Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism
Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism
A fundamental part of the History of Philosophy and Science, more amply of the History of Western culture, is certainly constituted by three philosophical currents especially developed between the 17th and 18th centuries in France and England: Sensationalism, Empiricism, and Materialism.
At first, they were presented as theories of knowledge/understanding, therefore of esprit (the latter conceived in a more rationalistic and less idealistic way); later on, they were delineated as theories of the Natural Sciences. But, as in the case of classical philosophy, theories of knowledge bring with them relevant implications also for other branches of the studies on human beings, the world, and the cosmos. Philosophical as well as physical and biological theories concerning “Nature” were formulated; or, in parallel, there were theories on “human nature” (on man and his inner and outer “functioning”) whit a philosophical, scientific, anthropological, psychological, moral or socio-political character. In this regard, it seems appropriate to make two clarifications concerning the Age of Enlightenment, the age on which we will focus more.
The first point, “Nature” and “human nature” are confused with each other in the collective imaginary of the period. The second point, the Enlightenment philosopher, as well as the classical or the Renaissance ones, are exponents of both scientific and humanistic disciplines: indeed until the 18th century, there was not yet a clear distinction between Science and Belles-Lettres (this distinction is emerging in this century thanks to the progress of knowledge and expertise).
Well, it is above all in the Enlightenment century that sensationalist and empiricist theories, even more than materialist theories, were systematized. We can say “even more than materialist theories” because – it is better to make it clear right now – the materialist philosophers, who were not grouped in a “school”, did not produce systematic materialist works. Rather, they inserted in their dissertations, novels, or dialogues, single materialist elements: e.g. a notion or idea, a historical or mythological figure linked to the “non-metaphysical” and anti-Platonic tradition.
It is well established that Plato is the “father” of Idealism because on one side he conceived the world of mathematical and moral ideas/norms as innate, and as a dimension of perfect knowledge; on the other side, in an oppositional and dualistic way, he considered the real world as an imperfect degradation of the ideal one. Consequently, Plato gave rise to a conception based on the devaluation of material reality and therefore also of the body; a devaluation that will be taken up again by Christianity especially in the terms of the “sinfulness”, of the “Evil” of corporeality, of its most instinctual manifestations, and/or above all of its perhaps most characteristic “language”, that is, the language of eroticism.
It is also well recognized that Idealism, re-emerging in two capital doctrines such as Christianity and Cartesianism (here we will deal with the second, especially with Descartes’ rationalist-Christian system): on the one hand, impregnates all Western culture until today; on the other hand, it is more or less explicitly criticized throughout the centuries – later on, we will analyze that in detail. Having said that, if we prefer not to use the adjective “anti-metaphysical” to indicate this tradition as opposed to the Platonic one, it is because this adjective, in our opinion, risks being anachronistic, referring preferably to an atheist conception of reality which developed only between the middle of the 17th and the 18th centuries.
On the other hand, returning more generally to the non-metaphysical and anti-Platonic tradition, we can already speak about it from the Renaissance and indeed from the Classical Age, when philosophers elaborated cosmological and gnoseological interpretations that highlight the “concreteness” of the examined bodies (those of human beings, animals, plants, etc., or those of matter atoms). In the 19th and 20th centuries, other philosophical doctrines emphasized the sensory dimension of reality: they are Positivism, Pragmatism, and Phenomenology.
Therefore, although we will focus mainly on the Age of Enlightenment, it seems to us appropriate to treat some of the very first formulations about the “concrete world” as well as some of the most recent ones: in doing so, we will proceed chronologically. But before turning to the Classical Age, let us make one last preliminary clarification, which has already been partly anticipated by presenting the case of the exponents of Materialism. It has been said that the latter, less numerous than the empiricist and sensationalist philosophers, were not gathered in a school; now we add that Materialists constituted a movement that did not converge in a real doctrine.
At this point we can clarify the following: while a philosophical doctrine benefits from a theoretical-ideological elaboration and operative programs that are precisely systematized (articulated in a system), a movement – philosophical, literary, or artistic – presents theories, ideologies, common practices, but they are less systematized; a school, instead, is characterized not only by the sharing of a common theory by its members but also by its high degree of operative organization.
