Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
At two points in history philosophy has made a great leap forwards: in the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle from the mid-5th century to the late-4th century BC, and between 1640 and the French Revolution. That’s according to Anthony Gottlieb who, having written about the first 150 years in his acclaimed The Dream of Reason, now analyses the second in The Dream of Enlightenment.
The century-and-a-half covered here is packed with important philosophical events. Many great thinkers (René Descartes, John Locke and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to name but a few) were doing their finest work during this period—a period in which, along with the development of early modern philosophy, science was moving along apace and religion was undergoing an upheaval. Gottlieb therefore has a huge amount of ground to cover. He canters over it elegantly and with remarkable expertise.
Gottlieb does not just present philosophers’ arguments; he engages with them and provides rebukes to common misconceptions. He provides some much-needed clarity when he comes to Descartes’s famous maxim “I think, therefore I am” (an argument that should be better understood given how widely-known it is) and when he reaches Locke’s frequently misunderstood view that the human mind resembles a blank slate.
The Dream of Enlightenment contains some fascinating biographical tales. By the book’s end you know not just what the philosophers said, but who they were. I did not know, for instance, that Thomas Hobbes was so obsessed…