Christianity began as one of many “mystery” religions based on faith in the miraculous, a derivation of Judaism that suffered persecutions at the hands of Roman authority with its officially sanctioned paganism, but attracted throngs of followers due to the fortitude of adherents and their proselytizing, eventually becoming a strong enough cultural force to gain recognition from the Roman empire. Christianity must have had serious political upside, perhaps from its broad appeal and the uncommon fervency of its members, as it had transitioned from local cult status to one of the foremost religions of imperial Rome by the 4th century C.E. with aid from key supporters such as emperor Constantine.
As Christianity grew more influential, it started to blend with still preeminent Greek philosophy, finding particular affinity with Plato’s celebration of both spontaneous human spirit and the uncanny nature of truth. His notion of metaphysical form was spiritualized by Christian thinkers until Greek ‘nous’ or psychical substance was synonymous with one’s supernatural soul seeking immortality in a heavenly afterlife. This gave inspiration to mysticism, the pursuit of transcendent connection of personalities with the Christian God, and also a leaning towards the metaphysical in intellectual efforts of Christian academicizing.
Cosmos was conceived from the perspective of this Neoplatonism as an orientation of spiritual levels, the ones unparalleled in terrestrial creation occupied by God and the angels, and then below that those attainable through human piety which culminate in achievement of eternity for the soul and in the case of saints, a degree of numinous power. This spirituality was regarded as emanations of soul substance within a supernatural core of being, in which perception’s attachment to material apparencies exists as an illusory constraint to be sloughed off at death, when the full reality will be unveiled. A high priority was placed on symbolic objects allegedly endowed with potency by rites linking them to the spirit realm, icons and relics for instance, as well as inducement of enhanced conscious states such as trances, reveries and intense focus by meditation, chanting and fasting.
The Christian religion took on an even greater political dimension as it became entrenched as the core of Western culture, possessing power to regulate intellectual activity, mainstream belief and, as previously mentioned, policies of governments. Starting in the late first millennium C.E. and resuming with a renewal of paradigmal innovating in the Middle Ages, the church waged a ceaseless fight against movements and doctrinal claims judged to contradict traditional norms, burning thousands at the stake and censoring scores of academics, demanding recantations and in a few cases destroying all extant copies of the collected works of unorthodox intellectuals. For average religious enthusiasts, their mystical inspirations and homegrown agitating were severely repressed, with the most popular inventions resulting in executions throughout Europe. Even the most respected theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas, who a hundred years later in the 14th century would be regarded as the premier Christian philosopher, usually had some of their works challenged by inquisitional councils and expurgated under threat of career-ending consequences, sometimes with potential for imprisonment.
Antiquity’s literature had been mostly lost to Europe during its 10th century dark age, but Arab scholars, in a civilization that was experiencing a golden era, preserved much of this material, and it gradually reentered the West by way of the Holy Land, North Africa and Muslim Spain. However, European intellectuals had a fight on their hands as they tried to integrate novel ideas with orthodox Neoplatonism, most significantly those of rediscovered Aristotle, a process complicated by the fact that the meaning of these works was filtered through the lens of idiosyncrasies in translation and detailed commentaries of Islamic thinkers who could differ drastically from Christianity on certain points.
Muslim philosopher Avicenna presented opposition to church doctrine, but the primary dissent came from Averroes. Averroism interpreted Aristotle’s notion of hylomorphism, the essential unity of form and matter, as implying a lack of independent differentiation in Platonic forms. In a religious context, this led to the conclusion that human souls are not distinguished from each other but exist as a uniformity, a single psychical entity fused with material substance. Averroes’ formulation was well-received in Europe and spread like wildfire at the universities, but contradicted orthodox belief in personal immortality, the supposed judgement by God of each individual’s soul as its own spiritual ‘form’ or substance after death. Church leaders saw Averroism as undermining the foundations of Christian morality (for some, merely their means of control) in its denial of both human will’s autonomous responsibility and justifiable punishment in the afterlife. Traditionalists were mobilized, meetings convened, with all the machinery of prosecution that could be mustered against intellectuals devoted to stamping out this rival philosophy, a battle the church ultimately won, as Aquinas’ more conservative Aristotelianism, though at first also controversial, proved victorious.
In this way, orthodoxy prevailed with only minor doctrinal changes until the 16th century, but by then the universal church’s opulence, corruption and meddling in secular affairs had lost it much of its credibility, printing of books and pamphlets was enabling more concerted social action, and religion could no longer stem the tide of humanist curiosity and creativity. The Reformation, set off in large measure by clergyman Martin Luther’s incendiary written protest at what many perceived as a decadent church’s money-grubbing ways, fractured Christianity into denominations, the conservative Catholics and revolutionary Protestants, and as traditional papacy drew government after government into a fanatical fight against heresy-happy dynamos, all of Europe erupted into war, with the political landscape remade as a more diverse admixture of claims to regional power. Many liberated European districts could harbor the rebel educated effectively enough for them to engage in more radical pursuits, a trend of asylum-granting that had become common in a few select areas during the Middle Ages, and new hotbeds of cutting edge philosophy and empirical activity arose all across the continent. This empowered the spreading movement we call the Renaissance, a revisitation by 15th and 16th century Europe of antiquity’s greatest cultural achievements and a rekindling of the Greek thirst for progressive knowledge.
