Introduction to Western Philosophy (4): Late Enlightenment to Modern Era



In Part Two and Three of this series I discussed how the study of ancient to modern (Western) philosophy can be a long and challenging endeavour, with potentially hundreds of philosophers and ideas to mentally catalogue and contextualize. This, in general, has followed three lines of thought: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. In Part Four I will now outline the important post “Age Of Reason” (Enlightenment) to Modern Era thinkers, though one could argue that the Post-Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers could be also categorized as Late Enlightenment and/or Pre-Modern. Also, I have highlighted select thinkers’ names in blue to mark them as either favorites of mine (Kant, Camus, Satre or individuals whose work is particularly important to consider (James, Rand), and as always, in most cases I use only the surname of the philosopher, as Immanuel Kant, for example, is commonly referenced in conversation and much writing as just “Kant”. 

Plus, I have included a special section on the origin of the word “avant-garde” in the fine arts.


Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804): Critique of Pure Reason, one of the great works of Philosophy. In a highly complex analysis, Kant shows us that all truths must be independent of experience – true in themselves. Math demonstrates this. Kantian Aesthetics – aesthetic experience is both its own unique form of autonomy, as well as support for our efforts as sensual and rational creatures to achieve moral autonomy. And in the process of the free play of imagination, our ability to imagine and reason supports the free will necessary for moral autonomy. We can only experience time through things in the world that change, so we only experience time indirectly. While Rationalists believed that reasoning (rather than experience) leads to knowledge of objects in the world, versus Empiricists who believed that knowledge comes from our experience of objects (e.g. science), Kant argued that both reason and experience were necessary to understand the world (Transcendental Idealism). Kant also discussed the idea of a Categorical Imperative: an absolute, unconditional law that must be obeyed in all circumstances, and is justifiable in all circumstances (e.g. something like The Golden Rule).

William Blake (1757 – 1827): artist and ferocious critic of Enlightenment philosophy, though he was not a philosopher himself. Born in the 18th century and dying in the 19th, Blake was the connective tissue between two aesthetic worlds, the Enlightenment and Romantic eras: a son of both and yet not either. Whereas Enlightenment art was essentially performance of ideal methods (the execution of proper techniques), Romantic art was the expression of artistic identity, the relation of the artist to the work. Blake, though not given his due as such, inhabited a unique position between the two. Blake’s art was the expression of identity through individual imagination (Romantic) with lines as the ideal aspects of the artwork (Enlightenment).

Blake reacted against the wholesale application by fans of Isaac Newton’s scientific theories to all aspects of society, which in his eyes, devalued and “mocked” imagination and inspiration. As Northrop Frye noted in his book Fearful Symmetry, Blake essentially held to the view that “religious, philosophical, and scientific presentations of reality are branches of art, and should be judged by their relationship to the principles and methods of the creative mind of the artist. If they are consistent with the latter, they fulfill a necessary function in culture: if they are not, they are pernicious mental diseases” (pg. 27).

Thus, not being a trained scientist or recognized intellectual in his time, Blake’s poetry and art reflect his criticisms through mystical themes and images. Therefore, one could say Blake was a philosopher who used the arts to represent his arguments. But critics could also describe Blake and his views as being the very restrictive and stifling socio-theological thinking the Enlightenment sought to counter. In this sense, Blake’s vehement stance on Newton and such thinkers reflects a kind of Triumphalism, an insistence that his own conception of Imagination and divinity is superior to Newtonian thinking, as well as being the ultimate arbiter of what is factual. This Triumphalism also carries an air of authority, i.e. Blake thought society should think like he does.

For example, Blake says in an 1809 catalogue of his pictures: “The human mind cannot go beyond the gift of God, the Holy Ghost. To suppose that Art can go beyond the finest specimens of Art that are now in the world is not knowing what Art is. It is being blind to the gifts of the spirit”. Blake also says in another catalogue from 1810 that: “a Last Judgment is necessary because fools flourish. Nations flourish under wise rulers and are depress under foolish rulers. It is the same with individuals as nations: works of art can only be produced in perfection where the man is either in affluence, or is above the care of it. Some people and not a few artists have asserted that (I) would not have done so well if he had been properly encouraged. Let those who think so reflect on the state of nations under poverty and their incapability of art.

