Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Enlightenment Part 4 -- RED Isms

            The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution (Shelley, 1995). As such it was an age of isms. Those three letters (i, s, m) do extraordinary things to a word, concept, or idea. They turn a completely neutral concept into a cemented mindset. For example, take the word human. Now add our three letters – humanism. No small difference. Do the same with feminine, commune, particular, pragmatic, subjective, fanatic, or real.
            We now turn our attention to three of the most prominent isms of the Enlightenment period. This will be a fly-over, a crash course in “The Philosophical Isms of the Enlightenment for the Philosophy Rookies of the Postmodern.” But before we press on, an important point: These three isms are not presented as though they, for the first time in world history, raised their we-can-do-better-than-God fists in the 17th and 18th centuries. To think otherwise would be myopic, not to mention intellectually irresponsible. All three isms have been, to one degree or another, part and parcel with being human ever since that first snake and forbidden fruit picnic.             
Given that generality, it does appear that during the long century, this trio experienced sizeable spikes in press and prestige in European thinking. Although the Enlightenment cannot claim exclusive rights on these isms, it can claim to be a major stockholder in the history of the concepts.

                                            (A BIRD’S EYE VIEW)

Leading Up to the Enlightenment

Within the Enlightenment

Emerging Out of the Enlightenment






Scientific Revolution

Rene Descartes

David Hume

Immanuel Kant




Figure 2.3 – The Enlightenment & Three Principle Concepts

Rationalism – I Reason Therefore I Know
            There is a reason the Enlightenment sometimes goes by that other name, the Age of Reason. We have already established, with the help of Hunnex, that rationalism “can be defined as a theory of knowledge (epistemology) that ‘believes some ideas or concepts are independent of experience and that some truth is known by reason alone’” (p. 3).[1] This mindset holds (the exact opposite of empiricism) that humans are born with some “innate knowledge;” that is, we are not born a blank slate; we know some basic things even at birth. With this presupposition regarding knowledge and reason, rationalism views human reasoning as the primary source and test of knowledge. The focus is on the brain – human thinking, reasoning, and logic.  
At the very dawn of the Enlightenment, Descartes gave rationalism its enlightened kick-start with his writings and, of course, his famous “I think therefore I am” statement. With the thinkers that immediately followed Descartes this ism became one of the primary early philosophical movements of the long century. However, whereas rationalism was in the lead early on in this time period, it turned that lead over to empiricism in the early 1800’s.
Rational Name-Dropping
            Here is a short-list role call for a Who’s Who of Enlightenment Rationalists (using the analogy of a train):[2] Rene Descartes was the engine. He “got the ball rolling.” He would likely qualify as a moderate rationalist, holding that some truths could be attained by reason alone, other truths required sensory perception with the help of the scientific method, and still other truths are given by God. Immanuel Kant comes in as the caboose. He started out as dyed-in-the-wool rationalist, but, after reading and contemplating Hume’s work, converted to somewhere in the middle of the rationalism/empiricism continuum. Kant’s seminal work was largely instrumental in bringing the Enlightenment to a close. In between the engine and the caboose stand rationalists such as Baruch Spinoza, who essentially followed Descartes with some modest expansion; Gottfried Leibniz, who revisited Aristotle in order to solve weaknesses he saw in Descartes founding work;[3] and Nicolas Malebranche who as a devout Christian, attempted to reconcile his Augustinian convictions with Descartes rationalism.
            These men, and others, ushered in the greatest emphasis on human reasoning since the Greeks of 600 B.C. For both these men and their Greek predecessors, human reasoning was viewed as “the ultimate authority of truth and falsehood, right and wrong...[such] rationalism always degenerates into irrationalism” (Frame, p. 177).

