English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

The Beginnings of Modern Thought

New Methods in Natural Philosophy:
Challenges to Scholasticism: Bacon & Descartes

In our course we will be concerned with two figures whose names are associated with important new directions in philosophy: the Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650).  Both men were originally trained as lawyers, though both eventually became preoccupied with recent events in, and with the prospects for future progress in what we now call the natural sciences, but what was then known as "natural philosophy."  Both men wrote widely on what they thought would constitute the kind of method that would most likely result in the discovery of new truths concerning the natural world, and Descartes actually made important contributions to mathematics, and carried out researches as well in the areas of physics and meteorology.

The reason we are concerned in a course on the humanities with their work in philosophy of science and metaphysics is threefold.

First, changes in the picture of the nature of Nature eventually have an important impact on the picture people hold of the nature of human beings, since we tend to define ourselves in some respects as a part of nature and in some respects in contrast to the rest of the animate and inanimate world.

Secondly, our conception of ourselves is in part a function of what we understand to be our powers to shape things to conform to our wishes and of what we understand our limitations to be. Wisdom consists in knowing what we must resign ourselves to and what use to make of the powers at our disposal. But our power over nature is a function of technology, and the technologies at our disposal are grounded in our knowledge of nature - i.e., science. This means that the tasks of wisdom, and thus of the humanities, change as our exploitable knowledge of the world increases.

And indeed, one of the remarkable things about both Bacon and Descartes is that each clearly conceived of the possibility of humankind's being able (through science) to shape the world on behalf of an improvement of "man's estate" well before the science had progressed so far as to be able to point to any technological discoveries owing to it that made a difference in the quality of life. We must keep in mind that their vision - which we take for granted today - was strikingly (and, to some, impiously) novel, in an overall cultural context in which it was assumed that the world within man's reach, and the faculties of man himself, had been so damaged by Original Sin that it was absurd to think that human beings could, by their own efforts, materially improve the human condition. Rather, it was understood, the task of human reason, aided by divine Revelation, was to drive home to man the worthlessness of the world, and the necessity to look to heaven, both for help in bearing the sufferings inevitable in this life and for the prospect of a life beyond time and earth altogether.[1]

Thirdly, successes in understanding the natural world soon give rise to the question of whether, if we were to apply to the domain of human society the methods that have paid off in discovering new truths in the realm of nature, we might be able to develop reliable human sciences. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this would be understood as the project to achieve progress in "moral philosophy" that would rival the achievements in the "natural philosophy." Looking back, we now realize that what we call the "social sciences" (economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, human geography and much of modern practice in history) are historical offshoots of this Enlightenment project, just as modern astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, biology and medical science are the children of what used to be understood as "natural philosophy."

Separately, Bacon and Descartes stress what most thinkers nowadays recognize as two essential aspects of successful work in the sciences (whether natural or social) - the empirical and the rational. Bacon's empiricism insists that all ideas (true and false) are ultimately derived by induction (properly or improperly carried out) from experience, that is, from information that comes to the mind from the physical senses. Descartes' rationalism holds that knowledge is to be arrived at by careful deduction from self-evident ideas that are innate (inborn) in all human minds. Although both men recognized the importance of both observation and reasoning, their starting points are distinctly different, and the question of how these two aspects are to be understood to cooperate is something to which neither gave much thought.

We see the successful combination of meticulous observation (often in connection with experiment) and powerful mathematical reasoning in the achievements of the Italian Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and the Englishman Isaac Newton (1642-1727), both mathematicians who turned their attention to questions of optics and dynamics (branches of physics) and of astronomy. We will conclude this series of readings with a brief look at some writings of Galileo and Newton that take up questions of the proper method to be followed in doing natural science.  [Note:  in Fall 99 we will not be taking up these readings.]

Most historians of philosophy agree that Bacon and Descartes together represent the most convenient moment at which to locate the explicit turn into specifically "modern" thought. To appreciate why this is so we will have to examine how each approach is equally subversive of the method that prevailed, in intellectual circles, up to about the 17th century. That method was developed during the middle ages, in the abbeys and universities of Christian Europe, to synthesize and pass down what was recognized as the best of Greek and (especially) Roman philosophy (natural and moral), the texts of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and "patristic" thinking (the theological writings of the early Fathers of the Christian Church). The methods developed to accomplish this task are collectively called "scholastic," since they were developed to pass down valid traditions through teaching, in "schools." The achievements­-and the positions arrived at ­-by "scholasticism" were quite various. We will have to content ourselves with a brief examination of selections from two of the great "systematic summations" of human wisdom constructed by one of the greatest medieval philosophers, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274): the Summa contra gentiles (the defense of Christian faith against the challenges of pagan philosophy ­ i.e., the "gentiles") and the Summa theologiae (the exposition of man's relation to God). Our task will be to see what Aquinas' method of proceeding is, how that method is adapted to the purpose of the enterprise, and how that enterprise is different, in its assumptions and aims, from that of Bacon and Descartes.  [In Fall 1999, we will not be doing these readings in Aquinas.]

This will provide us a deeper perspective for appreciating the course of events we have just finished reviewing -- how Galileo and Newton ("standing on the backs of giants,"[2] as Newton stressed) reached results that yield a picture of the natural world vastly different from that of the great Italian poet Dante (1265-1321), whose poem The Divine Comedy is based on the system of Aquinas.

Begin by reading carefully the selection from Bacon's Novum Organum. Begin with the introductory memo, which directs you to a biographical sketch, the excerpt from Bacon's work you are responsible for, and a Study Guide to accompany your reading of it. You will also want to consult WH, 388-390.


1.  Donne's "The First Anniversary: An Anatomy of the World" is a classic statement of this traditional position, maintained in the very face of new disputes at the bar of human reason over the structure and nature of the divinely created cosmos.  Return.

2.  He meant Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and (in his own case) Galileo. But he probably also meant Ptolemy, since he was well aware that Ptolemy was working within an intellectual framework with vastly different horizons, with respect both to the quality of the data available and to previously developed theoretical resources.  Return.

   Go to the introduction to Francis Bacon and the Novum Organum.
   Go to the introduction to René Descartes and the Meditations on First Philosophy.
   Go to the introduction to Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism in philosophy.
  Return to Reading List #3.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1998 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 14 December 1998.