The European Philosophers From Descartes to Nietzsche

Rene Descartes (1596 to 1650): “Je pense, donc je suis (Cogito, ergo sum).” 

  • Topics:
    • He excelled at analysis into ultimately simple and clear ideas, making him a good place to start for non-expert students of philosophy.
    • Look him up to learn about problems about God, immortality, the nature of man, the importance of reason, and nature.
    • Proof of God’s and the human soul’s existence
    • Dualism (mind and body are separate); soul sits in the pineal gland
      • See “ghost in the machine” critique of his theory
    • Existentialism: Cartesian doubt- “I must bear in mind that I am a man, and am therefore in the habit of sleeping, and that what the insane represent to themselves in their waking moments I represent to myself, with other things even less probable, in my dreams… Today, then, as I have suitably freed my mind from all cares, and have secured for myself an assured leisure in peaceful solitude, I shall at last apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.”

  • It would be hard to overstate the historical impact of Descartes’ thought, which dominated modern philosophy at least until Kant showed up. Even today remnants of his thought are felt, especially as discussion of philosophy of mind continues. He was the most influential contributor to dualism. The book explains that Descartes’ philosophy is a turning point if ever there is one, considering most major philosophies previously were built on previous thought. And he meant it to be a turning point; he aimed to make a clean sweep and build all over again. He worked out the first thorough metaphysical solution to the great intellectual problems of his age, which centered on the conflicts between traditional Christianity and the new physical and mathematical sciences. He wanted to give a rational reconstruction of knowledge, and was able to clearly formulate certain concepts and principles. For example, substance is that which requires nothing other than itself to exist, and whatever is distinguishable can by principle be separated. Descartes had a great impact on thinkers in his time and after. However, even though his ideas were extraordinarily persuasive to modern philosophers, at the same they time were found to have serious internal incompatibilities. This actually led to many important discoveries since the challenge of reconciling those issues helped to generate a period of intense and brilliant philosophical activity in all of Europe.
  • Descartes was the first modern philosopher to tackle the problem of the method of doing philosophy, or “philosophizing”, itself. In other words, are we going about this the right way? How do we know we’re using the right method to acquire knowledge? And to raise this question as he did was important in leading to a deeper grasp of the philosopher’s problems, even if it should turn out that to pose it in his fashion is to set an impossible task. Descartes formulated in modern terms the problem of the existence of the external physical world—a problem that many have wrestled with. He did this by discovering, in effect, what are now called incorrigible propositions, or basic propositions about sense-data that involve no inference but are mere reports of immediate experience. He examined the possibility of making a sharp distinction between mental and physical behavior. Descartes did this by postulating two substances underlying them. He worked out a very clear and complete mechanistic conception of the physical world, including the world of organic creatures, and this thinking along this line has helped to give direction and impetus to the scientific study of nature ever since. A new note was struck by his confidence in reason—as in the famous opening words of the Discourse (on method)—that is, in the individual person’s ability to strike out for himself and make his basic beliefs about reality reasonable. This was highly contagious and was instantly inspiriting to his age. And indeed Descartes invented a whole new style of philosophizing, the analysis of the meaning and grounds of everyday beliefs with familiar examples mulled over in the study—a style alive in Locke, in Hume, and in Wittgenstein.
  • Final thought:

Blaise Pascal (1623 to 1662): “Pascal’s wager: “Let us weight the gain and the loss in wagering that God is: If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

  • Known for his direct style of writing, keeping it clear and direct—little fluff and pretty easy to read.
  • Though he argued in support of Christianity, he distinguishes between agnostics and apathetics: “Among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves, and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.”  He continues by suggesting this interest in the soul is a basic human quality, saying, “we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see. How can it be that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?
    • “As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be forever assigned. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And from all this I conclude that I ought to spend all the days of my life without caring to inquire into what must happen to me. After treating with scorn those who are concerned with this care, I will go without foresight and without fear to try the great event, and let myself be led carelessly to death, uncertain of the eternity of my future state.”
    • “Who would desire to have for a friend a man who talks in this fashion? Who would share their troubles with him? What use in life could he provide? This same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honor, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death.”
  • Book says: “His short life, during most of which he suffered from painful and debilitating illness, was crammed with achievements, including his brilliant pioneering work in mathematics, physics, and inventions. (He invented the first mechanical calculating machine, a method for teaching children to read, and the idea for the first regular bus line in Paris). His deepest concern, however, especially in the later years of his life, was with religion. In his youth he was converted to Jansenism, a theological perspective unusual in Catholicism, being notable for its Calvinistic emphasis on the importance of God’s free grace and on the individual moral conscience. His sister entered a convent and his closest friends were among the group of scholars and others who were close to that religious community and who supported and advanced the Jansenist cause. Pascal himself had an overwhelming mystical experience in 1654. His 18 Letters to a Provincial, which appeared pseudonymously during 1656, were written in defense of a Jansenist professor charged with heresy. But a more profound and subtle conception of Pascal’s religion is to be seen in those notes toward a great apology for Christianity that he left behind at his death, and that are now known as the Thoughts (Pensees).

