Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism

A fundamental part of the history of philosophy and science, or rather the history of Western culture, is certainly constituted by three philosophical currents that developed especially between the 17th and 18th centuries in France and England: Sensationalism, Empiricism, and Materialism.

At first, they were presented as theories of knowledge/understanding, that is, of esprit (the latter conceived in a more rationalistic and less idealistic way); later, they were delineated as theories of the natural sciences. But, as in classical philosophy, theories of knowledge also have relevant implications for other branches of the study of man, the world, and the cosmos. Philosophical as well as physical and biological theories of “nature” have been formulated; or, in parallel, there have been theories of “human nature” (of man and his inner and outer “functioning”) with 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 closely.

The first point, “nature” and “human nature” are confused in the collective imagination of the period. The second point, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, as well as those of the Classical or Renaissance period, are exponents of both scientific and humanistic disciplines: in fact, 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 was especially in the century of the Enlightenment 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 now – the materialist philosophers, who were not grouped into a “school”, did not produce systematic materialist works. Rather, in their dissertations, novels, or dialogues, they inserted single materialist elements: e.g., a term or an idea, a historical or mythological figure associated with the “non-metaphysical” and anti-Platonic tradition.

It is well known that Plato is the “father” of idealism because, on the one hand, he conceived the world of mathematical and moral ideas/norms as innate and as a dimension of perfect knowledge; on the other hand, he considered, in an oppositional and dualistic way, the real world as an imperfect degradation of the ideal one. As a result, Plato gave rise to a conception based on the devaluation of material reality and, therefore, of the body; a devaluation that is taken up again by Christianity, especially in terms of the “sinfulness”, the “evil” of corporeality, of its most instinctive manifestations and/or, above all, of its perhaps most characteristic “language”, that is, the language of eroticism.

It is also well known that idealism, which reappears in two major doctrines such as Christianity and Cartesianism (we will deal with the latter here, especially with Descartes’ rationalist-Christian system): on the one hand, impregnates all Western culture until today; on the other hand, it has been more or less explicitly criticized throughout the centuries, as we will analyze in detail later. However, if we prefer not to use the adjective “anti-metaphysical” to describe this tradition, which is opposed to the Platonic one, it is because, in our opinion, this adjective runs the risk of being anachronistic, referring rather to an atheistic conception of reality that only emerged between the mid-17th and 18th centuries.

On the other hand, if we return more generally to the non-metaphysical and anti-Platonic tradition, we can speak of it as early as the Renaissance and even the Classical period, when philosophers developed cosmological and gnoseological interpretations that emphasized the “concreteness” of the bodies studied (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 appropriate to discuss some of the very first formulations about the “concrete world” as well as some of the most recent ones: we will proceed chronologically. But before turning to the classical period, we should make one last preliminary clarification, which has already been partially anticipated by the presentation of the case of the exponents of materialism. It has been said that the latter, less numerous than the empiricist and sensationalist philosophers, did not form a school; now we add that the materialists constituted a movement that did not converge on a real doctrine.

At this point we can clarify the following: while a philosophical doctrine benefits from a theoretical-ideological elaboration and from operational 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, on the contrary, is characterized not only by the sharing of a common theory among its members, but also by a high degree of operational organization.

We will now begin our journey in the non-metaphysical and “material” tradition by presenting some of the most important theories of the classical age; theories that will constitute a point of reference, an essential model for the sensationalism, empiricism, and materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. Aristotle (385-323 B.C.), Plato’s student, was the first to challenge his mentor’s teaching.

Aristotle argued that there are no a priori, innate and metaphysical ideas, but only a posteriori ideas, i.e., ideas formed through sensory perception in contact with reality. But Aristotle also pointed out that the senses perceive only the external and accidental form of things (i.e., matter with multiple forms), while the intellect perceives the pure and unchanging essence (content) of beings (the essence of man, of divinity, of the cosmos). In this respect, for Aristotle, the metamorphosis and/or movements of matter are not self-determined, but depend on the metaphysical essence of being, according to a teleological and voluntaristic conception (i.e., the movement of matter is given and wanted by a metaphysical reality and has its own purpose).

