History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.


Modern philosophy


Modern philosophy » The Enlightenment » Nonepistemological movements in the Enlightenment » Social and political philosophy

Apart from epistemology, the most significant philosophical contributions of the Enlightenment were made in the fields of social and political philosophy. The Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690) by Locke and The Social Contract (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) proposed justifications of political association grounded in the newer political requirements of the age. The Renaissance political philosophies of Machiavelli, Bodin, and Hobbes had presupposed or defended the absolute power of kings and rulers. But the Enlightenment theories of Locke and Rousseau championed the freedom and equality of citizens. It was a natural historical transformation. The 16th and 17th centuries were the age of absolutism; the chief problem of politics was that of maintaining internal order, and political theory was conducted in the language of national sovereignty. But the 18th century was the age of the democratic revolutions; the chief political problem was that of securing freedom and revolting against injustice, and political theory was expressed in the idiom of natural and inalienable rights.

Locke’s political philosophy explicitly denied the divine right of kings and the absolute power of the sovereign. Instead, he insisted on a natural and universal right to freedom and equality. The state of nature in which human beings originally lived was not, as Hobbes imagined, intolerable, though it did have certain inconveniences. Therefore, people banded together to form society—as Aristotle taught, “not simply to live, but to live well.” Political power, Locke argued, can never be exercised apart from its ultimate purpose, which is the common good, for the political contract is undertaken in order to preserve life, liberty, and property.

Locke thus stated one of the fundamental principles of political liberalism: that there can be no subjection to power without consent—though once political society has been founded, citizens are obligated to accept the decisions of a majority of their number. Such decisions are made on behalf of the majority by the legislature, though the ultimate power of choosing the legislature rests with the people; and even the powers of the legislature are not absolute, because the law of nature remains as a permanent standard and as a principle of protection against arbitrary authority.

Rousseau’s more radical political doctrines were built upon Lockean foundations. For him, too, the convention of the social contract formed the basis of all legitimate political authority, though his conception of citizenship was much more organic and much less individualistic than Locke’s. The surrender of natural liberty for civil liberty means that all individual rights (among them property rights) become subordinate to the general will. For Rousseau the state is a moral person whose life is the union of its members, whose laws are acts of the general will, and whose end is the liberty and equality of its citizens. It follows that when any government usurps the power of the people, the social contract is broken; and not only are the citizens no longer compelled to obey, but they also have an obligation to rebel. Rousseau’s defiant collectivism was clearly a revolt against Locke’s systematic individualism; for Rousseau the fundamental category was not “natural person” but “citizen.” Nevertheless, however much they differed, in these two social theorists of the Enlightenment is to be found the germ of all modern liberalism: its faith in representative democracy, in civil liberties, and in the basic dignity of human beings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Swiss-born French philosopher

born June 28, 1712, Geneva, Switz.
died July 2, 1778, Ermenonville, France

Swiss-born philosopher, writer, and political theorist whose treatises and novels inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and the Romantic generation.

Rousseau was the least academic of modern philosophers and in many ways was the most influential. His thought marked the end of the Age of Reason. He propelled political and ethical thinking into new channels. His reforms revolutionized taste, first in music, then in the other arts. He had a profound impact on people’s way of life; he taught parents to take a new interest in their children and to educate them differently; he furthered the expression of emotion rather than polite restraint in friendship and love. He introduced the cult of religious sentiment among people who had discarded religious dogma. He opened men’s eyes to the beauties of nature, and he made liberty an object of almost universal aspiration.

Formative years
Rousseau’s mother died in childbirth and he was brought up by his father, who taught him to believe that the city of his birth was a republic as splendid as Sparta or ancient Rome. Rousseau senior had an equally glorious image of his own importance; after marrying above his modest station as a watchmaker, he got into trouble with the civil authorities by brandishing the sword that his upper-class pretentions prompted him to wear, and he had to leave Geneva to avoid imprisonment. Rousseau, the son, then lived for six years as a poor relation in his mother’s family, patronized and humiliated, until he, too, at the age of 16, fled from Geneva to live the life of an adventurer and a Roman Catholic convert in the kingdoms of Sardinia and France.

Rousseau was fortunate in finding in the province of Savoy a benefactress named the Baronne de Warens, who provided him with a refuge in her home and employed him as her steward. She also furthered his education to such a degree that the boy who had arrived on her doorstep as a stammering apprentice who had never been to school developed into a philosopher, a man of letters, and a musician.

Mme de Warens, who thus transformed the adventurer into a philosopher, was herself an adventuress—a Swiss convert to Catholicism who had stripped her husband of his money before fleeing to Savoy with the gardener’s son to set herself up as a Catholic missionary specializing in the conversion of young male Protestants. Her morals distressed Rousseau, even when he became her lover. But she was a woman of taste, intelligence, and energy, who brought out in Rousseau just the talents that were needed to conquer Paris at a time when Voltaire had made radical ideas fashionable.

Rousseau reached Paris when he was 30 and was lucky enough to meet another young man from the provinces seeking literary fame in the capital, Denis Diderot. The two soon became immensely successful as the centre of a group of intellectuals—or “Philosophes”—who gathered round the great French Encyclopédie, of which Diderot was appointed editor. The Encyclopédie was an important organ of radical and anticlerical opinion, and its contributors were as much reforming and even iconoclastic pamphleteers as they were philosophers. Rousseau, the most original of them all in his thinking and the most forceful and eloquent in his style of writing, was soon the most conspicuous. He wrote music as well as prose, and one of his operas, Le Devin du village (1752; The Cunning-Man), attracted so much admiration from the king and the court that he might have enjoyed an easy life as a fashionable composer, but something in his Calvinist blood rejected this type of worldly glory. Indeed, at the age of 37 Rousseau had what he called an “illumination” while walking to Vincennes to visit Diderot, who had been imprisoned there because of his irreligious writings. In the Confessions, which he wrote late in life, Rousseau says that it came to him then in a “terrible flash” that modern progress had corrupted instead of improved men. He went on to write his first important work, a prize essay for the Academy of Dijon entitled Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts), in which he argues that the history of man’s life on earth has been a history of decay.

This Discourse is by no means Rousseau’s best piece of writing, but its central theme was to inform almost everything else he wrote. Throughout his life he kept returning to the thought that man is good by nature but has been corrupted by society and civilization. He did not mean to suggest that society and civilization were inherently bad but rather that both had taken a wrong direction and become more harmful as they had become more sophisticated. This idea in itself was not unfamiliar when Rousseau published his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. Many Roman Catholic writers deplored the direction that European culture had taken since the Middle Ages. They shared the hostility toward progress that Rousseau had expressed. What they did not share was his belief that man was naturally good. It was, however, just this belief in man’s natural goodness that Rousseau made the cornerstone of his argument.

Rousseau may well have received the inspiration for this belief from Mme de Warens; for although that unusual woman had become a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church, she retained—and transmitted to Rousseau—much of the sentimental optimism about human purity that she had herself absorbed as a child from the mystical Protestant Pietists who were her teachers in the canton of Bern. At all events, the idea of man’s natural goodness, as Rousseau developed it, set him apart from both conservatives and radicals. Even so, for several years after the publication of his first Discourse, he remained a close collaborator in Diderot’s essentially progressive enterprise, the Encyclopédie, and an active contributor to its pages. His speciality there was music, and it was in this sphere that he first established his influence as reformer.