Even though, as some propose, Pascal were to be denied the strict title of “philosopher”, it would have to be granted that he thought deeply about the philosophy of religion, raised philosophical questions, and gave some striking and influential answers. Calling attention to the importance of religious experience for epistemology, he approached the problem of religious knowledge in a way that was remarkably original for his century. Indeed, some aspects of his thought have not been fully understood or appreciated until our own time, when the reflections of the Existentialists and Neo-orthodox theologians have prepared us to see how much meaning there is in Pascal’s analysis of the paradoxical character of man and of the human predicament. With his view of the “heart” as a source of knowledge—a very different sort of intuition from Descartes’—Pascal believed he could mark the limits of reason better than his rationalist contemporaries. His attempt to justify belief in God even in the absence of reasons for saying that the belief is true—the argument of his famous “wager”—opened out some new lines of thought in the “ethics of belief,” and set a fundamental challenge to modern philosophers.


Baruch Spinoza (Dutch) (1632 to 1677): “If there is no cause or reason which hinders a thing from existing, it exists necessarily.” Ethics (Part 1)

  • System of definitions, axioms, propositions, demonstrations and corollaries.
  • Proposition 11: “God or substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.”
    • Demonstration. If this be denied, conceive, if it be possible, that God does not exist. Then it follows (axiom VII) that His essence does not involve existence. But this (Prop 7) is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists. – Q.E.D.
  • Proposition 48: “In the mind there is no absolute or free will, but the mind is determined to this or that volition by a cause which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum.”
  • Book says, “He lived for the most part in quiet; through correspondence he kept in touch with developments throughout Europe and became widely known as an original metaphysician, a freethinker in religion, and a liberal in politics.

Spinoza’s achievement in philosophy was great, though he founded no school of close followers, as did Descartes and Leibniz, and was indeed not much read with sympathy or understanding until long after his death, for “Spinozist” became a familiar abusive synonym for “wicked pantheist.” In his patient, rigorous, and determined thinking-out of his system, he presents the example of a man fully in touch with the main currents of thought in his own time and yet amazingly independent of some of them. For he was able to contemplate fearlessly the logical consequences his most brilliant contemporaries could not bring themselves to draw from basic principles they all accepted. His sharp and bold examination of the religious ideas of his age helped pave the way for the less trammeled and inhibited religious thinking of the Enlightenment and more recent times. He showed how certain spiritual attitudes toward the universe could be made independent of belief in a personal God. Spinoza explored more thoroughly than anyone before him the implications and difficulties of a completely monistic metaphysics. He was the first to conceive and to undertake a program for the objective scientific study of man and of human behavior in a spirit of truth-seeking without self-deception, and his psychological methods and principles in the Ethics foreshadow twentieth-century psychology and psychiatry. Spinoza emphasized the role of intelligence in ethics in a way not paralleled until John Dewey; the line of though he initiated remains one of the fruitful possibilities for solving the problem of the relation between factual and normative elements (what is and what ought to be) in ethical decision.


Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) “As the lesser evil contains and element of good, so the lesser good contains an element of evil”—to demonstrate that God (who’s perfect) created the world intentionally and thus it is fully good as is.

