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Modern Philosophy

Richard Francks
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 256
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    Modern Philosophy
    Book Description:

    Through vivid and witty prose Richard Francks presents the ideas that have informed the development of philosophy as we know it. Our current approaches to central philosophical problems - the existence of God, the mind/body problem, the idea of the self, and the existence of the world - originated in the texts of these six thinkers, as did broader questions about political and social philosophy. This book is ideal for anyone encountering the ideas of these thinkers for the first time.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7176-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Chapter 1 Introduction: How modern is ‘Modern’ philosophy?
    (pp. 1-8)

    Is there such a thing as the Modern Age? And if there is, are we in it?

    The six philosophers who are the subject of this book are Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. They are all standardly referred to as ‘modern’ philosophers, even though the most recent of them died well over 200 years ago. It is a title they used of themselves, and one that was used about them by their contemporaries, but its use today suggests two things, neither of which is obviously true: that there is something which is common to all six of them,...

  6. PART 1 René Descartes
    • [PART 1 Introduction]
      (pp. 9-10)

      René Descartes was born in 1596, when Francis Bacon was thirty-five years old, William Shakespeare nearly thirty-two, and Kepler only twenty-four. He was fourteen when Galileo published his epoch-making telescopic observations, and a nervous 37-year-old when Galileo was condemned for his advocacy of a heliocentric system. He died in 1650, a year after the execution of Charles I in England, and two years after the end of the Thirty Years’ War. His best-known publications areDiscourse on Method(1637),Meditations on First Philosophy(1641 ) and Principles of Philosophy (1644).

      Descartes was born in the town of Châtellerault¹ in west-central...

    • Chapter 2 Material Monism or the Great Soup of Being: Descartes’ account of the natural world
      (pp. 11-25)

      I said in the Introduction that what binds our six philosophers together, and to us, is their involvement with and reaction to the distinction between appearance and reality - between the way we subjectively experience the world and the way it objectively is. Descartes is the clearest example of that, and although he is the earliest of the six, and so the most distant from us in time, he is, despite the seeming strangeness of some of his ideas, perhaps the most recognisably modern thinker of them all.

      Descartes’ whole work is concerned with explaining and defending his idea of...

    • Chapter 3 The possibility of atheism: Descartes and God
      (pp. 26-34)

      In the last chapter we sketched out Descartes’ new account of the hidden reality of the natural world. But traditional science was inseparable from traditional theology. Did he want to throw out the one as well as the other?

      Well, it depends how you read him. Most of the time he plays safe by avoiding theological issues and concentrating on the science, leaving it to others to decide how to fit them together, and that gives rise to the familiar picture which I shall refer to as God the clock-maker. But later on in life he does suggest a theological...

    • Chapter 4 The limits of mechanism: The place of human beings in Descartes’ world
      (pp. 35-42)

      We have now seen an outline of Descartes’ account of nature, and of the relation of nature to God. But where do people fit into that story? The short answer is that they are somewhere between the two, mixing the nature of the one with that of the other. Human beings in themselves are miniature versions of God, living out their lives on Earth, temporarily and somewhat uncomfortably united to the material universe. The story is one which is quite familiar and very natural to us, and has clear implications for the way we should live our lives.

      We saw...

    • Chapter 5 Selling the picture: Descartes’ story of doubt and discovery
      (pp. 43-58)

      So far I have tried to show that Descartes had a wonderfully subtle and carefully thought-out account of Nature, God and Man, all of which had some continuities with, but were very importantly different from, what had been accepted before. His opinion of his predecessors, and of the contemporary authorities, was very low: he thought not only that their conclusions were wrong – they didn’t understand what the world was really like, and mistook appearance for reality – but that their methods actually prevented learning, and could only lead people to a negative and backward looking scepticism, because the fact that the...

  7. PART 2 Baruch Spinoza
    • [PART 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 59-60)

      Baruch Spinoza (or Spinosa, or Espinosa, or d’Espinosa; Latinised as Benedictus de Spinoza) was born in 1632, in the year when Rembrandt paintedThe Anatomy lesson of Dr Tulp,and five years before Descartes published hisDiscourse on Method.He was ten when Louis XIV came to the throne of France, twelve when Descartes published thePrinciples,and twenty-seven when Pepys began hisDiary. He died in 1677, the year in which William of Orange married Mary, daughter of the future James II. His main work is theEthics,published in 1677, after his death.

      He was born in the...

    • Chapter 6 God, or Nature? Spinoza’s pantheism
      (pp. 61-74)

      Descartes built a whole new world on the basis of his mathematical science of nature, explaining the hidden reality which lies behind the misleading appearances of our lives. He then explained the place of God and of human beings in that new world, and how they were related. Spinoza, some twenty years later, was convinced that Descartes was right about the reality of the world around us, but completely wrong about God and people. He therefore set about trying to create a system in which not only the natural world, but also human thought, and even God himself, are explicable...

