The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
This afternoon, we close out our history of philosophies, and make a final note on the single most philosophical question there is: Why bother?
The Enlightenment* saw a shift in philosophy, from a principal focus on the nature of ultimate reality to a principal focus on securing knowledge itself. Not many people adopted thoroughgoing skepticism; more common were ideas like those of Spinoza, Voltaire, and Kant, who discarded the religious beliefs of their upbringings (Judaism, Catholicism, and Lutheranism respectively) in favor of a rationalistic outlook, but included some kind of God in their framework. Kant, like Descartes, introduced a dramatically different idea from the hitherto-accepted mainstream, not with respect to epistemology but to ethics. This new theory was called deontology (from the Greek δέον [deon], meaning “binding, necessary, obligatory”); it broke from previous ethical thought by severing virtue and happiness. The rupture was not total—Kant did argue that only doing our duty could make us deserve happiness. But the prior tradition had maintained a far stronger link: Aristotelians and Christians had viewed virtue as an essential ingredient in happiness, and the Stoics had positively identified virtue and happiness. Kant rejected this. Duty binds us, not because vice will make us unhappy, but just because “that which is obligatory” is what the word “duty” means; to ask why we are bound to do the right thing, for a deontologist, is a little like asking why 1 + 1 has to = 2.
The Enlightenment took place in tandem with the beginnings of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Empirical analysis and experiment were its tools, in contrast to the a priori reasoning characteristic of philosophy; thanks to the rapid advances of modern science (and its technological consequences) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, science somewhat took the place of philosophy as the rational discipline par excellence. This could push philosophers in either of two directions: to emulate the principles (and even the techniques) of the sciences in their philosophy, or to turn their attention to matters that philosophy could investigate but science, on the whole, could not. These two tendencies didn’t stay neatly sorted—the same person might feel, and follow, either impulse at different times—but the ideas produced by one focus versus the other often have different textures or atmospheres.
On the “scientistic” side, we find a few schools of thought, such as logical positivism (embodied in the early publications of Wittgenstein), but the most influential is probably that descending from Karl Marx. Some may object to his placement among philosophers, since his interests were so political; however, on that showing, we would also have to eject figures like Locke, Dante, and Aristotle from our list of philosophers. But Marx’s practical orientation is a fact, and not a fact he was unaware or ashamed of. His epitaph is a quote from his Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Part of his attempt to approach philosophy scientifically was his adoption of historical materialism,** the doctrine that material conditions (e.g., whether people have enough food to eat, where they get it, and so on) are the primary forces that control human societies.
On the other side, we find philosophical expression given to many of the same ideas that animated the Romantic movement in the arts. Existentialism began at this time; more a style than a school, its principal concern tends to be the nature and quality of the human condition, often spending most of its time grappling with the darker aspects of that condition, as in Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard (one of the earliest and most important Existentialists), which seeks to understand Christian faith through Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. (It is hard to know whether the notorious Hegel, who dominated nineteenth-century thought and is a chief ancestor of progressivism, belongs on this side of the “scientistic-artistic” division among philosophers or the other side—his principal study was logic, yet he was so strongly interested in questions of “the spirit of things” as to make either decision feel wrong!)
Lastly, we may say a brief word about that much-misunderstood idea, postmodernism. The term has, like a few other terms we’ve discussed, had the bad luck of becoming a fashionable term far outside the circles where it made any sense or indeed meant anything in particular; today, it often means little more than “I don’t like this, and it happened after 1800.” However, the real interest of postmodern thinkers is in the nature of media, the impact that how we communicate has on what we communicate. Two pithy quotes from prominent postmodernists are good examples: Canadian author Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” (coined partly as an argument that media themselves and not only works composed in them merit study), and French professor Jacques Derrida’s “There is no out-of-context.”
We have left out huge swaths of both the ideas and the history of philosophy, including many massively important distinctions like the categories of realism and idealism. And yet, to many philosophers—above all to Socrates—all this history of thought might seem like a distraction. Philosophy, he said, is a preparation for death. In the twentieth century, Albert Camus was driving at something similar when he wrote that the first and most important question philosophy needs to answer is whether one should commit suicide—which, rephrased, is simply the question “Is life worth living?” And whatever our views of the definition of beauty, the interrelations of the virtues, the relative value of knowledge, or the exact mode in which the Forms are absent from or present in the world around us, the question of Camus and the definition of Socrates are, indeed, perennial.
*Definitions of “the Enlightenment” vary, because cultural changes rarely map neatly to dates—it isn’t as if people wake up in the morning and receive notices that read Beginning today, we shall be throwing an Enlightenment; please think different thoughts accordingly. Historical periods are mainly a convenience for later students. In the name of convenience, the Enlightenment can be usefully treated as the period between the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 (which roughly concluded the Protestant Reformation) and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
**This is not the same as scientific materialism, the idea that only matter truly exists. The two are easy to confuse, partly because of overlap between people who believe each theory (all scientific materialists are necessarily historical materialists, and many of the latter are also the former), and partly just because they both have “materialism” in their names.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large; he has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, which in theory makes him peculiarly unsuitable to discuss modern philosophy, but has never stopped anybody before.
Thank you for reading the Journal. CLT offices will be closed tomorrow through Monday in honor of the Easter holiday; have a good weekend, and we hope to see you here again soon!
Published on 4th April, 2023. Page image of Thomas Cole’s Expulsion From the Garden of Eden (1828).