  • Interesting thoughts from First Truths:
    • “There is nothing without a reason, or no effect without a cause.”
    • “There are no two individual things in nature which differ only numerically.”
    • “Every individual substance involves the whole universe in its perfect concept, and all that exists in the universe has existed or will exist. All individual created substances, indeed, are different expressions of the same universe and of the same universal cause, God.”
    • “There is no vacuum. Time too may be proved not to be a thing, in the same way as space. There are no atoms; indeed, there is no body so small that it is not actually subdivided. Every small part of the universe contains a world with an infinite number of creatures. But a continuum is not divisible into points, nor is it divisible in all possible ways. If you bisect a straight line and then any part of it, you will set up different divisions than if you trisect it.
    • Corporeal substance can neither come into being nor perish except through creation or annihilation. Therefore, ensouled beings neither begin nor perish; they are only transformed.
  • Interesting thoughts from Discourse on Metaphysics:
    • I am far removed from the opinion of those who maintain that there are no principles of goodness or perfection in the nature of things, or in the ideas which God has about them, and who say that the works of God are good only through the formal reason that God has made them.
    • Neither am I able to approve of the opinion of certain modern writers who boldly maintain that what God has made is not perfect in the highest degree, and that he might have done better. I believe that a great many passages from the divine writings and from the holy fathers will be found favoring my position, while hardly any will be found in favor of that of these modern thinkers. Their opinion is, in my judgment, foreign to the writers of antiquity and is a deduction based upon our too slight acquaintance with the general harmony of the universe and with the hidden reasons for God’s conduct. In our ignorance, therefore, we are tempted to decide audaciously that many things might have been done better.
    • In relation to proof of God—“It must be, they say, that I have an idea of God, or of a perfect being, since I think of him and we cannot think without having ideas; now the idea of this being includes all perfections and since existence is one of these perfections, it follows that he exists. But I reply, inasmuch as we often think of impossible chimeras, for example of the highest degree of swiftness, of the greatest number, of the meeting of the conchoid with its base or determinant, such reasoning is not sufficient. It is therefore in this sense that we can say that there are true and false ideas according as the thing which is in question is possible or not. And it is when he is assured of the possibility of a thing that one can boast of having an idea of it. Therefore, the aforesaid argument proves that God exists, if he is possible. This is in fact an excellent privilege of the divine nature, to have need only of a possibility or an essence in order to actually exist, and it is just this which is called self-sufficient being, ens a se.
    • Nothing can be taught us of which we have not already in our minds the idea. This idea is as it were the material out of which the thought will form itself. This is what Plato has excellently brought out in his doctrine of reminiscence, a doctrine which contains a great deal of truth, provided that it is properly understood and purged of the error of pre-existence, and provided that one does not conceive of the soul as having already known and thought at some other time what it learns and thinks now. Plato has also confirmed his position by a beautiful experiment. He introduces [Meno] a boy whom he leads, by short steps, to extremely difficult truths of geometry bearing on incommensurables, all this without teaching the boy anything, merely drawing out replies by a well-arranged series of questions. This shows that the soul virtually knows those things, and needs only to turn its attention to them to recognize the truth. Consequently it possesses at least the idea upon which those truths depend. We may say even that it already possesses those truths, if we consider them as the relations of the ideas.
  • The book says, “In an age abounding with brilliant men, many of whom made important contributions in several fields of inquiry, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was perhaps the most wide-ranging in his intellectual interests and in his intellectual achievements. Yet he combined his active thinking about problems in philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural science, law, history, and literature, with equally intensive work on various diplomatic technological problems.

Leibniz studied law at Leipzig University, where he was refused a degree in 1666 because of his youth. He entered the service of the Elector and Archbishop of Mainz, a leader in the Holy Roman Empire whose ambition was to create a lasting European peace after the devastating Thirty Years’ War. Leibniz worked out a number of plans—among them a detailed plan for the invasion of Egypt, which was designed to tempt Louis XIV into undertaking an expedition there instead of against the Low Countries. Leibniz went to Paris in connection with his plan. (Louis did not follow it, but judging from its similarity to that adopted by Napoleon in his successful invasion of Egypt, it was militarily sound.) He remained for four years, and he came into contact with scholars in various fields. On a visit to London (1673), he was made a member of the Royal Society. When the Elector died, he accepted the post of Librarian to the Duke of Brunswick at Hanover (1676), where he remained till his death, except for travels to do research for a history of the House of Brunswick.

Though most famous for his discovery (independent of Newton’s, but at about the same time) of the infinitesimal calculus, including the notation that is used today, Leibniz was also concerned with problems of dynamics, and he laid the foundations for the first system of symbolic logic. He made substantial improvements on Pascal’s calculating machine, and invented a device for drawing all sorts of geometrical figures. He worked for a long time, without success, on the problem of keeping the ducal mines (which were under his charge) free of water. He founded the Berlin Academy. And meanwhile, throughout most of his life, he appears to have read nearly everything printed in most of his fields of interest.

In philosophy Leibniz wrote two long books, many essays, and a very large number of fragmentary pieces. These are still in the library at Hanover, and many of them are as yet unpublished. He also engaged in incredibly extensive correspondence, much of which has been preserved.

Of the two books, the Theodicy—a vindication of God’s justice to man (Leibniz invented the term “theodicy”)—was published in 1710, and became the chief foundation of Leibniz’s philosophical reputation in the 18th century. The other, New Essays on Human Understanding, was a point by point discussion of Locke’s great Essay; but after Locke’s death in 1704 Leibniz decided not to publish it.

Leibniz’s contribution to the development of modern philosophy is important, over and above his considerable historical influence. (His system was a major force on the Continent until the appearance of Kant’s critical philosophy.) He developed the methods of exact logical analysis in philosophy beyond those of his predecessors; his precise and terse mode of argument set a high standard of care and rigor. By bringing together his knowledge of various fields—he was always making apt analogies with number theory, or ancient history, or legal principles, or politics, or biology—he contributed greatly to the clarification of several philosophical concepts that have proved extremely important to our thinking: identity, necessity, analyticity, spatial and temporal relation. He explored the grounds and consequences of several fundamental and significant principles, and thereby helped later philosophers to determine whether these principles are true: the principle of the identity of indiscernible, of sufficient reason, of the analyticity of truth, of continuity, of simplicity or economy in the construction of explanatory hypotheses. And his vigorous and ingenious debate over the problems of theodicy, for decades with numerous correspondents and periodical writers, helped people to think much more effectively about these problems by bringing to bear the methods and conclusions of his metaphysics.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”

  • The book says, “He was born a ‘citizen’ of Geneva—that is, a member of the highest of the five classes in the Republic of Switzerland—and he took pride in this status until Geneva condemned and burned his two greatest works, at which time he renounced his citizenship. Serious danger of arrest for his religious and political views, and continual persecution, kept him again on the move; to Neuchatel in Switzerland under the protection of Frederick the Great, to England under the wing of David Hume, and finally back to Paris and the country nearby, where he died. Rousseau’s impact upon his age and the following one is probably greater than that of any other single writer, and in more than one direction. His fresh way of looking at man and nature and the human community, the eloquence and fascination of his style, his passionate yearning for reform in government and the social order, made him the inspiration—and to many the saint—of the Revolution. His novel La Nouvelle Heloise (1761) was one of the key works that launched the Romantic Movement in literature, with its celebration of the “natural” man, the man of good sentiment. His Confessions (published posthumously) and other autobiographical writings, were a new and astonishing kind of introspective self-analysis, full of psychological penetration as well as unconscious self-revelation. He also wrote on music (as in Diderot’s Encyclopedia) and composed it—one of his Christmas songs is still sung. Rousseau’s more philosophical works cannot be sharply divided into separate categories, for his principal preoccupations are found to some extent in all of them. He began with his prize essay, the Discourse on Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in which he enthusiastically attacked civilization as a corruption of nature. This thesis he turned in a more political direction in his second essay, the Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men, which, while celebrating the “state of nature,” recognized and examined the necessity of social order. The Discourse on Political Economy, written for the Encyclopedia, foreshadowed parts of the Social Contract (to be published in 1762), his major work in political philosophy. In the same year as the Social Contract appeared, Emile, his long work on the philosophy of education, in which he undertook to develop the educational methods suitable for raising children, in the light of this theory of man: The child must be helped to unfold its own nature, to mature at its own pace, and childhood has a right to happiness. This book has an important place in the history of educational theory, and its influence throughout Europe has been immense. For all the obscurities and vacillations of viewpoint in his major works, which have enabled disciples of various points of view (democratic and totalitarian) to claim him as their master, important achievements, especially in the realm of social and political philosophy, can probably be claimed for Rousseau. He contributed to the clarification of certain fundamental terms, such as “right” “liberty” and “law”; his grasp of the element of universality in law was one of his most fruitful bequests to his successors, such as Kant. He understood better than his predecessors the distinction between factual and normative questions in social philosophy. He sa more clearly, to, that the problem of the “social contract” was not a historical but a logical one. He explored more profoundly the real nature of that bond that creates the unity of the state; he had the originality to reject the Natural Law theory, interpreted in the usual way, and to look for a new foundation of rights. Perhaps his most important achievement was his insistence that the sort of society we live in is up to us, for we are responsible, we choose; and he offered those who would accept this challenge a new and inspiring conception of man.
  • Book 1 of the Social Contract, “I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall endeavor always to unite what right sanctions with what is prescribed by interest, in order that justice and utility may in no case be divided. I enter upon my task without proving the importance of the subject. I shall be asked if I am a prince or a legislator, to write on politics. I answer that I am neither, and that is why I do so. If I were a prince or a legislator, I sho uld not waste time in saying what wants doing; I should do it, or hold my peace. As I was born a citizen of a free State, and a member of the Sovereign, I feel that, the right of voting on them makes it my duty to study them: and I am happy, when I reflect upon governments, to find my inquiries always furnish me with new reasons for loving that of my own country.”
  • “The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: and even so the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation.”
  • “The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”
  • “There will always be a great difference between subduing a multitude and ruling a society.”
  • “If then we discard from the social contract what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) “How are a priori synthetic judgments possible?”

  • Respecting Plato’s preference to “think” and Aristotle’s insistence that knowledge comes from experience, Kant initiates his critique of Pure Reason by stating, “by way of introduction or anticipation, we need only say that there are two stems of human knowledge, namely, sensibility and understanding, which perhaps spring from a common, but to us unknown, root.”
  • Much of Kant’s work surrounds how we can prove what we think we know. He targets 3 arguments for proof of God, for example, “The impossibility of an Ontological Proof of the Existence of God” “The impossibility of a Cosmological Proof of the Existence of God” and “The impossibility of the Physico-theological Proof of God” eventually concluding that we must assume a creator exists, but that these are insufficient proofs.
  • To distinguish between a prior and a posteriori knowledge, he says “This, then, is a question which at least calls for closer examination, and does not allow of any off-hand answer:–whether there is any knowledge that is thus independent of experience and even of all impressions of the senses. Such knowledge is entitled a priori, and distinguished from the empirical, which has its sources a posteriori, that is, in experience.”
  • To get an idea of how extensive his systematic, dry, super boring   investigation is, consider his idea that “Philosophy is in need of a science which shall determine the possibility, the principles, and the extent of all a priori knowledge”
  • The second key aspect of a major concern of his is explained here, “In all judgments in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought, this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A, as something which is contained in this concept A; or B lies outside the concept A, although it does indeed stand in connection with it. In the first case I entitle the judgment analytic, in the other synthetic.” He explains the first type is “explicative, adding nothing to the subject” the second type is “ampliative—adding something which couldn’t be extracted from it through analysis”.
  • He also thought deeply about ethics. In the grand scheme of ethics, intent vs consequence is a popular debate. Kant absolutely supports the view that intent is more important to judge an act on than the consequences of the action. The ultimate answer to how to live, in Kant’s opinion, is stated as his famous “categorical imperative” that is, “Act only on a maxim by which you can will that it, at the same time, should become a general law.” In other words, the most important way to behave is in the way you’d want anyone else in your situation to behave. He uses this to argue that lying is never morally ok, for example, because if everyone decided when it was ok to lie, obviously that wouldn’t go well. Therefore, never lie even to protect loved ones.
  • The book says, “Kant’s major work (if one may call it one work rather than three) is the set of Critiques for which he is most famous. The Critique of Pure Reason is the first, greatest, and most fundamental; it presents his epistemology and his new conception of metaphysics. Its argument, in a less exact form, is also in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. The Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy presents his ethical theory; its argument in a different order, is also in his Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals. The Critique of Judgement deals with judgments involving the idea of purposiveness, or appropriateness to ends, both aesthetic judgments and teleological propositions in natural science. Among Kant’s many other works, including scientific essays and essays on history and culture, two should be noted here: Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and Eternal (or Perpetual) Peace. The former contains Kant’s mature philosophy of religion; the latter is a remarkable plan for European unity. It was almost universally agreed that Kant’s philosophical achievement was very great, though of course it will depend on one’s own point of view which of his ideas one singles out as most significant. There is such a wealth of original thoughts, in such a wide range of philosophical fields, that a brief summary cannot come close to doing justice to Kant; but certain of his ideas must be acknowledged by any philosopher as important contributions. He did more than anyone else to construct the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, which has proved so fruitful in 20th century philosophy. With the help of this distinction he invented a wholly new sort of philosophical question—How is it possible for us to know synthetic a priori propositions? And he invented a new sort of philosophical argument—the transcendental argument, which aims to prove the truth of one proposition as a necessary presupposition of another. Even if, as present-day empiricists hold, the basic enterprise was mistaken, there is no question that it was well worth trying, and in following it out with all his supreme care, imagination, and systematic order, Kant gave a new direction and a new stimulus to the thinking of philosophers ever since. Indeed, we owe to him, in large part, our present-day conception of philosophy as clearly distinct from empirical science. Kant called attention to the importance of examining the categories of thinking in every field by showing how these basic concepts play a fundamental role in experience and knowledge. He carried certain traditional problems—about substance, causality, space and time—to deeper levels and forced a reexamination of assumptions long held on inadequate grounds. He made profound criticisms of certain traditional metaphysical arguments, such as those concerning God and the world. He concluded that questions reaching beyond the bounds of possible experience are not only unanswerable, but unaskable, and thereby launched a radically empirical movement that has gathered strength to our own time. In the field of ethics, or moral philosophy, he introduced the sharpest cleavage ever made between ethics and all factual knowledge; and he brilliantly explored the possibility of basic ethical principles that would—like the maxim of universalizability—owe nothing to empirical knowledge or feeling or intuition. At the same time it was Kant who created the whole subject of aesthetics and established it as a distinct field. He formulated the essential problems about the logical justifiability of aesthetic judgments and he was the first clearly to distinguish aesthetic experience from other forms of experience. Moreover, he did so in terms of concepts (“satisfaction without interest” and “purposiveness without purpose”) that are still recognized to be an important part of the truth. Since Kant’s work, philosophers, whatever their views, have had to reckon with his arguments, so that references to him and even illuminating discussions and criticisms are innumerable.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) “If (the will) be only fixedly and honestly directed toward the Good, (the understanding) will of itself apprehend the True.”

  • The book says, “Fichte took with the utmost seriousness Kant’s conclusion that the practical, or moral, reason can obtain assurance of truth in regions where the theoretical reason cannot enter, and he went beyond Kant in concluding that the practical reason was the more fundamental in all knowledge. He made action—the self’s assertion of its ideal self in freedom—the cornerstone of his system. It is his merit to have investigated the possibility of deriving the main categories of a philosophy from the basic concept of the self as an active, a normative, being. In this he led the way to important lines of thought later explored by the pragmatists and instrumentalists. His passionate conviction that ethical and political consequences of philosophical beliefs are to be put into practice—that philosophy is not only a guide of life but a critique of institutions and a stimulus to social reform—left its mark on some later philosophies; this conviction shows up in his views of international relations and his continuing defense of freedom within the state. And his inspiring conception of what man is capable of if he sets himself to make the most of his natural existence is a beacon for naturalistic philosophies of all times, even though Fichte did not regard himself as a naturalist.
  • The vocation of Man, books 1 and 2 provide an introduction to Fichte’s philosophy:
    • “In book 1 “Doubt” Fichte builds up a contrast, as he sees it, between the individual’s inward conviction of his own freedom of will and the rigid determinism that his intellect finds in Nature: “in immediate consciousness, I appear to myself as free; by reflection on the whole of Nature, I discover that freedom is absolutely impossible.” From the resulting despair, Fichte is roused in Book II, “Knowledge,” by a visiting Spirit, who appears and conducts a dialogue with him. The point of the Spirit’s argument Is that everything that we are capable of knowing immediately is what is in our minds: “in all perception you perceive only your own state.” Even the principle of causality itself, which is presupposed in the concept of Nature as determined, is only a projection of the self, which therefore need have no fear of being subject to it. But the Spirit’s argument plunges Fichte into a new skepticism: how, then, can he have any assurance that there is a real world, with other selves in it? But you have another way of knowing this, another means, if you will only use it, says the Spirit, and disappears.”
  • Vocation of Man other ideas:
    • “I have found the organ by which to apprehend this reality, and, with this, probably all other reality. Knowledge is not this organ: no knowledge can be its own foundation, its own proof; every knowledge presupposes another higher knowledge on which it is founded, and to this ascent there is no end. It is FAITH, that voluntary acquiescence in the view that is naturally presented to us, because only through this view can we fulfil our vocation; this it is that first lends a sanction to knowledge, and raises to certainty and conviction what without it might be mere delusion. It is not knowledge, but a resolution of the will to admit the validity of knowledge.”
    • Regarding the “good will vs understanding”, “Should the latter only be exercised, while the former remains neglected, there can arise nothing whatever but a dexterity in groping after vain and empty refinements, throughout the absolute void inane… I know that every pretended truth produced by mere speculative thought, and not founded upon faith, is assuredly false and surreptitious; for mere knowledge, thus produced, leads only to the conviction that we can know nothing.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

  • The book says, “Hegel died much respected and widely famous as a founder of a new school of philosophy. He published four books: The Phenomenology of the Spirit was first as is an original and puzzling work, in which Hegel distinguishes various kinds and grades of human experience as phases through which Spirit passes on its way to complete self-consciousness. The Science of Logic is the fullest development of his system of categories, which is also presented in his shorter Logic. This shorter Logic is Part 1 of Hegel’s third published work, The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. His ethical and political philosophy is presented in The Philosophy of Right (or Law). The main branches of Hegel’s philosophy were elaborated in his university lectures, of which his notes and some detailed reports by students remain. On the basis of these, four other large works were published after his death. The influences, both for good and ill, of so vast a system of thought as Hegel’s philosophy cannot very safely be summed up, but in his widespread philosophical explorations he made important discoveries, and opened up new routes of inquiry even for those who are skeptical of the existence of the worlds he claimed to have found. Early in his development, Hegel sought a rational method of transcending Kant’s phenomenal world, to get at a more ultimate reality, and though his thinking was substantially assisted by both Schelling and Fichte, it was he who worked out in detail a new kind of reasoning, his dialectical method, which, for all its debt to Plato and Kant, was in his hands highly original. It was an attempt worth making and, at the very least, he turned up some interesting and illuminating relations among concepts or categories that play a fundamental role, largely unnoticed, in our ordinary thinking: real and ideal, existence and actuality, something and nothing. Besides inventing his own technical terms, he, like Aristotle, often tried to clarify the use of ordinary language. On the large scale, Hegel’s thinking was an attempt—sometimes heroic—to do justice to the reality of partial truths, relative perspectives, one-sided insights, without losing track of truth itself completely. He is a relentless critic of what he calls “abstractions,” and his whole system, which is temporal or historical in its basic way of moving, exhibits an incredible confidence that all antithetical ideas can in the end be given a positive and fruitful place in the complex of truth. It was this orientation that enabled him to develop one branch of philosophy, the philosophy of history, more profoundly, in the questions he raised, than anyone had ever done before, and to develop some concepts that have proved (for all their perils) highly useful to the sciences of man: cultural anthropology, sociology, political science—concepts such as culture, the state (in his sense), organism, world history, and pre-history.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

  • If you’re an artist or a musician, read Schopenhauer as soon as you can.
  • The book says, “His attempt to compete with Hegel as a philosophical lecturer at Berlin was a failure. The remainder of his long, lonely life of reflection and writing was spent in Frankfurt, where he died. During the final years, fame and reputation arrived at last, after his works had been ignored for many years. Schopenhauer’s masterpiece, The World as Will and Idea gives a systematic exposition of his philosophy. There is also much of philosophical interest in his essays, published as Parenga and Paralipomena. Apart from his extensive and intensive effect upon poets, composers, and men in the street, Schopenhauer’s contributions to the development of philosophy are noteworthy. He explored one of the important possible ways of extending the philosophy of Kant, and long before Bergson formulated his influential metaphysics of the elan vital, Schopenhauer worked out the details of a metaphysics in which process is ultimate, reality is known inwardly by a kind of felling, and intellect is a mere instrument of the biological will to life. His system of pessimism—a profound rejection of life that has affinities with the Buddhist thought that he was the first Western philosopher to assimilate—stands as one of the world outlooks that everyone must come to terms with. Schopenhauer posed the important question of the function of art, of the value of the arts for human life, in a more profound way than any of his predecessors, and proposed an answer that must contain at least part of the truth. Moreover, his expansive method of exposition, with its detours and frequently sharp and penetrating observations on human nature and human conduct, provides a number of stimulating discussions of particular philosophical problems, for example, on the difference between knowing that and knowing how, on reductionism, on the “expressive” qualities of music.”

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)

  • The book says, “Founder of the Positive Society in 1848, Auguste Comte thought nothing less than a complete reconstruction of the European social and political order was called for by the emerging of mankind into the “third stage” of human cultural history—the stage of positive science. To this end he bent his broadest philosophical speculations, and he spared no pains to work out the smallest details of the new organization he proposed. What can still seem to us the living and lasting contributions of Comte to our own philosophical development are only a few, yet a significant few, of his ideas. He had a passionate conviction that scientific method could be applied to the study of societies (he coined the term “sociology”), and that the social behavior of man is subject to law and rationally comprehensible. He urged men to be prepared to consider with critical reasonableness the foundations of their society, taken for granted by custom and tradition; he saw that philosophical study could be an important help in this project. Probably no previous philosopher realized so fully the capacity of the concept of humanity as a whole to serve as a basic ethical concern for each person, and as a religious object. In some ethical aspects, as in his sense of the rights of animals, Comte was ahead of his time. (he also gave us the word “altruism.”) And for all the fantastic and idiosyncratic elements that he came to attach to his original idea of a “religion of humanity” (his Catholic training led him to think that his humanistic religion must be furnished with a priesthood, a “positivist calendar” of secular saints’ days, a catechism, devotional gestures, and prayers), his essential idea of man’s obligation to all his fellow men, and each man’s oneness of destiny with the whole of the human race, past and future, has, in considerable part by the efforts of Comte himself, become a vital and effective religious idea in many parts of the world.”

