Lecture Introducing Modern Philosophy For PHH 2063


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


The dividing of our history or culture into “periods” is, of course, arbitrary and subject to (much) disagreement.  Nevertheless, the following “rough-and-ready” classification is widely adhered to in the histories of Western philosophy. 


1. The Pre-Philosophical Period (prior to 600 B.C.E.):


According to C.M. Bowra, in their “Archaic Period”


the Greeks expressed their most significant speculations in poetry, and even when this was reinforced by sculpture and painting, their outlook was still largely shaped by their poetical education and the principles which it implied.  Even if the traditional myths left much unexplained, and even contradicted each other on important matters, they provided an approach to experience, a way of thinking in concrete images, which satisfied a people who had no reason to doubt that the gods were at work everywhere and that a knowledge of them explained most phenomena, both physical and mental.[1] 


2. The Ancient Greek and Roman Periods (600 B.C.E.-400 C.E.).  We are now somewhat familiar with this period, and I will not say more on this topic. 


3. The Medieval Period (400-1400):[2]


The best way to understand the medieval period is by adopting the metaphor contained in the title of Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being.[3]  This world-view emphasized a static, traditional picture of the universe and of our place in it.  The universe was viewed as a rational whole.  There was a complete agreement of faith and reason.  This view emphasized talk of heavenly spheres, relied upon Aristotelian science and logic, relied upon feudal social conditions, and had could easily countenance the uniqueness condition entailed by the phrase “The Church.”  Each individual knew his/her place—sons and daughters did not have to worry about what their future career would be! 


     In short, this world-view offered a teleological conception of the universe where value and fact infused one another.  The medieval conception of nature was largely Aristotelian.  As Michael Matthews says,


central to Aristotle’s thought is his concept of nature.  This was essentialistic and teleological.[4]  Nature was not just matter moving around as a result of random pushes and pulls (materialism), nor was it an unintelligible and imperfect shadow of some other perfect realm (Platonism).  Nature was differentiated into various species and objects, all of them had their own internal and essential dynamic for change....Their alteration was the progressive, teleological actualization of a preexisting potential.  The universe was finite, closed, everything had its own preordained purpose. 

  In appropriate circumstances, the acorn would develop through an internally generated process of natural change.  Likewise, when not interfered with, heavy objects would naturally move to their natural place at the centre of the earth.  Science was largely concerned with the understanding of these natural changes in the world.  The contrasting violent or chance changes were of little interest to philosophers, as they did not reveal anything of the object’s nature.[5] 


Think of the difference between having the growth of an acorn and the falling of a ball-bearing as your scientific model and you can come to a better understanding of the contrast between the Aristotelian and Medieval world-views, on the one hand, and the modern world view, on the other.  As Basil Willey points out, this conception of nature led to views of science and motion which are unfamiliar to us today: 


St. Thomas [Aquinas], following Aristotle, treats motion as a branch of metaphysics; he is interested in why it happens, not how.  He discusses it in terms of ‘act’ and ‘potency’, quoting Aristotle’s definition of it as ‘the act of that which is in potentiality, as such.’  Motion exists, then because things in a state of potentiality seek to actualize themselves, or because they seek the place or direction which is proper to them....To every body in respect of its ‘form’, is ‘due’ a ‘proper place’, towards which it tends to move in a straight line.[6] 


It is unnecessary to controvert theories of this kind as if they were ‘untrue’.  Their ‘truth’ is not of the empirical kind; it consists in their being consistent with a certain world-view.[7] 


We will have more to say about this period when we turn to St. Anselm in several weeks.  For now, however, we will focus our attention upon the ensuing period. 


4. The Renaissance and Modern Periods (1400-1750):


This period marks the beginning of the development of modern science, the “discovery” (and appropriation) of the “new” world, and the development of the modern nation state.  An example of the “new” orientation in science is provided by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).  He was a medical student who turned to the study of mathematics and became a Professor of the subject at the Universities of Pisa and Padua, then became the Court Mathematician to the Duke of Tuscany in Florence.  His studies in mathematics, physics, and especially in astronomy led him to publish his Starry Messenger in 1610—among other things it discussed the observations he had made regarding the moons of Jupiter.  His publication of Two World Systems in 1632 led to his arrest and a trial by the Inquisition in 1633.  He was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.  In 1758 the Church dropped its prohibition on books advocating the heliocentric view.  In 1992 Pope John Paul II said:


thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the center of the world, as it as then known, that is to say, as a planetary system.  The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture….[8] 


In a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina Medici in 1615, Galileo says:


…I think that in discussion of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands.  It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned.  But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.[9] 


Whereas the theology professors at the University of Padua, for example might have refused to look through Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter because they knew it could not have any (that would conflict with theological premises), Galileo looked—the difference here is the presence or absence of an empirical spirit![10] 


    As Willey points out:


Galileo typifies the direction of modern interests, in this instance, not in refuting St. Thomas, but in taking no notice of him.  Motion might be all that the angelic doctor had declared it to be; Galileo nevertheless will drop weights from the top of a tower, and down inclined planes, to see how they behave.  It is undeniable that the scholastic theory of motion informs us nothing of the manner in which bodies move in space and time, and this was precisely what Galileo wished to determine.  He is concerned with quantities, not qualities; and his energy is thus devoted not to framing theories consistent with a rational scheme, but to measuring the speed of falling bodies in terms of time and space.[11] 


