the coming of the Enlightenment, complete acceptance of a priori religious truths began to fail.

The increase in scientific knowledge during this period in history gave rise to an increase in philosophical thinking that also considered itself scientific. Reason, rather than revelation, gained pre-eminence as a way of philosophizing.

Scientific Thinking

Scientific philosophizing led to empiricist, naturalist, and materialist forms of philosophy. The empiricists said that real knowledge is based on experience. The naturalists said that real knowledge is based on the natural sciences. And the materialists said that everything is matter, and real knowledge is based on the study of matter. All three of these approaches emphasized reason and scientific thinking--and took away the central role of revelation and theology in interpreting real knowledge and the nature of reality.

The time of the Enlightenment also was a time of rediscovery of the Greek philosophers, most of whom did not start philosophizing from a religious base of belief.

These ancient Greek philosophers seemed to believe in figuring out things for themselves, rather than depending on belief in the gods. It was important to the early Greek philosophers to use reason in the search for truth. The late medieval thinkers, in a whirlwind of new and contradictory ideas about the role and meaning of a central church and its moral and theological beliefs, took note of these Greek philosophers and their quests for meaning using reason as a tool.

For perhaps a thousand years, for example, physicians did not open people's bodies to see what lay inside. In the 1600s, English physician William Harvey began opening people up and examining them--a thing repugnant to most physicians of the time. What he found inside sometimes was different than what Aristotle and his later interpreters had said was there. Medical science was reborn based on the principle of looking and learning--of finding out for oneself what is there by rational observation--rather than just trusting one-thousand-year-old experts. 

This same revolution was happening in other fields of science, too. An age of reason was dawning, and this had a deep affect on philosophers of the age.

I Think--Therefore I Am

One of the first modern philosophers of reason was Rene Descartes. A Frenchman, he lived from 1596 through 1650 and sometimes is called the father of modern philosophy. He and Isaac Newton often are considered the two most important founders of the Enlightenment.

Descartes' primary contribution to philosophy was to throw out all necessary a priori beliefs in a God or religion and simply examine the evidence of our senses and life experiences. He said that all philosophizing starts with this principle:

"I think, therefore I am." or "Cogito ergo sum" (Latin).

This was a radical idea: First, it turned away from the Church and religion and toward the individual in developing the start of a philosophy of life. And second, it did not say that divine being was the first principle, but rather that thinking or being humanly aware was the first principle--that God did not come first, but rather observation and reason came first. There were people who thought Descartes should be killed for his philosophy because it came directly from the devil. Such detractors did not care that Descartes used his philosophy to explain that God, too, existed: the fact that his very first principal of philosophy was based on human perception made him a dangerous man to many thinkers of the time.  In fact, at one point Descartes had even readied a book for publication, The World, which supported, among other things, the Copernican belief that the planets revolve around the sun. However, when Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition in 1634, this Copernican belief was forbidden. Descartes wisely did not publish his own book supporting this belief.

However, he did go on to publish other works, two of the most important of which were the Discourses and the Meditations. It was in these and others in which he tried to create a perfectly rational philosophy, free of all false assumptions. He did include belief in God in his system--which, he claimed, could be rationally arrived at with proper observation of our thinking.

However, the die was cast by Descartes and by many others of his time, and the revolution of reason survived and grew. More rationalists came, and among philosophers three names were especially important:

Bacon (1561-1626; English)
Spinoza (1632-1677; Dutch/Jewish)
Voltaire (1694-1778; French)

Each of them advanced the theory of and belief in reason, sometimes connected to God and sometimes not, but always in itself primary.

Francis Bacon is considered the forerunner of the British empiricist movement (Locke, Hume, J.S. Mill, Russell). He separated reason and revelation and believed deeply in the scientific revolution's power to bring utopian good to society. He also believed that many philosophical positions really were irrational positions that got in the way of rational knowledge.

Benedictus (or Baruch) de Spinoza was so much a nonreligious philosopher that he was expelled from his Jewish community for heresy. Christian theologians later attacked his works and got some of his writings banned. Spinoza believed, as did Descartes, that everything we know can be logically or rationally deduced from a few basic principles. Spinoza did not believe in a personal God, but he did believe that there is a sense in which God is inside of, or with, everything--so that all of creation is also God. This was a form of pantheism. Freedom, for Spinoza, existed insofar as a person could learn to overcome his or her passions or emotions and follow a life of reason.

Voltaire, a pen name for Francois Marie Arouet, was one of the major French figures of the Enlightenment. Voltaire believed in God, but otherwise he was anti- Christian and, in particular, disliked the clergy. He was an early version of today's political grassroots liberal: he believed in the elevation of the middle classes, fair taxation for all, no special privileges for the rich, and strong support for both the arts and the sciences. He believed that the world contained both good and evil and that we must act strongly and certainly if we want good to prevail. He was considered a dangerous radical by many. His philosophical thinking was influenced by the English philosopher Locke.