Ernst Mach (1836-1916)

  • The book says, “To the history of physics Mach is known as a pioneer worker in optics and acoustics. His name has been given to a fundamental quantity in the science of supersonic jets and rockets. To the history of philosophy he is known as an important contributor to the development of the view now often called “scientific empiricism.” His careful work on the nature of our concepts of space, physical objects, and natural laws, was the bridge between the early positivism of Comte and the later “logical positivism” of Rudolf Carnap and the Vienna Circle. His most often cited philosophical work is The Analysis of Sensations. Mach’s attempt to provide a final resolution of the mind-body problem, and to eliminate from philosophical concern all metaphysical questions, by showing how all knowledge can be reduced to relations among sense elements, was more programmatic than conclusive; yet the vigor and persuasiveness, in some quarters, of his view gave strong impetus to lines of thought that turned up important discoveries later on, when the more subtle and powerful tools of symbolic logic and linguistic analysis had become available. Among his other fruitful ideas were the central role of the principle of simplicity or economy in scientific explanation, and even in our concepts of physical objects; his proposal to replace the concept of causality, in physical science, by that of functional dependence; and his idea of the unity of science on a physicalistic basis.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

  • The book says, “the grandson of two Lutheran ministers, and the son of a Lutheran minister who died when he was fiver years old, was brought up with his sister by his mother, grandmother, and two maiden aunts. In 1889 he sank into the mental illness that put an end to his work, though he still had eleven years to live. In the 13 books he published his philosophical theories are mingled with his convictions about history, contemporary Europe, human nature, women, literature, and music; nor is it possible to draw a sharp line in his thinking between philosophy and these other subjects. All his works throw some light upon his philosophy; Thus Spake Zarathustra his most famous book, is a brilliant literary work in which Nietzsche’s philosophy is expressed poetically and symbolically through the voice of the Persian religious teacher Zoroaster. His early essay on The Birth of Tragedy is a theory of tragedy as the affirmation of life, in opposition to Schopenhauer, and a defense of Wagner. Three essays on the foundations of ethics, draw on his knowledge of philology and his remarkable psychological insight. The Antichrist is the final statement, full of challenging ideas despite its overheated manner, of his rejection of Christianity. He also published an auto-biography “Ecce Homo”. The fragments known as The Will to Power is a two-volume collection of Nietzsche’s notes and sketches published after his death by his sister Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche; these notes include many that had already been used for earlier books and others that, though incomplete and sketchy, throw important light on directions in which his later thought was moving. The meaning and significance of Nietzsche’s work has been much obscured, first by the somewhat puzzling form in which he chose to present it—a subtle, varied, allusive style, in short passages he called “aphorisms”—and second by the manner in which it has been distorted and exploited for various ideological purposes by his sister (who secured all his papers) and by Nazi and anti-Nazi interpreters. Even now there is disagreement about how he is to be interpreted and judged, both as a philosopher and as a phenomenon. But it seems fair to say that in certain ways our present-day philosophy would have been much poorer without him. Like Socrates, whom he so much admired, Nietzsche’s contribution lay principally in the searching and original questions he asked. His unusual temperament gave him a very special vantage point from which to look upon the tendencies of his own age, in the light of history as he knew it, and to see with more clarity than others a few selected but important aspects of it. He issued the greatest of challenges to the whole democratic outlook—a challenge that cannot be ignored—and pointed out with sharpness and vigor the dangers of uncritical forms of it: the equalitarianism of conformity, the tendency to resent gifted men. His philosophy of human nature, his grasp of the complexities of conscious and unconscious drives, paved the way not only for the 20th century psychology of Freud and others but for a more adequate conception of man than was possible before Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. He addressed himself to a mankind just becoming aware, through the theory of evolution, of its own origin and past road and of its power to be far greater. And he spoke—in a rhapsodic, sometimes wildly ranting voice, but with a passionate affirmation of life—of man’s obligation to think and work for the future greatness of his descendants.”