CRF Blog

What, exactly, do philosophers do?

by Bill Hayes

In What, exactly, do philosophers do? for the Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Clark reviews Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment: The rise of modern philosophy.

What, exactly, do philosophers do? Are they primarily engaged in inward- looking technical debates, or are they the leading innovators who frame wider projects? In this elegantly written and insightful survey of selected thinkers from Hobbes and Descartes to Voltaire and Rousseau via Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Leibniz and Hume, Anthony Gottlieb argues for their key role in the formation of the Enlightenment. As an exercise in making philosophical writing widely accessible, this is a blast of fresh air; better still, the volume is one of a trilogy, following his widely praised The Dream of Reason (2001), and we have one more to come. But that putative outcome may be questioned.

Communicators of genius have organizing frameworks too. In Gottlieb’s account, this 150-year “staccato burst” of European philosophy was a response to two leading stimuli: “Europe’s wars of religion and the rise of Galilean science”. This phase (one of only two in philosophy’s history, he claims) happened when some people began to criticize “the ancients” and “the authority of the Church”. [more]

CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive has three lessons on Enlightenment ideas:

Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau on Government.

Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations.

“Tolerance: Voltaire and the Spirit of the Enlightenment.” This lesson is currently available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.