Democritus thinks differently from Aristotle. The philosopher of Abdera (460-ca. 370 B.C.) is one of the first to talk about the movement of matter according to an atomistic conception – that of his teacher 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 give rise to bodies and their movements). More precisely, Democritus affirmed that, on the one hand, the becoming of things does not affect their essence (the latter, therefore, is immovable), and, on the other hand, it is not accidental – as was commonly believed at the time – but causal and mechanistic (“automatic”). In other words, for Democritus everything happens and proceeds because there is a cause, which is mechanical and makes things proceed according to their own essence. This last point in particular, implying that there is no superior ideal or common essence, later cost Democritus the charge of atheism brought 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 been reconciled with mere matter. It is also interesting to note that the denial of the dualism “ideal vs. material” was common among the materialist-libertarian 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 have a certain influence on materialist theories.

Among the classical models of the three great theories of the 17th and 18th centuries, there is certainly Epicurus (341-270 BC). He was primarily interested in practical life, lived ethically (on the contrary, in common language Epicurean became synonymous with a life essentially devoted to material pleasures), and subordinated his cosmology to his moral outlook. In this respect, the philosopher of Samos, taking up but revising the theses of Democritus and Leucippus, conceived of the motion of the atoms on the one hand as “natural” and on the other as disturbed by accidental shocks or deviations internal to the “human-animal” (causalism or finalism, as well as mechanicism, were therefore not considered by Epicurus). But once the stable and harmonious equilibrium of the atoms was 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-or liberation-from the four fundamental human fears: fear of the gods, fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the impossibility of achieving pleasure. A faithful restatement of Epicureanism can be found in Lucretius (94-55 B.C.), in his De rerum natura (“On Nature”). On this great didactic poem, we highlight two aspects, one related to its production, the other to its reception. With regard to the first aspect, although practically nothing is known about the life of the author, Suetonius and later Saint Jerome have handed down a remarkable biographical episode: Lucretius, driven mad by a love potion, was so tormented by the images of his own fears and desires that he committed suicide.

The fact that the poem itself presents an image of the author as a tormented man suggests that there is some truth to the biographical episode. If this is the case, De rerum natura can be seen as an investigation that Lucretius undertook in order to calm his existential anxieties and perplexities and to arrive at comforting philosophical-moral certainties. In this sense, Epicureanism, and in particular its casualism, by eliminating the problem constituted by both the (past) causes and the (future) ends of things and the cosmos, allows Lucretius to access a sensory and rational knowledge that removes his intellectual doubts and his inner ghosts.

Lucretius’ poem, lost and therefore unknown during the Middle Ages, was rediscovered in 1417 by the humanist P. Bracciolini, and for the philosophers, literati and theologians of the time it became one of the great pagan works of the classical age. Moreover, between the 15th and 16th centuries, the success of this work brought Epicureanism back into fashion. 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, characterized not only by a more general attention to the rediscovery and philological study of classical works, but above all 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, leads to the evaluation of human existence hic et nunc (“here and now”), in its sensory and concrete aspects; on the other hand, it restores to the human person the “power” to be the bearer of his own 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 Magnificent”: “chi vuol esser lieto sia/di doman non c’è certezza” (a paraphrase could be: “whoever wants to be happy must act in order to be happy at this very moment, because the future, which obviously cannot be grasped by 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 emphasizing the dimension of matter and motion, thus influencing sensationalism, empiricism, and materialism. Now, until the end of the Middle Ages, an Aristotelian conception, promoted by the Church, according to which the Earth was the center of the universe, was generally accepted. With respect to such a cosmological representation, Copernicus (1473-1543) promoted the first revolution, claiming that the sun was the center of the universe and that the earth revolved around the sun. This was tantamount to saying that man did not have an absolute, eternal relevance and/or that God had not given man a predominant role. As for Kepler (1571-1630), he developed the three famous astronomical laws that bear his name and describe (through physical-mathematical formulas) the movement of the planets in the solar system.

It is important to note that by establishing the measurability of the cosmos, Kepler’s laws also established its finitude; on the contrary, according to a typical Christian vision, the universe was supposed to be infinite, just like God. Galileo (1564-1642), known as the “father of modern science” for having elaborated the experimental method, marked with the latter a definitive revolution in the history of science and philosophy. 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 also included a complementary, inductive phase (from the particular to the universal) as necessary.