Controversy with Rameau
The arrival of an Italian opera company in Paris in 1752 to perform works of opera buffa by Pergolesi, Scarlatti, Vinci, Leo, and other such composers suddenly divided the French music-loving public into two excited camps, supporters of the new Italian opera and supporters of the traditional French opera. The Philosophes of the Encyclopédie—d’Alembert, Diderot, and d’Holbach among them—entered the fray as champions of Italian music, but Rousseau, who had arranged for the publication of Pergolesi’s music in Paris and who knew more about the subject than most Frenchmen after the months he had spent visiting the opera houses of Venice during his time as secretary to the French ambassador to the doge in 1743–44, emerged as the most forceful and effective combatant. He was the only one to direct his fire squarely at the leading living exponent of French operatic music, Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Rousseau and Rameau must at that time have seemed unevenly matched in a controversy about music. Rameau, already in his 70th year, was not only a prolific and successful composer but was also, as the author of the celebrated Traité de l’harmonie (1722; Treatise on Harmony) and other technical works, Europe’s leading musicologist. Rousseau, by contrast, was 30 years younger, a newcomer to music, with no professional training and only one successful opera to his credit. His scheme for a new notation for music had been rejected by the Academy of Sciences, and most of his musical entries for Diderot’s Encyclopédie were as yet unpublished. Yet the dispute was not only musical but also philosophical, and Rameau was confronted with a more formidable adversary than he had realized. Rousseau built his case for the superiority of Italian music over French on the principle that melody must have priority over harmony, whereas Rameau based his on the assertion that harmony must have priority over melody. By pleading for melody, Rousseau introduced what later came to be recognized as a characteristic idea of Romanticism, namely, that in art the free expression of the creative spirit is more important than strict adhesion to formal rules and traditional procedures. By pleading for harmony, Rameau reaffirmed the first principle of French Classicism, namely, that conformity to rationally intelligible rules is a necessary condition of art, the aim of which is to impose order on the chaos of human experience.

In music, Rousseau was a liberator. He argued for freedom in music, and he pointed to the Italian composers as models to be followed. In doing so he had more success than Rameau; he changed people’s attitudes. Gluck, who succeeded Rameau as the most important operatic composer in France, acknowledged his debt to Rousseau’s teaching, and Mozart based the text for his one-act operetta Bastien und Bastienne on Rousseau’s Devin du village. European music had taken a new direction. But Rousseau himself composed no more operas. Despite the success of Le Devin du village, or rather because of its success, Rousseau felt that, as a moralist who had decided to make a break with worldly values, he could not allow himself to go on working for the theatre. He decided to devote his energies henceforth to literature and philosophy.

Major works of political philosophy
As part of what Rousseau called his “reform,” or improvement of his own character, he began to look back at some of the austere principles that he had learned as a child in the Calvinist republic of Geneva. Indeed he decided to return to that city, repudiate his Catholicism, and seek readmission to the Protestant church. He had in the meantime acquired a mistress, an illiterate laundry maid named Thérèse Levasseur. To the surprise of his friends, he took her with him to Geneva, presenting her as a nurse. Although her presence caused some murmurings, Rousseau was readmitted easily to the Calvinist communion, his literary fame having made him very welcome to a city that prided itself as much on its culture as on its morals.

Rousseau had by this time completed a second Discourse in response to a question set by the Academy of Dijon: “What is the origin of the inequality among men and is it justified by natural law?” In response to this challenge he produced a masterpiece of speculative anthropology. The argument follows on that of his first Discourse by developing the proposition that natural man is good and then tracing the successive stages by which man has descended from primitive innocence to corrupt sophistication.

Rousseau begins his Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité (1755; Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) by distinguishing two kinds of inequality, natural and artificial, the first arising from differences in strength, intelligence, and so forth, the second from the conventions that govern societies. It is the inequalities of the latter sort that he sets out to explain. Adopting what he thought the properly “scientific” method of investigating origins, he attempts to reconstruct the earliest phases of man’s experience of life on earth. He suggests that original man was not a social being but entirely solitary, and to this extent he agrees with Hobbes’s account of the state of nature. But in contrast to the English pessimist’s view that the life of man in such a condition must have been “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau claims that original man, while admittedly solitary, was healthy, happy, good, and free. The vices of men, he argues, date from the time when men formed societies.

Rousseau thus exonerates nature and blames society for the emergence of vices. He says that passions that generate vices hardly exist in the state of nature but begin to develop as soon as men form societies. Rousseau goes on to suggest that societies started when men built their first huts, a development that facilitated cohabitation of males and females; this in turn produced the habit of living as a family and associating with neighbours. This “nascent society,” as Rousseau calls it, was good while it lasted; it was indeed the “golden age” of human history. Only it did not endure. With the tender passion of love there was also born the destructive passion of jealousy. Neighbours started to compare their abilities and achievements with one another, and this “marked the first step towards inequality and at the same time towards vice.” Men started to demand consideration and respect; their innocent self-love turned into culpable pride, as each man wanted to be better than everyone else.

The introduction of property marked a further step toward inequality since it made it necessary for men to institute law and government in order to protect property. Rousseau laments the “fatal” concept of property in one of his more eloquent passages, describing the “horrors” that have resulted from men’s departure from a condition in which the earth belonged to no one. These passages in his second Discourse excited later revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin, but Rousseau himself did not think that the past could be undone in any way; there was no point in men dreaming of a return to the golden age.

Civil society, as Rousseau describes it, comes into being to serve two purposes: to provide peace for everyone and to ensure the right to property for anyone lucky enough to have possessions. It is thus of some advantage to everyone, but mostly to the advantage of the rich, since it transforms their de facto ownership into rightful ownership and keeps the poor dispossessed. It is a somewhat fraudulent social contract that introduces government since the poor get so much less out of it than do the rich. Even so, the rich are no happier in civil society than are the poor because social man is never satisfied. Society leads men to hate one another to the extent that their interests conflict, and the best they are able to do is to hide their hostility behind a mask of courtesy. Thus Rousseau regards the inequality between men not as a separate problem but as one of the features of the long process by which men become alienated from nature and from innocence.

In the dedication Rousseau wrote for the Discourse, in order to present it to the republic of Geneva, he nevertheless praises that city-state for having achieved the ideal balance between “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they have instituted among themselves.” The arrangement he discerned in Geneva was one in which the best men were chosen by the citizens and put in the highest positions of authority. Like Plato, Rousseau always believed that a just society was one in which everyone was in his right place. And having written the Discourse to explain how men had lost their liberty in the past, he went on to write another book, Du Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), to suggest how they might recover their liberty in the future. Again Geneva was the model; not Geneva as it had become in 1754 when Rousseau returned there to recover his rights as a citizen, but Geneva as it had once been; i.e., Geneva as Calvin had designed it.

The Social Contract begins with the sensational opening sentence: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” and proceeds to argue that men need not be in chains. If a civil society, or state, could be based on a genuine social contract, as opposed to the fraudulent social contract depicted in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, men would receive in exchange for their independence a better kind of freedom, namely true political, or republican, liberty. Such liberty is to be found in obedience to a self-imposed law.

Rousseau’s definition of political liberty raises an obvious problem. For while it can be readily agreed that an individual is free if he obeys only rules he prescribes for himself, this is so because an individual is a person with a single will. A society, by contrast, is a set of persons with a set of individual wills, and conflict between separate wills is a fact of universal experience. Rousseau’s response to the problem is to define his civil society as an artificial person united by a general will, or volonté générale. The social contract that brings society into being is a pledge, and the society remains in being as a pledged group. Rousseau’s republic is a creation of the general will—of a will that never falters in each and every member to further the public, common, or national interest—even though it may conflict at times with personal interest.

Rousseau sounds very much like Hobbes when he says that under the pact by which men enter civil society everyone totally alienates himself and all his rights to the whole community. Rousseau, however, represents this act as a form of exchange of rights whereby men give up natural rights in return for civil rights. The bargain is a good one because what men surrender are rights of dubious value, whose realization depends solely on an individual man’s own might, and what they obtain in return are rights that are both legitimate and enforced by the collective force of the community.

There is no more haunting paragraph in The Social Contract than that in which Rousseau speaks of “forcing a man to be free.” But it would be wrong to interpret these words in the manner of those critics who see Rousseau as a prophet of modern totalitarianism. He does not claim that a whole society can be forced to be free but only that an occasional individual, who is enslaved by his passions to the extent of disobeying the law, can be restored by force to obedience to the voice of the general will that exists inside of him. The man who is coerced by society for a breach of the law is, in Rousseau’s view, being brought back to an awareness of his own true interests.

For Rousseau there is a radical dichotomy between true law and actual law. Actual law, which he describes in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, simply protects the status quo. True law, as described in The Social Contract, is just law, and what ensures its being just is that it is made by the people in its collective capacity as sovereign and obeyed by the same people in their individual capacities as subjects. Rousseau is confident that such laws could not be unjust because it is inconceivable that any people would make unjust laws for itself.