To assume that no “true art” can exist after his time, and that the poor are “incapable” of such art undermines Blake’s counter-Enlightenment activities. But to be fair, the great 18th century thinkers themselves often made similar assumptions. Kant himself once remarked to a merchant/friend named Herr Green that astronomy had reached such perfection (in 1768) that no new hypotheses in astronomy were possible! Also, Blake lived in a time that was transitioning from Enlightenment (1715 -1789) to Romantic (1800 -1850) values in literature and art, so his work (art + poetry) represents an excellent opportunity to study interdisciplinary thinking (especially encoded in the work itself, if not in his catalogue notes and published personal letters)

Hegel (1770 – 1831): helped found German Idealism: the properties we perceive in objects depend on how they appear, and are not inherent to the objects themselves. Things have no properties independent of the mind.

Schlegel (1772 – 1829): Romantic poetry (poetry + prose) should be philosophical and mythological in nature. Reacted against the scientific rationalizing of nature. Science cannot see in Nature and Art the mystical, essential truths know through imagination and emotion: reaction against industrialization/ urbanization.

Fichte (1762 – 1814): Self-consciousness is social – other rational actors are necessary for this to occur. Women should be completely devoid of civic freedom, and submissive to men.

Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860): Extreme Pessimist – Humanity is at the mercy of a mindless, aimless Universal Will (“Reality”). Life itself has negative value, thus the world is essentially what humans ‘will’ it to be. To escape this Universal Will one must lose the desire for gratification and realize that, as all beings are part of this Will, we can become empathetic and compassionate. Thus, ascetic negation (self-discipline and abstinence from various indulgences) is the only way to avoid constant misery and suffering, and become empathetic (reflecting his interest in and study of Eastern religions). On the Vanity of Existence  – Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.

Comte (1798 – 1857): coined Sociology, a philosopher of science (Positivism: “all true understanding is scientific”).

Feuerbach (1804 – 1872): “Theology is anthropology.” In our yearning for what is best in humanity we have attributed it to God, and have forsaken the reality that our best attributes come from humanity itself.

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873): On Liberty – What is the nature/limits of power that can be rightly exercised by a government over its people? Free speech is good.

Darwin (1809 – 1882): Evolution. Inspired everyone after him to think about evolution in terms of his or her own discipline – social evolution, etc.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855): Father of Existentialism: the individual and his experiences are the starting point of philosophy – moral/scientific thinking alone cannot explain human existence). Christian Existentialism: the existence of God cannot be known for sure, and faith does not need a foundation or justification in reason, one can take a “leap of faith” (a term he coined): doubt and faith are part of a dialectic within oneself. Though he founded modern Existentialism, it was French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who became most famous for Existential philosophy through his novels, plays, and various writings.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883): Father of Economic Socialism, what became known as “Communism”. Societies progress through various types of class struggles (the rich vs. the poor, etc). An ideal Communist (state-less, classless, collectively ran) society is the best kind of society for humanity. This is difficult to obtain, though, because every society ends up having people with some kind of power (elites) who will exploit people without any power (the disenfranchised). Thus Marx proposed a type of society that used public money to ensure social stability for all (healthcare, unemployment assistance, etc.) as much as national prosperity, while also guaranteeing that national businesses and corporations didn’t exploit citizens through unregulated or predatory forms of Capitalism. the kind of Socialism now practiced in Canada, and various Scandinavian countries. Marx’s ideas though eventually became distorted and grossly abused to create counterfeit Socialist dictatorships and nightmarish societies (dystopias) around the world. Marx also stated that religion is “the opiate of the masses”.


At this point in the history of Western philosophy, an important concept appears which will play a major role in philosophy afterwards, the idea of “the avant-garde”.

After the French Revolution and the ensuing political turmoil (as well as the eventual restoration of the monarchy in 1815), intellectuals and academics sought to renew the idea of society being oriented towards democracy, individual rights and renewed social stability and order without monarchic control.