Empiricism – I Experience Therefore I Know
            I have a hunch this was the camp in which I spent my formative years. In Montana cattle ranch country during the post-Korean war and the tumultuous 60’s, there was a preeminent way regarding how we know and learn about stuff. This way was never discussed as a philosophical alternative to rationalism around the dinner table after a day of branding. At breakfast there was no talk of Bacon, and after dinner there were not discussions around the fireplace concerning how Kant merged rationalism and empiricism. The way one learned how to bridle and saddle a horse was to “git out there an do it.” Same for milking a cow, fixing the hay baler, or roping a steer. The watchword for learning was, “Watch and learn.” We were expected to learn by experience – touch it, milk it, tighten it, weld it, rope it, brand it, smell it, and (if need be) taste it.       Empiricism is the mindset that experience is the key to knowledge. Washburn (2007) gets a bit more technical in defining it as “the theory that all of our ideas originate in sensory experience”[4] (p. 328). He goes on to explain that “people’s environment determines how they develop their inborn potential, or whether they develop it at all...the most important part of the environment is probably the social environment...A person is also molded by the cultural environment” (p. 327). The focus is on the heart – our experiences, our feelings, and our passions.
Those British Imperial Empiricists
            The British philosophers of that day were not content to merely go along, lock-stock-and-barrel, with European mainland’s emphasis on rationalism. Rather, they reacted “against the rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz...[and] dismissed the idea that reason is our only reliable source of knowledge and developed the opposing movement known as empiricism” (Weeks, n.d., p. 212).  Once again a word of caution and balance: history and philosophical debates (and life) are seldom absolutely black and white. It was not that the two sides of the English Channel were firing flaming epistemological cannon balls at each other night and day for hundred-plus years. Despite this conciliatory nod and the fact there exists a sizeable number of historians that leans toward “no clear distinction” between rationalism and empiricism, there is also the argument, illustrated by Stephen Priest (2007), that sees these two approaches, at their core as completely “incompatible” (The British Empiricists, p. 8-10).
            Our “Who’s Who” short list of Enlightenment era empiricists[5] includes: 1) Thomas Hobbes, who “laid the foundations of modern empiricism with his materialist and mechanistic views – although its roots could be traced back to Aristotle” (Weeks, 212). 2) John Locke, who built on Hobbes work by fine-tuning the empiricist arguments in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). 3) George Berkeley, who took empiricism to an extreme, claiming that material substance did not even exist. Berkeley, a Christian bishop, believed reality existed only in the mind of God, and as such humans do not experience things at all, but only their qualities (Weeks, 220). Try explaining that to your grandchildren. 4) And finally, David Hume, whom we have already met. In addition to what we have already learned concerning Hume, he believed there were two kinds of truths: those of reasoning and those of fact. Concerning those truths of fact, Hume concluded that nothing can be both certain and tell us something about the world. This essentially and effectively removed all legitimacy for relying on reason to interact with and interpret the world around us.

The End of Empiricism
            There is a direct, paved, no-speed-limit route from pure empiricism to relativism. R. A. Rausch (2001) puts it this way, “Since there may be a variety of interpretations of what constitutes an experience, any appeal to experience as the sole arbiter of meaning and significance is problematical. Such an appeal is completely dependent on which interpretation of the experience ones applies” (p. 376). Should this approach to knowledge be applied to the realm of theology, the result should not be one of shock. Enter Friedrich Schleiermacher. Given his presuppositions regarding epistemology, his deductions fall in step with a far-left empiricist party line: interpretations and theologies are as many as there are universes, cultures, and individuals.[6]

