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The Modern Period from which Modern Philosophy is derived spans from 1400 to 1900 Centuries. There is however, no clear cut demarcation between a period or Contemporary time. Modern philosophy can be divided into 3 broad phases: The Renaissance 1400 –
1600, Empiricism and Rationalism 1600 – 1800 and Philosophical Reconstruction 1900. Each of these phases made a distinctive contribution to the whole corpus of Modern philosophy. I invite you to read with interest and attention so as to discover the wealth of the modern period.


The aim of this Unit is to give you the highlight of the philosophical trend of thought that characterized what is generally referred to as the Modern Period.


3.1 Renaissance Philosophy

This was the fruit of an apparent disenchantment with the medieval systems, its epistemological uneasiness and its special concern to rethink man’s relationship with God and the world. This was embodied in the works of Nicholas of Cusa which led to the development of logical methodology and natural philosophy. Then came Renaissance Stoicism and Skepticism which arose from a continued dissatisfaction with the account human knowledge and conduct. According this movement, Platonism was too cabalistic while Aristotelianism ran contrary to faith.

This produced crises by regarding man’s knowing powers as unreliable. It was this skeptical attitude that provided a spur for the great systematic thinkers of the 17th century. This could be captured in the thought of Niccolo Machiavelli who ignored the precepts of Christianity in his drive for power and political management of men to achieve a stable political society. The counterpart to all these movements was the steady current of Renaissance Scholasticism which took a new form. And this period witnessed the great commentaries on Thomas Aquinas and the
new development of the law of nations and the teaching manual as the main instrument of tradition. The Dominicans also exerted a strong influence as they produced the manuals of philosophy and theology. It was during this period also that the Jesuits came into existence and they produced a good number of writers and thinkers for the renewal of Catholic thought.

3.2 Mechanical Philosophy and Empiricism

The 17th century system came with the mechanical philosophers and Descartes to counter-balance skepticism. Francis Bacon kicked off the movement with his philosophy of “Knowledge is power.” But it was Galileo Galilei who regarded nature as a divinely grounded system of mathematical intelligibles. Isaac Newton worked out their explanatory functions with unsurpassed thoroughness. But how does man fair in the mechanical ordered universe? Thomas Hobbes responded by the postulation of the “State of nature” from which man emerges as he builds his political and social world battling his freedom through a “social contract” that provides security but forfeits any objective order of values to be recognized and implemented. Descartes on his part had methodic doubt as his starting point which led to the clear and distinct idea as the criterion for truth, and to invoke God’s existence so as to extend the universality of this criterion beyond its starting principle (cogito ego sum) “ think therefore I am” From man’s clear and distinct idea of soul and body he further deduced a dualism of mind and matter, regarding both as substances but never satisfactorily explain how they unite. Yet in all this, the empiricists were less confident about metaphysical principles and the dependence of moral judgment upon a metaphysical account of the God /man relationship. John Locke rejected innate ideas and insisted that the sources of knowledge are experiential – through sensation and reflection. From sensation man derives ideas while from reflection he becomes aware of such internal operations as thinking, willing and desiring. George Berkeley’s central idea was that the whole being of sensible thing consists in its being perceived with the result that the primary qualities of bodies are as mind independent as the secondary. David Hume on his part denied reality to any kind of substance, material or immaterial. He also rejected the traditional concept of causality, replacing it by the phenomena list notions of constant conjunction and temporal succession, and rendering useless for proofs of the existence of God.

3.3 Rationalism and Other Movements

The second half of the 17th century was plagued by skeptical doubts over the relationship between empirical reality and clear and distinct ideas. This gave birth to Newtonian Physics. Benedict Spinoza stressed the reforming function of the theory of method, which had to regard man as a finite composite modification and dynamic expression of the unique and powerful divine substance. G.W. Leibniz, who defended the doctrine of innate idea, had Monad as the central theme of his metaphysics and God as the Monad of all monads – the substance that makes all other substances possible. The great genius of Immanuel Kant was to transcend and transform the traditional way of philosophizing. Unconvinced by metaphysics in its dogmatic form, Kant proposed a kind of Copernican revolution wherein object are made to conform to the knowing intellect rather than the reverse as in the traditional account. This led him to the doctrine of synthetic a priori judgment as a consequence, man can only know appearances (phenomena) of things and not things in themselves (noumena). Metaphysics is then reduced to transcendental illusion. In his morality, Kant focused on man’s awareness of the sense of duty. The categorical imperative became the fundamental law of pure practical reason. Kant was agnostic with regard to the existence of God, yet he saw religion as essential for regulating human behaviour and so confined it to the field of morals. To justify this possibility he proposed immortality, freedom and God’s existence as postulates of pure reason, accepted not through insight or rational conviction, but only on the basis of pure practical faith.

3.4 Philosophical Reconstruction

Kantianism was too precarious to last since it rested upon the dualism of self and appearances. The German idealists were confronted with the need to join Kant’s methodic control over concepts with the Romantics feel for the unity and divinity of life. J.G. Fichte proposed that all phases of reality and thought respond to a common pattern of positional thesis, counter positional antithesis, and revolving synthesis, and that they do so respond because these three-fold pattern is the graven law of the absolute and its activity. F.W.J. Schelling tested this hypothesis from two sides: firstly from nature in order to reach the spirit and from the spirit to nature. But it was G.W.F. Hegel who worked out the dialectical development of spirit in all modes of experience. The dialectical law in process was this: each achieved degree of consciousness advances through self- contradiction to a higher degree that resolves the contradiction, so the highest contradiction of consciousness, the duality of subject and object is finally resolved in

Absolute Mind. For Hegel, this spiritualization of the Absolute perfects itself in the collective history of man, for history itself is the process by which Absolute spirit unfolds. Soren Kierkegaard located these perfections primarily in the free individual, taken in his search for happiness, his moral responsibility and his religious faith in the transcendent personal God. For Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, man is not fully real except in his social relations with men and the natural world. They stress the activity of work, class struggle, classless society as embodied in the system of world communism.
Auguste Comte came up with joining the search for the unity of knowledge with social aspirations; hence his objective synthesis placed these sciences at the disposal of man’s moral aims and the positivist religion. John Stuart Mill on his part was prolonging the empiricist analysis of knowledge and the calculus of social happiness known as utilitarianism. The 19th century was indeed attracted toward the philosophy of life. After the works of Charles Dawin on Evolution had appeared, philosophy became expressly evolutionary. In counter

reaction, Friedrich Nietzsche analyzed the idea of God and the absolute truth as nothing. He proclaimed the “death of God” and preach the new gospel of biological social Dawinism. The will-to-power will give rise to superman and the slave morality of Christianity will be superceded by a master morality beyond good and evil.

According him, “eternal recurrent” or eternal return” would become the cosmological law and functioning without the divine law- giver and will justify a joyous affirmation of all existence signaling a final victory over nihilism. In the later part of the 19th century, there was a revival of Kant’s thought in the movement known as Neo-Kantianism and a spread of idealism beyond Germany in Neo-Hegelianism and its associated schools, which pertain more to the domain of contemporary philosophy.


The history of thought is somewhat close to the stream of imagination which flow from one thing to the other. And let us not think that it will stop with us. In fact we are today part of the big picture of the history of ideas.


The Modern period witnessed a big shift from the theo-centric approach to reality to the anthropo-centric approach. Man himself has become the center and the object of thought.


  1.  What was the disenchantment among modern minds that the shift from God-centered approach to reality to man-centered? 
  2.  Why did Immanuel Kant think that God’s existence can neither be demonstrated nor denied? 


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