Alberto Vanzo writes…
By researching the history of early modern experimental philosophy, my fellow bloggers and I are attempting to provide an alternative to the standard narrative of early modern thought as a prolonged conflict between the empiricist school of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume and the rationalist school of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Who was responsible for coining and popularizing that standard narrative?
Several scholars suggested that British Idealists in particular, played an important role in this process. I recently tested this suggestion by doing some research on Edward Caird, one of the main first-generation British Idealists.
Caird did not write any history of philosophy, but he provided extended accounts of early modern thought in his widely read Kant books. The quotes below are from the first volume of The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889).
Caird sees his own idealism as a completion of the philosophical revolution initiated by Kant. Kant’s Critical philosophy opened the doors to an “idealistic interpretation of the universe” (44) by synthesizing “the different tendencies of his time” and going “beyond their one-sidedness, and thereby lifted philosophical discussion to a new level” (44).
“How are we to describe” this “great change”, initiated by Kant? (46) “In general terms we may say that it was a change from division to reconciliation, from Individualism and Atomism to a renewed perception that the whole is prior to the parts, and that individual independence must rest on social unity” (46, see 70). Individualism is the guiding principle of the whole “history of [early] modern philosophy” (72).
“The history of modern thought begins with” Martin Luther’s “declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual, and the rejection of the principle of authority” (72). Along similar lines, modern science and “Bacon’s empiricism” placed a strong emphasis on individual, first-hand knowledge. Luther and Bacon attempted to go beyond mere subjectivity to achieve “the unity of thought with its object” (74). They failed, giving rise to the scepticism with which Descartes grappled at the beginning of the Meditations. Descartes overcame it by relying on God’s veracity. To Descartes, “our consciousness of God” is prior even to “our consciousness of ourselves” (76).
Malebranche and Spinoza developed Descartes’ theocentric approach to unify subject and object, but they failed and gave way to the individualist assumption that “we must see all things” not in God, but “in ourselves”, either “through the sensations which outward objects have produced in our minds, or through the ideas which spring directly out of our own consciousness, that we come to a knowledge of other things” (83). Locke’s and Hume’s empiricism explored the first alternative, Leibniz’s and Wolff’s rationalism the second. They all failed, leading “the progress of Individualism to its necessary consummation in Scepticism” (86). Only Kant managed to synthesize subject and object, mind and world by realizing that the latter is mind-dependent and placing “the idea of a self-determining subject” (85) at the centre of his philosophy. Thus ends Caird’s account of early modern thought.
How much of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy can we find in this account? The emphasis on the individualism of the Reformation may have struck a familiar chord. The account of Kant’s Critical philosophy as a synthesis of Lockean and Leibnizian ideas and an antidote to scepticism sounds familiar too. But these are precisely the elements of Caird’s account that are not distinctive of Idealist accounts of early modern thought, such as Schwegler‘s and Erdmann’s. Their distinctive traits are others, like the following:
- an emphasis on individualism as a distinctive feature of the entire early modern period,
- a theo-centric interpretation of Descartes, Malebranche and Spinoza (but not Leibniz) as members of a single school,
- the teleological reading of early modern thinkers as struggling to reach an adequate understanding of the unity of subject and object, mind and world — something that only Hegel would fully achieve.
Besides having these rather unfamiliar features, Idealist histories of early modern thought do not spell out the standard triumvirates. They sever the theocentric philosophies of Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza from Leibniz’s and Wolff’s philosophy. They read Berkeley as an idealist rather than an intermediate step in the progress from Locke to Hume. On the whole, then, Caird’s account of early modern thought is much less similar to standard histories of early modern philosophies than Tennemann’s earlier, Kant-inspired History of Philosophy. This leads me to doubt that British Idealism is key to understanding how the standard narrative of early modern thought came to the fore.