It was Britain's Whigs who supported a limited constitutional monarchy and government based upon the consent of the governed. They also believed that revolution – such as the Glorious Revolution – was justified in attaining such a government. Among the Whigs were wealthy businessmen and a few progressive aristocrats. In the area of religious faith, some Whigs saw themselves as having a view of God more progressive than the views of the established religions. Among the Whigs were pantheists, believing that God was everywhere. The pantheists were responding to Newtonian physics, seeing the universe as having spatial dimensions and as mechanized, working without interventions from spiritual forces, with nature not being apart from God or God apart from nature.
Another group with a point of view was Britain's Freemasons. They were a society with secrets, but they did not try to keep secret their society's existence. The Freemasons had origins as a craft guild and had grown to a fraternity of progressives that included men of the middle and upper classes. Their meetings and banquets were egalitarian, and they were unconcerned about religious affiliation. Not belonging to or attending a church, their local lodges provided them with a substitute sense of community. They described themselves as men of charity and reason against all that burdened rather than liberated their fellow human beings. And they claimed to be neutral in politics.
Britain's radical intellectuals admired the writings of Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a French philosopher and academician who had been exiled to the United Netherlands. Bayle advocated religious toleration. He questioned Christian traditions and derided superstitions. His writings stimulated interest in science applied to medicine – a return to Hippocrates of ancient Greece.
Science has been described as the engine of the Enlightenment. There was a rise in interest in scientific medicine, and this was accompanied by an inoculation controversy. The wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman capital at Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, learned of the success of inoculations by medical professionals there. In 1718, she returned to Britain with this knowledge and spoke out. Some traditionally-minded people denounced inoculation as unnatural and impious, but inoculations were begun in London.
In philosophy, after John Locke came an Anglican bishop, George Berkeley (pronounced BARKley). He, like Locke, believed that knowledge arose from the senses, but this simple empiricism had become complicated. Newton's discoveries involved a lot of mathematics. Berkeley addressed the question how it was that signals arising from outside a person's brain were transposed into knowledge. Berkeley took the position that defied common sense. He concluded that we cannot claim that what we see is actually connected to a world outside our mind. With this arose the amusing suggestion into the twenty-first century that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, the event did not occur. But Berkeley believed that all reality was idea and that idea was God. He believed that whatever existed did so because God perceived it.
Following Berkeley in philosophy was a Scot from Edinburgh: David Hume (1711-1776). He was another of those youngsters accepted at a university while still a child: he started attending Edinburgh University at the age of twelve. His was the kind of intelligence that had often been lost to society because of poverty and failed recognition. Although Hume was born in an Edinburgh tenement he was given educational opportunity. He was urged to study law, during which he preferred broader reading, and he had a nervous breakdown from which it took a few years to recover.
Like many others, Hume was influenced by the science of Newton and by the epistemology of Locke, and in his early adulthood Hume wrote essays and a six-volume work titled the History of England, attempting impartiality and more than the deeds of kings and statesmen. He addressed economic issues and wrote of money as only a means of exchange rather than wealth itself. Wealth, he said, existed in commodities – things sought and traded. Nations were poor, he claimed, because they did not produce enough that could be traded.
While living in France, Hume wrote his Treatise of Human Nature, the first two volumes of which were published in 1739 and the third in 1740, when he was not yet in his thirties. He had wanted literary fame and had hoped for vehement attacks, but only a few were aware of his work, and he went on to obscurity and simple jobs to make a living. But by 1660 he would be known to those few people in Western Europe who called themselves philosophers (philosophes).
Hume differentiated between matters of fact and matters of value. Moral judgments, he held, were matters of value because they were above sentiments and passions. He denied that there was a moral standard outside our heads and suggested that the universe outside ourselves does not care about our preferences and troubles.
Hume saw humanity as more inclined to emotion than to reason. In his own effort at reason he worked on the problem of the connection between the senses and knowledge, and rather than attempt to resolve the problem, as Berkeley had attempted to do, he chose to leave the matter unexplained. Hume was a skeptic, which separated him from those still trying to create a large, comprehensive system of thought. He was as absolute in his skepticism as the ancient Macedonian skeptic, Pyrrhon, had been. He believed that one either knew or did not know something. In Hume's time, truth as approximation – the accepted method of science into the 21st century – was not commonly recognized among philosophers as a valid point of view. .
Hume, like Pyrrhon, had opinions despite his skepticism. Regarding race, he too was a man of his time. He wrote:
There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.
He described the accomplishments of a black person he had heard about in Jamaica as "slender" and "like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly."
Hume was to be known primarily as an anti-metaphysical empiricist. He did not support conclusions about the world not known through the senses, or heavens unconnected to what is known through the telescope. Hume claimed that what people believed could be traced back to perceptions (that would include an image of God as man like). Speculating about the source of one's perceptions to some ultimate cause or “ultimate principle” he rejected as a source toward confidence in knowing. Without using the word "induction," he believed in putting together ideas inductively: particulars to the general – the way scientists create their hypotheses. He did so believing that the inductive method was superior to the deductive method of those writing metaphysics but also imperfect. He was choosing between imperfect ways of reasoning. He was aware, as any sophomore could be, of the induction fallacy, expressed today by a professor who wrote a book called the Black Swan – that after seeing a hundred white swans it would be false to assume that all swans are white.
The difference between Hume and the writers of metaphysics was that Hume held knowledge to be tentative and the writers of metaphysics made claims with absolute certainty – befitting a religious frame of mind – although in opinion they often differed from one another.
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