We start now with our journey in the non-metaphysical and “material” tradition by presenting some of the main theories of the Classical Age; theories that will constitute a point of reference, an essential model for Sensationalism, Empiricism, and Materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. Aristotle (385-323 B.C.), the disciple of Plato, was the first to dispute the doctrine of his mentor.
Aristotle argued that there are no a priori, innate and metaphysical ideas; that there are instead only ideas a posteriori, i.e. ideas formed thanks to sensory perception in contact with reality. But Aristotle also pointed out that the senses get/know only the external and accidental form of things (i.e. of matter having multiple forms), while the intellect perceives the pure and immutable essence (the content) of beings (the being of man, of divinity, of the cosmos). In this regard, for Aristotle, the metamorphosis and/or the movements of matter were not self-determined, but they would depend on the metaphysical essence of being, according to a teleologist and voluntaristic conception (that is: the movement of matter is given and wanted by a metaphysical reality, and it has its purpose).
Democritus thinks differently from Aristotele. The philosopher of Abdera (460-ca. 370 B.C.) is among the first to talk about the movement of matter according to an atomistic conception – one of his teachers Leucippus (the latter is the founder of the so-called “atomistic school”, and according to his theory the atoms of matter, variously aggregating/disintegrating, would originate bodies and their movements). More precisely, Democritus affirmed that the becoming of things on one side does not affect their essence (the latter therefore immobile), on the other side it is not accidental – as it was commonly believed at the time – but causal and mechanistic (“automatic”). Otherwise said, for Democritus, everything happens and proceeds because there is a cause, which is mechanical and makes things proceed according to their essence. Especially this last point, implying that there is no superior ideal or common essence, later cost Democritus the accusation of atheism, moved by the Church.
Similarly, the thought of Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.) was subjected to secular persecution by the Church. Heraclitus denies the distinction between idea/essence and matter (the concrete world itself would be the expression of an idea so that everything – what is material and what is ideal – melts and changes together, that is everything flows or panta rei). On the contrary, the Church could not admit that the idea/ideal of a perfect God would have evened out to the mere matter. It is also interesting to note that the denial of the dualism “ideal vs. material” was common among the Materialist-Libertine authors (the latter, although emphasizing the corporeal dimension, admitted the existence of a rational esprit); indeed the conception of Heraclitus as reinterpreted by Spinoza will exert a certain influence on materialist theories.
Among the Classic models of the three great theories of the 17th and 18th centuries, there is certainly Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). He was interested above all in practical life, lived ethically (on the contrary, in the common language Epicurean became synonymous with the life essentially devoted to material pleasures), and subordinated his cosmology to his moral mindset. In this regard, taking up but revising the theses of Democritus and Leucippus, the philosopher of Samos conceived the motion of atoms on the one hand as “natural,” on the other hand as perturbed by random shocks or deviations internal to the “human-animal” (causalism or finalism, as well as mechanicism, therefore were not considered by Epicurus). But once the stable and harmonious balance of atoms would be achieved thanks to the simple and immediate evidence of sensitive perceptions – the latter source of all knowledge – man could access the pleasant tranquility of the soul.
Inner serenity and spiritual (not carnal, sexual) pleasure would have their counterpart in the elimination of – or liberation from – the four fundamental human fears: fear of the gods, of death, of pain, and the impossibility to achieve pleasure. A faithful reprise of Epicureanism can be found in Lucretius (94-ca. 55 B.C.), in his De rerum natura (‘About Nature’). Over this great didactic poem, we highlight two aspects, one related to its production, and the other to its reception. As for the first aspect, although practically nothing is known about the author’s life, Suetonius and later Saint Jerome has handed down a remarkable biographical episode: Lucretius, who would become insane because of a love elixir, would have been so tormented by the images of his fears and desires that he committed suicide.
The fact that the poem itself reveals an image of the author as an anguished man, so this fact suggests that there is some truth in the biographical episode. If so, we can consider De rerum natura as research carried out by Lucretius to calm his existential anxieties and perplexities and to arrive at comforting philosophical-moral certainties. In this direction, Epicureanism, and in particular its casualism, by eliminating the problem constituted by both the (past) causes and the (future) aims of things and the cosmos, allows Lucretius to access a sensorial and rational knowledge that removes his intellectual doubts and his inner specters.
