1

The Philosophy of the Enlightenment

Lecture 2

“The Mind of the Enlightenment”:
First a little on Ernst Cassirer: a student of Hermann Cohen, a neo-Kantian:
(vi): “a phenomenology of the philosophic spirit”; influence of Hegel on a basic Kantian
framework; (what would a Kantian framework consist in? What is Kant’s critical philosophy?) the a
priori is revisable, and represents the basic assumptions underlying human and scientific
knowledge in the current epoch. So it makes sense to talk of the “The Mind of the
Enlightenment”, “the spirit of the age”—this also owes a lot to Montesquieu, the “spirit of the
laws”.
Cassirer’s basic tack: the eighteenth century is building on the revisions in human knowledge
established by the scientific revolution, and self-consciously trying to work out their
implications and apply the methodology to new subjects in order to achieve a new synthesis of
knowledge. But actually Cassirer is as much a neo-Leibnizian as a neo-Kantian, as we shall see.
He is on the lookout for constitutive principles underlying and promoting new discoveries, as
well as for a dynamism underlying the progress of thought.
6 ff: Cassirer maintains that the 18th century is in awe of Newton, and adopts what he claims is
his methodology: hypotheses non fingo: “I do not invent hypotheses”: deduces laws from the
phenomena. Concern with observation, mathematical precision, beginning with Galileo. But
rejecting some key contributions of the scientific revolution by figures such as Descartes,
Leibniz, and portraying them as rationalists who dogmatically adopted a priori premises, rather
than beginning with experience.
We need to disentangle 3 strands here:
1. what actually took place in the 17th century, and what methodologies actually went into
the making of modern science.
2. how Newton and Locke, as well as 18th C figures like Voltaire and Condillac, often with
a political agenda, interpreted these developments for their own purposes.
3. how Cassirer interprets this in accordance with his Neokantian agenda. Actually, he
does not introduce very much distortion, and his history is surprisingly reliable.
1. Contributions of
Galileo (observation and reason, thought experiment with the two stones dropped from the
tower, analysis of the projectile’s path as a parabola, primary vs. secondary qualities);
Kepler (precision + emphasis on realistic interpretation of hypotheses);
Descartes (movable extensions, geometrically described, extirpation of spirits and souls from
natural philosophy: huge impact of the mechanical philosophy);
Newton (reintroduction of force, refines Descartes’ laws, Galileo’s analysis of trajectories,
Kepler’s emphasis on precision, Bacon’s emphasis on induction: deduction of laws from the
phenomena, hypotheses for causal explanations come afterwards)

Spinoza. 21-22: The concept of the principle: no longer has absolute. In contrast. we are able to intuit a priori truths. Treatise on Systems They very much take on credit Newton’s and Locke’s description of the empirical philosophy (note that these are not at all the same). The same kind of analysis that was undertaken for physical bodies must be conducted for political bodies. rather than what is encapsulated in a grand metaphysical system of deductions. “ecrasez l’infame!”. Descartes. he is an implacable enemy of the priesthood. 20ff: Montesquieu tries to do a Newton on this: it is not enough to understand politics statically. posits new principles of conservation of energy.2 Leibniz: attacks Newton’s action at a distance in the same of the mechanical philosophy. this is very unfair on Leibniz. With Voltaire a central thrust of Enlightenment thought is the detachment of scientific thought from a theological foundation. Bacon’s emphasis on experience and the utility of knowledge.g. It is this rather than an antipathy to reason that characterizes the movement. Voltaire and Condillac and others reinterpret reason as “the original intellectual force which guides the discovery and determination of truth” (13). (24-25) 19ff: Hobbes: the body politic. The eternal truths are those in the divine mind. still to be seen in an article in a recent Scientific American (since they are also heroes of the American Revolution: Benjamin Franklin was part of the French Enlightenment!) 2. Malebranche and Leibniz had identified reason as essentially divine. are Abbés! 18ff. empirical research. Voltaire. and reason as the Art of Discovery. we must account for any political equilibrium in terms of a balance of forces: freedom is only possible when every force is limited and counterbalanced by an opposing force. Condillac. . But as is indicated by his motto. who is a deist. introduces calculus and differential equations. e. And many of those involved are not atheists. In actual fact. These 3 become the heroes of the Enlightenment. but only relative validity: it “marks a point at which the progress of knowledge has arrived”. How were they formed? The causal approach: from Aristotle: we understand only what we can construct from original elements. such as those of mathematics. though. Locke’s attack on innate ideas. but its faculties themselves are formed though interaction with the environment: his statue. but insists that the mind is not passive. with us partaking in it. Some of the philosophes. who was every inch a Baconian concerning the supreme utility of knowledge. and of least action. provides new foundations for mechanics with his philosophy of force (energy). and insofar as we can access them. Locke to Condillac: C accepts the idea that the content of the mind comes from the senses. Newton’s Rules of Philosophizing. As Cassirer says. whereas Newton was much more of a dogmatist concerning the relation of God to the world. Which of Newton’s laws? Histories of nations are but sequences of individual laws. Voltaire Letters Concerning the English Nation.

We do not know the complete concept. 29: a monad is only insofar as it is active. To know the latter we must appeal to experience. and we see how it is able to build up a more and more complete psychological arsenal. 25-6: how Helvetius brings this reductionist method to the point of parody with his ethics. New emphasis not on clear and distinct ideas. while action is clearly spelled out in terms of mechanical consequences: work done. but on origin and the logic of individuality. from which it develops the sense of touch. minimization of action (= work done over time. All is motivated by self-interest: egotism. so must appeal to experience. sympathy. which deals with abstractions. 33: “The ideal centre of gravity of all philosophy has shifted”. and altruism. vanity and ambition are the sole causes of all human behaviour. morality etc. La Mettrie Does his materialism derive from Descartes’ mechanistic views and rejection of final causes. (35-36) Voltaire and others belated recognition. and is able to discriminate itself from its surroundings (concept of self). So all the emphasis in Leibniz’s epistemology is on the particular. or from Locke and Newton? Is it possible that there is a way of reading Descartes that makes sense of both his mechanistic writings and his writings in the Meditations? How? . and wherever we deal with incomplete concepts). E x t). 28ff. are reducible to selfish motives. 31: “Physics must take its starting point in observation and sense experience”. Leibniz: (what do students know of his thought?) how does his philosophy of substance represent a new trend of thought? In its dynamism: a substance is a thing that acts (which mere matter by itself cannot do). He begins by giving it just self-movement. then it is given one sense after another. and its concept infinitely ramified. not particular existents. Each individual substance is infinitely complex. Why? Because eternal truths only concern essences. We know things by abstracting from this wealth of singular properties.3 23: reduction of the complex to the simple. Our knowledge consists of knowing certain chains of cause and effect. or of deductions of some abstract truths from others. building up the various faculties like imagination and judgement —all the time “concerned only with itself and its simple ideas”. Something is only insofar as it is able to do. is an important factor in early pre-Darwinian theories of evolution. where he tries to reduce all human behaviour to the lower appetites and passions. diversity to its basic identity. A good example if Condillac’s image of the statue. no more in the entire effect than is contained in the full cause. Also the emphasis on development and transformation. the butterfly from the caterpillar (Swammerdam). the relative. and not on deriving knowledge from a priori givens (although this can be done in mathematics.