    • Chapter 7 The attribute of thought
      (pp. 75-84)

      In the last chapter I was trying to show you what Spinoza’s conception of God or Nature amounts to as an account of the natural, physical world. I also tried to ask whether it could make any sense to regard such a thing as God. But regardless of whether or not you are convinced of the Godliness of Nature, we need now to extend the picture a little and to see what it amounts to as an explanation of the mind. Again, the way to approach it is as an extension of the ideas of Descartes.

      For Descartes, as we...

    • Chapter 8 Spinoza’s ethics: Metaphysics and the life of man
      (pp. 85-98)

      We have seen that, compared to Spinoza at least, Descartes was very conservative in his metaphysics of mind. He was conservative in other ways, too. His whole effort was to introduce his new framework for a science of nature without incurring political, moral or religious censure, and as a result he says very little about religion, morality or politics – and what he does say is traditional, uncontroversial stuff. Spinoza, again, is much more radical. He wrote aPolitical Treatise,and aTheologico-Political Treatise.In addition, his master work, theEthics,is an astonishing feat of miniaturisation which, in a little...

  8. PART 3 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
    • [PART 3 Introduction]
      (pp. 99-100)

      Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (or Leibnitz, or Leibnits, or Libnits) was born in 1646, when Descartes was fifty, Spinoza was thirteen, and Isaac Newton was three. He was twenty when the Great Fire of London occurred, forty when Newton published hisMathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, and sixty when Benjamin Franklin was born. He died in Hanover in 1716. He was an extremely prolific writer, but produced no definitive statement of his ideas.The Discourse on Metaphysicsof 1686, and the work which has come to be known as theMonadology(probably written 1714, but published after his death) are...

    • Chapter 9 The Principle of Sufficient Reason
      (pp. 101-112)

      Spinoza developed Descartes’ mathematical science of nature to the ultimate degree, claiming that a completed natural science would reveal the single reality underlying all of existence, natural, human and divine. Leibniz accepts and reinforces the requirement for complete explicability, and is driven by that to suggest that the reality that lies behind all the appearances of the world is an infinite universe of self-sufficient reasons, unified in the infinite understanding of something much more like a traditional Christian God.

      His writings are in many ways the opposite of Spinoza’s. Where Spinoza laboured for years to perfect a single master work...

    • Chapter 10 The best of all possible worlds
      (pp. 113-123)

      So far all we have done is to say that for everything that is true, there must be a reason why it is true, and that in the case of a necessary truth that reason lies in the Principle of Contradiction. But most of the things we want to explain are simple contingencies – things which are true, but whichmighthave been false; as Leibniz puts it, things which are true in this actual world in which we live, but which in other worlds whichmighthave existed – in other possible worlds – could have been false. Why did it rain...

    • Chapter 11 The world as explicable: Monadology
      (pp. 124-133)

      I have tried so far to show that Leibniz’s absolute faith in the possibility of understanding led him to the conclusion that the only possible explanation was via the rational decision of an omniscient God, and that the form which that decision took was a comparison, perceived via the calculus, of the respective worthiness of all possible worlds. I want now to show how that view of the possibility and nature of understanding translates into an ontology – an account of what there is. In essence, the story is that, like Descartes and Spinoza before him, Leibniz represents the world we...

    • Chapter 12 Matter, mind and human life: The world as monadic
      (pp. 134-144)

      Leibniz’s conviction that there must be a reason for everything that is has driven us step by step to a world which consists ultimately of nothing but a vast series of interlocking and perfectly synchronised reasons. How does that strange fairy-tale world of windowless monads relate to the world as we know it?

      The details of Leibniz’s account of matter and its relation to mind are obscure and much debated, but I think we can make sense of the general position.¹ Consider for example an individual material thing, like a tree. Nowadays we tend to assume that the most accurate...

  9. PART 4 John Locke
    • [PART 4 Introduction]
      (pp. 145-146)

      John Locke was born in 1632, the same year as Spinoza, and fourteen years before Leibniz. He was a schoolboy when Charles I was beheaded, and a tutor at Oxford when Charles II returned to the throne. He died in 1704, the year in which Newton published hisOpticsand J.S. Bach wrote his first cantata. His main philosophical works areAn Essay Concerning Human Understandingof 1690, and the twoTreatises of Government,published in 1689 but written much earlier.

      He was born in Wrington in Somerset, the son of a lawyer and minor landowner who fought on the...

    • Chapter 13 On living in the world: Locke on the contents of the mind
      (pp. 147-159)

      All of the philosophers we have looked at so far have been concerned to tell us what the world is really like: to explain the reality which lies behind our experience. Locke is importantly different, not because he disagrees with his predecessors about the existence and importance of the distinction between appearance and reality, but because he begins from the other side of it. While they all began with what the world is like, and explained how our experience derived from it, Locke begins with what our experience is like, and shows how it connects – and in important respects how...

    • Chapter 14 Locke on nature (and our knowledge of it)
      (pp. 160-173)

      We have now seen what Locke has to say about the contents of our minds, and about what they can do, and what they can know. Now we need to look around us: given that starting point, what can we therefore say about the world that we find ourselves in, and the sort of creature that we are? As I said in the last chapter, whether he should have or not, in practice Locke has no hesitation in telling us what lies beyond the Veil of Ideas. So what is it?

