Phl 302
Dr. Uzgalis


Here is a map of the journey students take in Phl. 302.

After any great voyage, people tell stories about what happened. "Stories and Themes" is designed to give you an overview of the material we are studying, and to provide you with a certain amount of background information which may or may not show up in course lectures. Thus, it may be of use to you to read all of it at once (to get the overview); and to come back to it from time to time in order to get the overview of particular parts or to assimilate some of the background.

Great Voyages

The course begins in the era of the great voyages of discovery and the first sustained European contact with the Americas in 1492 and examines issues in metaphysics, epistemology and social and political philosophy discussed by some of the major philosophical stars of this era down to the beginning of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and, in the same year, the death of David Hume in 1776.

When I call this the era of great voyages I do not mean to call them great because they were good. Many of the voyages during this era involved disastrous consequences for many people. A voyage may be a great voyage for many reasons. Some are great because of their epic quality - someone is sailing off into the unknown to discover new lands. Some are great because of the enormous consequences which follow from them - either for good or evil. This may be true of voyages of the mind as much as voyages by sea.

There were great voyages taking place across the oceans and continents, and other great voyages in the sphere of learning and ideas and ways of living were taking place as well. These voyages of the mind are comparable with voyages of the sailors in several ways. Some years after the voyages of Columbus, a Spanish historian remarked that nothing this important had happened since the birth of Christ. We are inclined to agree with this assessment. The voyages of the Portuguese sailors around Africa, and the voyages of Columbus marks what amounts to the beginning of the European conquest of the world, the era of European colonies and empires. (You might want to look at aTime Line of historical events extending through this period.) Several centuries later Herbert Butterfield, a historian of science, made essentially the same remark about the rise of science during this era. No more influential cultural force has come on the scene since the rise of Christianity.

A voyage implies a beginning point and an end point. The very concept of the Renaissance, provides our beginning point. One important feature of the concept represents, in part, a negative judgment on the culture of Europe at the time. For the Renaissance is backward looking. It says the great civilizations of the past -- Greece and Rome, in particular, provide us with models of architecture, sculpture, music, mathematics, history and philosophy which are superior to our contemporary efforts. So we must look to the ancient models. One expression of this is Raffael's painting of 1516 "The School of Athens" which has as its central and dominating figures Plato and Aristotle. During the whole period we are studying, people looked to ancient models. Thus we find that Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is modeled on Cicero's dialogue Concerning the Gods Nevertheless, over the period we are studying Europeans made such progress in mathematics, the scientific study of the natural world and philosophy, as well as the arts and music, that they came to see their own culture and intellectual life as superior to that of the ancient world. That is one of the end points of the voyage. Thus we find philosophers both looking to and rejecting ancient models. During the period we are studying, Aristotelian science and philosophy were under attack. They were being replaced by something new. (The Mathematics Tutor at the University of Saint Andrews provides you with biographies of the mathematicians and short histories of some of the developments in the rich history of mathematics during this period. I suggest that you look at the section on the rise of the calculus.)

You can see one of the minor effects of this voyage in this way. If you were going to school in the fifteenth or sixteenth century you would be sure to learn Greek and Latin - the languages of those ancient cultural models. But today, very few people learn Greek and Latin. It is not considered necessary to know these languages to be educated, as it once was.

This great intellectual voyage involved many changes, changes in the way in which we regard the universe. There were fundamental changes in our view of space and time. The title of Alexandre Korye's book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe tells part of the story. Our conceptions of space and time have been enormously expanded and changed. During the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries we discovered astronomical space and geological time. There is a similar change in our view of motion and causality. There are other changes in our view of ourselves. The Renaissance and Reformation brought anew emphasis on the individual with associated problems about conscience and consciousness and personal identity. The rise of the centralized national state during this period brought with it issues and problems about the relation of the subject to the state, freedom, rights and what the legitimate role of government is. We will touch on many, though not all, of these issues in the course of this class.

Among the men who brought about this change are a galaxy of star philosophers, who were often also mathematicians, natural philosophers and theologians. These include such great figures as Rene Descartes, John Locke, Benedict de Spinoza, G. Leibniz, George Berkeley and David Hume. The Continental tradition running from Descartes through Spinoza and Leibniz is often called the Rationalist tradition; while the line running through Locke, Berkeley and Hume is often called the Empiricist tradition. While this division is in some ways a vast over simplification, we will consider the differences between Rationalist and Empiricist philosophies.

The Renaissance and the American Indians

In 1492 Lorenzo di Medici (the Magnificent) died and Alexander the VI (Rodrigo Borgia) was the Pope. The Renaissance, that rediscovery of the importance of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, was in full flower. The voyages of discovery were revolutionary in that they disrupted the European conception of the world. This becomes plain by contemplating a map from this period.