One such person was Count Henri De Saint-Simon (1760 – 1825), a political theorist who promoted a system of socialism that would be lead by the top minds of three different groups: artists, scientists, and industrialists. As artists are men and women of imagination and creative vision, they would be the ones who would lead the other two groups, who themselves would be able to realize their ideas in practical ways, leading to socio-historical progress. Thus, Saint-Simon labeled them the political “avant-garde”, a military term for the front line of an army that advances first, or ahead of the rest. This was the first time that avant-garde was used outside of a military context, and soon it became a common title for anything that was new and at the innovative (imaginative) forefront of thought and creativity. The French writer Baudelaire disliked the term, as he thought it reflected a rather negative French penchant for militaristic metaphor, and thought that general usage of such a term shows conformity, not innovation. This was because all artists were considered at the forefront, which assumed any/all artists were uniformly gifted or creative. Thus, within the ranks of the avant-garde, there must be some who are the “avant-gardes of the avant-garde,” and the term eventually became most common in art rather than politics.

The inference that artists working on the most innovative and often experimental works were (1) making “progress”, and (2) this progress improved art and/or society still remains to a certain degree, and has been the core of much debate when various avant-garde works are considered tasteless, ugly, controversial, or not even art at all.

Baudelaire himself was notorious for his almost furious view on the role of the then-new medium of photography. Early photography was a laborious, developing practice in his time, a medium that would rightfully supplement science and be a valuable tool for naturalists and archivists. But he thought that “if photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally” (“The Salon of 1859: The Modern Public and Photography” in the Revue Française (June/July,1859).

This has also led to debates over whether certain, or indeed all highly experimental avant-garde works are a type of aesthetic evasion: untalented artists hiding their lack of creativity and skill behind the idea that if the public doesn’t understand their work, it is because they do not understand avant-gardism and the deeper meaning of such works, which is only understood by art world elites. This evasion subsequently recreates the very social divisions the original 19th century avant-gardists of Saint-Simon were supposed to eliminate. Also, avant-garde thinking in socio-political (and creative) spheres could conceivably make progress by being opposed to society itself, if a particular society had devolved into a dictatorship, oligarchy, or especially, a plutocracy. Thus, aesthetic evasion could also be couched in terms of resistance: that one’s art was an attack on a surrounding system, and did not need to be held to any standard of technique or beauty. Thus such art debates continue in the 21st century as artists, critics, and audiences try to determine what true/real/authentic “art” is and who is making it vs. who is faking


It is important to note that what we call Modernism in art, music, literature, philosophy and such was deeply affected by the World Wars between 1914 – 1945. After experiencing the horror and devastation of the wars, it was very easy to see society and/or humanity in very negative ways, thus we see common themes of existential crisis in this time period (see; Sartre, Camus, Rand), and the reaction of the following generations to such views, i.e. the Modern loss of meaning, and existential crisis leading to the perceived “illusion” of truth in Postmodernism. 

Charles Peirce (pronounced “purse”: 1839 – 1914): The Co-Father of Pragmatism (along with William James). The meaning of a concept is in the sensory effect of its concept i.e. a diamond could theoretically be soft until touched, even though we assume from touch it is intrinsically a hard object. Pragmatic Maxim: what is commonly called “The Truth” is actually the account of reality that works best for us.

William James (1842 – 1910): American psychologist and Co–Father of Pragmatism whose work, along with Charles Sander Peirce, established the United States as an important center for philosophy in and after the beginning of the 20th century. James is also famous for his idea of a “stream of consciousness” that became a major influence in literature, music (e.g. free jazz), and many other forms of creative culture.

In his work Pragmatism he argues that the history of philosophy, in many ways, has been the clash of the different temperaments of various philosophers, as much as their ideas. For example, the religious and/or moral philosophers tended to be more sentimental (“soft-hearted”) and the scientific philosophers tended to be more “hard-hearted” and thus when one philosophizes they are likely to be more one than the other. The sentimental philosophers are thus more religious, idealistic, and/or optimistic, while the scientific ones more materialistic (nothing truly exists except matter), pessimistic, and/or atheistic (both groups being potential forces for good… or evil when they become rigid or inflexible in their thinking).

The school of Pragmatism is also meant to be practical, meaning James and Peirce thought that we should be able to show some useful application for philosophical truth, like we expect of scientific truths. In James’ case he argued that while belief in a god or gods is not justifiable as a fact, it can be useful to believe in god if it leads to a more satisfied, fulfilled life for an individual and/or overcome the fear of death. The Will To Believe – many religious questions can only be answered through prior belief: then one can see if belief “works” by providing answers. Thus, these answers are only possible if one believes.

