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 mature and speculative heights of the scholastic tradition. The philosophies of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Ockham (1288-1348) and Buridan (1300-1358) emphasized the capacities of human rational faculties: if God gave us the faculty of reasoning then we shall trust that through such faculty we can achieve a full understanding of worldly and divine matters.
The most innovative philosophical impulse came during the 1400s with the rise of humanistic and renaissance movements. Thanks to the increasing relations with non-European societies the European thinkers rediscovered central texts of the Ancient Greek period, and new waves of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism emerged. This widening of the horizon greatly influenced key figures of early modernity.
DESCARTES AND MODERNITY
Descartes is often regarded as the first philosopher of modernity. He was a scientist at the forefront of new theories of mathematics and matter, and he also held radically new ideas of the relationship between mind and body as well as God’s omnipotence.
His philosophy did not develop in isolation. It was a reaction to centuries of scholastic philosophy that provided a rebuttal to anti-scholastic ideas of some of his contemporaries. Among them, for instance, we find Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), a statesman and author, whose “Essais” established a new genre in modern Europe which allegedly prompted Descartes’s fascination with skeptical doubting.
Elsewhere in Europe, Post-Cartesian philosophy occupied a central chapter of early modern philosophy. Along with France, Holland and Germany became central places for philosophical production and their most distinguished representatives rose to great fame. Among them, Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716) occupied key roles. They both expressed systems that could be read as attempts to fix the main problems of Cartesianism.
The scientific revolution — which Descartes represented in France — also had a major influence in British philosophy. During the 1500s, a new empiricist tradition developed in Britain. The movement includes several major figures of the early modern period including Francis Bacon (1561-1626) John Locke (1632-1704), Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Hume (1711-1776).
British empiricism is also at the roots of so-called “analytic philosophy,” which is a contemporary philosophical tradition centering on analyzing or dissecting philosophical problems rather than addressing them all at once. Contemporary analytic philosophy can be characterized by its origins in the works of the great British empiricists of the era.
ENLIGHTENMENT AND KANT
In the 1700s European philosophy gave birth to a novel philosophical movement, the Enlightenment. It is also known as “the age of reason” because of the optimism in the capacity of humans to improve their existential conditions by means of reasoning and science alone. The Enlightenment can be seen as the culmination of certain ideas advanced by Medieval philosophers: God gave reason to humans as one of our most precious instruments and since God is good, reason — which is God’s work — is in its essence also good; through reason alone, then, humans can achieve good outcomes.
Englightment thinking led to a great awakening in European societies, expressed through art, innovation, technological advances, and an expansion of philosophy. The period of early modern philosophy ends with the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who created the foundations for the next period in modern philosophy.