Lucretius’ poem, lost and therefore unknown during the Middle Ages, was found in 1417 by the Humanist P. Bracciolini, and for philosophers, literatus, and theologians of the time it became one of the great pagan works of the Classical Age. Moreover, between the 15th and the 16th century, the fortune of this work brought Epicureanism back into vogue. In this period the success of the non-metaphysical, anti-Platonic Lucretian text is easily explained within the contemporary cultural context.
A context, the humanistic one, was characterized not only by more general attention to the re-discovery and the philological studies of classical works; above all, it is characterized by a conception of reality according to which man – and no longer a divinity and/or an abstract ideal – is (at) the center of the cosmos. Such a conception, on the one hand, induced to evaluate human existence hic et nunc (here and now), in its sensory and concrete aspects; on the other hand, it gives back to the human person the “power” to be the upholder of his destiny and/or happiness. These two aspects of Humanism could perhaps be summarized in two verses of the poem Trionfo di Bacco e Arianna (Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne) by Lorenzo de’ Medici called “The Magnificient”: “chi vuol esser lieto sia/di doman non c’è certezza” (a paraphrase could be: “those who want to be happy must act to be happy in this precise moment, because the future, which evidently cannot be captured through the senses, is uncertain”).
For the 15th and 16th centuries, then, we cannot fail to mention the systems of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton: systems that undermined the Christian vision of the universe by underlining the dimension of matter and motion, and that so influenced Sensationalism, Empiricism, and Materialism. Well, until the end of the Middle Age, an Aristotelian conception, promoted by the Church, and according to which earth would be the universe’s center, was commonly accepted. Concerning such a cosmological representation, Copernicus (1473-1543) promoted the first revolution, claiming that the sun is the center of the universe and that the earth revolves around the sun. This was equivalent to asserting that man does not enjoy any absolute, eternal relevance and/or that God would not have given man a predominant role. Kepler (1571-1630), developed the three famous astronomical laws bearing his name and described (through physical-mathematical formulas) the movement of the planets in the solar system.
What is important to say about Kepler’s laws is that, by placing the measurability of the cosmos, they also place its finitude; on the contrary, according to a typical Christian vision, the universe was supposed to be infinite, just as God. Galileo (1564-1642), is known as “the father of modern science” for having elaborated the experimental method, with the latter marking a definitive revolution in Science’s and Philosophy’s History. Galileo did not exclude deductive reasoning (reasoning metaphysically, rationally, a priori from the universal to the particular), a first phase to formulate a hypothesis that should be valid for the phenomena of reality. Galileo placed also a supplementary, inductive phase (from the particular to the universal) as necessary.
The latter consists of the verification of the universal laws for the various accidental cases, i.e. in the sensory perception or experience of the studied phenomena. By combining Kepler’s theories with those of Galileo, Newton (1642-1726) marked a further turning point in Western culture and beyond. Observing an apple falling to the ground (therefore through an inductive process), Newton understood that there is a force, by him called “gravity”, that explains certain movements of both objects and planets: so not God, but gravity would make the universe proceed. In the Enlightenment century, Newtonian theories had an enormous success, but they also provoked many criticisms due to a certain perplexity (in fact, for many philosophers interested in the Sciences, such as Voltaire, d’Alembert, Diderot, and Buffon, gravity remained essentially an enigmatic, not fully explainable force).
With Galileo and Newton, we are now plunged into the period in which some precursors began formulating theories more properly definable as sensationalist, empiricist, and materialist. As a general premise, we try to set the cornerstones of the three philosophical currents, although (as already mentioned) these cornerstones, like the philosophers who formulate them, are often and inevitably the same ones. Therefore, the thesis that knowledge is not possible beyond sensitive experience, the rejection of the innatism of reason and at the same time the critical reprise of Cartesianism were the strong theses of Empiricism, which has its major exponents in Hume and Condillac.
However, empiricist philosophers and their precursors did not renounce tout court to certain Cartesian or Platonic idealistic conceptions, just as Descartes (1596-1650) did not hesitate to admit a certain validity of empiricist theories. In this latter regard, Descartes (Discours de la Méthode, 1637, ‘Discourse on Method’) considered the sense experience as a possible means to achieve knowledge; otherwise, the experience could not be able to explain mathematical and logical concepts and principles, that should be innate, universal, absolute, being “injected” in men by God. As such, these concepts and principles could only be analyzed through a rational esprit, called cogito (or res cogitans); moreover, Descartes presented a mechanical-mathematical conception of Nature (that is, the world would be a mechanism, as such it is mathematically measurable, and therefore precisely knowable).