Nietzsche (1844 – 1900): Existentialist philosopher: Life is without intrinsic value. The Will to Power – Christianity is a backward, anti-human religion, but science as well has no particular moral values/meaning. A philosopher must “preach by example” to deserve respect. If people do not find meaning in their lives they turn to statesmanship, war, etc. Will To Power was edited, abridged, and published by his sister after his death, and contains language interpreted as anti-Semitic, which was unintended by Nietzsche himself. Also attacked Christianity for its particular forms of hypocrisy, and posited that St. Paul deliberately distorted Christian doctrine to subvert Roman authority in revenge for the destruction of Jerusalem. Nietzsche is also known for his writing on ancient Greek culture in The Birth of Tragedy, positing that Greek theater was based on a dialectic between the Apollonian tendency (order, beauty, form, symmetry, e.g. sculpture) and the Dionysian tendency (frenzy, passion, intoxication, improvisation, asymmetry, e.g. music), both based on the nature of the gods Apollo and Dionysus. “We have art in order to not die of the truth.”

Frege (1848 – 1925): Father of Analytical Philosophy (focus on logic, language, and science).

De Saussure (1857 – 1913): Father of Semiotics. “Everything (language) is made of signs – a signifer (what we imagine in our head when we hear the word “dog” and the signified (the concept of “dog”).”

Durckheim (1858 – 1917 C.E.) – Father of Formal (Academic) Sociology, rejected Comte’s philosophy but refined his methodology: sociology as the science of institutions: their genesis and maintenance. Sociology in his day developed an academic response to the growing urbanization, industrialization, and secularization of society.

(Max) Weber (1864 – 1920 C.E.): Anti-positivist: Society is best studied interpretatively, not empirically. Protestant austerity was intimately associated with the rise of capitalism; the “State” is who/what successfully claims a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939): founded Psychoanalysis – human behavior is driven by (repressed) irrational, unconscious desires.

Husserl (1859 – 1938): Father of Phenomenology (what is subjective experience and/or consciousness?) Experience is the source of all knowledge. “Experience by itself is not science.”

Bergson (1859 – 1941): French philosopher. Immediate experience/intuition is more significant than rationalism and science for understanding Reality.

Dewey (1859 – 1952): Father of Functional Psychology (mental life/behaviour based on active environmental adaptation), and proponent of Pragmatism (theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice).

(Alfred) North Whitehead (1861 – 1947): Father of Process Philosophy (the basis of all reality is change – i.e. Being vs. Becoming). Co-authored Principia Mathematica with Russell, as well as supervised both Russell and Quine’s doctoral dissertations.

Santayana (1863 – 1952): Spanish-American philosopher. “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970): Founder of Modern Analytical Philosophy (logic). Descriptivism: the meaning of a name is identical to its associative description in the mind of the speaker, as well as the referents that support the description.

G.E Moore (1873 – 1958): Associate of Bertrand Russell/analytical philosopher: what is “common sense”? Moore’s Paradox: “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining.” Though it seems impossible to assert this sentence, the conjunction is not logically contradictory (“believe it is not raining” does not equal “is not raining”).

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961): Swiss psychiatrist, colleague of Freud, and Father of Analytical Psychology, whose work influenced philosophy, anthropology, literature, music, and more. Jung (pronounced “yoong”) built his work around the idea of individuation, learning how to see and differentiate oneself from others through various conscious and unconscious means, developing the idea of people being “extroverts” or “introverts”. The British rock band The Police named one of their albums Synchronicity, after one of Jung’s more famous theories.

Martin Buber (1878 – 1965):  Israeli Existentialist and advocate of (non-geopolitical) cultural Zionism. Philosophy of Dialogue – philosophy overlooks the “I –Thou” or “I – It” dialectic between humans and their environment.

