Category: 17th-18th Century Philosophy

Early Modern Philosophy (16th – 18th Century Europe)

The early modern period was a very innovative period in Western philosophy. New theories of mind and matter, new conceptions of God, new political philosophies and theories of civic society were proposed. The period approximately spanned from the late 1400s to the end of the 18th century (roughly 1500-1800). It is the time period where philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant, published books that would shape our modern understanding of philosophy. DEFINING THE BEGINNING AND END OF THE PERIOD The roots of early modern philosophy can be traced back as far as the 1200s — to the...

Gottfried Leibniz: Monadology (1714).

1. The monad, of which we will speak here, is nothing else than a simple substance, which goes to make up compounds; by simple, we mean without parts. 2. There must be simple substances because there are compound substances; for the compound is nothing else than a collection or aggregatum of simple substances. 3. Now, where there are no constituent parts there is possible neither extension, nor form, nor divisibility. These monads are the true atoms of nature, and, in a word, the elements of things. 4. Their dissolution, therefore, is not to be feared and there is no way...

Descartes: Selections from Meditations. 1641

Descartes’ Life René Descartes (1596 – 1650) was born near Tours, in France, and was educated for nine years at a Jesuit college. After graduating with a law degree from Poitiers at the age of twenty-two, he traveled in Europe, and developed a passion for mathematics and philosophy. He spent most of his life after 1628 in Holland, and published in philosophy, physics, mathematics, and other sciences. In mathematics, he invented analytic geometry and the coordinate system that bears his name (“Cartesian”). He also prepared some significant works in physics, which he withdrew from publication upon discovering that his contemporary, Galileo,...

Immanuel Kant: Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is a cornerstone of moral philosophy. It was published in 1785, after the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and just before the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). It is essentially a short introduction to the argument presented in the second Critique.  Kant argues that morality is based neither on the principle of utility, nor on a law of nature, but on human reason. According to Kant, reason tells us what we ought to do, and only when we follow our own reason are we truly free.  The text suggests several general...

John Locke: Second Treatise of Government. 1690

 John Locke (1632-1704) argues in his Second Treatise of Government that legitimate government is a limited government based on consent, in which the majority rules but may not violate people’s fundamental rights. A legitimate government may not violate our natural right to life, liberty, and property. Nevertheless, he also allows that government may legitimately take property through taxation and require citizens to sacrifice their lives in war. The Second Treatise of Government has the subtitle “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government.” is an extremely influential work that shaped political philosophy. It serves as a basis for later political...

Jeremy Bentham: Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1780

One can also approach ethics from the perspective of usefulness and utility. What will produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people? The philosopher associated with this kind of thinking about morality is Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780), Bentham argues that the principle of utility should be the basis of morality and law, and by utility he understands whatever promotes pleasure and prevents pain. Is this principle enough to guide us through the difficult questions of ethical decision-making? Here are some excerpts: Chapter I. Of the Principle...

Federalist Papers No.10 The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

Friday, November 23, 1787.  Author: James Madison To the People of the State of New York: AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability,...

Spinoza – Tractatus Politicus. 1675

The following essay by Spinoza about political systems was written in 1675, remained unfinished, and was published after Spinoza’s death in 1677. It is not to be confused with the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which was published in 1670.  The latter contains a critique of Judaism and organized religion, and maintains that theology and philosophy should be kept separate.  God does not depend on miracles or special revelations; he acts solely through natural laws that are “his own nature”. For the course of events God has no purpose or particular end game in mind; there is no “divine plan.” Those who believe...

Spinoza – Ethics

Spinoza’s Ethics is one one of the most influential books in Western philosophy. It was published by a friend in 1677, shortly after he had died. It was immediately attacked as being atheistic, because it suggests a conception of God without any anthropomorphic characteristics. The God of Spinoza is not personal; it is a God without  will, emotion, purpose, or mercy. According to Spinoza, this is not necessary since the world is perfect as it is; only our perception is so dim that we cannot grasp the deeper structure of nature. Spinoza also rejects the idea of free will in...

John Locke

John Locke, (1632 – 1704) is famous for his arguments against rationalism and his contributions to empiricism. In his political philosophy, he argues for tolerance and liberalism. He accepts Hobbes’ argument for a social contract, but he defines it differently. The problem that Hobbes faces is how the social contract can ever be created, when people are only in a state of war with each other. If humans relate to each other only through mistrust, aggression, and fear, then how is it possible to create a lasting social contract in the midst of civil war? Locke overcomes this problem by...