Rousseau is, however, troubled by the fact that the majority of a people does not necessarily represent its most intelligent citizens. Indeed, he agrees with Plato that most people are stupid. Thus the general will, while always morally sound, is sometimes mistaken. Hence Rousseau suggests the people need a lawgiver—a great mind like Solon or Lycurgus or Calvin—to draw up a constitution and system of laws. He even suggests that such lawgivers need to claim divine inspiration in order to persuade the dim-witted multitude to accept and endorse the laws it is offered.

This suggestion echoes a similar proposal by Machiavelli, a political theorist Rousseau greatly admired and whose love of republican government he shared. An even more conspicuously Machiavellian influence can be discerned in Rousseau’s chapter on civil religion, where he argues that Christianity, despite its truth, is useless as a republican religion on the grounds that it is directed to the unseen world and does nothing to teach citizens the virtues that are needed in the service of the state, namely, courage, virility, and patriotism. Rousseau does not go so far as Machiavelli in proposing a revival of pagan cults, but he does propose a civil religion with minimal theological content designed to fortify and not impede (as Christianity impedes) the cultivation of martial virtues. It is understandable that the authorities of Geneva, profoundly convinced that the national church of their little republic was at the same time a truly Christian church and a nursery of patriotism, reacted angrily against this chapter in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

By the year 1762, however, when The Social Contract was published, Rousseau had given up any thought of settling in Geneva. After recovering his citizen’s rights in 1754, he had returned to Paris and the company of his friends around the Encyclopédie. But he became increasingly ill at ease in such worldly society and began to quarrel with his fellow Philosophes. An article for the Encyclopédie on the subject of Geneva, written by d’Alembert at Voltaire’s instigation, upset Rousseau partly by suggesting that the pastors of the city had lapsed from Calvinist severity into unitarian laxity and partly by proposing that a theatre should be erected there. Rousseau hastened into print with a defense of the Calvinist orthodoxy of the pastors and with an elaborate attack on the theatre as an institution that could only do harm to an innocent community such as Geneva.

Years of seclusion and exile
By the time his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758; Letter to Monsieur d’Alembert on the Theatre) appeared in print, Rousseau had already left Paris to pursue a life closer to nature on the country estate of his friend Mme d’Épinay near Montmorency. When the hospitality of Mme d’Épinay proved to entail much the same social round as that of Paris, Rousseau retreated to a nearby cottage, called Montlouis, under the protection of the Maréchal de Luxembourg. But even this highly placed friend could not save him in 1762 when his treatise on education, Émile, was published and scandalized the pious Jansenists of the French Parlements even as The Social Contract scandalized the Calvinists of Geneva. In Paris, as in Geneva, they ordered the book to be burned and the author arrested; all the Maréchal de Luxembourg could do was to provide a carriage for Rousseau to escape from France. After formally renouncing his Genevan citizenship in 1763, Rousseau became a fugitive, spending the rest of his life moving from one refuge to another.

The years at Montmorency had been the most productive of his literary career; besides The Social Contract and Émile, Julie: ou, la nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Julie: or, The New Eloise) came out within 12 months, all three works of seminal importance. The New Eloise, being a novel, escaped the censorship to which the other two works were subject; indeed of all his books it proved to be the most widely read and the most universally praised in his lifetime. It develops the Romanticism that had already informed his writings on music and perhaps did more than any other single work of literature to influence the spirit of its age. It made the author at least as many friends among the reading public—and especially among educated women—as The Social Contract and Émile made enemies among magistrates and priests. If it did not exempt him from persecution, at least it ensured that his persecution was observed, and admiring femmes du monde intervened from time to time to help him so that Rousseau was never, unlike Voltaire and Diderot, actually imprisoned.

The theme of The New Eloise provides a striking contrast to that of The Social Contract. It is about people finding happiness in domestic as distinct from public life, in the family as opposed to the state. The central character, Saint-Preux, is a middle-class preceptor who falls in love with his upper-class pupil, Julie. She returns his love and yields to his advances, but the difference between their classes makes marriage between them impossible. Baron d’Étange, Julie’s father, has indeed promised her to a fellow nobleman named Wolmar. As a dutiful daughter, Julie marries Wolmar and Saint-Preux goes off on a voyage around the world with an English aristocrat, Bomston, from whom he acquires a certain stoicism. Julie succeeds in forgetting her feelings for Saint-Preux and finds happiness as wife, mother, and chatelaine. Some six years later Saint-Preux returns from his travels and is engaged as tutor to the Wolmar children. All live together in harmony, and there are only faint echoes of the old affair between Saint-Preux and Julie. The little community, dominated by Julie, illustrates one of Rousseau’s political principles: that while men should rule the world in public life, women should rule men in private life. At the end of The New Eloise, when Julie has made herself ill in an attempt to rescue one of her children from drowning, she comes face-to-face with a truth about herself: that her love for Saint-Preux has never died.

The novel was clearly inspired by Rousseau’s own curious relationship—at once passionate and platonic—with Sophie d’Houdetot, a noblewoman who lived near him at Montmorency. He himself asserted in the Confessions (1781–88) that he was led to write the book by “a desire for loving, which I had never been able to satisfy and by which I felt myself devoured.” Saint-Preux’s experience of love forbidden by the laws of class reflects Rousseau’s own experience; and yet it cannot be said that The New Eloise is an attack on those laws, which seem, on the contrary, to be given the status almost of laws of nature. The members of the Wolmar household are depicted as finding happiness in living according to an aristocratic ideal. They appreciate the routines of country life and enjoy the beauties of the Swiss and Savoyard Alps. But despite such an endorsement of the social order, the novel was revolutionary; its very free expression of emotions and its extreme sensibility deeply moved its large readership and profoundly influenced literary developments.

Émile is a book that seems to appeal alternately to the republican ethic of The Social Contract and the aristocratic ethic of The New Eloise. It is also halfway between a novel and a didactic essay. Described by the author as a treatise on education, it is not about schooling but about the upbringing of a rich man’s son by a tutor who is given unlimited authority over him. At the same time the book sets out to explore the possibilities of an education for republican citizenship. The basic argument of the book, as Rousseau himself expressed it, is that vice and error, which are alien to a child’s original nature, are introduced by external agencies, so that the work of a tutor must always be directed to counteracting those forces by manipulating pressures that will work with nature and not against it. Rousseau devotes many pages to explaining the methods the tutor must use. These methods involve a noticeable measure of deceit, and although corporal punishment is forbidden, mental cruelty is not.

Whereas The Social Contract is concerned with the problems of achieving freedom, Émile is concerned with achieving happiness and wisdom. In this different context religion plays a different role. Instead of a civil religion, Rousseau here outlines a personal religion, which proves to be a kind of simplified Christianity, involving neither revelation nor the familiar dogmas of the church. In the guise of La Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard (1765; The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar) Rousseau sets out what may fairly be regarded as his own religious views, since that book confirms what he says on the subject in his private correspondence. Rousseau could never entertain doubts about God’s existence or about the immortality of the soul. He felt, moreover, a strong emotional drive toward the worship of God, whose presence he felt most forcefully in nature, especially in mountains and forests untouched by the hand of man. He also attached great importance to conscience, the “divine voice of the soul in man,” opposing this both to the bloodless categories of rationalistic ethics and to the cold tablets of biblical authority.

This minimal creed put Rousseau at odds with the orthodox adherents of the churches and with the openly atheistic Philosophes of Paris, so that despite the enthusiasm that some of his writings, and especially The New Eloise, excited in the reading public, he felt himself increasingly isolated, tormented, and pursued. After he had been expelled from France, he was chased from canton to canton in Switzerland. He reacted to the suppression of The Social Contract in Geneva by indicting the regime of that city-state in a pamphlet entitled Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764; Letters Written from the Mountain). No longer, as in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, was Geneva depicted as a model republic but as one that had been taken over by “twenty-five despots”; the subjects of the king of England were said to be free men by comparison with the victims of Genevan tryranny.

It was in England that Rousseau found refuge after he had been banished from the canton of Bern. The Scottish philosopher David Hume took him there and secured the offer of a pension from King George III; but once in England, Rousseau became aware that certain British intellectuals were making fun of him, and he suspected Hume of participating in the mockery. Various symptoms of paranoia began to manifest themselves in Rousseau, and he returned to France incognito. Believing that Thérèse was the only person he could rely on, he finally married her in 1768, when he was 56 years old.

