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The Vicissitudes of Philosophy in Modern Times


In each of the two historical epochs that we have so far surveyed — antiquity and the Middle Ages – we have found both positive and negative features. I have called the latter the misfortunes or disorders that philosophy has suffered; and the former, the good starts or gains that it has made in understanding its tasks and acquiring sound procedures for accomplishing them.

The modern period, like the ancient and the mediaeval, has its positive as well as its negative features — its turns for the better as well as its misfortunes and disorders. In telling the story of philosophy in modern times, I am going to reverse the order and postpone a consideration of philosophy’s gains until I have described what I regard as the four major misfortunes or disorders that it has suffered since the seventeenth century.

The first of these misfortunes occurred in the context of an otherwise sound critical reaction to the dogmatism and pretentiousness of the philosophical systems of the seventeenth century. The critical movement in philosophy, from Locke to Kant, looked askance at these systems and challenged their unwarranted claims to be able to demonstrate and to know with certitude. It questioned as well their competence to deal with matters (both theological and scientific) beyond the proper scope of philosophical inquiry.

In both of the respects just indicated, this critical reaction was sound, and it might have been wholly on the side of gain if it had insisted, positively, on the substitution of doxa for episteme as the standard or grade of knowledge at which philosophy should aim. That by itself would have dealt a death blow to system building and provided an effective antitoxin against any future recurrence of the disease.

Unfortunately, the critical reaction to the systems of the seventh century took another course and resulted in two serious disorders. To explain the first of these, it is necessary to recall that, in the ancient and mediaeval worlds, metaphysics was called philosophia prima, or “first philosophy.” Let me now extend the meaning of “first philosophy” to include all first-order inquiries, not only speculative questions about that which is and happens in the world but also normative questions about what ought to be done and sought.

All such questions, as I pointed out earlier, take precedence over second-order questions of the sort concerned with how we can know the answers to first-order questions [1]. A sound approach to the examination of knowledge should acknowledge the existence of some knowledge to be examined. Knowing what can be known is prior to asking how we know what we know.

Using the word “epistemology” for the theory of knowledge — especially for inquiries concerning the “origin, certainty, and extent” of our knowledge — I have two things to say about this part of the philosophical enterprise.

First, it should be reflexive; that is, it should examine the knowledge that we do have; it should be a knowing about our knowing.

Second, being reflexive, epistemology should be posterior to metaphysics, the philosophy of nature, ethics, and political theory — these and all other branches of first-order philosophical knowledge; in other words, our knowing what can be known should take precedence over our knowing about our knowing.

Both of these procedural points were violated in the critical movement that began with Locke and ran to Kant. Epistemology became “first philosophy,” taking precedence over all other branches of philosophical inquiry; and, with Kant, it became the basis for “prolegomena to any future metaphysic.”

Epistemology more and more tended to swallow up the whole philosophical enterprise. It is this retreat from the known world and our knowledge of it to the world of the knower and his efforts to know which prepared the way for the later total retreat of philosophy (in our own century) to the plane of second-order questions, relinquishing entirely any claim to have a respectable method for carrying on first-order inquiries.

I think it is apt, and not too harsh, to call this first unfortunate result of the critical reaction to dogmatic systems “suicidal epistemologizing.” Epistemology, fashioned by philosophers as a scalpel to cut away the cancer of dogmatism, was turned into a dagger and plunged into philosophy’s vitals.

The second unfortunate result can, with equally good reason, be called “suicidal psychologizing.” Like the first, it is also a retreat from reality. Where the first is a retreat from the reality of the knowledge that we actually do have, the second is retreat from the reality of the world to be known. Modern idealism begins with Kant. It is the worst of the modern errors in philosophy.

What I mean by “suicidal psychologizing” is sometimes less picturesquely described as “the way of ideas,” fathered by Descartes, but given its most unfortunate effects by the so-called British empiricists — Locke, Berkeley, and Hume — who made the psychologizing of common experience the whole of philosophy and substituted that for the use of common experience as a test of the soundness of philosophical theories or conclusions about the experienced world. The psychologizing of common experience deserves to be called suicidal; for, in effect, it cuts away the very ground on which the philosopher stands. It makes experience subjective, rather than objective.

I need not dwell here on the far-reaching consequences of this fundamental substantive error — the subjectivism and the solipsism that resulted from proceeding in this way, together with all the skeptical excesses that it led to, and the epistemological puzzles and paradoxes that confronted those who tried to hold onto the most obvious features of our experience after they had been psychologized into myths or illusions.

Starting from Locke’s fundamental error and carrying it to all its logical conclusions, later philosophers — first Berkeley and Hume, then the phenomenalists and logical empiricists of the twentieth century — reached results that they or others had enough common sense to recognize as absurd; but though many have deplored the resulting puzzles and paradoxes, no one seems to have recognized that the only remedy for the effects thus produced lies in removing the cause, by correcting Locke’s original error, the error of treating ideas as that which we apprehend instead of that by which. It is this error that makes our common experience subjective rather than objective — introspectively observable, which it is not.