What is missing from this "world map" is two or three continents - the Americas and Australia and the vast extent of the Pacific and even Atlantic Oceans. (Note also that the Indian Ocean is treated as an enclosed body of water. Vasco de Gama was to prove this wrong by passing the Cape of Good Hope just five years later.) The Library of Congress exhibit "1492 the Ongoing Voyage"(from which I took this map) has a more in depth treatment of the voyages of Columbus, the culture he came from and the people he encountered.

Once these new continents were discovered, Europeans did not know how to fit the inhabitants of the "new world" into their scheme of things.

Spaniards came to the Americas primarily for two motives: they were looking for gold and converts. The conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru were largely interested in gold. The Spaniards expected the inhabitants to supply them with gold, or else they used the inhabitants as a labor force in the labor intensive activity of gold mining. This kind of brutal mistreatment of native populations throughout the world is characteristic of this period of European and later American expansion. Europeans and later Americans saw themselves as "civilized." If civilization is supposed to provide a standard of ethical conduct, and lead people not to violate that standard; then the European and later American treatment of native peoples looks like a massive failure of civilization. It is a history of robbery and murder.

Thus the Spaniards quickly began exploiting and repressing the natives. This kind of behavior led some Spaniards to defend the Indians against their own countrymen. Our first readings are from and about a great Spanish priest and defender of the Indians, Father Bartoleme de las Casas. Las Casas wrote A Brief History of Spanish Atrocities in the West Indies. He had enough power at court to bring about a debate over the treatment of the Indians in the Spanish capital of Valladolid in 1550. This was a Renaissance debate in the sense that it is focused around Aristotle's account of natural slavery. The question is do the Indians fit Aristotelian criteria for being natural slaves? If they do, then the Spanish have the right to enslave them; if not, then they do not. Las Casas, who has been called the father of European anti-racism and anti-colonialism, strongly argues that the Indians do not fit the Aristotelian criteria for natural slaves.

The Mathematical and Scientific Revolution

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries European mathematicians were considering with considerable admiration what the ancient Greek mathematicians of the classical and Hellenistic periods had accomplished. Euclid's Elements would remain through the period we are studying the model of knowledge. Mathematicians and philosophers were debating how the Greeks had achieved their remarkable results. This spawned an intense interest in methods for making discoveries in mathematics and the sciences in general. It was generally held that the Greek mathematicians had two methods. The method of analysis and the method of synthesis. The method of analysis was the method od discovery; while the method of synthesis was intended to be used in the orderly presentation of what had been discovered.

These developments in mathematics connected to developments in astronomy and physics. In 1543 the monk and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) published De Revolutionibus de Orbium Coelestium(Concerning the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres) which challenged the earth centered theory of Ptolemy which the Church had accepted since it was integrated into a grand vision of the world by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. This grand vision synthesized Christian theology, Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy. Copernicus' sun centered theory was a disturbing alternative. Other developments in the course of the sixteenth century created more and more problems for the Ptolemaic vision. Astronomers such as Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler produced more and more evidence which slowly led to the adoption of the Copernican system and the rejection of the Ptolemaic system.

Aristotelian physics was also under attack. Aristotelian physics was vitalistic and involved what its critics referred to as "occult powers" to explain the world. The emerging alternative view sought to treat the world as a mechanism and to explain all events in the physical world in terms of matter in motion, and the impact of one body on another. Its adherents called this emerging alternative the mechanical philosophy.

One crucial reversal of understanding involved the Aristotelian account of motion and rest. According to the Aristotelian theory every thing in the universe has its natural place. If something is in its natural place it will tend to remain there. No explanation is required. Motion, however, is another story. If something is moving it is either be forced away from its natural place by something else or is returning towards its natural place. One of the most crucial developments for modern physics was the rejection of this view and the discovery of what we now call the Law of Inertia - that bodies which are in motion will remain in motion indefinitely unless interfered with. This was a discovery of monumental importance. Galileo Galilei played an important part in these developments.

Another aspect of the development of natural science was the resurrection and rehabilitation of the ancient atomic theory of Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus and Lucretius by Pierre Gassendi. The atomic theory had had a bad name in Christian Europe in part because it was materialistic, and in part because it claimed that the world was eternal (and thus not created by God). Gassendi made certain modification in this theory which made it acceptable to Christian philosophers. Thus, in his version of the theory, the atoms are not eternal but were created by God. Gassendi was successful in this effort.

One feature of the ancient atomic theory which we can trace in the works of Galileo, Descartes, Boyle and Locke (amongst others) is the distinction between what Boyle called primary and secondary qualities. David Hume later remarked that this distinction is the characteristic feature of modern philosophy. Essentially, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is the distinction between the way things are by themselves without any perceiver -- these are the primary qualities; and the properties which are generated as a result of the interaction of a physical object and a perceiver -- the secondary qualities.