Thomas Hobbes: The Leviathan. 1651

In Leviathan, Hobbes develops his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments. It is the first text that introduces the idea of a social contract. He also tries to create an objective science of morality. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War. The Leviathan intents to demonstrate the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of chaos and civil war. Here are some text selections, focusing mainly on the state of nature, and the social contract theory. CHAPTER XIII OF THE NATURAL CONDITION OF MANKIND AS CONCERNING THEIR FELICITY AND MISERY NATURE hath made men so equal in...

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) is the first philosopher who introduces the idea that the State is based on a social contract. In his famous book “The Leviathan” (published 1651), which was written during the English Civil war (1642–1651), he argues for a strong central authority, in order to avoid the chaos that results from civil war. His argument runs as follows: From nature, all humans are equal, so each person has a right to everything in the world. Since there is always a scarcity of goods, this inevitably leads to a war of all against all. He...

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Philosophy

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is the philosopher of the French revolution; he criticizes Hobbes for assuming that the human in the  “state of nature . . . has no idea of goodness; he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue.” Rousseau assumes the opposite: in the natural state, humans have “uncorrupted morals“; not in the sense of a developed morality, but in the negative sense of a primitive morality that is not yet corrupted by society. It is a state prior to any socialization. In this state, human beings are free, self-sufficient, and because...

Rousseau – The Social Contract

“Du Contract Social” (The Social Contract), 1762) is Rousseau’s most comprehensive work on politics. It is a cornerstone of modern political philosophy. BOOK I 1. SUBJECT OF THE FIRST BOOK MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer. If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: “As long as a people is compelled...

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on Inequality

This excerpt from Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind,” 1754, describes his view of the human in a state of nature; before socialization occurs. In his view, inequality is an effect of socialization, it is not an effect of human nature.  For some, this view creates the hope that we can build better societies, with less inequality; for others, it is an idealism that misleads people into dangerous political experiments. Part One: Man in a State of Nature “It appears, at first view, that men in a state of nature, having no moral relations...

Hölderlin: Urteil und Sein

Im Folgenden finden Sie einige Texte von Hölderlin, aus den Schriften von 1795 bis 1805 Urteil und Sein Urteil ist im höchsten und strengsten Sinne die ursprüngliche Trennung des in der intellektualen Anschauung innigst vereinigten Objekts und Subjekts, diejenige Trennung, wodurch erst Objekt und Subjekt möglich wird, die Ur=Teilung. Im Begriffe der Teilung liegt schon der Begriff der gegenseitigen Beziehung des Objekts und Subjekts aufeinander, und die notwendige Voraussetzung eines Ganzen, wovon Objekt und Subjekt die Teile sind. »Ich bin Ich« ist das passendste Beispiel zu diesem Begriffe der Urteilung, als Theoretischer Urteilung, denn in der praktischen Urteilung setzt es sich dem Nichtich, nicht sich...

Isaac Newton

He is one of the most important physicists and mathematicians of all time. Biography This short biography is quoted from the BBC History site. Isaac Newton was born on 4 January 1643 in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. His father was a prosperous farmer, who died three months before Newton was born. His mother remarried and Newton was left in the care of his grandparents. In 1661, he went to Cambridge University where he became interested in mathematics, optics, physics and astronomy. In October 1665, a plague epidemic forced the university to close and Newton returned to Woolsthorpe. The two years he spent...

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was a Jewish philosopher of the 17th century who was in many ways ahead of his time, and therefore he did not have an easy life. Many 20th century philosophers regard him highly, because he is a very consistent thinker who begins with simple assumptions and draws radical conclusions. He claims that there is a unity in all that exists; everything happens according to a deep regularity, and that there is an identity of spirit and nature. Here is a short biography of Baruch Spinoza  (1632-1677), quoted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Biography Baruch Spinoza was born...

Immanuel Kant – Biography

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the thinker with whom modern philosophy begins. It is his philosophical project to synthesize rationalism and empiricism by searching for a deeper basis for the connection between mind and reality. The outcome is “transcendental philosophy.” Kant’s thinking is analytical, and it is often juxtaposed to Hegel’s synthetic dialectical method. He still exerts enormous influence in the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy. Kant explicates his system in three so-called “Critiques”: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).  Kant is an...

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal lived from 19 June 1623 to 19 August 1662, and died shortly after his 39th birthday. He was a mathematician and a Catholic philosopher.  Together with Fermat, he created the field of probability theory. The programming language Pascal was named after him.  He was also a very religious man, and in 1654 he had a mystical experience. We know about this because he wrote a note to himself that was sewn into his coat and found only after his death: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…”   He...