Friday, February 20, 2004


I have the pleasure to announce a new feature on this blog. Here is the first guest column by Burgess Laughlin:

Historical parallels?

What earlier period in the history of Western Civilization was most like our own?[1]

My answer is the period in Europe from about 1550 (the end of the Renaissance) to about 1700 (the beginning of the Enlightenment).

The Middle Ages had been dominated by faith. Then the Renaissance brought reason to the forefront, but only as an uneasy equal of faith. After around 1550, a new debater appeared: not reason, not faith, but philosophical skepticism.

The entry of philosophical skepticism into the debate was triggered in the period 1550-1700 by the revival and rapid distribution of the works of Sextus Empiricus. A Greek physician, he lived c. AD 200, and he advocated the most radical and most articulate form of ancient skepticism: Pyrrhonian skepticism.[2] His mission in life was to destroy "dogmatism" -- any positive, integrated philosophy offering a way of life (ethics) based on ideas about the essential nature of things -- especially ideas formed by applying reason to sense-perception.[3]

In Europe, the period 1550-1700 -- like our own 20th/21st century period -- was marked by conflicting extremes: massive expansion of chattel slavery in W. Europe and its colonies; peaceful commercial activity connecting Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas for the first time; a resurgent Inquisition; advancing technology (e.g., the telescope); large-scale witch-hunts; scientific progress (e.g., Galileo, 1564-1642); and devastating religious wars.[4]

By c. 1700, advocates of reason (often merely "rationalists") and advocates of faith had blunted the skeptical attack, but at the cost of compromising with it. In some cases, fideists and pro-reason intellectuals used skepticism as a tactical weapon to undermine each other's conclusions.[5]

The Enlightenment began, and reason became for some the ultimate standard of judgment. Accordingly, European culture experienced a burst of progress in technology, science, and politics. However, the Enlightenment lasted only until c. 1800, when Kant (1724-1804), the great philosophical syncretist, ended the Enlightenment by trying to "make room for faith." To do so, he crippled reason with the iron mask of skepticism: We can only know appearances, not the reality behind them.[6]

From his philosophy, our own time has become an Age of Skepticism. It reached its peak of power in the 1990s, and still dominates. The cultural vacuum created by skepticism is now being filled by resurgent faith and by the tiny but growing pro-reason movement, Objectivism.

Burgess Laughlin

[1] What is W. Civilization? It is a complex of cultural elements related philosophically and historically. It is a member of the genus rational culture. Besides its particular philosophical components (reason, science, technology, rule by law, romantic art), what differentiates *Western* Civilization from other streams of rational culture is the historical connection between its components and their roots in ancient Greek culture. (W. Civilization is not the same as European culture, which includes many irrational components too.)

[2] For ancient Greek skepticism: R. J. Hankinson, *The Sceptics*, 1995 (revised 1998). For Sextus, see: R. J. Hankinson, "Sextus Empiricus," *Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy*, 1998.

[3] This comment about his purpose in life is my inference from reading his main surviving work: Sextus Empiricus, *Outlines of Scepticism*, transls. and eds. J. Annas and J. Barnes, 1994.

[4] The Wars of Religion raged in France c. 1560 - c. 1648; the Thirty Years War devastated central Europe c. 1618 - c. 1648. See R. R. Palmer, *A History of the Modern World*, 2nd ed., 1964, sec. 13-15.

[5] For the emergence of skepticism in the late 1500s, and its battles with both fideists and rationalists: R. Popkin, *The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle*, 2nd ed., 2003; and F. C. Beiser, *The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment*, 1996.

[6] This is the theme of Kant's *Critique of Pure Reason*.