The latter consists in the verification of the universal laws for the various cases of chance, i.e. in the sensory perception or experience of the phenomena studied. Combining Kepler’s theories with those of Galileo, Newton (1642-1726) marked another turning point in Western culture and beyond. Observing an apple falling to the ground (thus by an inductive process), Newton understood that there was a force, which he called “gravity,” that explained certain movements of both objects and planets: thus, not God, but gravity would make the universe run. In the century of the Enlightenment, Newton’s theories had an enormous success, but they also provoked much criticism 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 now enter the period in which some forerunners began to formulate theories that can be better defined as sensationalist, empiricist, and materialist. As a general premise, we will try to identify 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. Thus, the thesis that knowledge is not possible beyond sensual 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 main exponents in Hume and Condillac.

However, the empiricist philosophers and their predecessors did not tout court renounce certain Cartesian or Platonic idealistic conceptions, just as Descartes (1596-1650) did not hesitate to admit a certain validity of empiricist theories. In the latter respect, Descartes (Discours de la Méthode, 1637, “Discourse on Method”) considered sensory experience to be a possible means of attaining knowledge; otherwise, experience could not explain mathematical and logical concepts and principles, which were supposed to be innate, universal, absolute, and “injected” into human beings 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 (i.e., the world would be a mechanism, as such it is mathematically measurable and therefore precisely knowable).

For the valorization of these two aspects, especially the first, Descartes is often remembered as “the father of modern philosophy”; moreover, his mechanistic conception of nature exerted a decisive influence on empiricism and materialism. But Cartesian rationalism also has some limitations that empiricists have pointed out: Descartes, unable to confirm his a priori hypotheses, found only in God the “guarantee” of knowledge and its certainties. For their part, the empiricists and their predecessors did not tout court renounce 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, the empiricist philosophers rejected the absolutism of Cartesian idealism: for them, it was not in innate ideas, but only in the exact and rational observation of reality that it was possible to find certainties of knowledge.

Let’s add, however, that empiricism will have to wait for Kant to become a real doctrine, and with it a “baptismal” name – otherwise, Kant formulated an empiricist doctrine only to deny it in favor of transcendental idealism (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781). Before that time, the noun had been used only in medicine (the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert defines empiricism as “practical medicine based solely on experience”); the adjective empiricist (sometimes replaced by historical, because historical phenomena are certainly real) then indicated non-reflective and therefore somehow inferior knowledge and/or activity; what would soon be called empiricism was finally designated by the expression rational philosophy.

As for sensationalism, it did not place sensation, and not sensation alone, at the origin of knowledge: in this direction, the term would take on too broad a meaning, so broad that empiricism itself would be nothing but a sensualist doctrine. Rather, and more precisely, sensualist philosophers argued that the process of knowledge coincides with that of sensory perception. Thus, Hélvetius (who is more strictly a materialist than a sensualist philosopher) made a statement that would become axiomatic in the sensualist doctrine: “penser, c’est sentir” (“to think is to feel”), from De l’esprit (1758, “On the Spirit”). This title allows us to note that the term esprit, which has a broad and nuanced meaning (see Voltaire’s definition in the Encyclopedia), is poorly translated into other languages: in English and Italian, it is close to spirit and spirito, but also to mind/mente and intellect/intelletto; the better restitution of the term is perhaps the German Geist.

Continuing our examination of the theories of the various philosophers of the Enlightenment, Condillac, the great systematizer of sensation (Traité des Sensations, 1754), argued that knowledge would be nothing but a transformed sensation (indeed, for Descartes, perception was already a modification of the soul). In this context, empiricism emphasized the rational esprit, thus raising the question of its relation to the mind. Instead of sensationalism, thought was identified with sensation itself, that is, with a cognitive operation, inviting consideration of the physiological-cerebral substratum of knowledge.

However, it was materialism that took on the analysis of the possible connections between the processes of the esprit and those of the cerebrum. The materialists, who therefore also adopted the sensualist theories, resumed them, but using the most rigorous concepts of some emerging sciences (anatomy, biology, biochemistry). Moreover, if the empiricists preserved the possibility of the existence of innate ideas, the materialists, in a different way, declared the existence of the only bodily substances, thus also denying the first, universal, innate idea, the idea of God; on the contrary, the materialists marked the climatic relativism (Montesquieu) and the cultural relativism, or the Rousseauian dualism “nature vs. culture”.

Obviously, the 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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, materialist theories were repeatedly attacked by religious and political powers, as well as by the more traditionalist authors (literary figures, philosophers, theologians); in the context of these criticisms, the term materialism took on its current meaning of “excessive attachment to goods or objects. Beyond these essential, necessary distinctions between empiricism, sensationalism, and materialism, we will see below that the precursors or exponents of the three currents are often the same, so that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish them definitively.

