Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz: 17th Century Rationalism

Arguably, Baruch Spinoza, was the world’s most sensible mystic, who constructed the first thoroughly logical, consistent metaphysical system and made the first attempt at an objective, scientific study of human behavior. Spinoza is credited with carrying all arguments to their logical conclusions, even when those conclusions meant trouble! A pantheist and a pure determinist, who believed, as all good mystics do, in the oneness of the universe, in the supremacy of immutable natural law, in the necessity of learning to go with the flow. The other Rationalist, Gottfried Leibniz is considered by many to be one of the greatest logicians of all time, who invented infinitesimal calculus, and founded the first system of symbolic logic. A metaphysician in the tradition of Rene Descartes, he created the famous analogy of the Cartesian Clocks, which postulates that mind and body do not interact, but only seem to, because they are synchronized by God. Leibniz publicly espoused a philosophy that was pious, logical, and, one might say, somewhat simpleminded.

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Immanuel Kant and the critique of reason

18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant single handedly put Germany on the map as an intellectual power (and lent it the pedantic tone for which it soon became notorious). British philosopher the late Sir Geoffrey Warnock gives us a glimpse into the mind and manner of the man who made sweeping revisions in nearly all branches of philosophy, thereby inspiring other philosophers to stop bickering among themselves and get serious about thinking again. Certainly effected what Kant called a “second Copernican revolution”: The origin of the world as we know it, he insisted, is the human mind itself, which, far from being tabula rasa (“a clean slate”), has an inherent structure through which we filter all experience and which imposes its own order on the world of phenomena (though not on the real/ideal world of “things-in-themselves – German Dinge-an-sich,” which is unknowable). Likewise, humans have an innate awareness of moral law, in the form of the categorical (i.e., unconditional) imperative (i.e., command), a sort of bottom-line ethical “ought.” In attempting to make the world safe for both god and science, Kant managed to restore some dignity to the idea of the human mind; also to destroy the credibility of traditional metaphysics (since we can’t “know” any external reality that isn’t colored by our own “knowing”), to make modern philosophy more subjective than objective (and to prefigure such radically man-centered movements as existentialism), and to widen the rift between philosophy and the physical sciences.

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David Hume: Human nature and understanding

Australian historian of ideas and philosopher, the late John Passmore, reveals to us the important 18th century figure of David Hume, the Scottish skeptic who took John Locke’s empirical arguments to their logical conclusion (which Locke had neglected to do) and wound up doubting our ability to know anything at all! I personally enjoy Hume’s skepticism and his effective deflation of metaphysical pretensions – making philosophers quite nervous about their assumptions. According to Hume the ‘Age of Reason’ had clearly arrived at a dead end. His rigour, consistency, and, if I may add, his honesty has a lot of undeniable appeal in the 21st century as well.

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Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche‘s revitalizing philosophy of the late 19th century challenging the foundations of theological beliefs and practices, along with questioning traditional morality, remains influential to this day. His tendency to seek explanations for commonly-accepted values and outlooks in the less-elevated realms of sheer animal instinct was also crucial to Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis. Quoting Nietzsche: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” Watch.

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Slavoj Žižek: The Sublime Object of Ideology

Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek became widely recognized as an important theorist of contemporary times with the publication of ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology‘, his first book to be written in English, in 1989. Since then, he has taken the contemporary philosophical world by storm, as one who is never afraid of confrontation. Žižek’s work, indeed, cannot be categorized easily. He calls for a return to the the Cartesian subject, the idea that there is a split between the mind and body, and that the human is a ‘liberal autonomous subject’. He also calls for a return to ‘The German Ideology’, in particular the works of Hegel, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schelling. His work draws much on the works of Jacques Lacan, all the while moving his theory towards modern political and philosophical issues, and miraculously, finding the potential for liberatory politics. Watch.

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