The last decade
In the remaining 10 years of his life Rousseau produced primarily autobiographical writings, mostly intended to justify himself against the accusations of his adversaries. The most important was his Confessions, modeled on the work of the same title by St. Augustine and achieving something of the same classic status. He also wrote Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques (1780; “Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques”) to reply to specific charges by his enemies and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Reveries of the Solitary Walker), one of the most moving of his books, in which the intense passion of his earlier writings gives way to a gentle lyricism and serenity. And indeed, Rousseau does seem to have recovered his peace of mind in his last years, when he was once again afforded refuge on the estates of great French noblemen, first the Prince de Conti and then the Marquis de Girardin, in whose park at Ermenonville he died.

Maurice Cranston


Modern philosophy » The Enlightenment » Nonepistemological movements in the Enlightenment » Professionalization of philosophy

In his Éléments de philosophie (1759; “Elements of Philosophy”), d’Alembert wrote:

Our century is the century of philosophy par excellence. If one considers without bias the present state of our knowledge, one cannot deny that philosophy among us has shown progress.

D’Alembert was calling attention to the self-examination for which the 18th century is famous, and he was undoubtedly referring to the activities of mathematicians (like himself), jurists, economists, and amateur moralists rather than to those of narrow philosophical specialists. But the 18th century was clearly the “century of philosophy par excellence” in a more technical sense also, for it was the period in which philosophizing first began to pass from the hands of gentlemen and amateurs into those of true professionals. The chief sign of this shift was the return of reputable philosophy to the universities.

This transformation first occurred in Germany and is mainly associated with the University of Halle (founded 1694). During the time of the generation between Leibniz and Kant, the philosophical climate changed profoundly. The best representative of this change was Christian Wolff (1679–1754), who taught philosophy at Halle. Kant called Wolff “the real originator of the spirit of thoroughness in Germany,” and Wolff was indeed a pioneer in techniques that transformed philosophy into a professional discipline: the self-conscious adoption of a systematic approach and the creation of a specialized philosophical vocabulary. Wolff carefully distinguished the various fields of philosophy, wrote textbooks in each of them, which were used in the German universities for many years, and created many of the specialized philosophical terms that have survived to the present day.

The German Enlightenment was the first modern period to produce specialists in philosophy. In England philosophizing in the universities did not become serious until well after the time of Hume, but already philosophical fields had been sufficiently distinguished to be represented by distinct professorships. The titles professor of mental philosophy, professor of moral philosophy, and professor of metaphysical philosophy, as they arose at Oxford and Cambridge, were the product of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Two additional features of the German Enlightenment are relevant:
(1) the founding of the first professional journals and
(2) the increasing concern of philosophy with its own history.

The learned journal, like the scientific society, was an innovation of the 17th century. But what had begun as a general intellectual endeavour became in 18th-century Germany a specifically philosophical enterprise. Journals were published in great numbers: e.g., Acta Philosophorum (Halle, 1715–26), Der philosophische Büchersaal (Leipzig, 1741–44; “The Philosophical Book Room”), and the short-lived Neues philosophisches Magazin (Leipzig, 1789–91), devoted exclusively to the philosophy of Kant.

More interesting still is the publication of voluminous German histories of philosophy after 1740, among them Johann Brucker’s The History of Philosophy, 6 vol. (1742–67); Johann Buhle’s Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, 8 vol. (1796–1804; “Textbook on the History of Philosophy”); Dietrich Tiedemann’s Geist der spekulativen Philosophie von Thales bis Berkeley, 6 vol. (1791–97; “The Spirit of Speculative Philosophy from Thales to Berkeley”); and Gottlieb Tennemann’s Geschichte der Philosophie, 11 vol. (1789–1819; excerpted in A Manual of the History of Philosophy).

Jean Le Rond d’Alembert
French mathematician and philosopher

born , Nov. 17, 1717, Paris, France
died Oct. 29, 1783, Paris

French mathematician, philosopher, and writer, who achieved fame as a mathematician and scientist before acquiring a considerable reputation as a contributor to and editor of the famous Encyclopédie.

Early life
The illegitimate son of a famous hostess, Mme de Tencin, and one of her lovers, the chevalier Destouches-Canon, d’Alembert was abandoned on the steps of the Parisian church of Saint-Jean-le-Rond, from which he derived his Christian name. Although Mme de Tencin never recognized her son, Destouches eventually sought out the child and entrusted him to a glazier’s wife, whom d’Alembert always treated as his mother. Through his father’s influence, he was admitted to a prestigious Jansenist school, enrolling first as Jean-Baptiste Daremberg and subsequently changing his name, perhaps for reasons of euphony, to d’Alembert. Although Destouches never disclosed his identity as father of the child, he left his son an annuity of 1,200 livres. D’Alembert’s teachers at first hoped to train him for theology, being perhaps encouraged by a commentary he wrote on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but they inspired in him only a lifelong aversion to the subject. He spent two years studying law and became an advocate in 1738, although he never practiced. After taking up medicine for a year, he finally devoted himself to mathematics—“the only occupation,” he said later, “which really interested me.” Apart from some private lessons, d’Alembert was almost entirely self-taught.

In 1739 he read his first paper to the Academy of Sciences, of which he became a member in 1741. In 1743, at the age of 26, he published his important Traité de dynamique, a fundamental treatise on dynamics containing the famous “d’Alembert’s principle,” which states that Newton’s third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) is true for bodies that are free to move as well as for bodies rigidly fixed. Other mathematical works followed very rapidly; in 1744 he applied his principle to the theory of equilibrium and motion of fluids, in his Traité de l’équilibre et du mouvement des fluides. This discovery was followed by the development of partial differential equations, a branch of the theory of calculus, the first papers on which were published in his Réflexions sur la cause générale des vents (1747). It won him a prize at the Berlin Academy, to which he was elected the same year. In 1747 he applied his new calculus to the problem of vibrating strings, in his Recherches sur les cordes vibrantes; in 1749 he furnished a method of applying his principles to the motion of any body of a given shape; and in 1749 he found an explanation of the precession of the equinoxes (a gradual change in the position of the Earth’s orbit), determined its characteristics, and explained the phenomenon of the nutation (nodding) of the Earth’s axis, in Recherches sur la précession des équinoxes et sur la nutation de l’axe de la terre. In 1752 he published Essai d’une nouvelle théorie de la résistance des fluides, an essay containing various original ideas and new observations. In it he considered air as an incompressible elastic fluid composed of small particles and, carrying over from the principles of solid body mechanics the view that resistance is related to loss of momentum on impact of moving bodies, he produced the surprising result that the resistance of the particles was zero. D’Alembert was himself dissatisfied with the result; the conclusion is known as “d’Alembert’s paradox” and is not accepted by modern physicists. In the Memoirs of the Berlin Academy he published findings of his research on integral calculus—which devises relationships of variables by means of rates of change of their numerical value—a branch of mathematical science that is greatly indebted to him. In his Recherches sur différents points importants du système du monde (1754–56) he perfected the solution of the problem of the perturbations (variations of orbit) of the planets that he had presented to the academy some years before. From 1761 to 1780 he published eight volumes of his Opuscules mathématiques.

The Encyclopédie
Meanwhile, d’Alembert began an active social life and frequented well-known salons, where he acquired a considerable reputation as a witty conversationalist and mimic. Like his fellow Philosophes—those thinkers, writers, and scientists who believed in the sovereignty of reason and nature (as opposed to authority and revelation) and rebelled against old dogmas and institutions—he turned to the improvement of society. A rationalist thinker in the free-thinking tradition, he opposed religion and stood for tolerance and free discussion; in politics the Philosophes sought a liberal monarchy with an “enlightened” king who would supplant the old aristocracy with a new, intellectual aristocracy. Believing in man’s need to rely on his own powers, they promulgated a new social morality to replace Christian ethics. Science, the only real source of knowledge, had to be popularized for the benefit of the people, and it was in this tradition that he became associated with the Encyclopédie about 1746. When the original idea of a translation into French of Ephraim Chambers’ English Cyclopædia was replaced by that of a new work under the general editorship of the Philosophe Denis Diderot, d’Alembert was made editor of the mathematical and scientific articles. In fact, he not only helped with the general editorship and contributed articles on other subjects but also tried to secure support for the enterprise in influential circles. He wrote the Discours préliminaire that introduced the first volume of the work in 1751. This was a remarkable attempt to present a unified view of contemporary knowledge, tracing the development and interrelationship of its various branches and showing how they formed coherent parts of a single structure; the second section of the Discours was devoted to the intellectual history of Europe from the time of the Renaissance. In 1752 d’Alembert wrote a preface to Volume III, which was a vigorous rejoinder to the Encyclopédie’s critics, while an Éloge de Montesquieu, which served as the preface to Volume V (1755), skillfully but somewhat disingenuously presented Montesquieu as one of the Encyclopédie’s supporters. Montesquieu had, in fact, refused an invitation to write the articles “Democracy” and “Despotism,” and the promised article on “Taste” remained unfinished at his death in 1755.

