The Rise of Modern Thought

An excerpt from 'The History of Philosophy'



From the fourth to the fourteenth century ce the increasing dominance of religion over the mind of Europe meant that philosophy was largely the handmaiden of theology, and as noted at the beginning of Part ii it became increasingly dangerous for philosophical speculation to stray from the neighbourhood of doctrinal orthodoxies imposed by the Church. This grip was broken by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. It was broken not because the Reformation introduced a new intellectual liberalism – rather the opposite, when you consider the inflexibilities of Calvinism, for example – but because religious authorities in most parts of Europe that became Protestant did not have the power to enforce theological orthodoxy or to control speculation and enquiry. One immediate result was, as mentioned, an outburst of interest in the occult: magic, astrology, the Cabala, Hermeticism, alchemy and mysticism – but in the midst of this, and arising partly out of it, there was also a liberation of philosophical and scientific enquiry.



The Mantle Image AC Grayling History PhilosophyThe Reformation was, famously, triggered by Martin Luther when he posted his ninety-seven theses on the church door of Wittenberg in 1517. He was not the first to object to malpractices by the Church, but he lived in the dawn of a new and powerful technology: printing. In the half-century before Luther made his protest, Gutenberg’s printing press had been copied in hundreds of towns and cities across Europe, and millions of printed books had already poured from them. It was a dramatic instance of how the rapid adoption of new technologies changes history.


Interest in magic, alchemy and the other ‘occult sciences’ constituted in their various ways efforts to find shortcuts to the control of nature, with a view to achieving one or all of several great desiderata: changing base metals into gold, preserving youth, attaining immortality and predicting the future. Much nonsense followed.* But it was clear to more perceptive minds that among these endeavours were possibilities for achieving greater understanding of the world. What was required to disentangle sense from nonsense was, they saw, a method. The two chief figures involved in advocating responsible methods of enquiry were Francis Bacon and René Descartes. These two thinkers are therefore regarded as the founders of modern philosophy, not least because in describing and applying the methods they advocated they thereby rejected the assumptions, the jargon and the theological restrictions that since the middle ages had increasingly weighed down and cluttered up the philosophical enterprise.


What Bacon and Descartes had in common was their rejection of Scholasticism and its Aristotelian foundations, but they differed in a respect that was important for the subsequent history of philosophy. Bacon was an empiricist, Descartes a rationalist (in the epistemological sense of this term). This difference has led to a conventional grouping of the philosophers who came after them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into two camps: the empiricists – whose leading figures are John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume – and the rationalists, whose leading figures after Descartes are Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz.


Empiricism is the view that all genuine knowledge must either originate in or be testable by experience of the world – and this means sensory experience: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling, aided by the instruments (telescopes, microscopes, oscilloscopes: scientific instruments, in short) that extend the range and power of observation.


Rationalism, in the epistemological sense, is the view that genuine knowledge can be attained only by reason, by rational inference from first principles, logical foundations or self-evident truths.


Natural science is the paradigm of knowledge for empiricists; it involves observation and experiment. Mathematics and logic provide the paradigm for rationalists; the conclusions of mathematical and logical thinking are eternal, unchanging and certain, which is what the rationalists argued truth should be. Plato is a major influence in this way of thinking.


The history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is capped by the giant figure of Immanuel Kant, who rejected the opposition between empiricism and rationalism, instead arguing for a synthesis between them. As we shall see, he argued that both experience and thought of the world, and the world as we experience and think about it, arise from the combination of the inputs of experience and the action of the mind upon them – and that neither experience of the world, nor the world as we experience it, is possible otherwise.


* See Grayling, The Age of Genius (2016), Chapters 15 and 16, passim.



From THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY by A. C. Grayling. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by A. C. Grayling.



Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant