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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lesson Three: The Late Renaissance and The Age of Reason (1500-1750 AD)

In Halifax, I bought a book called Philosophy Bites Back (David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, Oxford University Press, 2012). One of those snappy little survey books designed to demystify philosophy and render it accessible to ordinary folk – the UK has been churning them out at an alarming rate of late, and they aren't half bad either – this one asks a number of contemporary philosophers to name their favourite thinker of all time, and then uses the interview format to unpack, through a lively to and fro, the top 27 of these fave raves. The end result tells much the same story as that to which we have grown accustomed: the history of Western philosophy as a linear trajectory from where it all began with Socrates to where it all begins to unravel with Derrida; and like the others of its ilk, the 25 stops between these two seminal points would lead us to believe that that history consists entirely of dead white males. These reservations apart, the interviews themselves present a compelling way of engaging with philosophy – a kind of three-way tango between a philosophy-savvy interviewer, an enthusiastic philosopher fan, and a famous thinker that they dust off between them and hang out for a much needed airing. Though an exercise in writing, it oozes orality: the thinker in question coming to life on the page as he is excitedly and eruditely resurrected out of odd little personality traits and earth shattering eureka moments, out of unquestioned beliefs long since discredited and far-fetched ideas that continue to resonate.

The fact that I read the book while steaming through the snowbound Maritimes on a train certainly added to its allure. The total white-out conditions through which we were traveling had effectively transformed the 24 hour journey to Montreal into one interminable ghostly night: rendering any sense of where we were a matter of pure speculation; turning the train itself into a safety bubble for some, a capsule hurtling blindly down the track for others. In other words, it was just like philosophy. Moreover, the favourite philosophers to whom I was paying particular attention as I made my way back for the third salon evening in our current series fell as neatly into camps as the people on the train: there were those, like Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who were prepared to embrace uncertainty, treating doubt as the key ingredient – the very spice! – of life; and there were those, like Rene Descartes (1596-1650), for whom doubt was a necessary, if somewhat desolate, passage that you just had to grin and bear and basically get through in order to arrive, triumphantly, in the dazzling light of pure unadulterated reason. 

Okay, so we were out of the Dark Ages. But we still weren't out of the woods. And for all that the dawn of the 16th Century saw us shaking off the shackles of feudalism, found us questioning Christianity's hold on our lives and beliefs, found us contemplating the latest findings of science perhaps the earth wasn't stationary after all! perhaps we humans, like the earth itself, did not occupy centerstage in the cosmos! – it remained that times were tough. And brutal! The Catholics and Protestants were slogging it out in an endless round of religious wars. The Spanish Inquisition and with it, the persecution of Jews, Muslims and anybody else deemed a heretic, was in full bloody flow. Kings and Queens could be riding divine one day, losing their heads the next. And fledgling parliaments taking a stab at democratic governance were taking flight and toppling all in the space of a week.

In short, as we floundered around in the late Renaissance before blazing a trail into the Age of Reason, it became clear that for all the new thinking taking root during this period, Europe remained a precarious place to live for the vast majority of people. It was especially so for women, who – though initially welcomed into some of the early grassroots humanist movements challenging the old authoritarian regimes and fighting for political and social change – soon found themselves relegated to making the coffee and sweeping up the hall after the meeting as the emancipatory ideas underpinning these movements began to spread among men of means. 

Foreshadowing the kind of sidelining women would experience during the American civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, for example, or in labour movements of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually it was only the “exceptional” woman, as she was referred to by that most “supreme” of libertarians John Locke (1632-1704), who was considered capable of partaking in public affairs – that is, the rare woman who owned property and/or possessed the leisure time required to cultivate her powers of reason, which basically meant that you that had to be a rich widow or a reigning monarch to play any meaningful part out there in the big wide world. As Nancy Tuana has argued, it would seem that those advances made by the early male humanists in terms of greater equality between the classes, education for the masses, and the creation of the modern state all took their toll on women’s advancement: sending them back into the private sphere; making marriage and child-rearing their only viable career options. Small wonder that the heckles on many a contemporary feminist’s back bristles when Humanism is touted as a philosophical ‘ism’ that serves us all. This unease is only heightened by the knowledge that the persecution of women as witches during the 16th and 17th Centuries was highest in those European countries which most fully embraced Humanist thinking. Nor is it a coincidence, as Tuana points out, that philosophy’s cementing of Reason as Male and Passion as Female during this same timeframe drew largely on the particular framing of women – as mentally defective, as unable to control their passions – used to justify the witch hunts in the first place.

And so we come to the meat of the evening, the very gristle for our mill. But here’s the twist. Drawing inspiration from philosopher Catherine McKinnon’s refreshingly succinct and wonderfully pointed (amidst all the waffling reverence for those Dead White Males) response to the question, “Who is your favourite philosopher?” – “Oh, the last woman I talked to, whoever she is” – I'm turning that gristle (and the task of doing something with it) over to you. After all, we are dealing here with a philosophical epoch that revolved largely around epistemology – that is, around the building of knowledge and the question of how we go about making it both individually and collectively. And in the spirit of McKinnon, why should those DWMs have all the fun?  Below you’ll find a crib sheet. It contains names, dates, quotes, themes and, most importantly, QUESTIONS – everything we used to build ourselves a salon evening last Thursday, and everything you need to stage a mini-salon session of your own. Don’t be shy! Just jump right in there, bite off more than you can chew, and enjoy! And see you next time, in the Age of Revolution (1750-1900).

Crib Sheet for Lesson Three, March 26th: The Renaissance and the Age of Reason (1500 – 1750 AD)

Getting going: Theseus’s Ship (Hobbes)

Tonight’s Terrain: Natural Philosophy, Political Philosophy and Epistemology

The BIG issues:   
1) Observation, Measurement and Testing as the new grounds for knowledge about the world
2) Reconciling what's going on in our heads (individual consciousness) with the external world

Key “isms”: Idealism, Materialism, Dualism, Monism, Rationalism, Empiricism

Changing Things Up in the Late Renaissance:

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Political Philosophy – “It is much safer for a Prince to be feared than loved”

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Natural Philosophy – “Knowledge is Power”

QUESTION: Machiavelli thought good leaders combined the qualities of a lion (strength) and a fox (cunning); Bacon thought Rationalists were like spiders (spinning magnificent webs from matter secreted within, which were structurally impressive but lacked connection to the outside world) and Empiricists were like ants (mindlessly collecting data, with only limited ideas as to what to do with it). In the way that you go through the world as a philosophical being, what creature are you, and why?


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – The Pessimist (“Life is a war of every man against every man, and all outcomes are decided by force and fraud…Without society, left to our own nature, our life would be solitary, nasty, brutish, and short”)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) – The Optimist (“This is the Best of All Possible Worlds”)

QUESTION: When it comes to how you see the world around you, are you Hobbesian or Leibnizian?

Some Questions to Launch the Age of Reason:
1) How do I know?
2) What can I know?
3) Are 1) and 2) the same question?
4) What does knowing feel like?

DOUBT!!!...(And how to deal with it):

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592): Doubt as a way of life – “To philosophize is to learn how to live”

René Descartes (1596-1650): Radical Doubt as a passage towards certainty – “Cogito Ergo Sum”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and his Wager – Hedging your bets (or sitting on the fence-ism) re: Doubt

QUESTION: When it comes to how you live your life, are you Montaignian, Cartesian, or Pascalian?


John Locke (1632-1704) and our memories, our desires and our mental attributes: If the prince and the pauper exchange bodies, which person is now the prince; which person is now the pauper?

George Berkeley (1685-1753) and his puzzle:

There was a young man who said God
Must find it exceedingly odd,
To think that the tree should continue to be,
When there’s no one about in the quad.

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd.
I’m always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully

David Hume (1711-1776) and Miracles: Should we believe in them or not?