For the valorization of these two aspects, and especially of the first, Descartes is often remembered as “the father of modern philosophy”; moreover, his mechanistic conception of Nature exerted a crucial influence on Empiricism and Materialism. But Cartesian rationalism has also some limits that empiricists pointed out: Descartes, who could not confirm his a priori hypotheses, found only in God the “guarantee” regarding knowledge and its certainties. For their part, Empiricists and their precursors did not renounce tout court to the possibility of the existence of innate and universal ideas (Lock, Leibniz, as we will see below), thus adopting conceptions that were somehow idealistic and metaphysical. But even in these cases, empiricist philosophers rejected the absolutism of Cartesian idealism: for them not in innate ideas, but only in the exact and rational observation of reality, it was possible to find knowledge certainties.
Let’s add that Empiricism, however, will have to wait for Kant to become a real doctrine, and with it to have a “baptism” name – otherwise, Kant formulated an empiricist doctrine only to deny it in favor of transcendental idealism (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781, ‘Critique of Pure Reason‘). Before that time, the noun was used in medicine only (the Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert defines empirismus as a “practical medicine based solely on experience”); the adjective empiricist (sometimes replaced by historical, because historical phenomenons are certainly real) indicated then a non-reflective and therefore somehow inferior knowledge and/or activity; what will soon be called Empirism was endly designated by the expression rational philosophy.
As for Sensationalism, it placed not so much and not the only sensation as the origin of knowledge: in this direction, the term would take on a too wide meaning, so much wide that Empiricism itself would be nothing but a sensualist doctrine. Rather and more precisely, sensualist philosophers argued that the knowledge process coincides with that of sensory perception. So Hélvetius (who is more strictly a materialist than a sensualist philosopher) presented an assertion that would become axiomatic of sensationalist doctrine: “penser, c’est sentir” (“thinking, is felling”), from De l’esprit (1758, ‘Of the Spirit‘). This title allows us to specify that the term esprit, having a wide and nuanced meaning (see the definition given by Voltaire in the Encyclopedia), is poorly translated into other languages: in English or Italian, it is near, respectively, to spirit and spirito, but also mind/mente and intellect/intelletto; the better restitution of the term is perhaps the German Geist.
To continue our investigation of the theories of the various Enlightenment philosophers, the great systematizer of Sensationalism (Traité des Sensations, 1754, ‘Treatise on the Sensations‘), Condillac argued that knowledge would be nothing but a transformed sensation (indeed already for Descartes perception was a modification of the soul). In this context, Empiricism emphasized rational esprit, thus opening the question of the relations between the latter and the mind. Instead of Sensationalism, thought was identified with the sensation itself, that is with a cognitive operation, inviting to consider the physiological-cerebral substratum of knowledge.
However, it is Materialism that widely and deeply took charge of analyzing the possible connections between the processes of esprit and the cerebral ones. The Materialists, who therefore also embraced sensualist theories, resume them, however using the most rigorous notions of some emerging sciences (anatomy, biology, biochemistry). Moreover, if Empiricists preserved the possibility of the existence of innate ideas, differently Materialists stated the existence of only bodily substances, thus denying also the first, universal, innate idea, the idea of God; on the contrary, Materialists marked climatic relativism (Montesquieu) and the cultural relativism, or the Rousseauian dualism “nature vs culture”.
Materialist philosophy represents the cornerstone of Atheism (in fact materialism and atheism become synonymous already in the first two decades of the 18th century), and both will provide the libertine authors’ movement with its theoretical basis. Inevitably, during the 18th and 19th centuries, materialist theories were the object of repeated attacks by religious and political powers, simultaneously by the more traditionalist authors (literatus, philosophers, theologians); in the context of these criticisms, the term materialism took on the current meaning of “excessive attachment to goods or objects”. Beyond these essential, necessary distinctions between Empiricism, Sensationalism, and Materialism, below we will see how the precursors or exponents of the three currents are often the same, so it will be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish them.