      The first move is to separate Primary and Secondary...

    • Chapter 15 The life of man: Locke’s political thought
      (pp. 174-184)

      Unlike all our other philosophers, Locke was more influential as a political thinker than as a thinker of any other kind. I have tried already to bring out the political dimension of the topics we have looked at. He speaks throughout from the engaged perspective of the man of affairs, and his whole thought is organised around the demand for freedom of the individual – or at least for freedom of middle-class white European males such as himself. We saw this in his rejection of the doctrine of innate ideas – we are born as white paper, nothing is beyond question, and...

  10. PART 5 George Berkeley
    • [PART 5 Introduction]
      (pp. 185-186)

      George Berkeley was born in 1685, the same year as G.F. Handel, J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Spinoza had died eight years earlier; Locke’sEssaywas published when he was five. He died in 1753, six years before Wolfe’s capture of Quebec, when Hume was forty-one, Kant was thirty, and Mozart was minus-three. His chief works are thePrinciples of Human Knowledge(1710), andThree Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous(1713).

      He was born near Kilkenny in Ireland, and became first student and then fellow at Trinity College, Dublin. He was ordained in 1709, and eventually rose to become a...

    • Chapter 16 Denying the obvious: Berkeley’s radical reinterpretation of human experience
      (pp. 187-200)

      All through this book so far I have been trying to put over the idea that the most important single feature of seventeenth-century European thought, as articulated, legitimised and popularised by our six philosophers, was what I have called the invention of a new reality – the development of the idea that our day-to-day experience of the world is only the superficial appearance of things, and that reality is known if at all only to the expert. All the philosophers we have looked at so far have been participating in or responding to the establishing of that view, and Berkeley is...

    • Chapter 17 Berkeley’s disproof of the existence of matter
      (pp. 201-219)

      In this chapter I shall try to explain what I think are Berkeley’s reasons for thinking that his theistic immaterialism, crazy though it may seem to many people, is preferable to our common-sense view. I shall do my best for Berkeley here, and will try to bring out the force of his position as strongly as I can; it is up to you to decide whether or not you find the arguments convincing. I have made no attempt to follow Berkeley’s order of presentation, but have grouped what I think are genuine Berkeleian arguments under headings of my own.


    • Chapter 18 On what there is: Berkeley’s virtual reality
      (pp. 220-232)

      This chapter will be almost purely expository. Having explained in the last chapter why Berkeley thinks we are wrong to believe in a material world, I want in this one to set out in a little more detail his positive account of what the world is like, now that we’ve seen what itisn’t.

      The short story, as we have seen already, is that the world consists of minds. There is the infinite and eternal mind of God on the one hand, and the finite minds of God’s creations on the other. A finite mind is an independently existing immaterial...

  11. PART 6 David Hume
    • [PART 6 Introduction]
      (pp. 233-234)

      David Hume was born in 1711, seven years after the death of Locke, when Leibniz was fifty–four and Berkeley twenty-six. He was two years old when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, twenty–eight when Dick Turpin was hanged, and forty-four when Samuel Johnson published hisDictionary of the English language.He died in 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence.

      He was born in Edinburgh, in a family of landed gentry. He worked as a secretary, tutor and librarian, but was refused professorships at both Edinburgh andGlasgowbecause of his sceptical and atheistic views. He...

    • Chapter 19 Hume’s project for a new science: What it is, how it works, and an example
      (pp. 235-247)

      I have tried to show all of our six philosophers as involved in their different ways with the development of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hume’s involvement is twofold: on the one hand, he is the great advocate of the Enlightenment view, seeking to develop a truly scientific account of human beings. At the same time, though, he seems to be the only one who comes to the conclusion that any kind of rational investigation is impossible, and that no defensible understanding can ever be achieved.

      Of all our six philosophers, then, Hume is by far the most...

    • Chapter 20 The failure of the project
      (pp. 248-263)

      In Book 1 of theTreatise,Hume proceeds to demonstrate the failure of his own project. He considers some of the most central and most fundamental concepts of human thought in the light of his new Science of Man, and asks what they amount to, how the knowledge of them is arrived at, and how they fit into a rational, objective understanding of human beings and of the world. And he concludes that they don’t fit in at all. In this chapter I want to work through his treatment of some of those central concepts and examine the alarming conclusions...

    • Chapter 21 The lessons of Hume: Where do we go from here?
      (pp. 264-268)

      In the last chapter we saw how Hume tries to show that we have no rational grounds for our belief in causation or for our expectations about the future, that our basic beliefs in the world around us and in our own continued existence are just irrational prejudices, and that even our most secure rational knowledge is in reality just a complex kind of guesswork. Where are we supposed to go from there? Does Hume intend us to try to stop believing in anything at all? Is he just playing with his readers, revelling in his own cleverness and trying...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 269-288)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-292)
  14. Index
    (pp. 293-300)