For example, Gassendi (1592-1655) was a reference point for both the emerging empiricist and materialist philosophical currents. Not without some surprise, Gassendi was an abbot; but he, in 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 a moral point of view, Gassendi advocated a hedonism nuanced with utilitarianism (interest in individual well-being) and skepticism (disbelief in society and its value for the “common good”): this was more appreciated 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 know the essence of things, or res cogitans; but man, through his own 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, therefore, Gassendi showed his aversion to the Cartesian cogito and to Platonic idealism and dualism. In a not dissimilar way, Bacon (1551-1626) in Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620, “The New Instrument of Science”) rejected the deductive procedure based on innate ideas and typically Cartesian. Instead, he praised the inductive and experimental procedure: the observation of phenomena, which in reality are often contiguous and thus 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, however, deprived of its metaphysical aspect), Hobbes (1588-1679) represented a milestone for materialism. He systematized a philosophy of experience that established the universal materiality of bodies at the expense (i.e., elimination) of the res cogitans. But it’s above all in his ethical-political theories that Hobbes marks a break with tradition. In Leviathan (1651), for example, he presents Plautus’ maxim “homo hominis lupus,” from which Hobbes elaborated the concept of “natural law. It is the right or freedom to use one’s own power/force for the selfish purpose of preserving, increasing, and enjoying one’s material life – thus Epicureanism took a new, more radical direction with Hobbes.

In short, Hobbes’ (anti-)ethical way of thinking is the very opposite of both the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and the bodily repression that is typical of Christianity and its morality. Like Bacon and Hobbes, Hume (1711-1776), author of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), did not consider ideas to be innate. According to Hume, ideas would emerge from the process of imaginative reason according to its regulative principles (contiguity, causality, similarity); they would constitute forces that man could experience in the form of sensations; single and elementary ideas would also be able to associate with each other, giving rise to esprit; in this aggregative process, ideas would follow a principle of self-organization arising from customs and habits (for Hume, a principle equivalent to Newton’s of gravity).

Similarly, Hume’s great follower and the great systematizer of sensationalism, Condillac (1714-1780), analyzed the gnoseological process in Traité des systèmes (1754, “Treatise on Systems”). He spoke of analogy to real phenomena as the guiding principle in the process of associating ideas. But above all, Condillac emphasized another fundamental aspect, probably the fundamental aspect of culture: language, which is necessary to organize thought and “civilization”. This thesis, which had a great innovative scope (so much so that it anticipated the thesis of the great “fathers” of structuralism, De Saussure and Hjelmslev), enjoyed great success at the time. In fact, the encyclopedic cultural context promoted a linguistic-semiotic gnoseological approach to reality and truth; in other words, in its theories of knowledge, the Enlightenment considered reality and truth primarily 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 would be true or false thanks to and through experimental verification, and in this way it would be possible to distinguish authentic, exact knowledge from that which is not. To conclude with Condillac and his “inspirer” Hume, let’s say the following: if they provided empiricism and sensationalism with their most rigorous formulations, it is perhaps because they succeeded in perfectly combining – the very notions of – rational ideas and sensitive experiences, beyond any Platonic dualism. Among the forerunners of empiricism, sensationalism, and materialism is certainly Locke (1632-1704). In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he elaborated a sensualist and materialist theory at the expense of innate ideas: according to Locke, ideas, in order to be formed, must necessarily pass through the senses.

And yet, for Locke (as for Hume and his imaginative reason), even deductive and speculative reflection could be a source of ideas. In Locke and Hume, as well as in Spinoza and Leibniz – as we will soon see – one could speak of a “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: the intellect would already be contained a priori in the esprit, and would therefore be innate and original. This last position of Leibniz brings him closer to Descartes, and in fact his system can also be considered post-Cartesian, but on the other hand, for this philosopher, “innatism of thought” did not mean that knowledge was immediately taken as certain. Rather, for him, the principles of identity and contradiction are innate to the intellect, which allow to establish/know the authentic relations existing between external phenomena and their relative internal, mental representations.