For example, Gassendi (1592-1655) was a reference point for both the nascent empiricist and the materialistic philosophical currents. Not without some surprise, Gassendi was an abbot; but he, thus giving new luster to Epicurean philosophy (already revived in the Renaissance), combined it with a Christian vision of the cosmos and the world (Syntagma philosophiæ Epicuri, cum Refutationibus Dogmatum quæ contra Fidem Christianam ab eo asserta sunt, 1649, ‘Compendium of Epicurean philosophy, with confutations that it is against the Christian Faith‘). Otherwise, from the moral point of view, Gassendi propounded a hedonism nuanced with utilitarianism (an interest in individual well-being) and skepticism (incredulous about society and its value for the “common good”): that was appreciated more by the Libertine authors than by the Church.
The fact remains that the philosopher-theologian discredited innate ideas without eliminating the idea of God: for Gassendi only God would discern the essence of things or res cogitans; but man, through his senses, would know the concrete aspects of reality or res extensa (the latter constituted, for Gassendi as for Epicurus, by moving atoms of matter). With this last point Gassendi, therefore, showed his aversion to Cartesian cogito, and Platonic idealism and dualism. In a not dissimilar way, in Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620, ‘The New Instrument of Science‘), Bacon (1551-1626) rejected the deductive procedure, based on innate ideas and typically Cartesian. He praised instead the inductive and experimental procedure: the observation of phenomena, which often in the reality are contiguous to one another, and so which are analyzable from the point of view of several sciences, would allow the construction of the famous arbor Scientiarum.
Heir to Baconian empiricism and Cartesian scientific-mathematical rationalism (the latter but deprived of its metaphysical aspect), Hobbes (1588-1679) represented a milestone for Materialism. He systematized a philosophy of experience establishing the universal materiality of bodies, and that at the expense (i.e. with the elimination) of res cogitans. But it’s above all thanks to his ethical-political theories that Hobbes marked a breaking point compared to tradition. In this regard, in Leviathan (1651) he presents Plautus’ maxim “homo hominis lupus“, from which Hobbes elaborated the notion of “natural law”. It is the right or freedom to use your own power/force for the selfish purpose of preserving, increasing, and enjoying your material life – thus Epicureanism took a new, more radical direction with Hobbes.
Briefly, Hobbes’s (anti-)ethical way of thinking is all the opposite of both the precept “love thy neighbor as thyself” and the corporal repression, both being typical of Christianity and its morality. As for Bacon and Hobbes, also for Hume (1711-1776), the author of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) ideas are not innate. According to Hume, ideas would result from imaginative reason’s process following its regulatory principles (contiguity, causality, similarity); they would constitute forces that man can experience in the form of sensations; single and elementary ideas are also able to associate with each other, thus giving rise to esprit; in this aggregative process, ideas would follow a principle of self-organization originating from customs and habits (for Hume a principle equivalent to the Newtonian one of gravity).
Similarly, Hume’s great follower and great systematizer of Sensationalism, Condillac (1714-1780), analyzed the gnoseological process in Traité des systèmes (1754, ‘Treatise on Sensations‘). He spoke of the analogy regarding real phenomena as the guiding principle within the association of ideas’ process. But above all, Condillac emphasized another fundamental aspect, in all probability the fundamental aspect of culture: language, which is necessary to organize thought as well as “civilization”. This thesis, having a great innovative scope (so much to anticipate the thesis of the great Structuralism’s “fathers”, De Saussure and Hjelmslev), enjoyed great success at the time. The encyclopedic cultural context promoted a linguistic-semiotic gnoseological approach to reality and truth; otherwise said, in its theories of knowledge, the Enlightenment considered reality and truth first and foremost as semantic-formal questions.
The strong point of Condillac’s symbolic sensationalism then became his doctrine of judgment, that is, the propositional theses according to which sensations would be reducible to some linguistic representations/propositions; the latter, thanks to and through experimental verification, would be true or false, and in this way, it would be possible to distinguish authentic knowledge, exact from those which are not. To conclude with Condillac and his “inspirer” Hume, we say the following: if they have provided Empiricism and Sensationalism with their most rigorous formulations, perhaps it’s because they have succeeded in perfectly combining – the very notions of – rational ideas and sensitive experiences, beyond any platonic dualism. Among the precursors of Empiricism, Sensationalism, and Materialism, there is certainly Locke (1632-1704). In the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), he elaborated a sensualist and materialist theory to the detriment of innate ideas: in Locke’s opinion, ideas, to be formed, have necessarily to pass through the senses.