In the scholastic doctrine of the heavenly bodies we have an illustration of the strange fact that a belief can be metaphysically ‘true’ (in the sense of ‘coherent’ or ‘consistent’) and yet empirically false, that is, not in correspondence with what we call a ‘state of affairs’.  The received scholastic doctrine, for instance, taught that the heavenly bodies are unalterable and incorruptible.  This belief seems to have rested on the assumption (fact, as it then appeared) that the motions of the heavenly bodies were circular.[12] 


Thus the metaphysical theory of the heavens is confronted by comets, new stars, and sun-spots seen through the telescope; and Salviatus, speaking for Galileo himself, makes much of an alleged saying of Aristotle that we ought to prefer sense-evidence to logic.[13] 


Galileo admitted that he knew nothing about the ultimate nature of the forces he was measuring; nothing about the cause of gravitation, or the origin of the Universe; he deemed it better, rather than to speculate on such high matters, ‘to pronounce that wise, ingenious and modest sentence, “I know it not”.[14] 


Whereas theologians at Padua could have refused to look through Galileo’s telescope at the satellites of Jupiter because they knew it could not have any (that would conflict with theological premises), Galileo looked—the difference here is the presence or absence of an empirical spirit!  Of course, the theologians of Padua had the authority of the Bible to rest upon—and geocentrism is deeply entrenched in the Biblical view: on the first day, according to it the deity created the Earth, and it was not until day four that the sun, moon, and other stars were created.[15]  Clearly, defenders of geocentrism contend, the Earth can not be said to circle something whose existence is subsequent to its own existence.  Today’s internet has many sites which defend geocentrism.  For example, Gerardus D. Bouw maintains that:


to hear tell, geocentrism, the ancient doctrine that the earth is fixed motionless at the center of the universe, died over four centuries ago.  At that time Nicolaus Copernicus…a Polish canon who dabbled in astrology, claimed that the sun and not the earth was at the center of the universe.  His idea is known as heliocentrism.  It took a hundred years for heliocentrism to become the dominant opinion, and it did so with a complete lack of evidence in its favor.[16] 


Following a venerable and old tradition, Bouw maintains that:


the strongest geocentric verse in the Bible is Joshua 10:13:

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.  Is not this written in the book of Jasher?  So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hastened not to go down about a whole day. 

Here the Moderator of Scripture, the Holy Ghost Himself, endorses the daily movement of the sun and moon.  After all, God could just as well have written: “and the earth stopped turning, so that the sun appeared to stand still, and the moon seemed to stay….”  The wording would be no more “confusing” the reader than anything in Job chapters 38 through 41…. 

….The Copernican Revolution, as this change of view is called, was not just a revolution in astronomy, but it also spread into politics and theology.  In particular, it set the stage for the development of Bible criticism.  After all, if God cannot be taken literally when He writes of “the rising of the sun,” then how can He be taken literally in writing of “the rising of the Son?”[17] 


     There is much that is similar between the Greek and Roman Periods, on the one hand, and the Modern one on the other.  To get at this commonality, ask yourself:


“What is being “rediscovered” (or re-born) in the Renaissance?” 


Plato was our representative thinker for the Ancient and Roman Periods, and Thomas Hobbes will be one of two representative thinkers for the Modern Period—the other will be Rene Descartes, and we will be dealing with him at the end of the course. 


5. Further Periods:


Some would maintain that there are periods after the modern one, but I will leave this issue largely untouched.  According to some, the “Late Modern Philosophy”) extends from Kant (1724-1804), through Hegel (1779-1831), Mill (1806-1873), Darwin (1809-1882), Kierkegaard (1813-1885), Marx (1818-1883), Nietzsche (1844-1900), and into the current century.  Some contend, however, that we live in the Post-Modern period.  This is another story—and any understanding of what post-modernism “is” would require some understanding of modernism anyway. 



Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience (N.Y.: Mentor, 1957), p. 177. 

[2] This includes the Medieval Renaissance (1100-1300): where there was translation of Greek texts (Euclid, Ptolemy, Aristotle); study of Aristotle’s methods of observation, experiment, and logical reasoning; and work to reconcile faith and the new forms of reasoning.  Aquinas (1226-1274) was especially concerned with the latter.  William of Ockham (1300-1349) denied Aquinas’ project because religious claims must be taken only on faith—he rejected Medieval metaphysics and contended that non-revealed claims must be based on experience. 

[3] Cf., Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1936). 

[4] Teleological explanations occur when past and present events are explained in terms of future events (they are “goal-oriented” explanations).  They are often contrasted with mechanical explanations which hold that present and future events are to be explained in terms of past mechanical events and their consequences. The contrast is well-stated by Wilber Long in his entry under “teleology” in Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert Runes (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1960), p. 315. 

[5] Michael Matthews, The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), p. 6—emphasis is mine. 

[6] Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (New York: Columbia U.P., 1967), p. 16. 

[7] Ibid., p. 17. 

[8] John Paul II, remarks at L’Osservatore Romano, November 4, 1992.  

[9] Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” [1615], trans. Stillman Drake, in The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York: Free Press, 1966), p. 62. 

[10] In the Wikipedia article “Galileo Affair,” there is a citation of a letter he wrote to Kepler in 1610 complaining that some that some university professors opposed his account but refused to look through the telescope.  Cf., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair (accessed 05/29/14). 

[11] Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, op. cit., p. 17. 

[12] Ibid., p. 19. 

[13] Ibid., p. 20. 

[14] Ibid., p. 21. 

[15] The Bible, Genesis I, 1-20. 

[16] Gerardus Bouw, “Why Geocentricity?”, http://www.geocentricity.com/geocentricity/whygeo.html, last modified May 7, 2001, and accessed on May 5, 2011. 

[17] Ibid. 

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