In 1756 d’Alembert went to stay with Voltaire at Geneva, where he also collected information for an Encyclopédie article, “Genève,” which praised the doctrines and practices of the Genevan pastors. When it appeared in 1757, it aroused angry protests in Geneva because it affirmed that many of the ministers no longer believed in Christ’s divinity and also advocated (probably at Voltaire’s instigation) the establishment of a theatre. This article prompted Rousseau, who had contributed the articles on music to the Encyclopédie, to argue in his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758) that the theatre is invariably a corrupting influence. D’Alembert himself replied with an incisive but not unfriendly Lettre à J.-J. Rousseau, citoyen de Genève. Gradually discouraged by the growing difficulties of the enterprise, d’Alembert gave up his share of the editorship at the beginning of 1758, thereafter limiting his commitment to the production of mathematical and scientific articles.

Later literary, scientific, and philosophical work
His earlier literary and philosophical activity, however, led to the publication of his Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie (1753). This work contained the impressive Essai sur les gens de lettres, which exhorted writers to pursue “liberty, truth and poverty” and also urged aristocratic patrons to respect the talents and independence of such writers.

Largely as a result of the persistent campaigning of Mme du Deffand, a prominent hostess to writers and scientists, d’Alembert was elected to the French Academy in 1754; he proved himself to be a zealous member, working hard to enhance the dignity of the institution in the eyes of the public and striving steadfastly for the election of members sympathetic to the cause of the Philosophes. His personal position became even more influential in 1772 when he was made permanent secretary. One of his functions was the continuation of the Histoire des membres de l’Académie; this involved writing the biographies of all the members who had died between 1700 and 1772. He paid tribute to his predecessors by means of Éloges that were delivered at public sessions of the academy. Though of limited literary value, they throw interesting light on his attitude toward many contemporary problems and also reveal his desire to establish a link between the Academy and the public.

From 1752 onward, Frederick II of Prussia repeatedly tried to persuade d’Alembert to become president of the Berlin Academy, but the philosopher contented himself with a brief visit to the King at the Rhine village of Wesel in 1755 and a longer stay at Potsdam in 1763. For many years he gave the King advice on the running of the academy and the appointment of new members. In 1762 another monarch, the empress Catherine II of Russia, invited d’Alembert to become tutor to her son, the grand duke Paul; this offer also was refused. Apart from fearing the harmful effects of foreign residence upon his health and personal position, d’Alembert did not wish to be separated from the intellectual life of Paris.

Although as a skeptic, d’Alembert willingly supported the Philosophes’ hostility to Christianity, he was too cautious to become openly aggressive. The expulsion of the Jesuits from France, however, prompted him to publish “by a disinterested author,” at first anonymously, and then in his own name, Sur la destruction des Jésuites en France (1765; An Account of the Destruction of the Jesuits in France, 1766). He there tried to show that the Jesuits, in spite of their qualities as scholars and educators, had destroyed themselves through their inordinate love of power.

During these years d’Alembert’s interests included musical theory. His Éléments de musique of 1752 was an attempt to expound the principles of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), who had consolidated contemporary musical development into a harmonic system that dominated Western music until about 1900. In 1754 d’Alembert published an essay expressing his thoughts on music in general—and French music in particular—entitled Réflexions sur la musique en général et sur la musique française en particulier. He also published in his mathematical opuscules treatises on acoustics, the physics of sound, and he contributed several articles on music to the Encyclopédie. In 1765 a serious illness compelled him to leave his foster-mother’s house, and he eventually went to live in the house of Julie de Lespinasse, with whom he fell in love. He was the leading intellectual figure in her salon, which became an important recruiting centre for the French Academy. Although they may have been intimate for a short time, d’Alembert soon had to be satisfied with the role of steadfast friend. He discovered the extent of her passionate involvement with other men only after Julie’s death in 1776. He transferred his home to an apartment at the Louvre—to which he was entitled as secretary to the Academy—where he died.

Posterity has not confirmed the judgment of those contemporaries who placed d’Alembert’s reputation next to Voltaire’s. In spite of his original contributions to the mathematical sciences, intellectual timidity prevented his literary and philosophical work from attaining true greatness. Nevertheless, his scientific background enabled him to elaborate a philosophy of science that, inspired by the rationalist ideal of the ultimate unity of all knowledge, established “principles” making possible the interconnection of the various branches of science. Moreover, d’Alembert was a typical 18th-century Philosophe, for in both his life and his work he tried to invest the name with dignity and serious meaning. In his personal life he was simple and frugal, never seeking wealth and dispensing charity whenever possible, always watchful of his integrity and independence, and constantly using his influence, both at home and abroad, to encourage the advance of “enlightenment.”

Ronald Grimsley



Christian, baron von Wolff
German philosopher
Wolff also spelled Wolf
born Jan. 24, 1679, Breslau, Silesia [now Wrocław, Pol.]
died April 9, 1754, Halle, Prussia [now in Germany]

philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who worked in many subjects but who is best known as the German spokesman of the Enlightenment, the 18th-century philosophical movement characterized by Rationalism.

Wolff was educated at the universities of Breslau, Jena, and Leipzig and was a pupil of the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. On the recommendation of Leibniz he was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Halle in 1707, but he was banished in 1723 as a result of theological disputes with Pietists, who were followers of the German movement for an increase of piety in Lutheran churches. He became professor of mathematics and philosophy at the University of Marburg, Hesse (1723–40), and, as science adviser to Peter the Great (1716–25), he helped found the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in Russia. After returning to the University of Halle, at the request of the king of Prussia, Frederick II the Great, he became chancellor (1741–54).

Wolff wrote numerous works in philosophy, theology, psychology, botany, and physics. His series of essays all beginning under the title Vernünftige Gedanken (“Rational Ideas”) covered many subjects and expounded Leibniz’s theories in popular form. Wolff emphasized that every occurrence must have an adequate reason for happening or there arises the impossible alternative that something might come out of nothing. He applied the rational thought of the Anglo-French Enlightenment and of Leibniz and René Descartes in the development of his own philosophical system, the Wolffian philosophy. Rationalism and mathematical methodology formed the essence of this system, which was an important force in the development of German philosophical thought.


Modern philosophy » The Enlightenment » Critical examination of reason in Kant

All these developments led directly to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the modern period, whose works mark the true culmination of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Historically speaking, Kant’s great contribution was to elucidate both the sensory and the a priori elements in knowledge and thus to bridge the gap between the extreme rationalism of Leibniz and the extreme empiricism of Hume. But in addition to the brilliant content of his philosophical doctrines, Kant was responsible for three crucial philosophical innovations: (1) a new definition of philosophy, (2) a new conception of philosophical method, and (3) a new structural model for the writing of philosophy.

Kant conceived of reason as being at the very heart of the philosophical enterprise. Philosophy’s sole task, in his view, is to determine what reason can and cannot do. Philosophy, he said, “is the science of the relation of all knowledge to the essential ends of human reason”; its true aim is both constructive (“to outline the system of all knowledge arising from pure reason”) and critical (“to expose the illusions of a reason that forgets its limits”). Philosophy is thus a calling of great dignity, for its aim is wisdom, and its practitioners are themselves “lawgivers of reason.” But in order for philosophy to be “the science of the highest maxims of reason,” the philosopher must be able to determine the source, the extent, and the validity of human knowledge and the ultimate limits of reason. And these tasks require a special philosophical method.