And nevertheless, for Locke (a bit like Hume and his imaginative reason), even deductive and speculative reflection could be a source of ideas. So about Locke and Hume, as well as about Spinoza and Leibniz – we will see it soon –, we would be allowed to talk about “metaphysical Materialism”. The Polish philosopher, in Nowe rozważania dotyczącerozumu ludzkiego (1765, ‘New Essays on Human Understanding‘), took up Locke’s idea that the esprit collects knowledge only through the senses. However, Leibniz added that the intellect itself is an exception to this rule: intellect would already, a priori, be contained in the esprit, and therefore it would be innate and original. This last stance of Leibniz brings him closer to Descartes, and in fact, his system can also be considered as post-Cartesian, but on the other hand for this philosopher “innatism of thought” did not mean to put immediately a knowledge as certain. Rather for him to be innate in the intellect are the principles of identity and contradiction, allowing him to establish/know the authentic relationships existing between external phenomena and their relative internal, mental representations.
Also Spinoza (1632-1677), in Opera Philosophica (1702), formulated a system that could be defined as post-Cartesian: for him, God represents one, indeed the only universal and absolute idea that allows access to knowledge. What instead differentiates Descartes from Leibniz is that the first distinguished God, the soul/cogito, and the body, while for Leibniz there would not exist any other reality that is not the divine one. This Spinozist thesis meant that the human world is itself divine and necessary, and therefore that moving matter is the cause of itself.
Postulating the unity of God/man, essence/matter according to pantheistic-determinist modalities (that were already present in Democritus), Spinoza attracted the appreciation of materialist philosophers but also, on the other hand, the accusations of the Church (first of all, the accusation of atheism; it is no coincidence that the Encyclopedia presented the – French – adjectives Spinozist, athéiste, and matérialiste as synonymous). The Church was also disturbed by Spinoza’s philological-critical analysis of the Bible, which led him to sketch the thesis that religion exercises an oppressive function on man and society – a thesis that the Materialists particularly reiterated and developed, so presenting more radical criticism against the two traditional strong powers (the Church and the King).
Among the philosophers, who (as it has already been said) radically rejected every innate idea in favor of concrete substances (the latter would being the only ones to be perceived and therefore known), so among the materialist philosopher there are La Mettrie, Helvétius, d’Holbach, and Diderot: they offered the materialist theories their most exhaustive formulation. To La Mettrie (1709-1751), the first great materialist, we owe the concept of man-machine that will be taken up by the other three “colleagues”. In L’Homme machine (1748, ‘Human-Machine’), resorting to biology and the Cartesian mechanistic physiology, La Mettrie outlined his figure of a man: for him, a human being is both a superior mechanism of Nature and the result of a physical-physiological organization that would respond to the sole principle of escaping displeasure. In De l’esprit (1758) and De l’homme (1772, ‘About the Man‘), referring to Epicurus, Lucretius, and Locke’s sensationalism, Helvétius then conceived man as the result of his sensations, placing self-love and rejection of sorrow as the motor for human actions (similar to La Mettrie).
But these last two elements, according to Helvétius, did not converge into a selfish hedonism; on the contrary, they were at the utilitarian service of the individual and common “Good”. D’Holbach was then a cultivated baron who gathered in his house a circle to which Diderot, among others, belonged too. Système de la Nature (‘Nature’s System‘) is his work published in 1770 and banned by the Church: the work is characterized by an accentuated polemical character towards religion. D’Holbac affirmed that man can free himself from religious despotism and obscurantism thanks to a greater knowledge of Nature and man. Thus the Baron searched for a rule internal to Nature (cosmos) and man, identifying it in the physical law of conservation (but if the natural environment would modify its internal equilibrium, man could disappear: here is in nuce an evolutionary theory).
As already according to Helvétius, for d’Holbach this law had to favor the “Supreme Good”, the latter represented by the happiness of every single man and considered attainable through an attentive, virtuous attitude toward the common interest. Diderot seems to be the least normative and most innovative materialist: by integrating the new knowledge achieved in anatomy, biology, and biochemistry, he configures himself as a sort of philosopher of science. Both Pensées sur l’intérpretation de la nature (1754, ‘Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature‘), and Les Bijoux indiscretes (1748, ‘The Indiscreet Jewels’) praised the sensitive experience and/or the experimental method.
