17th-century philosophy

17th century philosophy in the West is generally regarded as seeing the start of modern philosophy, and the shaking off of the medieval approach, especially scholasticism. It is often called the "Age of Reason" and is considered to succeed the Renaissance and precede the Age of Enlightenment. Alternatively, it may be seen as the earlier part of the Enlightenment.


In Eastern Philosophy, the period is usually taken to start in the seventeenth century with the work of René Descartes, who set much of the agenda as well as much of the methodology for those who came after him. The period is typified in Europe by the great system-builders philosophers who present unified systems of epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and ethics, and often politics and the physical sciences too. Immanuel Kant classified his predecessors into two schools: the Rationalists and the Empiricists[1], and Early Modern Philosophy (as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy is known) is often characterised in terms of a supposed conflict between these schools. This division is a considerable oversimplification, and it is important to be aware that the philosophers involved did not think of themselves as belonging to these schools, but as being involved in a single philosophical enterprise.

Although misleading in many ways, this simplification has continued to be used to this day, especially when writing about the 17th and 18th centuries. The three main Rationalists are normally taken to have been Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. Building upon their English predecessors Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, the three main Empiricists were John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. The former were distinguished by the belief that, in principle (though not in practice), all knowledge can be gained by the power of our reason alone; the latter rejected this, believing that all knowledge has to come through the senses, from experience. Thus the Rationalists took mathematics as their model for knowledge, and the Empiricists took the physical sciences.

This emphasis on epistemology is at the root of Kant's distinction; looking at the various philosophers in terms of their metaphysical, moral, or linguistic theories, they divide up very differently. Even sticking to epistemology, though, the distinction is shaky: for example, most of the Rationalists accepted that in practice we had to rely on the sciences for knowledge of the external world, and many of them were involved in scientific research; the Empiricists, on the other hand, generally accepted that a priori knowledge was possible in the fields of mathematics and logic.

This period also saw the birth of some of the classics of political thought, especially Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government.

The seventeenth century in Europe saw the culmination of the slow process of detachment of philosophy from theology. Thus, while philosophers still talked about and even offered arguments for the existence of a deity, this was done in the service of philosophical argument and thought. (In the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, 18th-century philosophy was to go still further, leaving theology and religion behind altogether.)

List of seventeenth century philosophers


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