Contemporary Age - Northern Europe (19th. & 20th.)

Pushed by the growing influence of science, philosophers of the contemporary age sought a solid basis for their philosophy. They yearned for a certainty against doubt as a basis for thought, but found a doubt about reality and their own identity.

Jeremy Bentham published Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789 where the three bases of his moral philosophy appear: the principle of greatest happiness; universal selfishness; artificial identification of personal interests with those of others. These will form the basic rational principles for legal, social and moral reform.

Bentham calls the principle of greatest happiness the 'principle of utility', a term from Hume. What is morally obligatory is what produces the greatest happiness for the majority (understanding taking happiness as pleasure and absence of pain). That which does not maximize the greatest happiness, such as an act of ascetic sacrifice is, then, morally wrong. However, this is not universal but naturalistic hedonism.

"The greatest good for the greatest number." Bentham

The advantages of a utility-based philosophy of morality are several according to Bentham. First, it is a clear reference, allows disinterested and objective public discussion and helps to make decisions when there is conflict. It is also egalitarian because in seeking the happiness of the majority it presupposes that everyone is valued in the same way.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte called his philosophical system 'Wissenschaftslehre' which translates as
'theory of science'. He was influenced by Reinhold, an Austrian who popularized Kant's work. Reinhold's concept, which Fichte retained, was of philosophy as a rigorous science, which required that the principles of philosophy be systematically derived from a foundational principle known with certainty. Following Kant Fitche looked for the fundamental principle, not in the Kantian 'fact' but in a 'fact / action' that is not known empirically but with evident certainty.

In Foundations (1794-95) he explains the content of 'fact / action' in its most general format as 'the self imposing itself absolutely'. He suggests that the 'I' is not static with fixed properties but a self-producing process, free, because it owes its existence to nothing but itself. In other words, Tathandlung is a rational agent who constantly reinterprets himself in light of standard norms and who decides himself how to act. We construct our 'selves' to explain ourselves to ourselves so that our nature is intelligible to us as finite and rational beings. Fichte is considered as a transitional philosopher between Kant and Hegel.

G.W.F. Hegel published his Encyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1817) for use in his courses at Heidelberg. It explains the universe in a systematic way, everything being  based on faith. In religion the truth is veiled but in philosophy it is revealed so that humans can know the infinite and see all things in God. The Hegelian system depicts the universe as a cycle in which the Absolute Spirit knows himself as a spirit by his own thought, by nature. Through the expressions of finite spirits in religion, art, and philosophy they are united with the Absolute Spirit.

The compendium of Hegel's system in the Encyclopedia is presented in three parts: Logic, Nature and Mind. He believed that human thought proceeded dialectically: thesis, antithesis and synthesis that produces another antithesis and thus continues... The process is circular and thought reaches a synthesis that is identical to its starting point except that everything implicit now is explicit. Thus the process of thinking about oneself has negativity as one of its constituent moments and the finite, as the self-manifestation of God, is an integral part of infinity.

"Philosophy is the world upside down." Hegel


The system begins with an explanation of the thought of God before the creation of nature and the finite spirit, that is, with the categories of the pure forms of thought, the structures of all physical and intellectual life. If we think about the notion of pure Being we find that it is empty, Nothing. But Nothing is. The notions of pure Being and Nothing are opposite, however, in thought each one passes to the other. The way out of the contradiction is to reject the two notions separately and affirm them together, that is to say, to affirm the notion of becoming because what becomes is, and at the same time is not. The dialectical process advances from complexity to complexity and it culminates with the absolute idea:  the spirit as its own objective.


It is the opposite of the spirit, the sphere of external relations. Nature understands space and time and is thus finite. It is the work of the philosophy of nature to detect that structure and its dialectics. It is only when humanity appears that actions are considered correct according to whether or not they tend to produce happiness. They are wrong if they tend to produce the opposite of happiness. Here, too, the two visions of Kant and Mills interpret the same philosophy differently. While Kantians considered self-evident moral principles 'a priori', Mills argued that the ethically correct and incorrect, truth and falsehood, are matters of observation and experience, that is, 'a posteriori'. As Mills stated in his Autobiography (1873) the model of apriorism allows the individual to ratify his own prejudices as moral principles because there is no external reference to judge them.


Hegel follows the evolution of the human mind through the subconscious, the conscious and the rational will, then through institutions and human history (as the expression of that will), and finally art, religion and philosophy in which humans are recognized as spirits united to God, possessors of absolute truth. Finally, humans have returned to the beginning of the system, but en route they have made explicit what was implicit and have discovered that nothing exists but spirit and spirit is pure activity.

Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, was Heidegger's teacher in Freiburg. His theory was a new version of Cartesianism with the focus on consciousness as 'subjectivity'. Phenomenology is the examination of consciousness in the flow of experience. It is the study of the intentional structure of experiences, which means that consciousness is oriented towards something else.

Husserl's philosophical method is to subtract external knowledge from the external world (putting it into 'parentheses') which is when the philosopher reflects on how a phenomenon appears to consciousness. When looking at a tree, what remains after making the parentheses is a pure tension between the subject and the object. It is an introspective analysis of experience that attempts to go beyond linguistic expressions or a common understanding of the phenomenon.

Husserl was primarily a mathematician who was interested in the nature of truth more than life's problems. His philosophy seeks certainty, just like Descartes, Hume and Kant. He was looking for an 'Archimedean' point from which to establish a foundation for all knowledge. His interest is focused on the form and need for mathematical and philosophical truths.

His method aims to develop a worldview without prejudice that allows a rational exploration of the interconnections between phenomena. Following the Kantian concept of 'transcendental Ego' Husserl develops a 'transcendental phenomenology' as the foundation of all knowledge.

This is a contribution to epistemology, but it is based on questionable assumptions derived from German idealism.

Charles Darwin, although at first destined to become an Anglican clergyman, was interested in biology from an early age. At Edinburgh University he teamed up with a disciple of Lamarck who became his mentor. He accepted the opportunity of a voyage round the world as a paying traveller in the Beagle which set sail in 1831. It was on the Galapagos Islands that he noticed the differences between mockingbirds on each f the four islands. He also observed a number of other birds that he called a mixture of wrens, finches, and “gross-beaks”. It was only much later at the Zoological Society in London that John Gould was able to say that they were all ground finches, differently adapted to their environment. Gould also announced that the mockingbirds were three species unique to different islands. This led Darwin to re-examine his finch collection and discover that each island had its particular finch, too. This raised the question of how they had all diverged.

On reading Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the principle of Population (1838) Darwin realised that when the population increased too much there would be competition for food in which the unfit would die. He named his Malthusian process ‘natural selection’ and applied it to Nature. He argued that when a natural population explosion happened there ensued a struggle to survive and through chance variations the most adapted subsisted and passed on the winning trait to the next generation.

Darwin had begun writing his book on the theory of natural selection in 1858 when he received a letter from Russell Wallace working on specimens in Indonesia and who had come to similar conclusions. This overcame Darwin’s hesitancy about publishing and he agreed to publish The Origin of the Species in 1895. This became the cornerstone of the theory of evolution.

Darwin continued his biological investigations publishing other books such as The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862). This demonstrated that the orchid’s beauty was not of divine design for human pleasure, as was the common view, but to attract bees to its nectar for the purpose of cross-pollination. In 1871 his double volume his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was a response to critics of the male hummingbird’s colourful plumage. Darwin pointed out that it had a specific function: to attract females as mates.

Though Darwin based his theory on biological observation, evolution became a philosophical explanation for more than natural phenomena. Social darwinism, for example, took advantage of the double meaning of “fit” in English. Darwin used it as meaning ‘adapted’ but the Nazis interpreted it as’ healthy’ (as in ‘fitness’) and used that as an excuse for the extermination of the ‘unfit’.

Arthur Schopenhauer published his main work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The world as will and idea) in 1819, in 4 volumes. It is a reflection on the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of nature, aesthetics and ethics.

The first book begins with Kant. Schopenhauer affirms that the world is a representation: it can only be understood with the help of the constructs of the human intellect that are space, time and causality. But these show the world as appearances, not as the thing-in-itself that Kant considered unknowable.

"Only change is eternal, perpetual, immortal."  Schopenhauer

The second book considers the essences of the concepts presented. As beings we know ourselves externally, as a body or appearance, and internally as a will. The will is the thing-in-itself: unitary, without changes, beyond space and time, without causes or objectives. In the end, however, there is death, the negation of the will's wish to survive.

While the first two books present the will in the affirmative, the last two, speaking of aesthetics and ethics, point to the negation of the will as a possible liberation. It is the arts that will liberate humanity from the will because passion ceases in them, at least for the moment. A genuine liberation, according to Schopenhauer, is the result of breaking the ties of individuality imposed by the ego. For example, those who feel empathy are on the path of self-denial of the will to life that the saints achieved by asceticism.

Schopenhauer's anthropology and sociology do not start with the community, as in Hegel, but focus on individuals and show certain possibilities of living with others.