Paul Klee (1879- 1940): A Swiss painter of German origin, Klee (pronounced “clay”) had a highly individual style influenced by many different art trends: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and so on; his works frequently alluding to music (including words or musical notation). Though he was not a philosopher per se, his writings on art are influential works of philosophical (often metaphysical) art theory, and have influenced generations of fine arts practitioners ever since. For example, in Klee’s two-volume set of his repurposed Bauhaus teaching notes, The Thinking Eye and The Nature of Nature, he makes several interesting points about the activities and thoughts of an artist engaging with nature:

The study of creation deals with the ways that lead to form (“forming”). It is the study of form, but emphasizes the paths to form rather than the form itself…This freedom in nature’s way of building form is a good school for the artist. It may produce in him the same profound freedom, and with it he can be relied on to develop freely his own paths to form…

This also tied in to Klee’s own methodology and views on the art of his time, as summarized in a lecture he gave at the opening of an exhibition at a museum in Jena, Germany in 1924 (as published in “Paul Klee; On Modern Art” in 1966).  As in The Thinking Eye and The Nature of Nature, Klee again tries to use words to explain things that words themselves often fail to truly illuminate, ergo his language is very metaphysical. Thus, “explaining” art is self-analysis, Klee explains that we must penetrate into the core of our being (a life-force of immense power that “binds all time and space”). Having access to this power (while developing traditional art techniques) is the key to the true creative freedom necessary to creating vital works of (modern) art.

Klee also saw the world as a model demonstrating spiritual truth, revealing what is behind Reality rather than merely representing it. He was an accomplished musician too, so his interdisciplinary approach to creative life was a major influence on me. 

Jaspers (1883 – 1969): “Only as an individual can a man become a philosopher.” Philosopher/psychiatrist. The Biographical Method: documenting the patient’s history as well as views about himself as part of the process of analyzing/healing him, although the form of a psychotic/hallucinogenic episode for example is still more relevant to analysis than the imagery.

Jose Ortega Y Gasset (1883 – 1955): Spanish philosopher. “Life is a series of collisions with the future”/“I am myself and my circumstances.” Philosophy must overcome idealism (egocentrism) and medieval realism (reality is outside of us) to focus on the only truth of the individual – their life.

Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951): “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Philosophical Investigations – considered the most important 20th century philosophical work: conceptual/semantic problems of language (assumptions of shared meaning between people, etc) are at the root of most philosophical problems.

Heidegger (1889 – 1976): Forget what “exists”, we must ask “what is Being?” Anti-Aesthetics – aesthetic qualities obscure deeper ontological truth(s) contained within artworks.

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937): Italian Marxist. Hegemony (pronounced “heh-GEM-ony”) – dominant class teaches the subservient classes to value what they value as if it is a universal to all men.

Rudolph Carnap (1891 – 1970): Father of Logical Positivism (There are no specifically philosophical truths: the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts).

Marcuse (1898 – 1979): “That which is cannot be true.” – a counter-statement designed to reveal the logic behind Hegel’s claim  “what is real is rational”, which itself would seem to suggest that fascism for example is more reasonable than not as it is implicitly rational. His ideas became the inspiration of the “New Left” – educators and activists in 1960s/70s America that sought to counter Marxist socio-political influence in economics, etc.

Gadamer (1900 – 2002): Philosophical Hermeneutics (how humans interpret the world). Truth and Method: objectivity impossible, meaning is created through inter-subjective communication.

Lacan (1901 – 1981): French psychoanalyst/post-structuralist. “Reality cannot be captured in language.”

Karl Popper (1902 – 1994): Father of Critical Rationalism: scientific theories/knowledge claims should be rationally criticized and subjected to tests that may prove them false. Can inductive reasoning lead to empirical knowledge, or truth in general?

Adorno (1903 – 1969):  “Intelligence is a moral category.” Minima Moralia: the tradition of the sacred fool is suspect; an attempt to absolve and beatify the blockhead (!)” Can art survive in a capitalist world? Does art actually transform society? Mass production of popular culture dumbs down the masses and makes them docile/creates false needs to feed the capitalist system/centralizes power in the hands of the few – all to the great detriment of Mankind (Capitalist Hegemony). Jazz music is merely ornamentation of rigid rhythmic/harmonic forms, thus is not truly dialectical and improvisatory. It is cheap and commercial. “Jazz is the false liquidation of art — instead of utopia becoming reality it disappears from the picture”.

Rudolf Arnheim (1904 – 2007): Film theorist/perceptual psychologist. Art and Visual Perception: the eye organizes visual material creatively, based on specific psychological premises.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980): French Existentialist. Though Søren Kierkegaard was the first decidedly Existential philosopher in recent history, the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre have become the de facto example of core Existentialist ideas, many of them misunderstood.

