The Enlightenment Northern Europe, 18th century

The nothern european philosophers of the 17th century had to face a more and more physical conception of the environment. Empirical science was replacing faith in the understanding of nature. Philosophers returned to a basic question: how do we know? It was the era of epistemology.

George Berkeley, an Irish Bishop, expounded his epistemological theory on the distinction between matter and human perception in Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). He proposes that reality consists exclusively of minds and their ideas and that individuals can only know sensations and ideas, not objects directly. It is solipsism: we can only know the existence of our mind, but the knowledge of what is outside it is unjustifiable. It is an extreme form of empiricism in which knowledge of the world can only be obtained through direct perception.


"There are no things regardless of the spirit that perceives them."
George Berkeley

As a clergyman he involved God in his theory. He argues that there is an infinite spirit (God) and a multitude of finite (human) spirits and that we are in communication with God through our experience. In this way our experience of the world is analogous to the language of God and nature is divine grammar. He concludes that it is not necessary to postulate the existence of matter because all reality is mental.

Compared to the empiricism of Locke or Hume, that of Berkeley is more radical. He maintained that we can only know the sensible qualities of bodies and things. He differed from Locke and Hume in believing that what we were experiencing were ideas sent from God and not the things themselves. He chose to remove knowledge of himself and God from his empiricist motto "Esse est percipi." (To be is to be perceived). In other words, experience is the source of all knowledge. (In 1953 Karl Popper published an essay describing how 21 of Berkeley's theses reflected concepts from Mach and Einstein's physics.)

David Hume published his Treatise on Human Nature (1737) at the age of 26. He argued that all human knowledge can be divided into two categories: relations of ideas (mathematical and logical propositions) and facts (example: the sun appears in the east). Ideas come from our impressions or feelings. In contrast to the French rationalists, he said that even our most basic beliefs about the natural world cannot be established by reason, but we instinctively accept them, a clearly empirical point of view.

Central to Hume's thinking is the problem of induction: how can we conclude that observed objects behave the same as when they are not observed? He proposed as a solution that it is natural instinct, rather than reason, that explains our ability to make inductive guesses. However, the application of the inductive method in science suggests that it is based on a logical error because it assumes that the observation of now will be reproduced in the future when there is no observer. This forced Hume, a great admirer of empiricism, to conclude that, although he recognized the logical fallacy, it seems that in practice science works.

Causality is another problem related to induction. Hume concluded that causality is a mental act of association, not a physical fact. If we are playing pool and two balls touch, it is random. There is no determination, they just touch. However, a player who pushed one of the balls can understand that he has determined the trajectory of the ball. He says he has caused the action. Actually, the cause is in your brain, not the ball. Hume criticized the acceptance of causality related to the real. His argument is that it is the brain that interprets what happens as causation, but that in reality the link between two events is accidental, not causal.

"Causes and effects cannot be discovered by reason, but by experience."
David Hume

In this way determinism would be an assumption, a construction of the
brain to try to make sense of real chaos. In fact, the natural law would be randomness.

Hume entered the epistemological debate with his views on personal identity. He argued that we could not conceive of an apple without smell, color, shape, taste, etc ... otherwise it would cease to exist. He applied the same argument to people and claimed that the person himself was nothing more than a cluster of interconnected perceptions. This contradicted the Cartesian concept of 'I think therefore I exist'. (Modern neurology agrees with Hume's vision.)

Like Hobbes, Hume attempted to reconcile human freedom with the deterministic belief in physics. He proposed that freedom requires necessity. Furthermore, for us to be morally responsible our behavior has to be either caused or necessary.

As for religion Hume's empiricism could not reconcile the idea of ​​God and sensory data. He argued that it was impossible to deduce the existence of a God from the existence of the world because causes cannot be determined by its effects. He left open the possibility of miracles that would be singular events different from the laws of nature. He added, with his traditional skepticism, that he did not know of such an event in history. (Modern medicine defines a miracle of physical healing as an event not yet explained by science.)

He opposed the argument of a designer God saying that there is design in nonsense things like snowflakes and therefore design does not prove intelligence. He also asked, "Who designed the Designer?"

Adam Smith published his first Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and revised it up to six times later. It was the basis of his future writings on philosophy, psychology and ethics and where he first mentioned 'the invisible hand' to describe the benefits of acting in one's own interest. He explains how humanity can form formal moral judgments despite its natural inclination toward selfishness. He concluded that moral consciousness is born in social relationships and proposed a theory of 'empathy' in which the act of observing others makes people more aware of themselves and the morality of their behavior. He suggests that individuals had a vested interest in developing this empathy.

In his most famous work The Wealth of Nations (1776) Smith argued that, even granting that human motivations are often selfishness and greed, competitiveness in the free market would have to benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low and at the same time maintaining production. He added that the division of labor would increase production and that, although the free market seems chaotic, in fact, it is guided by "an invisible hand" to produce goods in the correct number and variety. (Economic liberalism in force today is based on Smith's ideas.)

Immanuel Kant began his epistemology with the traditional distinction between 'the truths of reason', which he called analytic propositions (those which are true simply by virtue of their meaning and only explain words) and 'the truths of facts', which he called
synthetic propositions (those that claim to explain further). He added two more concepts: a priori knowledge (that which results from reasoning independently of experience and typical of analytic propositions) and a posteriori knowledge (that which results from experience and which is typically applied to synthetic propositions).

"Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is a simple intellectual game."  Immanuel Kant

On the one hand, empiricism admits synthetic propositions and a posteriori knowledge; on the other hand, rationalism admits analytical propositions and a priori knowledge. Kant maintained that the two could be combined and that synthetic a priori statements were possible and that there were propositions that applied to, but did not derive from, the physical world but were established by negotiation. He argued that knowledge resulted from a synthesis of experience and concepts. Without the senses we would not be aware of an object and without understanding and reasoning we could not form a concept of it.

Perhaps Kant's most original contribution to philosophy was the idea that it is representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes representation possible. This introduced the concept of the human mind as an active creator of experience, rather than a passive recipient of perception, and put the role of the human subject, the knower, at the center of the study of how we know.

However, Kant also placed limitations on knowledge. He distinguished between appearance (the world of phenomena) and reality (the world of the noumenon). Although our senses tell us that things exist outside of us, the real substance of an object (the thing itself) remains unknowable. We have certain predispositions about what exists and only the things that fit into these exist for us.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1788), he makes the argument that while empirical objects like books and chairs are real they may not be 'transcendentally real'. Chairs are real in that they are objects that conform to our categories of perception, but we cannot  be sure that they are transcendentally real because to confirm this we would have to transcend our own transcendental limitations. He concludes that we can experience real objects, but we cannot know if other non-empirical objects exist.

Regarding reason, Kant argued that it was a useful tool, but it must be controlled so as not to thoughlessly accept things for which we have no evidence. What he called the
'critical method' is a philosophical model that allows us to discover which questions reason can answer and which it cannot. Following this logic encourages discarding things that we do not need for true moral behavior such as religious practices

He was interested in the question of how a God could fit into the essentially mechanical and deterministic universe drawn by 17th-century physicists. He was also intrigued by the question of doubts about philosophical studies that Hume's skepticism had exposed.


More information...

Edmund Halley (1656 - 1742)
Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745)
George Berkeley (1685 - 1753)
Friedrich Händel (1685 - 1759)
John Harrison (1693 - 1776)
Leonhard Euler (1707 - 1783)
David Hume (1711 - 1776)
Baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789)
Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804)
Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728 - 1777)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797)
John Dalton (1766 - 1844)
Walter Scott (1771 - 1832)

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