Why the Original and Creative Philosophies of the Early Modern Period Developed Largely Outside the Universities?
It can be said that the philosophy of a period arises as a response to social need. In the history of Western civilisation since the Renaissance period, the development of philosophy has reflected the process in which creative philosophers have reacted in response to the challenge of each stage within the development of Western culture itself. In the Middle Ages, Western philosophy was primarily a Christian philosophy and was mainly the work of churchmen who happened to be professors at the universities of Oxford and Paris.
Before we examine the reasons why the original and creative philosophies of the early modern period developed largely outside the universities, let us first begin by establishing the fact that modern philosophy began in France with René Descartes,and in England with Sir Francis Bacon.Previous to this period, and especially towards the end of the Middle Ages, a gradual break down began to happen in the interaction between faith and reason, which eventually led to a divorce occurring in their relationship. This divorce was made more definite in the seventeenth century by Descartes and Bacon, and in doing so, marked the birth of modern philosophy. This change occurred within the Renaissance period as a direct result of the introduction of three new novel mechanical inventions that had come from the East: gunpowder, block printing, and the compass. With the first of these being gunpowder, it became the agent of the new spirit of nationalism that in turn threatened the rule of churchmen. The second, printing, made the propagation of knowledge widespread and in turn restored the literary and philosophical classics of Greece and Rome. And the third and final of these, the compass, gave way to the opening of the Western Hemisphere and created a new scientific interest in the structure of the natural world.
In their own unique ways, each of these inventions presented new intellectual problems and original philosophical responsibilities within a changed political and social environment. As the power of religious authority slowly eroded under the influence of the Protestant Reformation,philosophers became more and more excluded from their positions in the religious hierarchy.
From this post-mediaeval period and onwards, philosophy found itself gradually drifting into a world of new character. With the ever increasing growth of cities, the emergence of new inventions, the refutation of God or the supernatural as being reasonable explanations for reality, the materialisation of a new economic system called capitalism, and the Reformation that caused a split in Western Christendom, these occurrences initiated within the minds of the two aforementioned modern philosophers an increasing awareness of the natural world to an even increasing desire to exploit and comprehend it.
Another important aspect of change in this post-medieval period was that of the literary form by which philosophy had been traditionally articulated in. Up until this point of time, Latin had been at the forefront of all philosophical writings and documentations. Although, Descartes and Bacon were familiar with this tradition, they were also well acquainted with the use of the vernacular and became accustomed to writing in both fashions. This new custom gradually began to bring philosophy to the forefront of everyday life and in doing so, no longer confined the subject to that of its previous academic tradition of being taught exclusively within the schools and universities. Let us now examine in greater detail some of the above reasons, which in turn have given ascent to the original and creative philosophies of the early modern period evolving outside the universities.
As we have previously established that one the discernable differences between medieval and post-medieval philosophy was that of literary expression. At that time these up-and-coming philosophers of what one would also call the pre-Kantian period, were not engaged in the work of academic teaching. Descartes, from whom modern rationalism originated, and who’s Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am”, proceeded deductively to build a system in which God and mind belong to one order of reality and nature to another, never held a position as a university professor. Yet for Descartes, nature was a mechanism that can be explained mathematically, while God is absolute spirit.As for Bacon who was an dedicated supporter of this new system of learning and who held that knowledge could not be based on accepted authorities but rather, must begin from experience and proceed by induction to general principles, helped to lay the foundation stone for British empiricism, which in turn became one of modern philosophy’s major schools. Previously in the medieval period, most of the philosophical line of thought seemed to have originated in the minds of the professors who held posts in the established universities. One such philosopher was St. Thomas Aquinaswho was first and foremost a theologian. Aquinas asserted that philosophy is an independent and separate branch of study, while later on in the fourteenth century it was viewed that there was a tendency for both philosophy and theology to fall apart because of the supposed disapproval of conventional metaphysics.
When the abandonment of ancient Greek philosophy occurred in the middle-ages (later to be revived in the Renaissance period of the seventeenth century), it give rise to this latter view causing a gradual shift of interest to occur from previous theological themes to a study of the human person and Nature without specific references to God being made.Out of this the birth of the humanistic movement of the Renaissance period evolved. During this period a fascination with mathematics and natural science began and was tolerated for a period of two centuries.
