I have just begun teaching a new rendition of my department's course in the history of modern philosophy (1600-1900). Since I take a rather unorthodox approach--spending little time on Descartes, Locke, and Hume, instead focusing on Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche--I felt compelled in today's lecture to explain this rather idiosyncratic, even "heretical," approach. I thought I might share the lecture notes here in case they're of interest. Of course, as always, much more could be said.
Early Modern Philosophy as “Detour”: A Frame for the Course
As I mentioned last time, the configuration of this course in the history of modern philosophy is a bit eccentric compared to “typical” surveys of what is supposedly important in philosophy from 1600-1900. Today, I want to address some of those typical themes from early modern philosophy but then highlight why I think these debates are answering an artificial question, and why we do better to attend to later modern philosophy that refuses the “set up” of Descartes et al.
[We began by spending some time reading the first two pages of Descartes' Meditations.]
What’s the question that Descartes is asking? [Seems to be some version of “How can I know for sure?” “How can I be certain?” Note that this is the question reprised in The Matrix]
And what is the picture of knowing he assumes as he both asks and answers this question? This is crucial: Ludwig Wittgenstein, a later 20th-century philosopher, would argue that the “problem” bequeathed to us by modern philosophy is the result of a bad “picture” (“a picture held us captive”). In other words, there’s an operative metaphor or paradigm here that is assumed but unquestioned—viz., of a solitary mind “inside itself,” as it were, trying to “record” or “represent” an “external” reality.
Now, some of the dominant options in early modern philosophy are different ways of answering Descartes’ question:
Descartes is usually seen as the representative of “rationalism” because he doesn’t trust the senses and ultimately tracks his certainty to “innate” ideas planted in the mind apart from any sensory experience. Because Descartes grounds his confidence in the mind’s capacity to know in the reliability of the mind created by God, this looks like a very “Christian” or at least “theistic” account, but later I want us to ask whether there are assumptions smuggled into this picture that complicate this.
John Locke (British, 1632-1704) represents empiricism, which is in many ways something of the default of modernity shaped by science. For Locke, the human mind is a tabula rasa, a “blank slate,” and we acquire knowledge by the impressions or “sensations” that experience “inscribes” on the mind—something like a writing utensil making impressions on a wax slate. For Locke, the question is how we determine the reliability of these “sensations” and how they get converted into “ideas” we have in the mind that “represent” “reality,” the so-called “external” world. While his answer differs from Descartes, the picture and hence the question is the same: an “interior” mind trying to have confidence in its knowledge of an “external” world.
David Hume (Scottish, 1711-1776) is also an empiricist, but with a skeptical bent. Like Locke, Hume thinks the only source of ideas are “impressions” made by experience (hence rejecting Descartes’ notion of “innate” ideas already “pre-loaded” in the mind). However, Hume is less confident in being able to explain the mechanics of just how these get there. He settles for a kind of pragmatism and says that, while we don’t really have empirical insight into causes, we do have the power of habitwhich has taught us to associate things in such a way that we are able to manage the external world.
My summaries here are, of course, very cursory. That’s because I’m less interested in their specific “solutions” to the problem then the very set-up of the problem.
Is this the sort of question we should have been asking in 1640 or 1740?
Granted, there are developments happening that unsettled the received picture of knowledge. These debates emerge around the time of Reformation, the Renaissance, and the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Old ways and systems can no longer be taken for granted. The status quo will not hold. So there are important challenges about knowledge and truth that have to be faced. The question is whether the Cartesian “set up” is an artificial, distorted picture that sets us down the wrong road.
But furthermore, let’s also consider this: while Descartes, Locke, and Hume are debating whether my mind is dreaming about this ball of wax in front of me, ships are carrying humans from Africa to the shores of the British colonies in North America to enslave them as chattel. Would you know this was happening from any of these debates across a hundred years of philosophy? Does epistemology seem like the biggest set of questions for humanity when European humans are treating African humans like animals, or worse? And why did contemporary philosophy still fixate on these early modern debates rather than, say, political philosophy (Locke also wrote a Treatise on Government that had revolutionary implications) or questions about ethics and social life.
The EMP (Early Modern Philosophy) "Picture"
Let’s unpack the “picture” that governs the Descartes/Locke/Hume project and why it’s not worth dwelling on:
1. The assumed picture of knowledge here is fundamentally individualistic: the set-up always assumes some lone, solitary “mind” trying to secure confidence in their ideas.
2. The picture posits an inside/outside distinction: we assume a “mind” is a private, interior reality, a sort of private movie theatre of consciousness in which “ideas” get screened by some source (innate ideas for rationalists; sense impressions for empiricists). This picture has now so seeped into the water that this sort of question/doubt feels “natural” to us. But we need to realize that this is not the only way to think about this, and there’s something a tad artificial about it.
3. Time, history, and environment make no difference for these solitary minds. Of course, different minds at different times have different “sensory impressions,” but what counts as true or rational or knowledge, or howhumans know, is above or immune to the dynamics of history. The philosophoical ego/cogito is not a historical entity, even if the body that carries it around might be.
The LMP (Later Modern Philosophy) "Picture"
Now, what could the alternative be? Well, in some ways, the answer to that question is: HEGEL. And in many ways, we are trying to build to Hegel as something of the fulcrum of this course. But to get us on the path, let me sketch what I think is Hegel’s alternative philosophy in/of modernity:
1. In contrast to the individualism of Descartes et al, Hegel’s account of knowledge is fundamentally communal. Hegel’s “epistemology,” if you could call it that, is social. (Language plays a role here.)
2. Beginning with Kant, philosophy becomes conscious—and therefore self-conscious—of how reason is embedded in the dynamics of history, why time matters, why history makes different things possible. This finds it fuller realization in Hegel. And in fact, for Hegel, this will be a question of how God’s Spirit is afoot in history. Philosophy is the work of discerning God’s redemptive presence in the unfolding of history.
3. It is after Kant, and especially in Hegel and Nietzsche, that modern philosophy becomes attuned to the formation of consciousness, how our “identities” are forged, in ways that remain very relevant in the 21st century. My “I” is something both made and found, forged and received, a gift and a construction, thanks to my embeddedness in a collective, a community.
All of that to say: I think the problematics explored in Kant/Hegel/Nietzsche repay our attention more than the artificial, individualistic questions bequeathed to us by Descartes & Co. Hence the syllabus for this course.
 We should also note that there is a terrible tendency for contemporary philosophy to anachronistically “read back” these questions/problems/assumptions onto ancient and medieval philosophy, as if there were asking the same questions as Descartes and Locke. See Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 132-134.