John Stuart Mill in 1843 published A System of Logic. It was part of his fight against the German 'a priori' school. He argues for radical empiricism in logic and mathematics by suggesting that its basic principles are generalizations from experience rather than known 'a priori'. The problem with this doctrine, according to Mills, is that it supports the belief that we can know universal truths about the world through evidence provided only by the mind, rather than by nature. For him the 'a posteriori' evidence, the empirical verification, was inescapable. This was the inductive vision of Mills against the deductive approach of Kant's followers.

"Young Socrates ... maintained the theory of utilitarianism against popular morality." John Stuart Mills

His book Utilitarianism was published in 1863. At the center of his ethical philosophy was the principle of utility: actions are correct according to whether they tend to produce happiness or not. They are wrong if they tend to produce the opposite of happiness. Here, too, the two visions of Kant and Mills interpret the same philosophy differently. While Kantians considered self-evident moral principles 'a priori', Mills argued that the ethically correct and incorrect, truth and falsehood, are matters of observation and experience, that is, 'a posteriori'. As Mills stated in his Autobiography (1873) the model of apriorism allows the individual to ratify his own prejudices as moral principles because there is no external reference to judge them.

Søren Kierkegaard questions the method of doubt in philosophy. He replaces the Cartesian doubt with the attitude of 'wonder' of the ancient Greeks. The author argues, against Descartes, that doubt cannot be the starting point of philosophy because it is only possible after having begun to philosophise. He asks if it is possible to maintain pure Cartesian doubt with the absolute skepticism that it requires.

Kierkegaard also criticizes the epistemology of Hegel, Spinoza Fichte, and Kant. He argues that objective knowledge is a contradiction because it is the subject that knows and there can be no knowledge outside of subjectivity. He argues not against knowledge, which would be solipsism, but against Absolute knowledge.

Kierkegaard's epistemology is very subjectivist because it is based on a double reflection in which reflective knowledge reflects on its belief that something is true.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote Die deutsche Ideologie (1846) to contrast their materialistic method with previous German thought. They begin by stating that human beings are essentially productive because they produce their subsistence to satisfy their material needs. This generates new material and social needs that govern the emerging forms of society. Material life conditions social life, so the direction of social evolution moves from material production to social forms and from there to forms of consciousness. Once workers realize their alternatives, they will promote an economic revolution.

Schematically the model has simplicity and dynamism. It is credible that human productive power is developed over time through technology and that economic structures exist while they are developed but that they replace them when they stop doing so. The 'problem' is that this is indeed what happens in capitalism, so in the logic of the Marxist model this seems like the appropriate system.

"My goal in life is to dethrone God and destroy capitalism." Marx

The empirical question is whether or not there is evidence that forms of society only exist while productive power is advancing and that later, when they fail, they are replaced by a revolution. The evidences are irregular and there have been moments of stagnation, and even regression, when the economic structures were not revolutionised.

Theoretically the model can be sustained if we compare it with Darwinism where functionality guides evolution. Economic structures would flourish by adapting as species have. However, the comparison is problematic: Marxist historical materialism is predictive and Darwinism is contingent and dependent on circumstances.

Friedrich Nietzsche appears as Kantian in his world view because he rejects the possibility of knowing the 'true' world. For both philosophers to know that world would require a divine vision. The human being needs to look at the world through the filter of the senses; God doesn't.

However, Kant assumes two areas: the phenomenal, the world of our senses, and the noumenon, the world itself (which he argues we cannot know). Nietzsche rejects the notion of 'the-thing-in-itself' because if we cannot know the thing how can we suppose that it exists? Nietzsche is not idealistic and believes that there is a world that exists outside of human perception. According to him it is a world of relationships. How do we know? The author's response is that we know nothing. We only have appearance and perspective. It is our will to impose that creates meaning and order. This world of formless relationships is part of the understanding created by our will.

"Is man a fault of God, or God a fault of man?" Nietzsche

The two fundamental ideas in Nietzsche's metaphysics and epistemology are perspectivism and the will to power.

- Perspectivism is the vision that our knowledge and understanding are conditioned by how we are seeing. To see something you have to see it from one place at a time and from a specific angle. So we don't see the whole thing, just a perspective on it. Knowledge occurs within a perspective and there is no knowledge of the totality. Thus thinking of knowledge as a whole is illusory.

- The will to power is the basic force that leads us to survive by forcing others and our environment to submit to our will. It is what allows us to impose meaning, order, logic and understanding on the world. Truth, reason and knowledge, according to Nietzsche, have no relation to the 'real' world, they have to do with the survival and control of a species. The 'real' may differ completely from what our reason and beliefs tell us, but it is irrelevant. The important thing is that reason and truth allow us to have power and control.