Spinoza (1632-1677), in his Opera Philosophica (1702), also formulated a system that could be defined as post-Cartesian: in fact, for him, God represents the one and only universal and absolute idea that allows access to knowledge. What distinguishes Descartes from Leibniz, however, is that the former distinguishes between God, the soul/cogito, and the body, whereas for Leibniz there is no reality other than the divine. This Spinozist thesis meant that the human world is itself divine and necessary, and therefore that moving matter is the cause of itself.

By postulating the unity of God/man, essence/matter according to pantheistic-determinist modalities (already present in Democritus), Spinoza attracted the appreciation of materialist philosophers, but also the accusations of the Church (first of all the accusation of atheism; it is no coincidence that the Encyclopedia presents the French adjectives spinoziste, athéiste, and matérialiste as synonymous). The Church was also disturbed by Spinoza’s philological-critical analysis of the Bible, which led him to outline the thesis that religion exercised an oppressive function on man and society, a thesis that the materialists in particular reiterated and developed, thus presenting a more radical critique of the two traditional powers (the Church and the king).

Among the philosophers who (as has already been said) radically rejected any innate idea in favor of concrete substances (the latter being the only ones that could be perceived and therefore known), among the materialist philosophers 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, which was taken up by the other three “colleagues”. In L’Homme machine (1748), La Mettrie, drawing on biology and Cartesian mechanistic physiology, outlined his figure of man: for him, man is both a superior mechanism of nature and the result of a physical-physiological organization that responds to the sole principle of escaping displeasure. In De l’esprit (1758) and De l’homme (1772), with reference to Epicurus, Lucretius, and Locke’s sensationalism, Helvétius then conceived of man as the result of his sensations, making self-love and the rejection of suffering the motor of human action (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 a cultivated baron who gathered in his house a circle that included Diderot. Système de la Nature (“The System of Nature”) is his work published in 1770 and banned by the Church: the work is characterized by an accentuated polemical character against religion. D’Holbac affirmed that man could free himself from religious despotism and obscurantism thanks to a better 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 were to modify its internal equilibrium, man could disappear: here is in nuce an evolutionary theory).

For d’Holbach, as for Helvétius, this law had to favor the “supreme good,” represented by the happiness of each individual and considered attainable through an attentive, virtuous attitude toward the common good. Diderot seems to be the least normative and the most innovative materialist: by integrating the new knowledge achieved in anatomy, biology, biochemistry, he configures himself as a sort of philosopher of science. Both Pensées sur l’intérpretation de la nature (1754) and Les Bijoux indiscretes (1748) praise sensitive experience and/or the experimental method.

In this respect, for the philosopher of Langres, the new empiricist philosophy is precisely and above all a question of method, and not so much a theory of understanding (in this sense, Diderot cannot really be considered an empiricist). But it is above all in Rêve de d’Alambert (1769) that Diderot’s materialism is optimally articulated. In this work, the encyclopedist argues that it is possible, through the experimental method, to grasp natural phenomena that follow discontinuous movements, i.e. that are produced in a random and heterogeneous way, both in the external and in the internal world. According to Diderot, however, the randomness of phenomena does not eliminate the fact that the phenomena themselves have their own organizing principle in survival (similar to what d’Holbach claimed); in particular, for human behavior, this principle is specified in the pair pleasure/pain-fear. Diderot’s materialism thus went beyond the conceptions of “metaphysical materialism” (the latter assuming the coincidence of thought and matter), and it also went beyond Condillac’s sensationalism.

To conclude this long discussion on the “concrete” 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 can make some general observations. If, in the Age of Enlightenment, the importance of rational and “enlightened” thought is out of the question, this does not exclude the equally essential importance of the concrete world. Thus, Platonic dualism, which for many centuries had “weighed down” Western culture by limiting cognitive interest to a single/unambiguous aspect of the human being, suffered its first setback thanks to the Enlightenment. This fact had a series of anthropological and gnoseological consequences that still have a profound impact on our way of conceiving and studying man and reality.

At this point, in order to sketch a complete panorama of the “theories of concreteness”, we need only mention the most relevant ones, which were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries: Positivism, Pragmatism and Phenomenology. Positivism, a philosophical – but also historical and literary – trend, developed in the second half of the 19th century, first in France and soon in the rest of Europe. Positivism is undoubtedly the heir of Enlightenment thought and culture: on the one hand, it criticized the abstractness of metaphysical-idealist philosophy; on the other hand, 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 could connect and organize the diverse knowledge into a large system (Bacon imagined something similar when he spoke of the arbor scientiarum).