The humanistic movement gave way to change occurring in the area of literary expression. It began in the Platonic academy in Florence in 1440. Even by this early stage, Latin was no longer a common requirement. In return this gave a broader scope to the area of original and creative philosophical understanding. Philosophical thinking was now no longer subjected solely to the minds of university professors, but more so, it became the creation of fresh and original minds. These thinkers were more concerned with developing their own unique and independent ideas within a rationalistic and empirical structure, as by then a greater scope of attention was being turned to the nature of the human mind and its abilities to master the natural world. Writers such as Giordano Brunocaused a shift of interest to occur within the Theo-centric character of the medieval systems to a more centered interest on the aspect of Nature as a unified and dynamic system. It was philosophers such as these who helped to articulate and encourage the changeover from medieval to modern thought.
A stimulation of mind occurred with the development of physical science. From this came a greater ambition to discover new truths about the world through the use of philosophy. In England Francis Bacon worked on the emphasis of the empirical and inductive study of Nature, while in France Descartes was occupied in expressing his resentment towards scholasticism by stating that it was only ever capable of explaining systematic truths already known, but was incapable of ever discovering new truths.
Another important aspect to why the scientific development of the Renaissance influenced philosophy was in relation to the not-so-clear distinction that was being made between physical science and philosophy. Physical science was formally known as natural or experimental philosophy. Many of the authentic discoveries that were made in view of astronomy and physics during this period, were made by men such as Galileoand Isaac Newton, who were not classed as philosophers (although they did in fact philosophize) whom if they were around today we would classify as being scientists. Although, at this time the empirical study of the human body was already being developed,there was no similar study being carried out on the aspect of psychology in relation to the distinction between science and philosophy. Even though Descartes had at this stage of his life, written a book on the passions of the soul, and Benedict de Spinozalikewise on human cognition, but yet there was no immediate emphasis on this area.
Even though a scientist such as Galileo who’s main concern was with bodies in motion, there was no doubt that he could at the same time also confine himself to the material world in line with the questions of physics and astronomy. This in some ways raised questions in relation to whether or not the human being falls wholly within the worlds mechanical system. It was felt that there were two possible lines of answer in relation to this question. The first was that the philosopher might not deprive the human the right to possess a soul, gifted with the power of free choice. In virtue of this, the free and spiritual soul to a certain extent transcends the material world and the system of mechanical causality. If on the other hand the philosopher denies the human this right and includes man as a whole, human freedom will be denied. Although Descartes spoke of mind more so than soul, he was certain of the truth of the first answer. Later on, Cartesians such as Geulincx, who were also known as ‘occasionalists’, began with Descartes’ idea of material and spiritual substances. Although, the challenge of this new science created a problem in regard to the human being, it was in a way an old one, even as old as the ancient Greeks themselves, and yet was similar to the contradictory solutions that had been offered by Descartes and Hobbes in the seventeenth century.
 René Descartes (1596-1650) is universally acknowledged as one of the chief architects of the modern age.
 Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English lawyer, statesman and a philosopher. He is also regarded, as been the first important figure in the history of British empiricism and in the development of the modern scientific world-view.
 The Protestant Reformation occurred in the 16th century and led to the establishment of the Protestant churches. Its reformers were those such as: Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64).
 This should not to be confused with Hegel’s concept of ‘Absolute Spirit’.
 St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was a Dominican friar whose greatest works are among the Summa theologiae, and who also rediscovered the Aristotelian theory of causality.
 Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was an Italian Dominican. He held that neither the sun nor the earth was the centre of the universe and argued that the universe is infinite, and in doing so identified it pantheistically with God. Eventually he was condemned to death by the Inquisition and was burned at the stake.
 Galileo (1564-1642) was a professor at Padua University and was the advocate of the Copernican theory that the earth rotated around the sun. His analysis’ of Nature were later adopted by philosophers such as: John Locke and George Berkeley and was one of the earliest representatives of the modern scientific world-view. His Copernican theory stirred the Roman Inquisition into action and was later condemned to life imprisonment in 1633.
 Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) theory of the mathematical principles of natural philosophy helped to explain Galileo’s law that freely falling bodies fall with constant acceleration.
 Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77): his first publication gave further details about Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy in geometric style.
© Niall Markey 2010
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