The Reformation and Renaissance Skepticism

Next we turn to the Protestant Reformation begun by Luther in 1517. This was the same year in which Magellan's fleet set out on its epic journey around the world. We take up the Reformation because this religious crisis was, in effect, a crisis about what counted as knowledge. Luther went from a Reformer within the Church to creating a new religion by denying the Rule of Faith, the Church's criterion for religious knowledge at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519. The Reformation split the Church into competing churches causing religious wars to sweep across Europe which continued well into the period we are studying. It also fostered skepticism.

Skepticism is the doctrine that knowledge is not possible. This can be either all knowledge in which case we have universal skepticism; or knowledge of some particular topic or area is not possible, in which case one has religious skepticism, or moral skepticism. The Reformation generated a skeptical crisis about religious knowledge. Since Luther denied the Rule of Faith, and substituted his own criterion for religious knowledge, the question becomes how do you tell which criterion is the right one. If you have no good answer to this question, the skeptic urges, the best thing to do is admit that you don't know and suspend judgement. This crisis was fueled in 1562 by the publication of the works of Sextus Empiricus, a late Hellenistic skeptic. First, there was an alliance between the skeptics and Catholics. The essential point of this alliance was that since religious knowledge is impossible to attain on one's own, one should believe what the Church says. This position is called fiedism.

This religious skepticism was compounded by various other developments. The first of these was the discovery and publication of more and more ancient texts. Humanist scholars discovered that many ancient authors, e.g. Plato and Aristotle, disagreed with one another about a variety of topics. This led to a humanistic skeptical crisis. The voyages of discovery which led Europeans to encounter quite diverse cultures all over the world created a skepticism about morals and manners. Finally the publication of Copernicus De Revolutionibus Coelestium in 1543 began an era of astronomical and scientific revolution which produced a scientific skeptical crisis. All of these trends can be found synthesized in the works of the great French essayist Michele de Montaigne.


The skeptical crisis of the early seventeenth century led to philosophical reaction. Rene Descartes (1595-1650) one of the great mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers of this period attempted to refute skepticism. We read his work Meditations on First Philosophy. In exploring theMeditations we learn about Descartes' strategy for defeating skepticism. First there is the systematic effort to determine what can and what cannot be doubted. This involves the method of doubt and the method of analysis. Finally Descartes finds a series of truths which he cannot doubt. These are the foundation on which he can build his house of knowledge. The doctrine that there are self evident truths whose certainty cannot be doubted and from which we can build up the rest of our knowledge is foundationalism. The Meditations also introduce us to the Cartesian way of ideas, representational theories of perception, the machinery of substance, attribute and mode, the mind/body problem, the Cartesian arguments for the real distinction between the mind and the body, and several proofs for the existence of God among a variety of topics.

From Descartes we turn briefly to Benedict de Spinoza in whose hands the Cartesian system underwent an extraordinary transformation into a naturalistic pantheism by way of a strict enforcement of the definition of a substance as an independent existent. Spinoza argued that only God is a truly independent existence, so bodies and minds cannot be genuine substances. If they are not substances they must be modes of that substance. At one stroke Spinoza eliminates the distinction between God and the creation and solves the mind body problem by making the body and the mind aspects of the same substance.


Locke's Metaphysics and Epistemology

We next turn to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and explore Locke's treatment of ideas, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities so characteristic of the science of the era, as well as topics such as free will and determinism and personal identity.

Locke's Political Philosophy

We turn to Locke's Second Treatise concerning Civil Government to get a sample of the Natural Rights and Social Contract theories which flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This work had a great influence of Thomas Jefferson and the composition of the American Declaration of Independence a bit less than a century later.


Locke's involvement with Afro-American slavery leads us to ask whether Locke's account of slavery in the Second Treatise applies to Afro-American slavery. We are thus returning to the theme with which the course began, philosophy and the treatment of native people's by Europeans. We readEquiano's Travels to get some sense of what it was like to be a slave in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, and to gather the data to determine how Locke's theory of slavery ought to treat Afro-American slavery. We study other materials including Popkin's "The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism."


Next we turn to George Berkeley an Irish philosopher who rejected the philosophical tradition of Descartes and Locke because he believed it led to skepticism and atheism. We follow Berkeley's spectacular attack on the distinction between primary and secondary qualities as well as considering the positive alternative Berkeley proposes. Finally we turn to David Hume to trace out Hume's attack on the Cartesian/Rationalist account of causality, the problem of induction, and Hume's development of a moderated skepticism.

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Last Updated: 9/95
WebMaster: Bill Uzgalis
Philosophy Department
Oregon State University,
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