Early Modern Philosophy

From Aquinas (1225) to Kant (1804)

image of Descartes
Rene Descartes. traveler1116/Getty Images

The early modern period was one of the most innovative moments in Western philosophy, during which new theories of mind and matter, of the divine, and of civic society — among others — were proposed. Although its boundaries are not easily settled, the period approximately spanned from the late 1400s to the end of the 18th century. Among its protagonists, figures such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant published books that would shape our modern understanding of philosophy.

Defining the Beginning and End of the Period

The roots of early modern philosophy can be traced back as far as the 1200s — to the most mature moment of the scholastic tradition. The philosophies of authors such as Aquinas (1225-1274), Ockham (1288-1348) and Buridan (1300-1358) accorded full trust to human rational faculties: if God gave us the faculty of reasoning then we shall trust that through such faculty we can achieve a full understanding of worldly and divine matters.

Arguably, however, the most innovative philosophical impulse came during the 1400s with the rise of humanistic and Renaissance movements. Thanks to the intensification of relations with non-European societies, their preexisting knowledge of Greek philosophy and the generosity of magnates who were supporting their research, humanists rediscovered central texts of the Ancient Greek period — new waves of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism ensued, whose influence would greatly impact key figures of early modernity.

Descartes and Modernity

Descartes is often regarded as the first philosopher of modernity. Not only was he a first-rate scientist at the forefront of new theories of mathematics and matter, but he also held radically novel views of the relationship between mind and body as well as God's omnipotence. His philosophy, however, did not develop in isolation.

It was instead a reaction to centuries of scholastic philosophy that provided a rebuttal to anti-scholastic ideas of some of his contemporaries. Among them, for instance, we find Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), a statesman and author, whose "Essais" established a new genre in modern Europe which allegedly prompted Descartes's fascination with skeptical doubting.

Elsewhere in Europe, Post-Cartesian philosophy occupied a central chapter of early modern philosophy. Along with France, Holland and Germany became central places for philosophical production and their most distinguished representatives rose to great fame. Among them, Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716) occupied key roles, both expressing systems that could be read as attempts to fix the main bugs of Cartesianism.

British Empiricism

The scientific revolution — which Descartes represented in France — also had a major influence on British philosophy. During the 1500s, a new empiricist tradition developed in Britain. The movement includes several major figures of the early modern period including Francis Bacon (1561-1626) John Locke (1632-1704), Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Hume (1711-1776).

British empiricism is arguably also at the roots of so-called "analytic philosophy" — a contemporary philosophical tradition centering on analyzing or dissecting philosophical problems rather than addressing them all at once.

While a unique and uncontroversial definition of analytic philosophy can hardly be provided, it can be efficaciously characterized by its inclusion of the works of the great British Empiricists of the era.

Enlightenment and Kant

In the 1700s European philosophy was pervaded by a novel philosophical movement, the Enlightenment. Known also as "The Age of Reason" because of the optimism in the capacity of humans to improve their existential conditions by means of science alone, the Enlightenment can be seen as the culmination of certain ideas advanced by Medieval philosophers: God gave reason to humans as one of our most precious instruments and since God is good, reason — which is God's work — is in its essence good; through reason alone, then, humans can achieve good. What a mouth full!

But that enlightenment led to a great awakening in the societies of man — expressed through art, innovation, technological advances and an expansion of philosophy.

In fact, at the very ending of early modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant's work (1724-1804) laid the foundations for modern philosophy itself.