Sometimes Kant called this the “transcendental method,” but more often the “critical method.” His purpose was to reject the dogmatic assumptions of the rationalist school, and his wish was to return to the semiskeptical position with which Descartes had begun before his dogmatic pretensions to certainty took hold. Kant’s method was to conduct a critical examination of the powers of a priori reason—an inquiry into what reason can achieve when all experience is removed. His method was based on a doctrine that he himself called “a Copernican revolution” in philosophy (by analogy with the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism in cosmology): the assumption that objects must conform to human knowledge—or to the human apparatus of knowing—rather than that human knowledge must conform to objects. The question then became: What is the exact nature of this knowing apparatus?

Unlike Descartes, Kant could not question that knowledge exists. No one raised in the Enlightenment could doubt, for example, that mathematics and Newtonian physics were real. Kant’s methodological question was rather: How is mathematical and physical knowledge possible? How must human knowledge be structured in order to make these sciences secure? The attempt to answer these questions was the task of Kant’s great work Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

Kant’s aim was to examine reason not merely in one of its domains but in each of its employments according to the threefold structure of the human mind that he had inherited from Wolff. Thus the critical examination of reason in thinking (science) is undertaken in the Critique of Pure Reason, that of reason in willing (ethics) in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and that of reason in feeling (aesthetics) in the Critique of Judgment (1790).


Immanuel Kant
German philosopher

born April 22, 1724, Königsberg, Prussia [now Kaliningrad, Russia]
died February 12, 1804, Königsberg

German philosopher whose comprehensive and systematic work in the theory of knowledge, ethics, and aesthetics greatly influenced all subsequent philosophy, especially the various schools of Kantianism and Idealism.

Kant was the foremost thinker of the Enlightenment and one of the greatest philosophers of all time. In him were subsumed new trends that had begun with the Rationalism (stressing reason) of René Descartes and the Empiricism (stressing experience) of Francis Bacon. He thus inaugurated a new era in the development of philosophical thought.

Background and early years
Kant lived in the remote province where he was born for his entire life. His father, a saddler, was, according to Kant, a descendant of a Scottish immigrant, although scholars have found no basis for this claim; his mother, an uneducated German woman, was remarkable for her character and natural intelligence. Both parents were devoted followers of the Pietist branch of the Lutheran Church, which taught that religion belongs to the inner life expressed in simplicity and obedience to moral law. The influence of their pastor made it possible for Kant—the fourth of nine children, but the eldest surviving child—to obtain an education.

At the age of eight Kant entered the Pietist school that his pastor directed. This was a Latin school, and it was presumably during the eight and a half years he was there that Kant acquired his lifelong love for the Latin classics, especially for the naturalistic poet Lucretius. In 1740 he enrolled in the University of Königsberg as a theological student. But, although he attended courses in theology and even preached on a few occasions, he was principally attracted to mathematics and physics. Aided by a young professor who had studied Christian Wolff, a systematizer of Rationalist philosophy, and who was also an enthusiast for the science of Sir Isaac Newton, Kant began reading the work of the English physicist and, in 1744, started his first book, dealing with a problem concerning kinetic forces. Though by that time he had decided to pursue an academic career, the death of his father in 1746 and his failure to obtain the post of undertutor in one of the schools attached to the university compelled him to withdraw and seek a means of supporting himself.

Background and early years » Tutor and Privatdozent
He found employment as a family tutor and, during the nine years that he gave to it, worked for three different families. With them he was introduced to the influential society of the city, acquired social grace, and made his farthest travels from his native city—some 60 miles (96 kilometres) away to the town of Arnsdorf. In 1755, aided by the kindness of a friend, he was able to complete his degree at the university and take up the position of Privatdozent, or lecturer.

Three dissertations that he presented on obtaining this post indicate the interest and direction of his thought at this time. In one, De Igne (On Fire), he argued that bodies operate on one another through the medium of a uniformly diffused elastic and subtle matter that is the underlying substance of both heat and light. His first teaching was in mathematics and physics, and he was never to lose his interest in scientific developments. That it was more than an amateur interest is shown by his publication within the next few years of several scientific works dealing with the different races of men, the nature of winds, the causes of earthquakes, and the general theory of the heavens.

At this period Newtonian physics was important to Kant as much for its philosophical implications as for its scientific content. A second dissertation, the Monodologia physica (1756), contrasted the Newtonian methods of thinking with those employed in the philosophy then prevailing in German universities. This was the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a universal scholar, as systematized and popularized by Wolff and by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, author of a widely used text, the Metaphysica (1739). Leibniz’ works as they are now known were not fully available to these writers; and the Leibnizian philosophy that they presented was extravagantly Rationalistic, abstract, and cut-and-dried. It nevertheless remained a powerful force, and the main efforts of independent thinkers in Germany at the time were devoted to examining Leibniz’s ideas.

In a third dissertation, Principiorum Primorum Cognitionis Metaphysicae Nova Dilucidato (1755), on the first principles of metaphysics, Kant analyzed especially the principle of sufficient reason, which, in Wolff’s formulation, asserts that for everything there is a sufficient reason why it should be rather than not be. Although critical, Kant was cautious and still a long way from challenging the assumptions of Leibnizian metaphysics.

During the 15 years that he spent as a Privatdozent, Kant’s renown as a teacher and writer steadily increased. Soon he was lecturing on many subjects other than physics and mathematics—including logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. He even lectured on fireworks and fortifications and every summer for 30 years taught a popular course on physical geography. He enjoyed great success as a lecturer; his lecturing style, which differed markedly from that of his books, was humorous and vivid, enlivened by many examples from his reading in English and French literature, and in travel and geography, science and philosophy.

Although he twice failed to obtain a professorship at Königsberg, he refused to accept offers that would have taken him elsewhere—including the professorship of poetry at Berlin that would have brought greater prestige. He preferred the peace and quiet of his native city in which to develop and mature his own philosophy.

Background and early years » Critic of Leibnizian Rationalism
During the 1760s he became increasingly critical of Leibnizianism. According to one of his students, Kant was then attacking Leibniz, Wolff, and Baumgarten, was a declared follower of Newton, and expressed great admiration for the moral philosophy of the Romanticist Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

His principal work of this period was Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral (1764; “An Inquiry into the Distinctness of the Fundamental Principles of Natural Theology and Morals”). In this work he attacked the claim of Leibnizian philosophy that philosophy should model itself on mathematics and aim at constructing a chain of demonstrated truths based on self-evident premises. Kant argued that mathematics proceeds from definitions that are arbitrary, by means of operations that are clearly and sharply defined, upon concepts that can be exhibited in concrete form. In contrast with this method, he argued that philosophy must begin with concepts that are already given, “though confusedly or insufficiently determined,” so that philosophers cannot begin with definitions without thereby shutting themselves up within a circle of words. Philosophy cannot, like mathematics, proceed synthetically; it must analyze and clarify. The importance of the moral order, which he had learned from Rousseau, reinforced the conviction received from his study of Newton that a synthetic philosophy is empty and false.

Besides attacking the methods of the Leibnizians, he also began criticizing their leading ideas. In an essay Versuch, den Begriff der negativen Grössen in die Weltweisheit ein-zuführen (1763), he argued that physical opposition as encountered in things cannot be reduced to logical contradiction, in which the same predicate is both affirmed and denied, and, hence, that it is pointless to reduce causality to the logical relation of antecedent and consequent. In an essay of the same year, Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseyns Gottes, he sharply criticized the Leibnizian concept of Being by charging that the so-called ontological argument, which would prove the existence of God by logic alone, is fallacious because it confuses existential with attributive statements: existence, he declared, is not a predicate of attribution. Moreover, with regard to the nature of space, Kant sided with Newton in his confrontation with Leibniz. Leibniz’ view that space is “an order of co-existences” and that spatial differences can be stated in conceptual terms, he concluded to be untenable.

Some indication of a possible alternative of Kant’s own to the Leibnizian position can be gathered from his curious Träume eines Geistersehers erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik (1766). This work is an examination of the whole notion of a world of spirits, in the context of an inquiry into the spiritualist claims of Emanuel Swedenborg, a scientist and biblical scholar. Kant’s position at first seems to have been completely skeptical, and the influence of the Scottish Skeptic David Hume is more apparent here than in any previous work; it was Hume, he later claimed, who first awoke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Yet Kant was not so much arguing that the notion of a world of spirits is illusory as insisting that men have no insight into the nature of such a world, a conclusion that has devastating implications for metaphysics as the Leibnizians conceived it. Metaphysicians can dream as well as spiritualists, but this is not to say that their dreams are necessarily empty; there are already hints that moral experience can give content to the ideal of an “intelligible world.” Rousseau thus acted upon Kant here as a counterinfluence to Hume.

