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Why the Original and Creative Philosophies of the Early Modern Period Developed Largely Outside the Universities?

Updated on August 16, 2011

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,[1]and in England with Sir Francis Bacon.[2]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,[3]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.[4]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 Aquinas[5]who 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 Bruno[6]caused 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 Galileo[7]and Isaac Newton[8], 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 Spinoza[9]likewise 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.

[1] René Descartes (1596-1650) is universally acknowledged as one of the chief architects of the modern age.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] This should not to be confused with Hegel’s concept of ‘Absolute Spirit’.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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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      shaukat awan 

      7 years ago


      BY Allama Muhammad Yousuf Gabriel

      Macaulay has expressed his opinion that Bacon unworthy employed his time in woolsack and the council board, and that if Bacon had employed all his time in study, and that his civil ends had been moderate, he would have fulfilled a large part of his own magnificent predictions. He would have led his followers, not only to the verge but, into the heart of the Promised Land. He would not merely have pointed out, but would have divided the spoil. And above all, he would have left not only a great, but a spotless name.

      Now this is a very difficult postulate, and it is not easy to at once assent to it. Bacon would have been only, what he was. Sir James Jeans in his great work, "The Mysterious Universe", tells us and very truly that, "life of the kind we know can only exist under suitable conditions of light and heart; we only exist ourselves because the earth receives exactly the right amount of radiation from the sun; upset the balance in either direction, excess or defect, and life must disappear from the earth. And the essence of the situation is that the balance is very easily upset".

      (The Mysterious Universe page 10)

      Applying this proportion to Bacon's case, it may be concluded, that "philosophy can emanate from a mind in a suitable atmosphere of particular circumstances. Bacon formed his philosophy because his mind received the exact direction from the conditions in which it found itself. If the situation had been changed, the philosophy in the mind of Bacon, if it had not completely died out, at least its form would have been greatly affected".

      Had Bacon renounced his worldly ambition, and had he repaired to the university of Cambridge or some monastery, to devote his life to mere study, it appears highly probable that he would have renounced the thought of writing a philosophy of the world, for, the fire of worldly ambition having been quenched, the exclusive philosophy of the world would have appeared to him in a form not so pleasant to any self-abnegating convert, and he therefore might probably have undertaken instead the reform of Christian Church which at that time stood in great necessity of purgation. If, however, the thought of his worldly philosophy was too strongly fixed in his mind, and he inspite of the changed state of his mind, as well of environment had intended to write his philosophy of the world, he might have written five or six or seven volumes instead of the two which he could have written in the atmosphere of his professional drudgery. But what different the addition of volumes would have made to his philosophy, which had been completely and fully treated in those two volumes, which he had produced. And it is hardly probable that his philosophy written in the cloister would have had the same gusto and the same intensity of thought and expression as is to be met with in his two volumes written in a state of mind which could only be likened to alive volcano of worldly ambition, hissing, sizzling, puttering, smoking and belching fire, and recording its agonies as a philosophy. Hungry souls cry, and Bacon's soul convulsed with sever pangs of hunger for wealth and power, and its terrible cries assumed the forms of worlds which Bacon's had printed on paper, and lo, it was Bacon's philosophy of the world.

      All these, however, are mere conjectures. The fact only is that Bacon did produce a philosophy. A philosophy which completely changed this world, and reversed the order of man's mind.

      The Question arises, why Bacon could not complete his new Atlantis, just as Plato before him had not been able to complete his CRITIAS. Reasons of time or circumstances may be attributed to their failure in completing these works, but it is to be wondered how Bacon would have described his city in his new Atlantis. Merely the house of Solomon, and the brew houses, the perfume houses and the dispensatories would not do. These things did even exist in pre-Bacon and pre-modern days. Bacon would have been executed to describe his city as it appeared as a result of the changes produced by his philosophy of science and progress. How Bacon could have been expected to describe and portray the London of modern times in its mechanical and electrical perspective. Electric lights, motor cars, aeroplanes, factories, ships, railways, trains, trams, and all its distinctively characteristic features of modernity. It is for the prophets of God to see far if in future with surety, and a prophet of God surely Bacon was not.

      The disquieted mind of the West, disgusted with the unbearably hypocritical, tyrannical, world-loving hierarchies, despotic monarchies, tortuous poverty, superstition, ignorance and disease, Smouldered, yearning impatiently after the luxurious and sumptuous feast of nature, tired of the long Christian fast, sighed, groaned, and bewailed. Millions of souls, in the western Christendom, sighing, moaning, groaning, wailing day and night in misery for relies, till their sighs, and groans mingling and mixing in a continued process, eventually assumed a form of an apparition, that appeared as an elfish child, called Francis Bacon and endowed with precociously mature and strong intellect, delicate health and unusual gravity of carriage.

      It was known that nothing in the heart of this apparition existed but a burning desire of wealth, and power and ostentation, so that all the three, that is the desire of wealth, and of power and of ostentation vied with each other in his heart for precedence. Religion being susceptible of superstition and feared as a handicap to the attainment of worldly wealth and power and ostentation was to be expelled from such a heart, though denied not by the pen or the tongue. The philosophy which emanated from such a heart was essentially to be a philosophy such as the Baconian philosophy is, namely a philosophy of dominion over nature for material exploitation, and wealth accumulation and physical comforts, and renunciation of moral philosophy. A philosophy therefore certainly as an antithesis to the philosophy of revealed religion. No compromise, no reconcilement is thus possible between the philosophy of revealed religion and the philosophy which Bacon formed. Machiavelli (1469-1527) appears to be the model of Bacon in the attainment of his object that is wealth and power. Anything which appeared as adverse to the attainment of the worldly object was to be sacrificed, even if it were personal honour, moral obligation, or the sacred obligation of friendship and gratitude, or religious values nothing would count when the worldly objects were at stake.

      Bacon, his philosophy, and his followers are all at one with each other in almost every feature. Moral, spiritual and religious values as were considered by the pre-modern people were to be cast away as detrimental to progress. Fruit and utility as was taught by Baconian philosophy was the sole aim and the object of man's life and exertions. Man's purpose was to accumulate riches of the world, and no honour was in anything except riches, or in those values which helped in gaining the riches, and maintaining the riches and multiplying the riches. Bacon's heart and his followers' heart and the heart of Bacon's philosophy, throbbed together for wealth, and burned together for power, and yearned together after ostentation. Together, and indeed together with their hearts throbbing in unison, will they go into the flames of the atomic hell, the terminus of the road of Bacon's philosophy of atomism. Greed of wealth was inherent in the very nature of Bacon, and was naturally inherent in the philosophy of Bacon, and the secret hand of providence helped Bacon by throwing him into a career of poverty and obscurity as incentive for a struggle out of the dungeon in which he had found himself fallen, and subsequent entry into the paradise of wealth, power and ostentation.

      Of all the philosophies of life that were ever given, the philosophy of Bacon it is that is exclusively based on this world and its wealth, excepting perhaps the philosophy of Epicurus etc., thus the philosophy of Bacon stands in direct o


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