For example, the core Sartrean precept that nothing is this world has inherent meaning is misunderstood as the more cynical, nihilistic idea of “everything is meaningless”, like there is no reason to have hope, fall in love, attempt social reform, etc. The key word is inherent, meaning Life has no one universal meaning, but still can be given meaning through thought and action (especially action).

Sartre did not say Life can’t have meaning added to it. But, to be an Existentialist at all is still considered in some circles to be anti-social, atheistic, exclusively nihilistic, misanthropic, and cowardly because of this misconception. But this was not what Sartre was promoting or even saying. Long before Sartre, many Buddhist and Hindu scholars debated similar ideas of the existence of the soul and the meaning of being alive, all such ideas being directed towards solving the problems of Life, not avoiding them or dismissing them. In this Sartre was no different. He was also against suicide, as it only affirmed “meaninglessness”, adding zero order to any/all existential chaos.

And though he was not religious, and an atheist per se, he also did not say with absolute certainty there is no God, but rather that actions that improve humanity should happen… whether there is a God or not: not anti-god but unconcerned with god. It is in this philosophy that Sartre made his case for Existentialism as a call to selflessness and social responsibility: to make one’s life a series of actions that improve the human situations occurring all around us, giving our own Life meaning in the process.

Thus, Life was not a stupid waste of time or a magical journey; Life was the result of how we act… making it meaningful or meaningless, depending on our own efforts. Thus, through art or politics or whatever, Man must be challenged to examine himself, and respond to oppression and exploitation, vicariously relating to situations, characters, and motifs in creative works and responding to society, the economy, politics and so on in positive ways. This also applied to avant-garde or experimental art or writing, which Sartre decried as alienated from the common man and ineffective in improving the human condition: imagination without practical use. Sartre explains this in the Appendix to his serial essay What Is Literature? (1948) in the following way:

The most beautiful book in the world will not save a child from pain; one does not redeem evil, one fights it; the most beautiful book in the world redeems itself; it also redeems the artist. But not the man. Any more than the man redeems the artist. We want the man and the artist to work their salvation together, we want the work to be at the same time an act; we want it to be specifically conceived as a weapon in the struggle that men wage against evil” (245).

He also states in the Situation of the Writer section of the essay that “when the writer thinks he has pathways to the eternal, he is beyond comparison. He has the benefit of an illumination that he cannot communicate to the vulgar throng which crawls beneath him. But if it has occurred to him to think that one does not escape one;s class by fine sentiments, that there is no privileged consciousness anywhere, that belles-lettres are not lettres de noblesse… then he is writing for everybody and with everybody because the problem he is trying to solve (by means of his own talents) is everybody’s problem” (176-177).

All quotes come from Jean-Paul Sartre. 2007. What is Literature? Abingdon: Routledge.

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982): Russian-American writer/philosopher. Objectivism (“ethical egoism”): people should do what is in their own best interests, and productive achievement/happiness is the single moral directive of one’s life. Critics vehemently accused Rand of being Orwellian and nihilistic in her rejection of altruism, though Rand’s rather extreme Individualist philosophy is to a small degree understandable given that she grew up in the Soviet Union under an extreme form of Communism; the polar opposite of her philosophy. Though known for her highly influential novels, Rand also wrote non-fiction about subjects such as art.

For example, in her book The Romantic Manifesto, Rand argues that modern art is an “eloquent demonstration of the cultural bankruptcy of our age” (the 1960s). This is because, according to Rand (p. 27), true or real artists are value-oriented (Romantic: a man works out his own destiny/is in control of his life and works towards achievement, heroic: Life has value and meaning), modern artists are anti-value oriented (Naturalist: man is fated to be controlled by forces beyond his control, nihilistic: life and values are meaningless ergo effort is futile). This is essentially what she “sees” when she looks at whichever works and artists she dislikes, and she states:

It is rationality, purpose, and values that they regard as naïve – while sophistication, they claim, consists of discarding one’s mind, rejecting goals, renouncing values and writing four letter words on fences and sidewalks. Scaling a mountain, they say is easy – but rolling in the gutter is a noteworthy achievement. Man’s soul – as they proclaim with self-righteous pride – is a sewer. Well, they ought to know” (p. 173).