I turn now to the second major disorder of philosophy in modern times — the emulation of science and mathematics. This begins in the seventeenth century. It can be discerned in Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, as well as in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Beginning then, it runs through the following centuries right down to the present day.

The philosophers of the seventeenth century, misled by their addiction to episteme, looked upon mathematics as the most perfect achievement of knowledge, and tried to “perfect” philosophy by mathematicizing it. This was done in different ways by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, but the effect upon philosophy was the same — the frustration of trying to achieve a precision of terminology and a rigor of demonstration that are appropriate in mathematics, but inappropriate in philosophy as an attempt to answer first-order questions about reality — about that which is and happens in the world or about what ought to be done and sought.

The fact that science can be mathematicized to a certain extent — the achievements of mathematical physics in particular — accentuated the mistake on the part of those who failed to see that the application of mathematics to physics depends on the special data of measurement, which have no analogue in the noninvestigative enterprise of philosophy.

This mistaken emulation of mathematics and the consequent effort to mathematicize philosophy reappear with unusual force in the twentieth century; in the “logical atomism” of Bertrand Russell, and in all the attempts to treat the language of mathematics as a modern language, to be imitated in philosophical discourse.

The effort to give philosophical discovery the simplicity of mathematical symbolism and the univocity of mathematical terms, and the effort to give philosophical formulations the “analyticity” of mathematical statements, put philosophy into a straitjacket from which it has only recently broken loose by a series of almost self-destructive convulsions.

Beginning also in the seventeenth century, philosophers began to be awed by the achievements of science and became more and more openly envious of certain features of science — the kind of progress that science makes, the kind of usefulness that it has, the kind of agreements and decisions that it can reach, and the kind of assent it wins from an ever-widening public because its theories and conclusions can be tested empirically.

Not recognizing that all these things can be achieved by philosophy in its own characteristic way, but only if it tries to achieve them in a manner appropriate to its own character as a noninvestigative discipline, philosophers over the last three hundred years have been suffering from an unwarranted sense of inferiority to science.

This sense of inferiority has, in turn, two further results. It has driven some philosophers to make all sorts of mistaken efforts to imitate science. It has led others, such as the logical positivists in our own century, to turn the whole domain of first-order inquiry over to science and to restrict philosophy to second-order questions, where it does not have to compete with science.

Either result is unfortunate. Philosophy should neither ape science as a first-order discipline (in view of their basic differences in method) nor be the second-order handmaiden of science conceived as the primary first-order discipline (in view of philosophy’s rightful claim to its own first-order questions and its superiority to science in rendering the world intelligible).

The third major misfortune suffered by philosophy in modern times occurs by way of a reaction to a reaction. I am referring here to the counterreactionary restoration of philosophical systems in post-Kantian thought — in Georg Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte on the Continent, and in such British Hegelians as F.H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, Edward Caird, and J.M.E. McTaggart, and in American Hegelians such as Josiah Royce.

The critical reaction to the philosophical systems of the seventeenth century reached its climax and, in a sense, spent itself in the Kantian critiques. Just as that critical reaction as a whole was justified by the dogmatic excesses of the seventeenth century, so the post-Kantian counterreaction was justified by the excesses and mistakes of the critical movement from Locke to Kant — the epistemologizing and psychologizing tendencies described earlier.

However, just as the dogmatic excesses of the seventeenth century could have been corrected without foisting these new misfortunes upon philosophy, so the psychologizing and epistemologizing excesses of the critical movement could have been corrected without reinstating the very thing — the imposture of system building — that the critical movement tried to get rid of.

That, unfortunately, is not the way things happened. Instead, what I shall call the “Hegelian misfortune” befell philosophy [2]. What we have here is the evil of system building carried to its furthest possible extreme — an extreme to which, it must in all fairness be said, Hegel’s more commonsense British followers did not go.

The Hegelian system is much more dogmatic, rationalistic, and out of touch with common experience than the Cartesian, Leibnizian, and Spinozist systems of the seventeenth century.

In addition, a fault intrinsic to the earlier systems becomes much more exacerbated in the Hegelian system. It offers those who come to it no alternatives except wholesale acceptance or rejection. It constitutes a world of its own and has no commerce or conversation with anything outside itself.

The conflict systems of this sort (for example, that of Hegel and that of Schopenhauer) is totally beyond adjudication; each, like a sovereign state, acknowledges no superior jurisdiction and impartial arbiter.

The pluralization of systems in the nineteenth century, each a personal worldview of great imaginative power and poetic scope, took philosophy further in the wrong direction than it had ever gone before — further away from the tendencies it had manifested in earlier epochs, tendencies to acquire the character of a cooperative venture and a public enterprise.

The final misfortune of modern philosophy arose, as preceding ones did, by way of reaction to an existing state of affairs. This fourth and final disorder consists in three mistaken directions taken by twentieth-century thought, having one central animus in common — namely, that they all spring from a deep revulsion to the Hegelian misfortune.

