Descartes – Hobbes – Spinoza – Locke – Leibniz and Hume lived in a historical period dominated by dramatic developments and conflicts in three areas—science – religion and politics—and their thoughts and writings were dominated by the need to respond to those developments and to understand the relations among them.
It is fascinating to learn about the concrete historical circumstances under which great philosophical works—works that have become timeless classics—were produced and about the relation to their own times of the extraordinary individuals who produced them.
For those with limited firsthand knowledge of the works this biographical approach can serve as an accessible introduction or reintroduction to the thought of some of the most important creators of our intellectual world.
Anthony Gottlieb – a former executive editor of The Economist who is not a philosopher but a philosophical fellow traveler is writing just such a history of the entire course of Western philosophy.
The first volume The Dream of Reason (2000),* took the story from ancient Greece to the Renaissance.
The second volume The Dream of Enlightenment ends in the eighteenth century; a third volume will take us from Kant to the present day.
Gottlieb concentrates most of his discussion on six philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose stature and influence are especially great—Descartes – Hobbes – Spinoza – Locke – Leibniz and Hume—along with shorter treatments of Bayle – Voltaire and Rousseau and brief comments on many other figures.
Here is what he says at the outset:
It is because they still have something to say to us that we can easily get these philosophers wrong.
It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world.
But to understand them properly we must step back into their shoes.
That is what this book tries to do.