Saturday, December 30, 2023

593. Cycle of ideas in the history of philosophy

 According to the account given by Stephen Toulmin, in his book ’Cosmopolis’, the Renaissance of the 16th century, with the humanists Montaigne, Erasmus and Shakespeare, was followed by the modernist ‘anti-renaissance’ in the 17th century and the Enlightenment of the 18th century engendered by Galilei, Descartes, Newton, Kant, Spinoza, and the industrial revolution and imperialism in the 19th century, until a revival of ‘neo renaissance’ and anti-Enlightenment in the 20th century. Here I follow Toulmin, but will add an idea of my own concerning what might follow.

 In the 16the century, following the Renaissance, there was humanism, tolerance, rejection of certainty, scepticism, absolutism and universalism, dedication to practice as opposed to context and time-independent theory, as in legal and medical affairs, relativism, context-dependence of knowledge and judgement, and the acceptance of diversity of religion and culture. The French king Henri IV instituted the Edict of Nantes, which gave freedom of religion, in the struggle between Catholicism and emerging Protestantism. International trade blossomed, and here was the discovery of the Indies and South America by Portugal and Spain. This was the beginning of imperialism, but it was accompanied by interest in varieties of indigenous culture.

 This ended with the murder of Henry in 1610, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, followed by the 30 year war of religion, absolutism and dogmatism in philosophy, science and government, the rise of autonomous states with absolute rule, the ‘Little Ice Age’, and widespread poverty. Philosophy and science followed the ideals of the abstract rigour of mathematics and logic, and empirical testing of formalised theory, but disregard of practical matters. History, rhetoric, emotions and practical science were neglected and derided for their context-dependence and lack of rigour An exception was the scepticism of David Hume. The ideal of the Enlightenment was the uncompromising use of reason and mastery of emotions. All this remains in Analytical Philosophy.

 Early opposition, in an emerging anti-Enlightenment, arose already in the 18th century, by Giambattista Vico, Schiller, Hamann, Herder, and Kierkegaard, and came to fruition in the 20th century. In the 18th century, Kant was sceptical of knowledge, but remained universalist in his ethics and anti-realism. in the 19th century, Nietzsche caused a break with rationalist and universalist knowledge in science and ethics. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the interest in practical matters was revived with the emergence of ‘pragmatist philosophy’ in the US, in particular that of John Dewey. He also held that the individual develops from interaction with others, ‘symbolic interactionism’, which inspired Habermas with his ‘Theory of communicative action’. What is now called ‘Continental Philosophy’, developed from the ‘Critical Theory’ of the ‘Frankfurter Schule’, with Adorno and Horkheimer, raising doubts about the Enlightenment ideal of rationalism, and with the scepticism of Wittgenstein. This was radicalised in the ‘Post-modern Philosophy’ of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Rorty. Following Toulmin’s line of thought, this might be called a ‘New Renaissance’

 What we now see is a re-emergence of anti-renaissance absolutism, nationalism, universalism, isolationism, authoritarianism, intolerance , and exclusion of immigrants, in the emergence of rightist populism, in the US and Europe. We can hardly call this a ‘New Enlightenment’, in view of its disregard of reason, logic and facts. It threatens democracy. Some people seem to long for an authoritarian regime.

 What will next happen, in the history of ideas? Will there be a new restauration of Renaissance tolerance, and resistance to universalism and absolutism? Postmodernism has been mostly destructive, or, as Derrida would say, deconstructive. After postmodernism, what remains of logic, theory, mathematics and science? After destruction there should be reconstruction, in a new setting, as Derrida allowed. What theory can there be that does not get mired in universalism, absolutism, dogmatism, intolerance, while allowing for scepticism, and yet guides understanding and action in the world? I have argued that a next stage in the development of ideas could be dynamism, with the fluidity of ideas, and a relational ontology, with the evolution of ideas in interaction between things, which is unpredictable, disabling certainty, and thus is sceptical of what we know, is in what I have called ‘imperfection on the move’.


Bart Nooteboom, 2023, Dynamic coherence of continental philosophy, Aspekt publishers.

Bart Nooteboom, 2021, Process philosophy, Anthem publishers. 

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