Who is the real father of modern philosophy?

I vote for Francis Bacon.

descartes-50x63 The standard answer gives the honor to René Descartes.

Descartes’s claim to the title is based primarily on his epistemology — specifically his method of doubt. The method of doubt is both a challenge to previous, more authoritarian epistemologies and a re-invigoration of a skepticism that exercises philosophers to this day.

Bacon’s reputation is also based in epistemology — his re-introduction and expansion of inductive methods. His empiricism is also a challenge to authoritarian epistemologies and grounds much of the scientific method used by investigators to this day.

How do we decide matters such as who should be considered the founder or father of modern philosophy? Let me propose four criteria.

1. Influence on academic philosophy. Descartes’s skeptical challenges have generated a huge literature in academic philosophy. Yet a huge literature has also been generated developing empirical methods in philosophy of science along lines established by Bacon. My call: a tie between Descartes and Bacon, absent a quantitative measure of the literature.

2. Influence on philosophy as used by all thinkers. Baconian epistemology has been internalized by most modern intellectuals (especially in the sciences and social sciences) and is part of their normal professional practice, and the more sophisticated inductive methods are explicitly used as guiding principles. The hardcore Cartesian skeptical challenges are rarely used outside academic philosophical discussions. My call: Bacon.

3. The positive and the negative. Descartes’s legacy is essentially negative. He digs philosophy into a skeptical hole from which many haven’t escaped. Bacon’s legacy is essentially positive. He provides tools many have used to develop new knowledge. Clearly there is still much truth to C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” thesis, in which much of the humanities is skeptical and pessimistic while much of the sciences is progressive and optimistic. My call: Absent a quantitative measure of the literature, a tie between Descartes and Bacon.

4. Chronology. Bacon’s key works were published in the first quarter of the 17th century: The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), The Wisdom of the Ancients (1619), Novum Organum (1620), and The New Atlantis (1626). Descartes’s key works were written in the second quarter of the 17th century, and some were not published until the third quarter: Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628; published posthumously in 1684), Discourse on Method (1637), Meditations on First Philosophy (written in 1641, published in 1647), and Principles of Philosophy (1644). My call: Bacon.

So by simple philosophy math, Bacon wins by two.

Before we revise the textbooks, let me ask: Are there other criteria we should consider?

19 thoughts on “Who is the real father of modern philosophy?

  • April 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Hi David:
    The counts would tell us something about which thinker has exerted the most influence. The post is an intellectual-history exercise about who has the greatest claim to determining the course of modern philosophy. Of course you are right that understanding is first involved–that determines what issues and which arguments one is going to count.
    Fundamentality: Yes, definitely. Both Descartes and Bacon are proposing epistemologically fundamental starting points. That’s built into the contrast between the two–which epistemological fundamentals have set the modern course?
    About Kant: Kant’s key publications were well over a century after Bacon’s and Descartes’s, so the distinctively modern approach was long established by the time Kant wrote. Though you are right to suggest that Kant takes modern philosophy and transforms it.

  • June 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Hi, I’ve been studying philosophy for four years. I’ll officially step down as a philosopher king on completing my degree exams @ St. Joseph Major Seminary, Ikot Ekpene, Nigeria. I’ll vote Francis Bacon, especially as modern philosophy is understood as beginning from the Renaissance period.

  • August 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

    …perhaps we need to also turn to our indigenous brothers and sisters for wisdom that we are to quick to pass over.

    “Given To The Way Of The Pilgrim’s Progress”

    Long after the impetus of youth has left us like fingers juggling a hot potato…
    Like the Ace and King of Spades landing a winning flop
    The guess of retirement takes it’s leave.

    A skepticism –
    Removed from all involvement
    Since many of your friends have left the scene
    By way of that unsociable act of final acts.

    We forgive to slowly…
    Yet we are all to willing to come to blows
    Promoting comic trust in the communist ideal
    With government of mind that finds everything equal by division

    Consumer… Named… Fated…

    A resolution
    To stride to –
    Guided along the pages of misspelled words that look like the snapped off hands of an action figure doll…

    Or a love letter hanging off the note of a battle trumpet
    Warped against a societal occasion –
    The freak of all man’s doings

    But the checks and balances needs a fixing…
    …and quickly.

    Compelled by physical memory
    By fantasy given to misdemeanor

    A run away myth that outlives
    By lives filled with unfulfilled capacity
    A mist filled with menace
    By a fog of poetry

    It should be…



    Sure we have all thought of it…
    …and what have we thought of it is our own business

    (but what we do about it becomes public property)

    It’s a cruel and gradual literacy of spirit
    It’s a pivotal genre
    Whose spell is written by a heinous crime
    and innocence lost
    and guiltless broken promises…

    While the juggling hands of propensity hold the die
    Filled with inscrutable defiance
    Busting with acceptance
    And poised upon a word……….

