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Modern philosophy

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Danzig (Gdansk), a painting by Wojciech Gerson (The city of Danzig (Gdansk) in the 17th century. In the modern era, the city concentrates activity and wealth, a painting by Wojciech Gerson (1865).)

Modern philosophy means that which extends to what historians call the modern era (1492-1789). This philosophy is, on the one hand, the heir of ancient thought in many ways. Modern authors are far from having broken all links with the philosophy of the ancients; on the contrary, they knew them perfectly, and sometimes borrowed their vocabulary from them. But on the other hand, the Moderns often conceived of their own work as an improvement of what the ancient philosophers had already accomplished, which sometimes led to oppose them.

This desire to take up the philosophy of the Ancients to improve it appears from the Renaissance, through the humanist movement. It continues in the seventeenth century, where modern science is emerging, and where great philosophers are also often scientists (Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz); it is then the great approaches to knowledge that distinguish the two major currents formed by rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz) and empiricism (Hume, Locke). During the same period, modern political philosophy develops, starting from the man as he is, rather than what he should be (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza).

But modern philosophy also includes, since the end of the seventeenth century, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, committed to dispel the darkness of obscurantism and ignorance to make reason triumph and educate the people, especially through the encyclopedic project ( D’Alembert, Diderot), but also by drawing a political philosophy that favors democracy, tolerance and the sovereignty of the people (Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire). This political philosophy will give birth to republicanism and liberalism.


The Renaissance, which spreads in Europe from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, is a period marked by important scientific, technical and political innovations (great discoveries, invention of the printing press, religious reforms, etc.), which will change the living conditions but also the modes of transmission of knowledge. This is partly why this era is characterized first, literally and philosophically, by a vast current of reappropriation of ancient authors, which places at the center of its preoccupations the acquisition of knowledge so that the human being fully develops his faculties: it is about what is called humanism.

Thus, the knowledge and study of Greek and Latin authors spreads and strongly permeates the philosophers of the time, in Italy first (Petrarch, Erasmus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola), then in the rest of Europe ( Francis Bacon in England, Rabelais, Bude then Montaigne in France). This is the occasion for a renewal of reflections on culture, education and politics. At the same time, there is a revival of Neoplatonism, sometimes influenced by esotericism, with Nicolas de Cuse and Jacob Boehme in Germany, Marsile Ficin, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno in Italy.

Montaigne, in his Essais, which will have a great influence on posterity, claims the skepticism of the Ancients, and professes a cultural relativism nourished at the same time by the observation of its time and by the reading of the Greek and Latin authors; in addition, his thought is marked by a pessimism about the possibility for humanity to reach certain knowledge. On this question, Francis Bacon will show, in his Novum Organum, the fundamental importance of the experiment to establish solid knowledge, which makes it a precursor of the empiricist movement that will take a major importance in the seventeenth century

The political philosophy of Machiavelli (particularly in The Prince) inaugurates the modern era by proposing realistic reflections, without illusion on the human nature, and sometimes considered as representative of the republicanism which will animate the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Grotius’ legal philosophy has also laid the foundations of international law through his study of natural law.

Seventeenth century

With regard to the theory of knowledge, it is traditional to distinguish two great currents: rationalism (with Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza) and empiricism (Hume and Locke). In a very schematic way, the “rationalists” affirm the existence of an independent knowledge of experience, purely intellectual, universally valid and unmistakable. Empiricists claim that all knowledge proceeds from induction and sensible experience. It is often also skeptics (eg Hume) who assert that there is no universally valid knowledge, but only judgments born of induction and which experience can refute.


The Enlightenment is a cultural, philosophical, literary and intellectual movement that emerged in the second half of the 17th century with philosophers such as Spinoza, Locke, Bayle and Newton, before developing throughout Europe, particularly in France, in the 18th century. By extension, this period was called the Age of Enlightenment.

By their commitment against religious and political oppression, the members of this movement who saw themselves as an advanced elite working for a progress of the world, fighting the irrational, the arbitrary, the obscurantism, the illusionism and the superstition of the centuries past, have renewed the knowledge, ethics and aesthetics of their time. The influence of their writings was decisive in the great events of the end of the eighteenth century, namely the Declaration of Independence of the United States and the French Revolution.

The intellectual and cultural renewal movement of the Enlightenment remains, strictly speaking, primarily European, and it flows almost exclusively from a specific context of the maturing of the ideas inherited from the Renaissance. Enlightenment thought has spread to Europe, although the translation of this term into other European languages ​​has always favored the idea of ​​”illumination” from outside, while the French term favors the fact that the Enlightenment comes from oneself. In a very general way, on the scientific and philosophical levels, the Enlightenment sees the triumph of reason over faith and belief; on the political and economic levels, the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the nobility and the clergy.

Translated from Wikipedia

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