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Background to Modern Philosophy

24 September, 2015 - 13:02

Somewhat misleadingly, the ‘modern’ period refers to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For our purposes, it actually coversabout a hundred and forty years, from the publication of René Descartes’s Meditations in 1641 to that of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.

The modern period begins with the rejection of the dominant philosophy of the day, Aristotelianism. And of course the rejectionis not complete: core Aristotelian notions, especially substance, live on in the moderns. For both these reasons, very little of the moderns’work will make sense unless it is seen against this scholastic background.

What was taught in the ‘schools’ in the early seventeenth century was not a monolithic body of doctrine. Nevertheless, we canpoint to some core beliefs, most of which have a foundation in Aristotle’s own writings. We begin with some of Aristotle’s textsbefore jumping ahead nearly 1,500 years, to Thomas Aquinas’s (1225–1274) synthesis of Christian and Aristotelian thought. WhileAquinas’s system was only one of many available to the seventeenth century Aristotelian, philosophers of the four intervening centuriesdefined themselves against it, just as Descartes was to do.

(Textual note: the standard edition of Aristotle’s works is The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes. ForAquinas, see Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, edited by Anton Pegis.)