Hyperian History Of The World (18th Century, Part 2)
Philosophically speaking, 17th century rationalism had flourished in continental Europe, beginning with Descartes and culminating with Leibniz going into the 18th century. In parallel to this course, there had also been a strain of philosophy running in Britain which opposed rationalism. This was empiricism.
If the continental rationalists followed the example of Plato, then the British empiricists followed the example of Aristotle. Beginning with Francis Bacon, the empiricists were ‘outward’ looking philosophers, much more like scientists, who looked out into the physical world around them and sought to explain it based solely on their experiences of it.
Towards the end of the 17th Century, it was John Locke who, disregarding rationalism completely, said that humans can only have knowledge that is ‘a posteriori’ i.e. based upon experience. He described the human mind as a ‘tabula rasa’, a blank slate completely empty at our birth but then becoming populated with ideas based only on the experiences we have of the world.
Locke’s empiricism was materialist, philosophically accompanying the empiricist, materialist science of Newton. Going into the 18th century, Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop George Berkeley feared that Locke’s philosophy would lead to atheism and so proposed an alternative version of empiricism which was idealist rather than materialist. According to Berkeley, matter only exists when it is being perceived by an observer. Without observation there is no matter at all. So what stops the room ceasing to exist when we exit it? Conveniently, Berkeley said that god was constantly observing everything in the universe, thereby stopping things from ceasing to exist when we stop observing.
But the most extreme empiricist of the 18th century was Scottish philosopher David Hume. With Hume empiricism descends into absolute skepticism. Given that, according to Hume, all our knowledge derives from our experiences, from what we observe, it becomes impossible to provide any rational explanation of anything, as reason supposes causation and, as Hume insists, causation cannot be observed, therefore we can never really be certain of anything. Hume’s philosophy leads towards complete uncertainty about anything whatsoever.
Of course, another way of looking at Hume’s philosophy is to say that it proves that empiricism is clearly a false ideology which will never provide any certain knowledge about the universe. Unfortunately, Hume did not see it this way, concluding rather that no philosophy could provide any certain knowledge about the universe, as he had presupposed that empiricism was the only relevant philosophy.
Hume’s philosophy was the culmination of British empiricism the way that Leibniz’s was the culmination of continental rationalism. However, the next great continental philosopher, the German Immanuel Kant, was far more influenced by Hume than by Leibniz. Inspired by a desire to resolve Hume’s skeptical conclusions, Kant attempted to sculpt a grand system which would synthesise the two parallel strains of philosophy.
Whereas Descartes divided everything into mind and matter, Kant divided everything into the phenomenal and the noumenal. The phenomenal realm corresponded to the physical realm of matter, the realm that we experience with our senses, that we can see, hear, touch and feel. The noumenal realm corresponded to realm of mind, like Plato’s realm of the perfect Forms, the true realm of things as they really are in themselves. However, in line with empiricism, Kant suggested that we can only ever experience the phenomenal realm and never experience the noumenal realm, as our minds only interpret the noumenal realm and it is this interpretation that creates the phenomenal realm that we experience.
Kant had far more rigorously defined all of these issues philosophically but had still reached the conclusion that we can never know how the universe actually is. This was due to his ignoring of the mathematical side of things. Kant’s attempt was valiant, yet he ought to have ignored British empiricism and focused on Leibniz’s rationalism and its need for mathematical rigour. Ingenious though his philosophy was, Kant’s failure to apply mathematics to it is what resulted in his conclusion that we can never truly know the universe.
Nonetheless, Kant became one of the most influential philosophers of the modern age and his ideas, along with those of the British empiricists, would influence the science which had begun with Newton. As such, science became completely based on empiricism and materialism, Newton was a hero, as were Kant and Hume, with Descartes and Spinoza being reduced to academic curiosities and Leibniz all but forgotten.
Nonetheless, this age of enlightenment was clearly an improvement on the preceding dark age of christian domination. Despite ignoring the wisdom of the great rationalists, the world of the 18th century seemed to be brightening and great wonders were still to come, both artistically and politically.