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On the Origins of a Historiographical Paradigm

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    It came to pass that the earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the earth. And the creator saw that the darkness was evil, and he spoke out in the darkness, saying “Let there be light” and there was light, and he called the light “Renaissance”. But still the creator was not pleased, for there remained darkness, and hence he took from the Renaissance a rib, with which to fashion greater light. But the strain of his power broke the rib, and there did grow up two false lights, one Bacon, whose name meanteh “Father of the British Empiricists”, and one Descartes, whose name meaneth “Father of the Continental Rationalists”. […] 

    And thus it was that Bacon begat Hobbes, and Hobbes begat Locke, and Locke begat Berkeley, and Berkeley begat Hume. And thus it was that Descartes begat Spinoza, and Spinoza begat Leibniz, and Leibniz begat Wolff. And then it was that there arose the great sage of Königsberg, the great Immanuel, Immanuel Kant, who, though neither empiricist nor rationalist, was like unto both. […]

    And this too the creator saw, and he saw that it was good […]

In this parody, David Fate Norton has summarized a familiar account of the history of early modern philosophy — an account based on the antagonism of empiricism and rationalism. It has dominated histories of philosophy for most of the twentieth century, including Russell’s and Copleston’s histories.

In an earlier post, I argued that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was fleshed out into a fully-fledged history of philosophy by the Kantian historian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (To be sure, two other historians made use of the distinction roughly at the same time as Tennemann, but his hisory was by far the most influential.)

The question I’d like to discuss in this post is: how do we get from Tennemann to Copleston and Russell? At some point between the 1820s and 1940s, the account of early modern philosophy that can be found in Tennemann must have been exported from Germany to the English-speaking world. When and how did this happen?

Here are three hypotheses.

1. British philosophers around the 1830s?

The first English translation of Tennemann’s Manual was published in 1832. At that time, three British philosophers were interested in the history of philosophy: William Hamilton, Samuel Coleridge, and Dugald Stewart. None of them produced any substantial writing that made use of the rationalism-empiricism distinction. Thomas Morell had published in 1827 a History of Philosophy that would be reprinted many times, but he did not distinguish early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists. He split them into four groups:

  • sensualists like Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke;
  • idealists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Berkeley;
  • sceptics like Hume;
  • and mystics like Jacobi.

Morell’s notion of “sensualism” is similar to our notion of empiricism, but he does not group Locke, Berkeley, and Hume together as empiricists or sensualists. Nor does he create a rationalist category to contrast with sensualism.

2. English histories of philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Some of these were based on the distinction between empiricism and rationalism or similar distinctions, but many were not. For instance, the history written by F.D. Maurice followed a strictly chronological order, without grouping philosophers into movements. German Hegelians and British Idealists grouped together Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza, but not Leibniz. They claimed that these philosophers were criticized by two groups of thinkers: realists like Locke and Hume, but not Berkeley, and idealists like Leibniz and Berkeley. These distinctions cut across the traditional groupings of empiricists and rationalists.

3. Textbook writers at the turn of the twentieth century?

It was between 1895 and 1915 that the account of early modern thought based on the empiricism-rationalism distinction became standard in the English-speaking world. It can be found in many new introductions to philosophy, histories of philosophy, and lecture syllabi.

It is unclear to me why the standard account become standard between 1895 and 1915. I suspect that the answer has to do with two factors:

The first is the institutionalization of the study of early modern philosophy. The classificatory schema based on the contrast of empiricism and rationalism was simpler than the others and well suited for teaching.

The second factor (highlighted by Alex Klein) is the rise of philosopher-psychologists like William James. By grouping together Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as empiricists, the standard accounts of early modern philosophy provided a distinguished ancestry for the growing number of American philosophers and psychologists who, under the James’ influence, called themselves empiricists.

I’m keen to hear if you think that these explanations are persuasive and if you have any other suggestions.

3 thoughts on “On the Origins of a Historiographical Paradigm

  1. I’m surprised you don’t mention the magazine route. I’m not convinced the monographs were anywhere near as influential in the 1830s-70s as the Quarterly Review, Edinburgh Review and such. Especially when you consider how big their subscriptions were, and how widely spread.

  2. German Hegelians and British Idealists grouped together Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza, but not Leibniz.

    I’m not a historian of philosophy but of science however I have always found the lumping together of Descartes and Leibniz philosophically very suspect. In the first half of the 18th century the Cartesians and the Leibnizians were at least scientifically very different.

  3. Thanks, Bill and Thony, for your comments.

    @Bill: good suggestion. I have found two or three interesting articles in the magazines, but I still have to do a systematic survey.

    One of the interesting articles that I found in the magazines was published by the American philosopher Nicholas
    Murray Butler in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1886. He notes that the classification based on the empiricism-rationalism distinction has the advantage of simplicity, but he goes on stating that he favours the
    classification of the Hegelians without even explaining why. This may suggest that, at that time, there was the sense that many alternative classifications could be applied. None was taken to be, as a matter of course, the best one, the one that captured the real schools or movements that shaped the early modern period.