Who knows?

Montaigne and Descartes, not quite contemporaries at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, represent two poles of French philosophy, two very different mindsets and worldviews, and two fundamentally different ways of thinking about knowledge, truth, and reason. Both valued knowledge and learning, but had different notions of how we stand in relation thereto. Figuring out which of them you like more, just like deciding if you’re a Platonist or an Aristotelian, will go far towards clarifying your own philosophy. Pictured here (from top left:) Montaigne, Descartes, Newton, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant

Montaign’e slogan, we’ve seen, is “What do I know?” Descartes is famous for “Cogito, ergo sum,” supposedly a foundation-stone in an edifice of unshakable (“indubitable”) certainty.

The up-side of Montaigne’s skepticism is his tolerance. Tolerance would remain in short supply throughout the modern era. No kidding.

Descartes’s most important thesis was his insistence on our ability to think for ourselves. Good. And Montaigne won’t disagree. Descartes insisted that we push our doubts to their extremes, to the point of absurdity, where they will rebound and give us indubitable truth. Hmmm. How do you grab that rebound exactly, Rene?

Descartes’s Meditations [squashed version] are still entrancing students and scholars of philosophy all these centuries later. So is his mind-body problem, though there aren’t many working dualists among professional philosophers these days.

In Spinoza‘s vision, there was no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance… our sense of distance from [Einstein’s?] God is mistaken. Spinoza also defended determinism, akin to fate. Whatever happens to us, happens necessarily. We should accept the universal necessity of nature, and feel the bliss of what Spinoza (the “God-intoxicated” atheist) called “intellectual love of God.”

Leibniz— you remember, Mr. Best of All Possible Worlds (as tagged by Voltaire) was not a monist or a dualist, or even a pluralist, but was an infinitist about substances. The world consists of innumerable simple substances, monads… God is the super-monad. No monad actually interacts with any other, but it seems like they– we– do, thanks to “pre-established harmony.” Weird.

Newton demonstrated the possibility of understanding the world in terms of a few simple, elegant principles. He also messed around with alchemy and other scientifically-disreputable chimeras. But he’s still Neil de Grasse Tyson’s favorite scientist/philosopher.

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