As for the present (1969) I am not willing to surrender the world to the jerky contortions of self-inducedly brainless bodies with empty eye sockets, who perform, in stinking basements, the immemorial rituals of staving off terror, which are a dime a dozen in any jungle – and to the quavering witch doctors who call it ‘art’” (p. 11).

It is interesting to note that Rand wrote this during the initial rise of Postmodernism, which many think was/is a cynical, corrupted development in philosophy and the arts. And as Rand believed that art is “the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal” (p.25), her attack on modern art could be considered ironic in that sense, as the same view was held by many about Rand’s own Objectivism: that it was a cynical, corrupting view of ethics and political economy. Key to understanding her work and her view(s) on art is her idea of art being Romantic: portraying the Ideal Man (or some kind of moral Ideal). Thus, abstract art is corrupt and vile because it does not present the viewer with images of nobility, courage, good values, and so on. Rand does not say art should preach morality or make someone act morally, but rather, show what Man can be. For art or literature to be otherwise is what Rand despises. Of her own work she states, “the motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man… the portrayal of a moral ideal” (161). Thus, her work, and all true/proper art, is Romantic: inspiring images and words showing mankind a vision of life’s potential beyond dismal, everyday toils. For example, she states:

If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it. But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values – and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those who would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category as the artist)” (p. 43). She continues by saying (p. 47): “the cold sore on the lips of a beautiful woman, which would be insignificant in real life, acquires a monstrous metaphysical significance by virtue of being included in a painting. It declares that a woman’s beauty and her efforts to achieve glamour (the beautiful evening gown) are a futile illusion undercut by a seed of corruption which can mar and destroy them at any moment – that this is reality’s mockery of man – that all of man’s values and efforts are impotent against the power, not even of some great cataclysm, but of a miserable little physical infection.”

“While in other fields of knowledge, men have outgrown the practice of seeking the guidance of mystic oracles whose qualifications for the job was unintelligibility, in the field of (aesthetics) this practice has remained in full force and is becoming more crudely obvious today. Just as savages took the phenomena of nature for granted, as an irreducible primary not to be questioned or analyzed, as the exclusive domain of unknowable demons – so today’s epistemological savages take art for granted… as the exclusive domain of a special kind of unknowable demons: their emotions. The only difference is that the pre-historical savage’s error was innocent” (pp. 17-18).

(Note: a major criticism of Rand’s idea that work such as hers is morally ideal comes from the fact that the protagonist Howard Roark (in her world renowned work The Fountainhead) literally rapes his love interest Dominique, an act which she swoons about: “He did it as an act of scorn…a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession” of her. Later she states, “I’ve been raped…through the fierce sense of humiliation the words gave her the same kind of pleasure she had felt in his arms.” If Rand is positing moral ideals, then surely her Objectivist hero is not a rugged individualist, but a predator, and Dominique’s rationalization of his predation betrays women in Rand’s philosophy).

Rand even went so far as to categorize what are valid genres of art, calling photography invalid, as it is merely a technical (utilitarian) process with which one merely captures images directly and has little to no capacity to carry a moral message beyond the subject(s) of the photograph. It is rather strange that Rand would suggest this, as she also says “art is not the “handmaiden” of reality, its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform, or to advocate anything. The concretization of a moral ideal is not a textbook on how to become one. The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show – to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe” (p.26).

This idea of holding up an image of man’s nature is perfectly realized in press photographer Nick Ut’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a young girl (Phan Thị Kim Phúc) running down a road crying after a napalm attack left her naked and severely burned. Though Rand is right that such a photo does not carry a moral message per se, the image worked as an indictment of war and incitement to end war, and thus functioned as a moral object and a powerful mirror of man’s place in Nature (especially in light of the fact that napalm was used as a defoliant in war to rid the enemy of forest cover ergo places to hide).

Rand argues though, on page 167 of The Romantic Manifesto though, that “misery. disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them… in art, and in literature, these negatives are worth re-creating only in relation to some positive, as a foil, as a contrast, as a means of stressing the positive – but not as an end in themselves“. So it is hard to say how Rand reacted to Ut’s photo and/or interesting to see if Rand ever wrote about photography in this light.