In this regard, for the philosopher of Langres, the new empiricist philosophy is precisely and above all a methodological question, and not so much a theory of understanding (for this term, Diderot cannot be properly considered an Empiricist). But it is above all in Rêve de d’Alambert(1769, ‘D’Alembert’s Dream‘) that Diderotian materialism is optimally articulated. In this work, the Encyclopedist argued that, through the experimental method, it is possible to grasp natural phenomena that would follow discontinuous movements, i.e. that would be produced in a random and heterogeneous way, both in the outer and in the inner world. According to Diderot, however, the randomness of phenomena did not remove the fact that phenomena themselves would have their organizational principle in survival (similarly to what d’Holbach claimed); in particular, for human behavior, this principle is specified in the pleasure/pain-fear couple. Diderotian materialism, therefore, went beyond the conceptions of “metaphysical Materialism” (the latter envisaging the coincidence of thought and matter), and also it went beyond Condillac’s sensationalism.
To conclude this long discussion around the “concreteness’ philosophers” of the 17th and 18th centuries (among whom, for reasons of space, we have not mentioned the meritorious A.Shaftesbury, G.Berckeley, D.Hartley, J.Priestly, C.Wolff, A.F.Deslandes, A.-L.-C. Destutt de Tracy, Condorcet), we could make some general observations. If, in the Age of Enlightenment, the importance of rational and “enlightened” thought is out of the question, but at the same time it does not exclude the equally essential importance of the concrete world. Therefore, Platonic dualism, which for many centuries had “weighed” on Western culture, limiting cognitive interest to a single/univocal aspect of the human being, suffers the first setback thanks to the Enlightenment. This fact had brought with it a whole series of anthropological and gnoseological consequences that still have a profound impact on our way of figuring and studying man and reality.
At this point, to outline a complete panorama of the “concreteness theories”, we need only to mention the most relevant ones that were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries: Positivism, Pragmatism, and Phenomenology. Positivism, a philosophical – but also historical and literary – current, developed in the second half of the 19th century first in France and soon in the rest of Europe. Positivism is certainly the heir of Enlightenment thought and culture: in fact, on the one side it criticized the abstractness of metaphysical-idealist philosophy; on the other side it was characterized above all by the fundamental conviction that only “positive”, present, concrete, and therefore verifiable phenomena could be known. The experimental method would bring out the laws and/or the constant relations between phenomena so that philosophers can connect and organize the different knowledge into one big system (Bacon imagined something similar talking about arbor scientiarum).
Another salient trait of Positivism, also of Enlightenment origin, is the optimistic belief in scientific-technological progress as a conditio sine qua non for the improvement of society: Positivism then is also a Sociology, that is, a science that studies the principles governing social phenomena. Well, in the 19th century, the historical realization of scientific-technological progress, parallel to the development of industrial society, besides contributing to the European success of the doctrine, configured the Positivist philosophers as “philosophers of their time”, plunged into their society, attentive to it and desirous to organize it according to rational-scientific principles. Comte (1798-1857), author of Discours sur l’espritpositif (1844, ‘A Discourse on the Positive Spirit‘), is considered the founder of Positivism – but we must also remember that his scientific conception on one side originated from the one of his master Saint-Simon; on the other side, it was not dissimilar to the one of G.B.Vico. So, Comte identified the “law of the three stages” regarding the development not only of the individual but also of the Sciences and the History of Man. The first stage is the theological one, the infantile stage of human development, in which reality would be interpreted only through fantasy.
The second is the metaphysical one, a transitional stage of intellectual development, during which abstractions of the hypothetical essence of things would be formulated. The third, higher, and more mature stage of human intellectual development is represented by the positive one: in this stage, abandoning previous metaphysical pretensions, the investigation of concrete phenomena would be the focus. For the author, the last stage began in the 15th century with Humanism, had its climax in the Enlightenment, and characterizes the period or society of his time too.