This development of reason instead of revelation as a basis for philosophizing continued in new forms. No longer could a philosopher say, "God exists," and then continue from there. No matter what he or she believed, he had to explain the purpose and uses of rational thinking in any kind of philosophizing.

Instincts and Feelings

One reaction to the pre-eminence of reason was to reassert the importance of instinct and feeling: if religion could be thrown out the window, argued some philosophers, so could reason. And, argued these philsophers, even if we decide to keep reason as part of our philosophy or way of life, still we should give equal consideration to other human traits such as instinct and feeling. If, they argued, we are all basically intelligent animals, then our animal make-up must be as nearly important as--or more so than--our rational make- up.

This is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) did as part of the Romantic revolution against reason. He was one of the chief spokesman of this revolution. Romanticism was a reaction against the rationalism and empiricism of the Enlightenment. It declared the importance of the imagination, art, selfhood, and the transcendental. "Instinct and feeling are more trustworthy than reason," Rousseau wrote.

Rousseau and the Romantics were fighting against the commonly held belief of their time that religious, royal, or monied rulers should make enlightened choices for people beneath them, using reason as a guide. Rousseau developed the concept that society as a whole--all the people in a society--have a general will; and this general will is what should govern in any society. This way of governing, said Rousseau, will lead to what is in everyone's ultimate interest--this will establishes what is for the common good.

The Romantics were interested in the French and American revolutions as they developed. And in fact our modern democracies have adopted concepts like those of Rousseau in that we govern ourselves by using voting to determine what is the will the the people. Such voting is believed to be best for everyone in the long run, even for those on the losing side. In matters of business, however, our Western society still often follows the older model of governing by having one person or a small group use reason to make decisions that affect many people underneath them.

In a way, the Romantics were a counterbalance or opposite reaction to what may have been too great a weighing of the human scale toward rationalism during the Englightenment and afterward. The Church may have imposed belief and theology (and the royalty may have imposed worldly decisions) from the top down for a thousand years. However, during these thousand years both church and state had learned to serve and deal with two masters within the human being--the rational and the non-rational. The rationalism of the Enlightenment asked for more devotion to reason, perhaps, than the great majority of human beings are willing to give. The non-rational was not served, and the Romantics were perhaps part of a swing back to more centrist philosophical inquiry.

The Terrible Trio of Britain

Once the theology of the Church and, in fact, of any religious beliefs had been questioned, the door was opened wide for the kind of questioning that had not been seen to any large degree among thinkers since the end of the golden age of Greece.

If matters spiritual could be questioned, then why not question reason, too? And if reason could be questioned, why not also question our instincts and feelings?

Thus the direction of philosophy continued to move toward areas not thoroughly questioned or discussed since the Greek philosophers. Some philosophers began to question neither reason nor instinct and feeling, but the very process of perception and knowing. They asked how we perceive external objects and internal feelings and thoughts--and even whether or not our knowing is real.

Descartes had said, "I think, therefore I am." Other philosophers took this one step further and asked, "How do I know that I think?"--and "How do I know that I know?"

Three philosophers in particular in Great Britain were part of this deeper questioning. We might even call them the Terrible Trio because, as a group, they espoused belief systems that cancelled each other out--all in the name of defining how we can or cannot perceive reality. These three were:

John Locke (English, 1632-1704) Bishop George Berkeley (Irish, 1685-1753) David Hume (Scottish, 1711-1776)

Their three philosophies of perception essentially argued these three positions:

Locke: Matter creates mind. Berkeley: Mind creates matter. Hume: Mind and matter create each other.

The importance of their contribution lies not in their disagreements but rather in the intense beam of light they focused on the nature of our human perception and knowing. They were, in a sense, the first moderns in the field of present-day philosophy where knowing--and knowing how we know--have become predominant concerns.

Let's look briefly at each of them in turn.

John Locke was, possibly, England's most important philosopher. An empiricist, his philosophical thinking was partly responsible for the development of liberal democracy. He also was a leading exponent for the belief that material things are made of little particles or atoms. He read Rene Descartes thoroughly, travelled extensively and met many scientists, and held several important government and educational positions in his lifetime. Isaac Newton was among his friends.

Locke rejected the old medieval God-centered philosophies, but also found Descartes' rational explanations too limiting. Descartes believed that the mind is not a blank page, and some things are self-evident without any experience to prove them to us. For example, God, human thinking, and a rational, ordered world all were self-evident to Descartes. They were a priori true-- that is, what comes before experience.