Deism – God, Put Out to Pasture[7]
            The phrase, put out to pasture, is based on an old agrarian tradition of keeping farm animals that are no longer useful, usually because they were too old to work. Instead of slaughtering them, the farmer would put them out in a pasture to live out their last days in relative peace. We had several horses on the ranch that earned this type of retirement. We were too attached to them to send them to “the big house.” So they grazed in the pasture, not doing any work; they were just there, something to look at and reminisce about their past usefulness. The phrase is used of someone who has been forced to stop their work or responsibilities because they have outlived or outgrown their usefulness. Metaphorically speaking, the bulk of the Enlightenment philosophers put God out to pasture. They did not deny his existence, nor his part in ‘getting things going.’ But now, with the progress of reason and science, he had outgrown his usefulness. God was put out to pasture. He was someone to look at and reminisce about his past usefulness. (I am writing as a fool.)
            With God out to pasture, it was “out of sight; out of mind.” Or, in the case of deism, “Out of sight; out of this world.” It is interesting to note that deism would be absolutely impossible to exist in any form if God were visible. Invisibility is what bolsters deism’s arrogance (and ignorance). Imagine a world where God were visible. And omnipresent. Think of what that combination would mean. That would mean we could not see anything but God all the time. Everything else would be hidden behind the visible God, who is everywhere, therefore there is no such thing as behind him. In this present world it is possible to see the handiwork of God all around us. We “see God,” as it were, in the world he has created. But if he were literally and completely visible, his omnipresence would block out all handiwork of his creation. Everywhere we looked, God would be in between us and the created world beyond. (Oh, and how does one get ‘beyond’ omnipresence?)
            But God is invisible. And because of that characteristic deism is, not only deemed a possibility, but has also gained great traction at certain times in history. The Enlightenment was one of those gaining traction eras.
            Deism is the mindset that God created the universe, but then left it to run on its own. It is the transcendental nature of God gone to seed. At the core deists are really rationalists who choose to believe in an absentee God and a world that relies on science to lead us to truth. Technically deism falls in the category of theism, since it holds to “belief in the existence of a god or gods and therefore [is] the antithesis of atheism” (M. H. MacDonald, “Deism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell, p. 329). MacDonald goes on to explain 
the basic doctrines of deism are (1) the belief in a supreme being; (2) the obligation to worship; (3) the obligation of ethical conduct; (4) the need for repentance from sins; and (5) divine rewards and punishments in this life and the next. These five points were stated by Lord Herbert, often called the father of deism. Deism contradicts orthodox Christianity by denying any direct intervention in the natural order by God. Although deists profess belief in personal providence, they deny the Trinity, the incarnation, the divine authority of the Bible, the atonement, miracles, any particular elect people of Israel, and any supernatural redemptive act in history. (MacDonald, p. 329)

             Pagden (2013) concurs with the general consensus that during the Enlightenment period not many of the enlightened were actual atheists, but “the deists were numberless” (The Enlightenment, p. 129). And so it was, God was put out (in the passive sense). And he, because of his nature, was also put out (in the active sense).

[1] Mathematics is a leading contender of an area of knowledge that is independent of experience. We do not know 2 + 2 = 4 because we have experienced such a thing. We know this because “no world could exist in which 2 + 2 = 5” (Washburn, 1997, p. 333). It should, therefore, not be a tremendous shock to learn that Descartes was, not a theologian nor a university professor, but rather a mathematician.

[2] Find this particular list of prominent Enlightenment era rationalists at:

[3] Incidentally, these first three men (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) “hold that ‘God exists’ is true since God is the most perfect conceivable being by definition and so must exist.” Such reasoning is shown to be contradictory in Robert G. Meyers, Understanding Empiricism, (  

[4] A very similar definition is given in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Empiricism – D. A. Rausch (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001) 375.
[5] See the short list of both rationalists and empiricists of the Enlightenment period in Janice Thomas, The Minds of the Moderns: Rationalism, Empiricism, and the Philosophy of the Mind (New York: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009). Ms. Thomas sites Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz as the main thinkers in the rationalism camp with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume the main players in the empiricism camp. Other reliable sources include Hobbes in with the empiricists. See
[6] See Schleiermacher’s emphasis on experience in, Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (New York: T & T Clark, 1999). Note especially pages 67-75.

[7] It is interesting to note that both deism and dualism hold to some type of separation; that is, separation of the natural world (with no divine intervention) from the supernatural world (with active and current divine intervention).

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