The will to power in metaphysics and epistemology means that the 'real' things are what we can do or submit to our power. The classical notions of truth and knowledge are passive and ineffective. They are signs of weakness. Strength lies in creating the 'reality' of the world itself.

Bertrand Russell explains his epistemological vision in The Problems of Philosophy. He affirms that philosophy is seeking certainty and we assume the certainty of many things that, when we look at them more closely, we realise that they are full of contractions. The more we learn from the world the more we realize that we know little for sure. The question of what our senses tell us lies in the problem of change.

To explain this problem Russell distinguishes between appearance and reality and calls it 'skepticism of the senses'. He gives the example of a table that is perceived based on the light in the room, the distance from the sensor, and how the light reflects from the table to the eyes. The same happens with the texture of the furniture and its shape.

"There is no logical impediment to suppose that life is a dream ..." Bertrand Russell

Thus Russell affirms that these observable facts must lead us to doubt our senses. The 'real' table is an inference, not the thing itself. He praises Descartes for having introduced the method of doubt and showing that the subjective is the most accurate base. According to Russell, trying to prove that there is a reality outside the mind is an argument about probabilities, not certainties.

Ludwig Wittgenstein published his ideas on epistemology in Über Gewissheit (1969) (On Certainty), a reflection on Moore's idea in his book A Defense of Common Sense (1925). Moore argues that common sense allows certain things to be known with certainty.

Wittgenstein distinguishes between knowledge and certainty by claiming that they are two categories, not two mental states and neither implies the other. It is possible to be in a state of knowledge without being sure and to be safe without having knowledge. Certainty is not identified with apprehending but with a form of action. A proposition is true when its truth is presupposed in the various activities of a community. In other words, it is our action that causes us to call something true.

A recurring theme in the book is that there are things that should not be doubted for activities to be possible and this includes the act of doubting.

"A doubt that doubts everything would not be a doubt."  Wittgenstein

An important result is Wittgenstein's assertion that all doubt is grounded in underlying beliefs and therefore the most radical forms of doubt must be rejected because they are contradictory to the very system that expressed them. Philosophical skepticism works within a rational debate, but if one doubts excessively, rationality itself is undermined and thus the basis for doubting.

However, Wittgenstein argues that skepticism only makes sense when we abstract from everyday life. He claims that a proposition is meaningless if it is not placed within a specific context. But once we attribute a context to propositions the doubts of a skeptic will lack the generality that would cast doubts on the external world. It is only by removing the language from all possible contexts, and thus rendering it useless, that skepticism can work.

Martin Heidegger in his book on ontology Sein und Zeit (1927) (Being and time) raises his fundamental question: What is Being? It begins with a critique of Descartes that, according to the author, did not raise the problem of the nature of being that accompanies the existence of the self. This Dasein is a community way of life similar to a shared language. It is Cartesianism in reverse: I exist then I can think.

"The human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being." Heidegger

He also wants to reverse the Aristotelianism that proceeds by logic and grammar and is imprisoned in language. He wants to free language from grammar and logic as creation does poetics.

For Aristotle, thinking was a technique, a process of reflection in the service of doing and creating things. For Heidegger, thinking is not a practical task in the service of action. Thus he distances himself from scientific positivism and from Marxists like Sartre. He tries to develop a holistic philosophy that understands existence and thought as two sides of the same coin. He rejects an instrumental interpretation of thought (positivism) and an emphasis on pure theory (idealism, Platonism).

He disagrees with Plato because he was fascinated by the theory that carries an implicit promise of power over nature. For Heidegger, this led us, mistakenly, to believe that thinking is reality. This leads us to imagine that we can build models of everything including human beings and their world and that the way human beings relate to things is to have a theory about them. He wants to teach that there is no theory about what makes possible theories.

Heidegger aims to apply Husserl's method by not asking 'What is in your experience?' but 'What constitutes your experience?' It radicalizes Husserl's method and maintains that concepts like 'mind', 'subject', 'object' and even 'world' have no basis in experience and are thus reifications and not a fundamental analysis that investigates the correlation between thought and experience.

Heidegger's concept Dasein (Being) implies a permanent crisis of identity. We want to know who or what we really are, but what we consider our identity can easily be a false or misinformed concept. This will lead him to an interest in psychiatry.

Alfred Ayer published The Problem of Knowledge in 1956. In it he presents several theories of knowledge that have been proposed as responses to a radical skeptic who argues for a large gap between:

- belief in an external world, the existence of other minds or the reality of the past,

- the evidence on which these beliefs are based.

However, he changes his previous positivism and admits that not everything can be translated into the language of the senses. Instead he argues that constructions made on the basis of experience have their own validity.

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