Background and early years » Early years of the professorship at Königsberg
Finally, in 1770, after serving for 15 years as a Privatdozent, Kant was appointed to the chair of logic and metaphysics, a position in which he remained active until a few years before his death. In this period—usually called his critical period, because in it he wrote his great Critiques—he published an astounding series of original works on a wide variety of topics, in which he elaborated and expounded his philosophy.

The Inaugural Dissertation of 1770 that he delivered on assuming his new position already contained many of the important elements of his mature philosophy. As indicated in its title, De Mundi Sensibilis atque Intelligibilis Forma et Principiis: Dissertatio, the implicit dualism of the Träume is made explicit; and it is made so on the basis of a wholly un-Leibnizian interpretation of the distinction between sense and understanding. Sense is not, as Leibniz had supposed, a confused form of thinking but a source of knowledge in its own right, although the objects so known are still only “appearances”—the term that Leibniz also used. They are appearances because all sensing is conditioned by the presence, in sensibility, of the forms of time and space, which are not objective characteristics or frameworks of things but “pure intuitions.” But though all knowledge of things sensible is thus of phenomena, it does not follow that nothing is known of things as they are in themselves. Certainly, man has no intuition, or direct insight, into an intelligible world; but the presence in him of certain “pure intellectual concepts, such as those of possibility, existence, necessity, substance, cause, enables him to have some descriptive knowledge of it. By means of these concepts he can arrive at an exemplar that provides him with “the common measure of all other things as far as real.” This exemplar gives man an idea of perfection for both the theoretical and practical orders: in the first, it is that of the Supreme Being, God; in the latter, that of moral perfection.

After the Dissertation, Kant published virtually nothing for 11 years. Yet, in submitting the Dissertation to a friend at the time of its publication, he wrote:

About a year since I attained that concept which I do not fear ever to be obliged to alter, though I may have to widen it, and by which all sorts of metaphysical questions can be tested in accordance with entirely safe and easy criteria, and a sure decision reached as to whether they are soluble or insoluble.

Period of the three “critiques”
In 1781 the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (spelled “Critik” in the first edition; Critique of Pure Reason) was published, followed for the next nine years by great and original works that in a short time brought a revolution in philosophical thought and established the new direction in which it was to go in the years to come.

Period of the three “critiques” » The Critique of Pure Reason
The Critique of Pure Reason was the result of some 10 years of thinking and meditation. Yet, even so, Kant published the first edition only reluctantly after many postponements; for although convinced of the truth of its doctrine, he was uncertain and doubtful about its exposition. His misgivings proved well-founded, and Kant complained that interpreters and critics of the work were badly misunderstanding it. To correct these wrong interpretations of his thought he wrote the Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können (1783) and brought out a second and revised edition of the first “critique” in 1787. Controversy still continues regarding the merits of the two editions: readers with a preference for an Idealistic interpretation usually prefer the first edition, whereas those with a Realistic view adhere to the second. But with regard to difficulty and ease of reading and understanding, it is generally agreed that there is little to choose between them. Anyone on first opening either book finds it overwhelmingly difficult and impenetrably obscure.

The cause for this difficulty can be traced in part to the works that Kant took as his models for philosophical writing. He was the first great modern philosopher to spend all of his time and efforts as a university professor of the subject. Regulations required that in all lecturing a certain set of books be used, with the result that all of Kant’s teaching in philosophy had been based on such handbooks as those of Wolff and Baumgarten, which abounded in technical jargon, artificial and schematic divisions, and great claims to completeness. Following their example, Kant accordingly provided a highly artificial, rigid, and by no means immediately illuminating scaffolding for all three of his Critiques.

The Critique of Pure Reason, after an introduction, is divided into two parts, of very different lengths: A “Transcendental Doctrine of Elements,” running to almost 400 pages in a typical edition, followed by a “Transcendental Doctrine of Method,” which reaches scarcely 80 pages. The “. . . Elements” deals with the sources of human knowledge, whereas the “. . . Method” draws up a methodology for the use of “pure reason” and its a priori ideas. Both are “transcendental,” in that they are presumed to analyze the roots of all knowledge and the conditions of all possible experience. The “Elements” is divided, in turn, into a “Transcendental Aesthetic,” a “Transcendental Analytic,” and a “Transcendental Dialectic.”

The simplest way of describing the contents of the Critique is to say that it is a treatise about metaphysics: it seeks to show the impossibility of one sort of metaphysics and to lay the foundations for another. The Leibnizian metaphysics, the object of his attack, is criticized for assuming that the human mind can arrive, by pure thought, at truths about entities, which, by their very nature, can never be objects of experience, such as God, human freedom, and immortality. Kant maintained, however, that the mind has no such power and that the vaunted metaphysics is thus a sham.

As Kant saw it, the problem of metaphysics, as indeed of any science, is to explain how, on the one hand, its principles can be necessary and universal (such being a condition for any knowledge that is scientific) and yet, on the other hand, involve also a knowledge of the real and so provide the investigator with the possibility of more knowledge than is analytically contained in what he already knows; i.e., than is implicit in the meaning alone. To meet these two conditions, Kant maintained, knowledge must rest on judgments that are a priori, for it is only as they are separate from the contingencies of experience that they could be necessary and yet also synthetic; i.e., so that the predicate term contains something more than is analytically contained in the subject. Thus, for example, the proposition that all bodies are extended is not synthetic but analytic because the notion of extension is contained in the very notion of body; whereas the proposition that all bodies are heavy is synthetic because weight supposes, in addition to the notion of body, that of bodies in relation to one another. Hence, the basic problem, as Kant formulated it, is to determine “How [i.e., under what conditions] are synthetic a priori judgments possible?”

This problem arises, according to Kant, in three fields, viz., in mathematics, physics, and metaphysics; and the three main divisions of the first part of the Critique deal respectively with these. In the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” Kant argued that mathematics necessarily deals with space and time and then claimed that these are both a priori forms of human sensibility that condition whatever is apprehended through the senses. In the “Transcendental Analytic,” the most crucial as well as the most difficult part of the book, he maintained that physics is a priori and synthetic because in its ordering of experience it uses concepts of a special sort. These concepts—“categories,” he called them—are not so much read out of experience as read into it and, hence, are a priori, or pure, as opposed to empirical. But they differ from empirical concepts in something more than their origin: their whole role in knowledge is different; for, whereas empirical concepts serve to correlate particular experiences and so to bring out in a detailed way how experience is ordered, the categories have the function of prescribing the general form that this detailed order must take. They belong, as it were, to the very framework of knowledge. But although they are indispensable for objective knowledge, the sole knowledge that the categories can yield is of objects of possible experience; they yield valid and real knowledge only when they are ordering what is given through sense in space and time.

In the “Transcendental Dialectic” Kant turned to consideration of a priori synthetic judgments in metaphysics. Here, he claimed, the situation is just the reverse from what it was in mathematics and physics. Metaphysics cuts itself off from sense experience in attempting to go beyond it and, for this very reason, fails to attain a single true a priori synthetic judgment. To justify this claim, Kant analyzed the use that metaphysics makes of the concept of the unconditioned. Reason, according to Kant, seeks for the unconditioned or absolute in three distinct spheres: (1) in philosophical psychology it seeks for an absolute subject of knowledge; (2) in the sphere of cosmology, it seeks for an absolute beginning of things in time, for an absolute limit to them in space, and for an absolute limit to their divisibility; and (3) in the sphere of theology, it seeks for an absolute condition for all things. In each case, Kant claimed to show that the attempt is doomed to failure by leading to an antinomy in which equally good reasons can be given for both the affirmative and the negative position. The metaphysical “sciences” of rational psychology, rational cosmology, and natural theology, familiar to Kant from the text of Baumgarten, on which he had to comment in his lectures, thus turn out to be without foundation.

