Who is the real father of modern philosophy? [repost]

[We are reading Descartes’ Meditations this week in my Introduction to Philosophy course, so this is a re-post for new readers this semester.]

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?

One thought on “Who is the real father of modern philosophy? [repost]

  • February 26, 2010 at 9:54 am

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

    The real problem is all knowledge is framed by reality itself, so even if human beings were in “deep reality” minds in vats, the fact is – the input into their mind simulating a universe is THEIR functional truth, that they test empiracally, so even if human beings were a part of some higher life forms simulation, we couldn’t get out of it so it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. It would be like being trapped in omnipotent bubble, so for all intents and purposes we accept our environment as the basis of knowledge itself, since we are the the knowledge itself in being a piece of the environment communicating with itself.

    We access knowledge and truth about reality through reality itself by definition, through self-reference. So this means that all of reality necessarily is self-referential, even if we don’t understand aspects of it’s functioning perfectly and no matter how ignorant our models, our basic daily functioning proves that we have access to real knowledge – i.e. you make decisions you are not aware of every day unconsciously, is the door opened or closed? Your constantly testing empirically whether or not there are objects in front of you or not exist, so you can plan movement, that in and of itself, shows us that knowledge is PRIOR to experience. Human beings just go about discovering and putting together the pieces of what already exists.

    Nobody has really sat down and pulled together all the advancements and insights that now exist into a philosophical work, well articulated and expressed. That’s really all that needs to be done at this point.

    I still think the greatest philosopher’s are the greeks, not because their philosophy’s at the time were perfect, but their model and attitude towards growing in knowledge and understanding that our form limits our understanding – even if they talked about it in mystic and pseudo-religious terms, they are still powerful arguments (i.e. the ideal – the gods understanding is beyond our capacity), they do so much for raising great questons and Socrates (whether real or not) has the best attitude :

    “I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”

    The problem is all knowledge goes through useful falsehoods and fertile fallacies, where fallacies themselves (i.e. imperfect models) who’s construction and refinement leads to knowledge of which paths exist whether correlated with evidence and functional reality or not.

    A false statement still exists – and in order to know just that the statement exists (not assessing it’s truth value) means that it must be a form of truth, meaning and knowledge BEFORE assessing it’s contextual meaning – i.e. just being (existing) is the most basic meaning, before applying a context.

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