Continuing the discussion of the historiography of modern philosophy, I want to consider an alternative narrative. The standard narrative is Kant-centric: the rationalists and empiricists spend a century squabbling, then Kant comes along and figures out what's right and what's wrong with each view, resulting in the Critical Philosophy. The key figures, apart from Kant, are Descartes, the great founder of the rationalists; Locke, the great founder of the empiricists; and Hume who called attention to the severe failings of both schools. (When I took intro to modern at Penn, this is exactly the way it went: these were the four figures we read.)
Since Berkeley is the greatest philosopher of the early modern period (and is massively under-appreciated by the standard narrative), the alternative narrative I want to propose will be Berkeley-centric. The key figures before Berkeley are Descartes, whose Meditations (1641) are seen as setting the program for philosophy for the next hundred years and Malebranche, who makes an important step in bringing Descartes' theory to its logical conclusion. Berkeley's philosophy represents this ultimate conclusion, but is widely regarded as unacceptable, leading to a search for a new program. From this search, three major results emerge: Hume, Kant, and Reid. These three basic programs dominate philosophy up until the present day.
So how is this picture supposed to work? The key is a statement at the end of Descartes' synopsis of the Meditations. Descartes tells us that the very last task of the sixth and final meditation will be:
a presentation of all the arguments which enable the existence of material things to be inferred. The great benefit of these arguments is not ... that they prove what they establish ... since no sane person has ever seriously doubted these things. The point is that in considering these arguments we come to realize that they are not as solid or as transparent as the arguments which lead us to knowledge of our own minds and of God, so that the latter are the most certain and evidence of all possible objects of knowledge for the human intellect. Indeed, this is the one thing that I set myself to prove in these Meditations. (CSM 2:11)
The cogency of Berkeley's negative arguments was widely admitted in the 18th century, yet his conclusions were thought absurd. Mid- and late 18th century philosophers took this as a reductio against the Cartesian program. The first important attempt at an alternative program was David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), though his views were not widely taken seriously until the publication of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hume can be seen as latching onto a different statement in the previous quotation from Descartes: "no sane person has ever seriously doubted these things." According to Hume, the debates of the Cartesian tradition are irrelevant, because human beings are incapable of disbelieving many of the disputed propositions. As such, while it may be impossible to demonstrate the existence of material substance, or even God or the mind (Hume the Skeptic), human beings will go on believing these things whether they like it or not (Hume the Naturalist). Hume the Skeptic represents the natural result of Cartesian program; Hume the Naturalist represents a positive suggestion for a new direction. This new direction simply assumes the correctness of the basic principles of natural science, and builds on this foundation. Hume is the origin of the naturalistic metaphysics of the twentieth century (the variety of philosophy sometimes derided as 'scientism' - see Brandon's recent discussion).
The second alternative program was laid out in Thomas Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). Reid, like Hume, regards human beings as having natural tendencies to certain 'common sense' beliefs. We have just as much reason to trust these tendencies to belief as to trust our reasoning faculty or faculty of perception. This too led to a significant direction in 20th century philosophy, especially in the latter part of the century. This school of philosophy takes some or all of our initial beliefs as a starting point, rather than attempting to start from scratch. Perhaps the most explicit and extended defense of this approach is the 'Reformed epistemology' of Alvin Plantinga. On this view, some beliefs are 'properly basic' - meaning that, in the absence of a 'defeater' it is rational to continue holding them, even in the absence of evidence. More broadly, however, many philosophers in the late 20th century and today have understood 'intuitions' in a more or less Reidian sense.
The third and final alternative program is Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). One of Kant's key claims is that introspection, like sense perception, yields mere appearances and not direct access to a thing-in-itself. Kant's transcendental idealism takes it that all of our knowledge is knowledge of appearances, but appearances are not necessarily illusions. Appearances arise from the relationship between the subject and the thing-in-itself. However, we are not in a position to isolate the contributions of the subject and the thing-in-itself so as to gain separate knowledge of either. Kant's views have been influential on analytic philosophy of science and a number of other fields, though his general program has had more influence on the 'Continental' tradition.
So that's the story. It's key limitation, it seems to me, is the conspicuous absence of Locke - but he doesn't really fit into this narrative very well, does he? Also, my understanding of Hume, Reid, and Kant is a little spotty, so my discussion of their alternative programs and subsequent influence may need to be corrected.
As a first pass, how does this sound?Posted by Kenny at January 20, 2010 11:30 AM
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