In addition to full-blown immersion in ancient Europe’s artistic and literary traditions, technology began to advance at a quicker pace, and astronomy with its relevance for both navigation and cosmology headed this procession towards modernity. The sextant was developed as an improvement on the astrolabe, which likewise used the stars to potentiate better precision in bearing assessment at sea, but the telescope did nothing less than revolutionize comprehension of existence to its theoretical essence.
Following in the footsteps of Polish Nicolaus Copernicus, considered the father of modern astronomy and a seminal proponent of the heliocentric model that claims planets orbit our sun, Italian Galileo Galilei was a somewhat unfortunate trailblazer who’s main findings went unpublished until his death for fear of repercussions from ecclesiastical authorities. He fabricated his own lenses based on the latest optics, and when he pointed his instruments at the night sky, he did not behold orbs of transcendent perfection as postulated by the ancients, but a crater-pocked moon, Mars and Venus as reflective surfaces rather than spotless, luminescent beacons of supernatural substance, a cosmos composed of matter very much like that found on Earth, with planets he conclusively proved revolve around the sun. He spent most of his career petitioning for freedom of thought, the exemption of knowledge from punitive backlash, but his successors would build on the modest theoretical progress possible for him to be even more seachanging.
Contemporaneous with Galileo, Tycho Brahe of Denmark founded the most sophisticated astronomical observatory that had yet existed; he and his staff painstakingly tracked the paths of celestial objects, providing a foundation of extreme accuracy to be utilized by future investigators. The German Johannes Kepler used Brahe’s data to show that the planets have elliptical orbits, with speed of revolution along their circuit varying according to mathematical laws. The millennia old whopper of geocentrism had been demolished, completely reorienting Europe’s image of human existence, converting belief in a cosmos centered on terrestrial life, moved by the spiritual power of divine purpose, to a vast spatial frontier with no intrinsic principles besides inanimate mechanisms that came to seem increasingly impartial to our interests.
By the 17th century, empiricism’s epic ascent was well underway, with ever more penetrating instrumentation integrated into advancing methods of analysis, enhancing the ability of inquirers to fashion experimental setups, controlling independent variables by sophisticated means and then assessing fluctuations in dependent variables to determine causal associations. There were two main facets of burgeoning empiricism: a proposal of hypotheses with the intention of corroborating intuitions, enabling the positing of progressive theory, and a critical dismantling of previous theories, providing a recursive niche for improvement. These complementary aspects were inculcated at universities, infused into the continent’s intellectual climate as modern skepticism, what could be called systematic doubt, and what came to be much later known in the 20th century as positivism, the pursuit of comprehensive theories as well as precepts to guide development.
The philosophical underpinnings of science, a foundation still under construction in the Early Modern 17th century, tended to adopt one of two general approaches in taking the not yet synthesized skeptical or positivist turn, either rationalist, essentially falling in line with an analysis based on pure conceptualization traceable all the way back to Plato’s abstract, Socratic dialecticism, or a materialist strategy founded primarily on observation of the natural world more in likeness to the thinking of Aristotle. Philosophers, with the newly coalescing scientific instincts of their milieu, mused from a starting point of ideations or facts, usually attempting to either construct a complete system or deconstruct knowledge in order to reach explicit recognition of what can be known with certainty.
Frenchman Rene Descartes was the quintessential instance of rationalist skepticism with his elaboration of radical doubt. In his Meditations he dismissed all the trappings of conventional wisdom and traditional belief, reflecting upon what a solitary human being can know in a “clear and distinct” way, with the greatest certainty, from which he attempted to derive a grounding of knowledge. He realized it was possible to doubt everything on principle, for all our understanding of existence reduces to claims that can conceivably be false, either by errors of our senses or fallacious hearsay, except for one truth, that he himself exists, the necessary condition for any experience at all to be taking place. He expressed his idea with the words “cogito, ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am – and proceeded from this assertion to erect a hierarchy of most reliable to less reliable truths, notably averring that the theorems and objects of pure mathematics as ideally precise concepts are more certain than facts of nature and a potential foundation for the defining of existence. This was early stimulus to development of quantitative modeling, the coming of age Plato had anticipated for mathematical form; in addition to Descartes’ critical epistemologizing, he was a genius mathematician who launched the standardized implementation of coordinate planes, a pillar of modern science and engineering. His tiered arrangement of relative certainties was no mere novelty, for it touched off trajection towards the most efficient and powerful systematizing of conceptual frameworks the world has yet attained, our profusion of quantitative theories and their technological functions.
