A brief history of philosophy, part 7: the re-birth of philosophy

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Posted Jun 29 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
descartes René Descartes

Philosophy is for doing, not for studying – I know, sorry. But the way that we think nowadays didn’t just fall from the sky – it’s not ‘common sense’ and it hasn’t always been the same. We’re not born with a worldview – it’s something that we develop from what’s gone before. This is number seven in a series of short articles to help you get a grip on what’s gone before. The problems facing us today, for example what to do about what’s happening to global ecology, or how best (or even whether) to use our technology, mean that philosophy – critical thinking, wisdom – is what we need. I don’t think that this is an academic question – it’s crucial if we’re going to survive, let alone prosper. Political philosophy is required to work out the nuts and bolts of how to organise ourselves, and philosophy generally to discuss what’s really important and why.

My experience of attending a philosophy club for three years with intelligent professionals who are not academics, and in fact from conversations with anyone who is not an academic philosopher, is that most people don’t really have even a vague grasp of the history of philosophy. I don’t think that academics are necessarily the best people to present that broad sweep of the history of thinking. Academics mostly talk to each other. As a non-academic, I think I’m in a better position to define what ‘broad’ actually means, and to present it in an accessible way. The aim is to help more people to get an understanding of the general outline rather than drilling down into the minutiae.

I think, therefore….

Last week we looked at the Reformation and Scientific Revolution, after which, philosophy began to replace myth again as the dominant way of thinking, for the second time in history, and appropriately, René Descartes (1596-1650) decided to start from scratch. You know this bit – ‘Cogito ergo sum‘: I think therefore I am. In other words, the only thing I can know exists for certain is my consciousness because the only thing I can know for sure is that I’m thinking this. His ideas didn’t stand up in the long run – Wittgenstein explained that you can only think of the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ by using language, and language is something that developed amongst a group of people to help them to communicate. Language can’t develop in isolation. Descartes also had some by then old-fashioned ideas about proving the existence of God with reason. His enormous contribution though, was that he wiped the slate clean, and started modern philosophy afresh.


Blaise Pascal

Society was secularising apace, and some Christian philosophers, alarmed, used philosophical guile to try to turn the tide. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), in his famous wager, argued that if it is impossible to work out whether God exists or not using reason, then in effect, it was a gamble. When we stop to think what the results of such a wager might be, there are two options. One, you come down on the side of God, and if you’re right, you win everything, and if you’re wrong you lose nothing. If you wager that God does not exist and you’re right, you’ve won nothing, but if you’re wrong you lose everything. In his attempt to bolster Christianity, in the long run he weakened it intellectually. If you had to believe as security against going to hell, that didn’t seem an intellectually honest thing to do; and why bet on Christianity? If you did, and God turned out to be the God of a different religion, and a vengeful one at that, you were going to be in trouble.


Isaac Newton

Science was turning the low-hanging fruit of metaphysics into physics. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the Aristotle of his day, came along and changed everything. If we accept the premise that understanding is better than ignorance, Newton moved us forward more than anyone else ever had. His ideas on gravity – the attraction of all bodies to each other – were initially ridiculed by some members of the scientific establishment. It was seen as ‘occult’ thinking. This is often vocalised by supporters of hypotheses that, if true, would break existing ‘laws’ of physics. Sometimes, our view of the world gets turned on its head – but very, very rarely. It’s not very often that a Copernicus, a Newton, a Darwin or an Einstein comes along, and when they do, the force of their arguments mean that they are not shunned by the scientific establishment for very long – they are soon seen for the geniuses that they are.

Next: empiricism versus rationalism.