Locke believed this was not enough. He, and later Hume, believed that all things are known only "a posteriori"--that is, they were what comes afterm as a result of, or from experience. All knowledge without exception, according to Locke, comes from experience. The mind, he says, is "white paper, void of all characters." People do not and cannot have innate (a priori) knowledge of any kinds of truths. Knowledge from experience (a posteriori knowledge) is all. ..12 empty line spaces for the illustration:

John Locke:

The mind is white paper. Knowledge is transferred from reality to the mind.

..Start here again, under this bar line. Locke also believed that the existence of God was proveable through intuitively true steps of logic, and he believed that there should be freedom of religion and of politics except when such activities infringed upon the freedom of others. Locke was well established in the more avant-garde thinking of his time, mildly radical, but ultimately both very acceptable and very successful among his peers.

George Berkeley was a horse of a different color. Berkeley was educated at Dublin's famous Trinity College, became a Dean, and eventually was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. Berkeley reacted to Locke by turning the world of Locke on its head.

There is a famous question in philosophy that asks, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Berkeley answered this with a resounding "No!" In fact, Berkeley went another step. According to him, if no one is there to hear or see the tree and the forest, then they do not exist. In other words, nothing exists except in the mind of the beholder. As Berkeley says,

all those bodies which compose...the world have not any subsistence without a mind;...so long as they are not actually perceived by me...or any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit.

Thus Berkeley believes that things have no reality except as they exist in the mind of human or animal, or in God's mind when no one else is around to perceive them and thus make them real. 

Bishop Berkeley:

Reality does not exist except by the mind that perceives it at the time.

Berkeley's purpose was to combat what he saw as rampant materialism. He wanted people to put "an all-wise Spirit, who fashions, regulates, and sustains the whole system of being" back in the center of questions about reality. He did not want people to believe, as did the new class of developing scientists, in a material world made of Locke's atoms, which was separate from God. He wanted all of reality to be seen as a vision or dream by God, and he wanted us to be seen as co-watchers and helpers--theater goers in the great cinema adventure produced by God and directed by us as his most important creations.

Berkeley's main ideas found very little serious acceptance. However, he added to philosophical and psychological thinking in his detailed writings about how and what humans perceive and think. Though his conclusions were radical, his method was not: he was yet one more philosopher who focused the drama of human meaning on human perception, rather than on religious beliefs alone.

A third British player, David Hume, was a well-to-do and well liked Scotsman. He was reknowned in his own time for his history writing, and he helped to develop the philosophical thinking of the American revolution and of liberal democracy.

The two nearly irreconcilable positions of Locke and Berkeley found some sort of marriage of convenience in Hume. He probably was not much influenced by Berkeley; but yet Hume's concerns were to some extent like Berkeley's: Hume felt, as did Berkeley, that we cannot trust in sensory experience alone to determine what is real and true. Our minds tend to have impressions of what is real and true, and we tend to project these impressions onto reality. For example, when we see two people fighting, we likely will see them in a number of different ways because our psychological impressions of what is going on affect what is really happening.

Hume says that we can know nothing a priori, not even that nature is real as given. There is, he believed, some kind of reality out there, and there also is, from our growing up and learning things, a variety of psychological impressions about what reality is made up of. However, we can never know the exact reality outside of us, nor the exact truth inside of us. We cannot perceive matter exactly as it is, and as for mind, it is nothing in and of itself but is rather a series of impressions, true and not so true, that together we label with the abstract word "mind." For these reasons, we must be very careful to decide what causes what. We must continue to examine not only our sense impressions from what is outside of us, but also our own mental perceptions of how we tend to see things. Somewhere in this mix of mind and matter we can begin to perceive what is rational and logical. 

David Hume:

Sense experience and mental impressions both are imperfect and must be examined together.

As part of his philosophy, Hume also had a thorough-going agnosticism in which he doubted God because he doubted that there were any sufficient proofs of God's existence.

So with Hume--and with other philosophers who were beginning to appear during this time of scientific enlightenment and revolution and not be killed for their beliefs--the scientific achievements and rationalism of the world had turned so far away from a priori religious beliefs that it even had become philosophically acceptable to not believe in God. This was a huge change indeed for philosophy and for the world.

And the terrible trio of British thinkers philosophically had destroyed belief in everything. Berkeley had said there was no matter, and Locke and Hume led one to the conclusion that there is no mind, either. As one wit said in dismissing the controversy, "No mind, no matter."

Thus it is that we come to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the great German philosopher whose philosophy is considered by many to be the most important watershed in the last several hundred years of philosophy. We have mentioned Kant elsewhere because of the development from his philosophy of Hegel's dialectic (or dialogue) of oppositions, from which developed the Marxian idea of dialectical materialism.

Kant is a major player in this history of the evolution of philosophies of mind and matter because he took the rationalist strains of such thinkers as Voltaire, Locke, and Hume, and combined them with the anti-rationalist transcendentalist tendencies of Rousseau and the traditional philosophy of the medieval times. When Kant brought everything together, the result was much of what the whole world believes now in some form or another. So strongly has his influence been felt for two hundred years that it is said that one can philosophize for Kant or against him, but not without him.

Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia and stayed there his whole life. He first was a student and later a teacher at the University that was there. A life-long bachelor, so regular was he in his habits that the local residents would set their clocks by his daily walk. He wrote his masterworks later in his life: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment. So thick are their thoughts--with a constant barrage of closely reasoned ideas--that some readers have declared themselves in danger of going insane from trying to read everything Kant wrote.

Kant wanted to return metaphysics--the study of ultimates and of being--back to the place of eminence it had enjoyed in the times before rational and logical philosophies appeared. However, he wished to do so without sacrificing all that the new sciences were contributing. The "Pure Reason" of the title of his first Critique means a priori reason--what we can know of reason before, or unrelated to, experience.

Kant started his journey back to metaphysics by proposing that the very way we think has, in and of itself, certain basic structures or realities. He believed that raw sense experience is just simply that: raw sense experience. It is nothing more--not until we start thinking about it. Our eyes perceive raw material impressions; it is our minds that make this unsorted sense data into true objects, into things that we can comprehend and understand. In other words, our eyes see a collection or arrangement of materials; however, it is our minds that tell us, "These sensory data are what we call a 'chair,' a 'room,' and a 'human being.'" This is, in fact, very much like our popular concept of perception in present times. 

Immanuel Kant: 

Mind has its own reality and interprets matter.

Kant said that there are twelve concepts or "categories" that the mind does not learn from experience but rather are known by us a priori. These categories are part of the a priori reality of mind. They are basic ways of seeing or understanding things and include the ability to perceive quantity, quality, relation, and modality.

Thus for Kant the mind is very real without reference to the material world. Its reality is in its categories, and these are separate from--apart from--the physical reality of matter. He also believed that the material world is very real, even if our senses are inadequate for seeing to the core of the physical interactions of matter. To get an idea of where humans stand in reality, according to Kant, and what they can perceive, we can draw a line as follows. To the left is raw reality in its atomic nature. To the right is God. Humans, according to Kant, only can perceive what is somewhere in the middle. Again, this is very much like our present-day popular views of where human perception fits on the continuum of reality.

Kant arrived at belief in God by taking what was for philosophers at that time a rather sharp left turn. He did not try to justify or destroy God based on reason. In fact, he said that pure reason alone was in no way at all capable of proving the existence of God. And for this teaching he was reviled by some as the philosopher who killed God.

However, Kant did not say that reason could disprove God, either. He simply said reason was not enough to accept or reject God. Instead, Kant turned to moral belief for justification of God.

Kant did this by saying that one of the experiences or feelings we have common to us as human beings is the will or desire to be good, or to do good, in ways that serve all of humanity. In this, said Kant, is evidence of a "categorical imperative": a universal, a priori need or requirement that pushes us, willfully and with desire, to do what is moral.

Kant argues that because this categorical imperative to do good is universal, there must be a God behind it. And again, says Kant, though we cannot scientifically prove it, our feelings tell us with an absolute strength of conviction that we are deathless--that we survive death in some way. If there is such immortality, then there must be an author or creator of this immortality--and that author is God.

So, like Rousseau before him, Kant argues that we must listen equally to the voice of feeling within us, for this voice of feeling has its own imperative, its own reality, which can deliver knowledge to us as certainly as the voice of pure reason.

Thus it has been since the time of Kant that few philosophers try to justify belief in God by arguing it using reason. Since the time of Kant, most serious arguments about God's belief have been based on the life of feeling--not the life of reason. Feeling--whether it is a moral sense described by Kant, a leap of faith described by Kierkegaard and later existentialist religious believers, or a revelation described by Transcendentalists like Emerson or psychologists like William James--has become the preferred argument for belief in God.

Kant was reviled for this and asked to stop his teachings about God because they were heretical. But his writings already had been circulated, and they changed the face of philosophy--and eventually of the world--forever.

In this way philosophy arrived at more recent times. Our arguments in philosophy today are no longer a priori discussions of religious beliefs, but neither are they completely rationalist/empiricist-based beliefs in only science, only matter, and only logic as a way of perceiving the world. We have arrived instead, in the last century or two, at a philosophical method that encompasses use of reason, but also respect for the limitations of reason, and use of feeling and intuitive knowledge to prove whether or not anything beyond reason and matter exist.

It is such arguments as these that in particular have lit up the field of philosophy in the past century or two. The methods of reason and the limitations of logic, though still under discussion, have in many ways been worked out. But the methods and limitations of feeling and intuition have not. Kant and the Enlightenment thinkers before him closed one door, only to open another.

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Most Recent Revision:: 24 Aug. 2002.
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Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
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