Pragmatism, developed in the USA in the 1870s and has its greatest exponents in Pierce (founder of the doctrine), James and Dewey. It should also be said that this doctrine was influenced by evolutionary theory: from the latter derives the typical pragmatist conception of a conscience/knowledge aimed at the functional improvement of individual and social beliefs, as well as of the habits attached to them. By accepting the study of beliefs and habits, Pragmatism shifts the interest from the field of logic to the one of psychology. This does not exclude that Pragmatism remains centered on empiricist bases, on a par with Positivism; however, the Pragmatic philosophers criticized the Positivist ones.
Not the Positivist method posed the problem, but rather the fact that it was considered the only form of knowledge: a form of knowledge which, however, did not exhaust the existential needs of man, according to the Pragmatists. These philosophers proposed then to consider the empirical experience in terms of an interaction between the subject and the object (the external world, including also other subjects). Thanks to this interaction, the subject could verify intersubjectively his old beliefs about reality, elaborate on more effective beliefs, and act within the world in a new way: so the subject and object should determine each other.
Since everyone interprets the world differently, depending on personal perceptions, sensations, and impressions, Pragmatists claimed that consciousness/knowledge is not objective or universal. Rather – and this is the solution proposed in particular by Dewey (1859-1952) – knowledge would be attainable when the subject transforms an interactive situation from indeterminate to determined; this transformation would consist of a problematization of the surrounding reality through logical and empirical instruments (instrumentalism).
Also for James (1842-1910) what matters is the conscience’s personal and continuous (progressive) character; a conscience he presented in terms of “will to believe”: that is, for James certain essential problems can be solved not through intellectualistic knowledge, but action and/or attitude dictated by human intention. Pierce (1839-1914), who coined the term indicating the doctrine, formulated a pragmatic conception in which linguistic logic takes on importance. In other words, for Pierce (How to make our ideas clear, 1878), ideas could be clarified by defining their meaning and by discovering what habits or consequences this concept/meaning produces in inter-subjective interactions: “The word or sign that man uses, is the man himself”, the philosopher affirmed.
Thus we come to the last subject or doctrine here examinated, that is the Phenomenological one. The term phenomenology was coined by Hegel (Phänomenologie des Geistes, 1807, ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit‘, a text in which the author traced a history of the various manifestations of esprit). But this doctrine has its major exponents in Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of Phenomenology (Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, 1913, Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy), proposed first of all the epochè, i.e. to skeptically suspend the existence of a reality external, avoiding so its “normal” interpretation and/or common opinion. In this way, Husserl argued we could achieve an impartial contemplation of the world, a contemplation that allows us to grasp the logical, universal, and necessary essence of concrete phenomena: it is, therefore, a primary and original perceptive experience, before both scientific and common sense categorizations.
The disciple of Husserl, Heidegger (1889-1976), 1927 published Sein und Zeit (‘Being and Time‘), a text which, among the author’s several works, is certainly the most relevant. This text was received as a manifesto of existentialist philosophy (Sarte was strongly influenced by it). However, the author intended here to pose and investigate other, different issues. For Heidegger (as for his mentor), the crucial point was the being, i.e. the essence of things and their significance; in short, it was a metaphysical problem, and as such increasingly neglected by modern philosophy, but a fundamental one according to Heidegger.
So he presented the notion of “being there” (Dasein): this would be an entity (subject or object) that is not only and not so much placed in the middle of other entities; above all the entity would be characterized by a preliminary understanding relationship with the other surrounding entities. Such a preliminary comprehension rapport was posed by the philosopher as necessary to grasp the essence – otherwise not attainable – of the various concrete aspects of reality. Later Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), in Phénoménologie de la perception (1945, ‘Phenomenology of perception‘), took up Husserlian’s idea of a “primacy of perception”, thus highlighting the conditioning role of the body in experience, and proposed a general theory of objectivity. But at the same time, Merleau-Ponty insisted on the existence of an essence of things, and in later works, he emphasized the crucial role of language in the processes of experience’s conceptualization.
With Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty – as maybe it has been noted – the metaphysical world gains new ground, without taking on a role of absolute preeminence (as it was instead in the Platonic-idealist tradition). But, as these last three philosophers have shown, it would be wrong to interpret the revenge of ideas/ideals as a mere setting aside of the concrete dimension, the latter being neither omitted nor denied/rejected. We should then conclude the following: only by capturing both the constitutive dimensions of man, both psyché and body, Philosophy has been able to perform at best, over the centuries, the gnoseological and existential role to which it is called to assume.
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