Many of us, perhaps, tend to rely on modern summaries of the ideas of earlier philosophers rather than go back to the original sources, which is a pity because there is no real substitute for reading what the philosophers in question actually said. And some of them, such as Hume and Berkeley, wrote remarkably good prose that is still approachable today, give or take a few changes in language (and punctuation) that have occurred.
This book provides a series of readings from the writings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Some are well known (Locke, Voltaire, Berkeley, Hume), while others may be less familiar except perhaps just as names (Condillac, La Mettrie, Hamann, Lichtenberg). The contributions from the main philosophers are accompanied by commentaries by Berlin. As well as these, Berlin provides a 16-page Introduction which makes the book well worth reading on its own account.
Berlin begins by defining what philosophy actually is. In earlier centuries philosophical questions and scientific questions were not always clearly demarcated from each other, but the distinction has become clearer with the passage of time. Berlin illustrates this by pointing out that "How shall I mend this broken typewriter?" requires an answer that is different in kind from "How should I (or men in general) live?".
In the period covered by this book the distinction between the two types of question was beginning to become clear, as the attempt to make philosophy a natural science began to fail. It was finally shown to be a dead end by Kant, who is not included here though his approach is outlined.
In a sense, then, the thinkers of the eighteenth century failed. They hoped to ameliorate the human lot "by the conscientious attempt to apply scientific thinking to the regulation of human affairs". This ambition proved finally to be delusive. "Nevertheless, it proved less misleading in the end than the attacks upon it in the nineteenth century by means of arguments equally fallacious, but with implications that were, both intellectually and politically, more sinister and oppressive."
Fallacious arguments of that kind are still being voiced today, perhaps even more strongly, so the need to keep the ideals of the Enlightenment thinkers alive is as great as ever. "Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind."
21 December 2009