(Note: Rand’s first name is pronounced “ine” (as in fine, or line), and all quotes come from the 1969 first edition of The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. New York: The World Publishing Company).

Quine (1908 – 2000): Non-Referral: “Pegasus has wings” – the sentence refers to something which doesn’t exist ergo it refers to nothing, yet is not meaningless. Naturalist: the laws of nature exist in the Universe and explain it; anything supernatural is outside of this universe and does not affect it.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009): French anthropologist. Structualism – cultural elements are best understood by their relationship to the overall structure they participate/are situated in.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961): Philosopher of Phenomenology: the body is inseparable from consciousness when discussing phenomenology; embodiment made the creation of meaning/perception in humanity a more complex affair, consciousness and sense awareness have the quality of ineinander (Ger: to be inside one another).

A.J. Ayer(1910 – 1989): Logical Positivist. Language, Truth, and Logic: introduced Logical Positivism to the world thanks to its being in English. Verifiability: a statement is meaningful only if it is a tautology (true by any definition/under any conditions), or empirically verifiable, thus transcendentalism/metaphysics is complete nonsense.

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960): French novelist and author. Absurdism – Life is essentially a conflict between humans seeking a singular, fixed “meaning” in life and the ultimate impossibility of it’s being found). Like Sartre, Camus (pronounced “cam-yoo”) view was not nihilistic, rather embraced absurdity as a site of finding personal meaning (via altruism).

Camus states in his work The Myth Of Sisyphus that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards”. His reasoning was that “if I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent… I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest of ease as soon as it endangered his life” (p. 3).

Camus did though agree that, in one sense, Galileo was right in renouncing that the Earth revolved around the Sun after (being forced to do so by the Catholic Church, who considered this scientific fact an anti-religious lie) as that one particular truth in that one particular instance was not worth dying for. (The Ontological Argument that Camus speaks of is the idea that we can know that God exists through reasoning, without any proof from the physical world (see: St. Anselm).

A key issue in Camus is the idea of hope and how it is futile to hope Life is inherently “good” or “happy” and that one can “find” this life. Thus he criticizes works by seemingly existential writers such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky for finding their own idiosyncratic paths to hope and/or faith. As for the myth of Sisyphus (doomed for all eternity to roll a rock up a hill and watch it roll back down), Camus argues that Life is as such. But, rather than have hope that this task will end, or lose hope and be depressed that this task is eternal, Camus argues that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”, and one must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.

In regard to his own writing Camus felt that he had “something better to do than (just) trying to instill life into the creatures of his imagination”, that he saw many creative types avoid the travails of the world by “lying down sleep in (their) tower” stating that because of his own altruism “I cannot envy their sleep” (p. 211). He also states that a true work of art is on a human scale, and a work proves the most hateful of all, “is the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought” (p. 116).

(Note: all quotes are taken from the first edition of Albert Camus. 1969. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) 

Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005): Philosophical Anthropology: the philosophical study of the fundamental capabilities/vulnerabilities in human life, as humans are never fully transparent to themselves or capable of complete self-control.

Barthes (1915 – 1980): “Language is a skin.”  Philosopher/semiotician/French bourgeois society considered its culture/mores to be universal (ethnocentrism). Texts are things/systems unto themselves, and their underlying structure forms the meaning of the work in toto.

Feyeraband (1924 – 1994): Epistemological Anarchism: The sciences have never progressed according to strict overall rules for their methodologies, and demanding such rules limits scientific progress.



8 thoughts on “Introduction to Western Philosophy (4): Late Enlightenment to Modern Era

    1. Well, thank you very much.

      Philosophy is a set of thought tools invented, discovered, and refined for us to analyze ourselves and society with. And it is fun to think about philosophical ideas… if a person is given the chance to explore them with curiosity, and at one’s own pace.

      1. I agree. It allows us to take a step back and thoroughly examine ourselves. Maybe people don’t delve into it so much because it takes lots of brain work to work these theories out….

  1. Oh!

    It’s a hell lot of fun
    for you and me
    And some other person
    in the same galaxy!

    Haqving said that, I do enjoy picking over things, there’s always a spark of magic in an unravelled question, or a pickled answer. I guess that’s why I’ve never really settled on religion to provide the answers for me, but I’m not an atheist per se…

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