With this work, Kant proudly asserted that he had accomplished a Copernican revolution in philosophy. Just as the founder of modern astronomy, Nicolaus Copernicus, had explained the apparent movements of the stars by ascribing them partly to the movement of the observers, so Kant had accounted for the application of the mind’s a priori principles to objects by demonstrating that the objects conform to the mind: in knowing, it is not the mind that conforms to things but instead things that conform to the mind.

Period of the three “critiques” » The Critique of Practical Reason
Because of his insistence on the need for an empirical component in knowledge and his antipathy to speculative metaphysics, Kant is sometimes presented as a Positivist before his time; and his attack upon metaphysics was held by many in his own day to bring both religion and morality down with it. Such, however, was certainly far from Kant’s intention. Not only did he propose to put metaphysics “on the sure path of science,” he was prepared also to say that he “inevitably” believed in the existence of God and in a future life. It is also true that his original conception of his critical philosophy anticipated the preparation of a critique of moral philosophy. The Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788, spelled “Critik” and “practischen”; Critique of Practical Reason), the result of this intention, is the standard source book for his ethical doctrines. The earlier Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785) is a shorter and, despite its title, more readily comprehensible treatment of the same general topic. Both differ from Die Metaphysik der Sitten (1797) in that they deal with pure ethics and try to elucidate basic principles; whereas the later work is concerned with applying what they establish in the concrete, a process that involved the consideration of virtues and vices and the foundations of law and politics.

There are many points of similarity between Kant’s ethics and his epistemology, or theory of knowledge. He used the same scaffolding for both—a “Doctrine of Elements,” including an “Analytic” and a “Dialectic,” followed by a “Methodology”; but the second Critique is far shorter and much less complicated. Just as the distinction between sense and intelligence was fundamental for the former, so is that between the inclinations and moral reason for the latter. And just as the nature of the human cognitive situation was elucidated in the first Critique by reference to the hypothetical notion of an intuitive understanding, so is that of the human moral situation clarified by reference to the notion of a “holy will.” For a will of this kind there would be no distinction between reason and inclination; a being possessed of a holy will would always act as it ought. It would not, however, have the concepts of duty and moral obligation, which enter only when reason and desire find themselves opposed. In the case of human beings, the opposition is continuous, for man is at the same time both flesh and spirit; it is here that the influence of Kant’s religious background is most prominent. Hence, the moral life is a continuing struggle in which morality appears to the potential delinquent in the form of a law that demands to be obeyed for its own sake—a law, however, the commands of which are not issued by some alien authority but represent the voice of reason, which the moral subject can recognize as his own.

In the “Dialectic,” Kant took up again the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality. Dismissed in the first Critique as objects that men can never know because they transcend human sense experience, he now argued that they are essential postulates for the moral life. Though not reachable in metaphysics, they are absolutely essential for moral philosophy.

Kant is often described as an ethical Rationalist, and the description is not wholly inappropriate. He never espoused, however, the radical Rationalism of some of his contemporaries nor of more recent philosophers for whom reason is held to have direct insight into a world of values or the power to intuit the rightness of this or that moral principle. Thus, practical, like theoretical, reason was for him formal rather than material—a framework of formative principles rather than a content of actual rules. This is why he put such stress on his first formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Lacking any insight into the moral realm, men can only ask themselves whether what they are proposing to do has the formal character of law—the character, namely, of being the same for all persons similarly circumstanced.

Period of the three “critiques” » The Critique of Judgment
The Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790: spelled “Critik”)—one of the most original and instructive of all of Kant’s writings—was not foreseen in his original conception of the critical philosophy. Thus it is perhaps best regarded as a series of appendixes to the other two Critiques. The work falls into two main parts, called respectively “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” and “Critique of Teleological Judgment.” In the first of these, after an introduction in which he discussed “logical purposiveness,” he analyzed the notion of “aesthetic purposiveness” in judgments that ascribe beauty to something. Such a judgment, according to him, unlike a mere expression of taste, lays claim to general validity; yet it cannot be said to be cognitive because it rests on feeling, not on argument. The explanation lies in the fact that, when a person contemplates an object and finds it beautiful, there is a certain harmony between his imagination and his understanding, of which he is aware from the immediate delight that he takes in the object. Imagination grasps the object and yet is not restricted to any definite concept; whereas a person imputes the delight that he feels to others because it springs from the free play of his cognitive faculties, which are the same in all men.

In the second part, Kant turned to consider teleology in nature as it is posed by the existence in organic bodies of things of which the parts are reciprocally means and ends to each other. In dealing with these bodies, one cannot be content with merely mechanical principles. Yet if mechanism is abandoned and the notion of a purpose or end of nature is taken literally, this seems to imply that the things to which it applies must be the work of some supernatural designer; but this would mean a passing from the sensible to the suprasensible, a step proved in the first Critique to be impossible. Kant answered this objection by admitting that teleological language cannot be avoided in taking account of natural phenomena; but it must be understood as meaning only that organisms must be thought of “as if” they were the product of design, and that is by no means the same as saying that they are deliberately produced.

Last years
The critical philosophy was soon being taught in every important German-speaking university, and young men flocked to Königsberg as a shrine of philosophy. In some cases, the Prussian government even undertook the expense of their support. Kant came to be consulted as an oracle on all kinds of questions, including such subjects as the lawfulness of vaccination. Such homage did not interrupt Kant’s regular habits. Scarcely five feet tall, with a deformed chest, and suffering from weak health, he maintained throughout his life a severe regimen. It was arranged with such regularity that people set their clocks according to his daily walk along the street named for him, “The Philosopher’s Walk.” Until old age prevented him, he is said to have missed this regular appearance only on the occasion when Rousseau’s Émile so engrossed him that for several days he stayed at home.

With the publication of the third Critique, Kant’s main philosophical work was done. From 1790 his health began to decline seriously. He still had many literary projects but found it impossible to write more than a few hours a day. The writings that he then completed consist partly of an elaboration of subjects not previously treated in any detail, partly of replies to criticisms and to the clarification of misunderstandings. With the publication in 1793 of his work Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, Kant became involved in a dispute with Prussian authorities on the right to express religious opinions. The book was found to be altogether too Rationalistic for orthordox taste; he was charged with misusing his philosophy to the “distortion and depreciation of many leading and fundamental doctrines of sacred Scripture and Christianity” and was required by the government not to lecture or write anything further on religious subjects. Kant agreed but privately interpreted the ban as a personal promise to the King, from which he felt himself to be released on the latter’s death in 1797. At any rate, he returned to the forbidden subject in his last major essay, Der Streit der Fakultäten (1798; “The Conflict of the Faculties”).

The large work at which he laboured until his death—the fragments of which fill the two final volumes of the great Berlin edition of his works—was evidently intended to be a major contribution to his critical philosophy. What remains, however, is not so much an unfinished work as a series of notes for a work that was never written. Its original title was Übergang von den metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft zur Physik (“Transition from the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science to Physics”), and it may have been his intention to carry further the argument advanced in the Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft (1786) by showing that it is possible to construct a priori not merely the general outline of a science of nature but a good many of its details as well. But judging from the extant fragments, however numerous they are, it remains conjectural whether its completion would have constituted a major addition to his philosophy and its reputation.

After a gradual decline that was painful to his friends as well as to himself, Kant died in Königsberg, February 12, 1804. His last words were “Es ist gut” (“It is good”). His tomb in the cathedral was inscribed with the words (in German) “The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,” the two things that he declared in the conclusion of the second Critique “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on.”

Otto Allen Bird



Modern philosophy » The Enlightenment » Literary forms

The literary form of Enlightenment philosophizing was simple and straightforward. Except for an occasional reversion to the dialogue form, as in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713) and in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), it consisted of inquiries, discourses, treatises, dissertations, and essays, generally well written in clear, relatively nontechnical prose. But Kant not only introduced a formidable technical philosophical terminology into his works but was, in fact, the originator of a new philosophical form—the “critique” or “critical examination”—that had its own special architectonics. Each of Kant’s three critiques is divided into the same three parts:
(1) an “analytic,” or analysis of reason’s right functioning,
(2) a “dialectic,” or logic of error, showing the pitfalls into which a careless reason falls, and
(3) a “methodology,” an arrangement of rules for practice.

It is a form that was unique to Kant, but it raised certain problems of “oppositional” thinking, to which 19th-century philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Søren Kierkegaard were subsequently to turn.


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