There is, first of all, the existentialist reaction to Hegel and all forms of Hegelianism. I mention this first because, while it departs from Hegel in substance, it embodies two of the worst features of the Hegelian misfortune. The existentialist philosophers — Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gabriel Marcel — all produce highly personal worldviews of their own, systems to be accepted or rejected as wholes, even if they are not rationalistically constructed, as Hegel’s is.

The other two reactions are alike in that they both move away from Hegel in procedure as well as in substance. Both, in despair about philosophy as first-order knowledge served up in the Hegelian manner, urge philosophy to retreat to the sanity and safety of an exclusively second-order discipline.

One of these reactions to Hegel is the retreat conducted by the positivists, Viennese, British, and American. When the members of the Vienna Circle referred to “metaphysics” and attacked it as an abomination that must be forever extirpated from the philosophical enterprise, they had Hegel, and only Hegel, in mind.

The other reaction is not to Hegel himself as much as to British Hegelianism. It is the retreat conducted by the British analytic and linguistic philosophers and their American followers.

The end result of both retreats is very much the same; philosophy is relegated to the plane of a second-order discipline, that is, analytical and linguistic philosophy. However, there is this difference between them; where the positivists were content to have philosophy serve as handmaiden to science in performing second-order functions of linguistic and logical clarification or commentary, the analysts and linguists took on other second-order tasks, among them the analysis of commonsense opinions as expressed in everyday speech, and the attempt to cure the puzzles and paradoxes that are of modern philosophy’s own making, by virtue of its own epistemologizing and psychologizing tendencies.

So far I have had nothing good to say about the career of philosophy in modern times. However, just as in treating the auspicious beginning that philosophy enjoyed in Greek antiquity I also pointed out that its first epoch was attended by serious misfortunes, so now, in concluding an account of philosophy in modern times, I am going to point out two auspicious developments that relieve this long tale of disorders and misfortunes. More than that, they point, I believe, to the dawn of a new day.

The first of these is, perhaps, the more important. It is the successive separation of all the positive sciences, both natural and social, from the parent stem of philosophy.

It is sometimes said that philosophy is now bankrupt because it has now fully performed its historic function of giving birth to the particular positive sciences, from astronomy and physics to psychology and sociology. If it were true that philosophy’s only role in human culture is that of being the parent stem from which the particular sciences break off to lead lives of their own, then philosophy might very well be considered bankrupt — barren, dried up, finished. That, I hope I have shown, is not true.

The central fact of importance here is that only in modern times have the natural sciences gradually separated themselves from what in the seventeenth century was still called natural philosophy. Similarly, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the behavioral sciences gradually separated themselves from what was once called moral philosophy.

With these successive secessions, the scientific enterprise as a whole finally became clearly and plainly established as an autonomous branch of human knowledge and a distinct mode of inquiry. At last, after twenty-five centuries, it becomes possible to draw a sharp line between the domains of science and philosophy; and philosophy is freed of the burden that, for lack of clarity on this point, it carried so long — the burden of treating as philosophical questions that belong to science and are outside philosophy’s competence.

The second gain that has been made in modern times, almost as important as the first, is in one way only the restoration of an earlier condition beneficial to philosophy.

What I have in mind here is the contribution to the development of philosophy that has been made in our own century by the British analysts and linguistic philosophers. Their retreat to the plane of second-order questions has been accompanied by a way of doing philosophical work that is the very antithesis of personal system building, not only of the Hegelian type but of the Cartesian or Spinozist type as well.

It involves the tackling of philosophical problems, question by question; it involves cooperation among men working on the same problems; it involves the policing of their work by acknowledged standards or tests; it involves the adjudication of disputes and the settling of differences. Though this can be viewed as a return to the conception of philosophy as a cooperative enterprise, first enunciated by Aristotle, and also as a return to the spirit of the public disputations in the Middle Ages, it marks a great advance in modern times.

In spite of all the regrettable vicissitudes through which philosophy has gone in modern times, the two gains that I have just described would, if sustained and combined with the advances in the right direction made in earlier epochs, promise philosophy a future much brighter than its past.


1. First-order questions occur in the first two dimensions of philosophy, where we find knowledge about reality, both descriptive and prescriptive. Second-order questions occur in the third and fourth dimensions of philosophy, where we find philosophical analysis and the understanding of ideas and subject matters. Recent linguistic and analytical philosophy is another type of second-order discipline. Return

2. I think this appellation is justified by the fact that Hegel is the most powerful and influential of the nineteenth-century system builders, as well as the focus of all the twentieth-century reactions to his type of philosophizing. See, for example, Karl Popper’s now famous diatribe against Hegel, with the spirit of which I fully agree: The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950), Chapter 12, especially pp. 252-73; and see also Section 17 of the Addendum (1966). Return

Excerpted from The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy, by Mortimer J. Adler

Go to the next essay on this topic: Philosophy’s Future, by Dr. Adler


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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.