Another prominent feature 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 is therefore also a sociology, i.e. a science that studies the principles that govern social phenomena. Now, in the 19th century, the historical realization of scientific-technological progress, parallel to the development of industrial society, not only contributed to the European success of the doctrine, but also configured the positivist philosophers as “philosophers of their time”, immersed in their society, attentive to it and desirous of organizing 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 conception of the scientist was on the one hand derived from that of his master Saint-Simon, and on the other hand was not dissimilar to that of G.B. Vico. Thus, Comte identified the “law of three stages” regarding the development not only of the individual, but also of the sciences and the history of mankind. The first stage is the theological, the infantile stage of human development, in which reality is interpreted only through fantasy.

The second is metaphysical, a transitional stage of intellectual development in which abstractions about the hypothetical nature of things would be formulated. The third, higher and more mature stage of human intellectual development is represented by the positive: in this stage, abandoning previous metaphysical pretensions, the study of concrete phenomena would be the focus. For the author, the last stage began in the 15th century with humanism, culminated in the Enlightenment, and characterizes the period or society of his time.

As for pragmatism, it developed in the United States since 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 concept of a conscience/knowledge aimed at the functional improvement of individual and social beliefs, as well as the habits attached to them. By accepting the study of beliefs and habits, pragmatism shifts the interest from the field of logic to that of psychology. This does not exclude that pragmatism remains centered on empirical bases, on a par with positivism; however, the pragmatic philosophers criticized the positivists.

The problem was not the positivist method, but the fact that it was considered to be the only form of knowledge: a form of knowledge that, according to the pragmatists, did not satisfy man’s existential needs. These philosophers then proposed to consider empirical experience in terms of an interaction between the subject and the object (the external world, including other subjects). Thanks to this interaction, the subject could intersubjectively verify its old beliefs about reality, elaborate more effective beliefs, and act in the world in a new way: subject and object should thus 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 by Dewey (1859-1952) in particular, knowledge would be attainable when the subject transforms an interactive situation from indeterminate to determined; this transformation would consist in problematizing the surrounding reality through logical and empirical tools (instrumentalism).

For James (1842-1910), too, what matters is the personal and continuous (progressive) character of conscience; a conscience that he presented in terms of the “will to believe”: that is, for James, certain essential problems cannot be solved by intellectualistic knowledge, but by 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 becomes important. In other words, for Pierce (How to make our ideas clear, 1878), ideas could be clarified by defining their meaning and discovering what habits or consequences that concept/meaning produces in intersubjective interactions: “The word or sign that man uses is man himself,” the philosopher affirmed.

This brings us to the last theme or doctrine examined here, that of phenomenology. The term phenomenology was coined by Hegel (Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807, a text in which the author traces the history of the various manifestations of esprit). But this doctrine has its most important exponents in Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of phenomenology (Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, 1913), first proposed the epochè, that is, the skeptical suspension of the existence of an external reality, thus avoiding its “normal” interpretation and/or common opinion. In this way, Husserl argued, we can 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, prior to both scientific and common-sense categorizations.

In 1927, Husserl’s student Heidegger (1889-1976) published Being and Time, a text that is certainly the most important of the author’s many works. This text was received as a manifesto of existentialist philosophy (Sarte was strongly influenced by it). However, the author intended to raise and explore other, different questions. For Heidegger (as for his mentor), the crucial point was being, i.e. the essence of things and their meaning; in short, it was a metaphysical problem, and as such increasingly neglected by modern philosophy, but according to Heidegger a fundamental one.

This would be an entity (subject or object) that is not only and not so much located in the midst of other entities, but above all the entity would be characterized by a preliminary understanding relationship with the other surrounding entities. The philosopher argued that such a preliminary relation of understanding was necessary in order to grasp the essence of the various concrete aspects of reality, which would otherwise be unattainable. Later, in Phénoménologie de la perception (1945), Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) took up Husserlian’s idea of a “primacy of perception,” emphasizing the conditioning role of the body in experience and proposing a general theory of objectivity. At the same time, however, 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 conceptualizing experience.

With Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, as has perhaps been noted, the metaphysical world gains new ground without assuming a role of absolute primacy (as it did 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, which is neither omitted nor denied/rejected. In conclusion, it is only by grasping the two constitutive dimensions of the human being, the psyche and the body, that philosophy has been able, over the centuries, to play the gnoseological and existential role to which it is called.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scroll to Top