  • August 17, 2011 at 10:07 am

    For those in the U.S I would have to say William James, or Les Paul (the guy who made “that” geetah). Otherwise I would like to put forward William Winwood Reade as a first choice and a debatable second choice being F.A.Hayek. But of course the choice is, as always ours… Enjoy!

  • August 17, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Please change holding the die to “hold”


  • August 17, 2011 at 10:42 am

    How about 20th century onwards. D.E.Harding, me likes, I do. So it goes…

  • January 17, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Pardon me for rehashing what everyone is familiar with. I’m ready to be corrected on any of this, but I have a point of view I’d like to try out if we are going to challenge conventions.

    I think the convention is to consider Descartes to have initiated modern philosophy by questioning the existence of God? Even though he concluded he could prove the existence, he established the necessity of demonstrating all knowledge from reason. Albeit, he insisted on rationalism rather than empiricism as the source.

    Bacon took God for granted and necessary for the moral nature of man, as opposed to mere animals. On the plus side, he was essentially an empiricist and used reason to understand the world more effectively than Descartes. Thus, launching the modern scientific method, along with Galileo. So, a significant claim to initiating that modern philosophy which stems from the Enlightenment approach.

    Hicks’ problem is that he is always challenging convention and trying to stimulate original thinking. So, do we not first have to specify what is modern philosophy? I have difficulty reconciling the philosophy of empiricist science, the enlightenment, and individualism on the one hand with that of mysticism, rationalism, collectivism, progressivism, postmodernism on the other. Which is “the” modern? They do not seem to constitute an integrated modern philosophy?

    Actually, Hicks seems only to be asking who’s views had the most influence on modern (last couple of centuries?) philosophy professionals?

    But treating modern philosophers as engaged in the same project is like trying to reconcile Aristotle with Plato. Too fundamentally different to consider them belonging to the same category of thought, except on the broadest of terms. Which one is the real classical philosophy? Perhaps neither, if one surveys the major cultures of the time?

    Aristotle/Bacon and Plato/Descartes consider some of the same issues, but these are competing approaches and goals more than aspects of the same endeavor. One seeks understanding of reality, while the other seeks to explain why reality is an illusion. Both may seek guides to action, but the latter is more religious thinking (focused on a mystical concept of mind) than it is philosophy.

    While there is much crossover in the projects of empiricism, rationalism, and religion, at heart they seem different tasks. As Kant says, it is fundamentally either reason or faith. Plato/Descartes may seemingly have relied on reason for their constructs (universals, god), but their constructs have to be accepted on faith. Faith in their imaginative reasoning, not evidence.

    On the whole, I have to give Bacon and the subsequent Enlightenment the nod for the greatest influence on the development of Western culture, until the 20th century, when Descartes’ approach emerged, largely through the medium of late 18th and 19th century German philosophy, to redirected the intelligentsia and political trends, not to mention theoretical physics.

    But I don’t see anything which can be called “the” modern philosophy; just two competing approaches? I still give Bacon and the Enlightenment the edge in Western culture, which is gradually spreading globally. After all, it actually works to whatever degree practiced.

    “The new modern,” of course, is Objectivism, correcting the limitations of empiricism and the fantasies of rationalism. Not so much unifying or reconciling the two as correcting their errors and building something different. Albeit, still in the Enlightenment tradition. Perhaps, already having significant influence, with the aid of modern communication . . . more so than Aristotle during his time?

    [Thanks for the exercise.]

  • March 1, 2012 at 5:58 am

    A vote for Bacon. It was Bacon who first argued that the purpose of philosophy or science was not to understand nature, but to conquer nature for the “relief of man’s estate.” Descartes followed Bacon in this new project, expressly crediting Bacon in the Discourse On Method for the idea that philosophy should be used to make man the master and owner of nature. Before Bacon, philosophy had been primarily contemplative; it’s purpose had been to make the philosopher happy. The conquest of nature is at the heart of the whole modern project, in both politics (the new political science begun by Hobbes) and in natural science. Kant, in his epigraph to the Critique of Pure Reason, chose a passage from Bacon which provides: “I am labouring to lay the foundation, not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility and power.” Bacon is the main author of this instrumental idea of knowledge.

  • April 19, 2012 at 2:14 am

    it was really nice coz it has helped me in expounding knowlegde about nazism and its origin .thank you

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