Philosophy can be considered the product of the human yearning to address questions relating to existence and knowledge: how do we live, how should we live, what do we really know and how do we know that we know anything? In dealing with these questions, philosophy has at certain historical periods been seen as a useful guide to the human condition, and a mechanism through which existence could be improved upon or indeed, proven.
The roots of Western philosophy were planted within the public domain of ancient Greece, where Socratic dialogues might be heard in Athens during the Axial Age. As such, philosophical ideas were accessible to all who could speak in the native tongue and were bold (or patient) enough to undertake Socratic scrutiny. The nature of inquiry was therefore broad and inclusive, infused with common understandings of life and knowledge, rather than the obfuscatory jargon which contemporary philosophical works are often littered with.
Philosophy can be used to justify the way the world is (for example, Leibniz’s view that God doesn’t underachieve, therefore the world we inhabit is the best of all possible worlds) but in certain circumstances philosophy can also have a corrosive effect on the existing social order; fuelling discussion, or fomenting reform, and revolution (for example, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, or Rousseau’s The Social Contract).
Though the realm of critical thought is still a central component of modern philosophy, it seems that it is becoming increasingly abstracted, recoiling further from the common and into the Academy. The specialised components of the field, such as phenomenology and aesthetics, often hold tenuous (if any) links to what is of practical concern to the majority of people, subsuming the subject in a cloud of intellectual redundancy.
Consequently, the role of the philosopher in contemporary society is often viewed as of dubious value, seeming to be the exclusive domain of hair-splitting scholars, delivering obscure incantations through what generally seems like nonsensical and convoluted argot. The relevance of the subject in Western society has oscillated considerably, from the Socratic dialogues in Ancient Greece which propelled political and social discussion, to becoming somewhat mute throughout the Middle Ages, only to emerge with great force again by the 17th century. But is philosophy still germane today to a contemporary audience?
The peculiar relationship between philosophy and society is used as a lens by Anthony Gottlieb in his excellent work The Dream of Enlightenment which explores in a stimulating and witty way Modern Philosophy and its pioneers. The Dream of Enlightenment picks up from the philosophically reinvigorated 17th century, when Rene Descartes emerged to draw doubt on the existence of self, and by extension, of everything.
Gottlieb explores the importance of Descartes’ work; primarily the phenomenological questions raised in the Discourse and Meditations but also the great social movements which its heavy scepticism would eventually lead to (the American and French Revolutions), although Descartes focussed ‘more on the general nature of knowledge than on any social consequences of Enlightenment.’ In addressing concerns over the nature of mind, life, and knowledge, Descartes’ exploration is tethered to a discussion of anxieties and queries which are inherent to all analytical beings and which make certain knowledge difficult. We get the term Cartesian Dualism from Descartes who believed that the body was material while the mind was immaterial, whereas a monist might say that the brain is the mind. The legacy of Descartes is observable within the works of the other philosophers discussed by Gottlieb, spanning up until the French Revolution.
What is most striking in Gottlieb’s biographies of philosophers is the fact that none of them possessed any direct formal training in the field, in other words they had day-jobs. Descartes was a mathematician, John Locke a doctor and diplomat, Baruch Spinoza ground lenses. These vocations may seem at odds with the practice of philosophical star-gazing, yet their theories remain as pinnacle moments in the evolution of Western philosophical thought. Adam Smith, often assumed to be an economist, was in fact a philosophy lecturer. This was an age of cross-interests and what the Philosopher of Science, Thomas Kuhn, might have considered to be pre-paradigmatic thinkers. The sagacity of these thinkers across different disciplines differs considerably from the specialised fields of contemporary philosophical studies, which are generally isolated from everyday experience. The disjunction between how philosophical inquiry was previously fuelled compared to how it is currently fuelled, may provide greater insight into why the field has become increasingly abstracted.
Whilst Gottlieb is insightful and compelling in his biographical accounts of the philosophers’ lives, his text is most valuable due to the way that these accounts are presented. They are woven by a narrative voice which draws comparisons between those discussed, as well as their associative social attitudes and historical settings. Gottlieb’s discussion is concentrated on the socially deviant nature of the thinkers—the leitmotif of Enlightenment philosophy—whose ideas chipped at the pillars of religion, politics, and spirituality. And although these concepts did not always or immediately convert a majority or even a considerable number of people at other times their impact was profound. Undeniably their concepts linger on: with John Locke’s liberalism central to the framing of the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution and Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract Theory’ which replaced status with contract and equality of subjects before the law as a political and legal touchstone within liberal-democratic nation states. Whilst the thinkers presented by Gottlieb are considered as the poster boys for modern philosophy, their ideas were ultimately given traction through their relevance to both philosophical and community discourse. This societal dependency on philosophical theories throughout time reflects the importance of the field across the public, private and political realms.
Whilst it may seem that Gottlieb limited his potential scope of discussion by honing in on the specific 150 year span of an otherwise ancient discipline, this is not the case. In focussing on the particular time frame, Gottlieb provides an intense account of philosophical ideas, battered between each thinker like an intellectually charged pinball. Whilst Descartes, among others mentioned, are generally remembered more for their questionable techniques of reasoning, the relevance of their work is recognisable in the foundations of a plethora of metaphysical and epistemological ideas, as well as within the general concerns that lie within the heart of human existence. Through such works, the path to Enlightenment was paved; firmly planted upon the fertile terrain of real human problems (like slavery, inequality, the foundations of power) along which many individuals could walk. Contemporary philosophy often seems a far cry from the wieldy and once heady ideas which are depicted in The Dream of Enlightenment; a time when philosophical inquiry was a pervasive spectre within and above social life. Gottlieb’s text offers a lucid and entertaining depiction of the intermingling of philosophy and society, which becomes an increasingly relevant topic of discussion, as the contemporary era seems to establish greater hostility towards the overly intellectualised field.