England’s David Hume introduced a similar brand of radical doubt to the domain of the empirical, discussing how factual knowledge, that which is based on observation, can never offer more than probable certainties. He famously wrote that the fact of the sun having always risen is no unequivocal proof it will rise tomorrow, for our concepts of material causality assume continuities and linkages existing only in the mind as perceptions, based on bounded experience. He pointed out how reality is no more than approximated by thought’s limited, even sometimes illusory interpretation of what exists, and so every datum of knowledge involves a degree of incertitude. Like Descartes’ reflections, this made explicit the concept of a gap between mind and world, influencing all future critical thought, most notably the philosophy of Kant, who claimed Humean skepticism as his inspiration for challenging the naive reliance on pure logic in traditional metaphysics.
Positivistic theorizing was an aspect of most Early Modern thinking as academics made constructive assertions, some from a rationalist perspective and some from a more observation-based one. The Dutch Baruch Spinoza is the best example of an ultrarationalist; he invented a system from scratch for organizing truth claims as logical propositions in order to inferentially validate an ontology, intent on granting the force of necessity to certain beliefs, in particular those related to the notion of a prime mover as formative force of the cosmos and to the origins of existence. Englishman Thomas Hobbes was more of an observationalist who addressed stark realities of human nature and society, which had often been glossed over by moralizing, in a controversial political philosophy alleging the necessity of strict authority for taming subordination of human life to the “nasty, brutish and short” antisublimation of our instincts within culture, firstly rooted in the tumult of bare survival, then ascending in civilization to selfish interests along with perceptions of security via the violation of others.
This revisionary progressiveness of high level thought in system-building and critical epistemology all came together in Kant, who completely altered philosophy’s frame of reference. Until his time, even major advancement in empirical method and the body of fact had failed to dispel confusions and fundamental disagreements about how to demarcate the relationship between mind and causal essence, logicality and ontologicality in metaphysics, but Kant firmly established in scholarly consciousness that apparent reality is a conceptual realm with perceptual parameters. He gave a detailed account of philosophical discourse’s foundation in the structure of humanity’s capacity for ‘reason’, welding diverse strands of critical and positivistic tradition into a systematic psychology, explaining the order of world and cosmos as arising from universal characteristics of human mentality that render proof, truth, knowledge possible, “the conditions of the possibility of experience”. With Kant we see introduction of the notion that ‘space’ and ‘time’ are internal to mind, also his “categories of the understanding” or types of concepts, the mind’s compositional framework that shapes our reality.
Subsequent to the Kantian paradigm, it was definitive that order in the cosmos is not driven solely by some providential purpose, a ‘final cause’ to use Aristotle’s term, existing independent of human observation as reality’s perhaps divine rationale. Instead, it was crystal clear that final causes depend on the structure of our thought, our intuitions, and it dawned on many how we may be able to dramatically transform causality by the application of science and technology, viewing the world through a medium of mechanistically enhanced perceptions. ‘Efficient causes’, the billiard ball type interactions between particulars, are not entirely subordinate to what had been understood as external purpose, but rather morph the external into forms functional for humans as raw material of a growingly efficacious set of theories, our models of cause and effect. Humans are not at the total mercy of final causality, but are a transfiguring force upon final causality, and efficient causes are not imposed upon us irresistibly but are rather the perceptual matrix for plying and molding the world to the benefit of our subsistence and actualization. This idealist paradigm asserted that it is the human condition to have control over our destinies.
Kant’s philosophy embodied the tenor of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment in Europe, an optimistic movement believing in thought’s capacity to articulate and achieve the ideal. But all of a sudden the weight of responsibility for our fate was displaced from metaphysical divinity to the human agent, and our inadequacies or failures were no longer arbitrated by a superseding spirit world but instead were our own. As war, discord, immorality, the continual disruption of social order persisted without abation, it became necessary to interrogate human nature, questioning how genuinely pure so called “pure reason” actually is. Did the flowering of this idea ‘reason’ really fertilize our thinking with certainty about the nature of our minds? How would we make sense of disintegration so perpetuitous in society?
Perhaps reason was not the freshly illuminated means by which to achieve our ideals, but actually was the ideal, which we consistently fall short of due to causes that were at the time poorly understood. As human intention became more and more the perceived source of collective fate, we could no longer in the manner of the ancient world depend on astrology, augury to guide our lives and reveal truth to us; we had to embrace history’s loftiest standards, met by only a rare few, and commit to arriving at our own truths, putting our minds to the test. No more could we entertain fanciful and oversimplified speculations about an idealized psyche as a kind of sideshow while pursuing extravagant ambitions or acquiescing to cosmic fate, but had to get down to the serious, gritty, tortuous, even torturous business of iconoclastically self-analyzing and then piecing together a precise anatomy of consciousness. Life was no longer a matter of inevitabilities, obligations, glory, in essence fortune; our futures seemed to depend on taking radical responsibility, but could we handle it?
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.