In the preface to the Genealogy of Morals, we learn that Friedrich Nietzsche is publishing his hypotheses about morality largely in response to Dr. Paul Rée’s Origin of the Moral Sensations. Nietzsche admits that this is one of the few books he fundamentally disagrees with on every proposition and conclusion it put forward. After reading this book, he subsequently becomes more concerned with the Darwinist trend in Europe and its effect on Western thinking, especially amongst modern philosophers. In his preface, Nietzsche is directly addressing these “men of knowledge” and tries to make them realize that there are never “isolated acts of any kind”, let alone an origin of morals (16). These philosophers, whose treasures lie in the beehives of their knowledge, are not distracted by the present, and therefore, they are the only people capable of understanding the position he takes in the Genealogy of Morals. Because truth always transcends time, Nietzsche is asking his readers to detach themselves from their surroundings in order to study ideas, like morality, without the prejudices of their time.
Trying to rescue virtue from the morally deluded Europe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau took a surprising stance on the question proposed by the Academy of Dijon. In his response, Rousseau stated that the arts and sciences bring about not only the dissolution of morals but also the corruption of tastes. In fact, it is because the arts and sciences “owe their birth to our vices” that he could be certain of their disadvantages (48). Their origin was traced by Rousseau to an even larger issue in European society. Just as in Plato’s Republic, the first harm to the city was luxury: “luxury rarely develops without the science and arts, and they never develop without it” (50). In Rousseau’s Discourse, luxury signified a misuse of time. In addition, Rousseau considered idleness to be one of the greatest evils to society. The issue for Rousseau transformed from the arts and sciences and became the misuse of time, which laid the foundations for art and science to appear: “born in idleness, they nourish it in turn; and irreparable loss of time is the first injury they necessarily cause society” (49). Idleness was the root of evil in a society, and “every useless citizen may be considered a pernicious man” (49). If wasting time and being useless were the causes of corruption, then what was the solution? Somehow, citizens needed to be productive again and to find a correct use for their time.
Giambattista Vico establishes metaphysics as “the first wisdom of the gentile world” (375). These first men were consumed by their senses and their imagination, and everything they knew about the world, God, and themselves began from there. Any true investigation of wisdom should plainly begin where knowledge first sprung. Consequently, Vico attempts to understand “the first wisdom” in the same way the ancient theological poets would have. According to Vico, knowing how things would have been communicated and expressed is vital to understanding the material and the history of knowledge itself. The study of poetic logic is Vico’s way of understanding those early theological poets. Vico tells us that logic comes from the word logos which originally meant both fable and myth. To understand poetic metaphysics and all the sciences that naturally followed, Vico calls for us to discover the origin of language and letters.
In Meditation One, Descartes tries to find everything that can be called into doubt. Attacking the foundations of his own self-knowledge, Descartes demolishes his core principles and discredits every opinion, thought, feeling, and perception he has ever had. Everything, which Descartes considers doubtful, is thrown into a sort of limbo between true and false. He intends to discover the few things that are absolutely certain, and until then, everything is left in purgatory and will have to be judged at a later time. By the end of the Meditations, many critics believe that Descartes comes full circle and that everything he previously had doubts about is back. Between the first and sixth Meditations, the only certainties Descartes discovers are that he exists as a thinking thing and that God inherently exists as well. Because of this, seemingly everything Descartes doubted beforehand can be trusted again. The reasons, which made Descartes, question everything in the first place and the reasons he gives for calling it all back seem to be the same, but are they? It is never made explicitly clear if all of the things Descartes called into question did in fact return nor does Descartes explain if his reasons for doubt are the same reasons he restores everything.
Between every paradigm of philosophical thought, philosophers have set out on a singular quest for self-knowledge or, what modernists like to say, enlightenment. Each philosophical age started from distinct concepts and came at the question with varying attitudes. Different from previous metaphysical and theological approaches, modern philosophy believed human reason and rationality could finally find a universal solution to that question of self-knowledge. In Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay “Answering the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’”, we saw an interesting and somewhat surprising take on enlightenment and how Kant believed we could reach it. He claimed true enlightenment only came when man could courageously emerge from his immaturity and daringly use his own reason and understanding. Kant then defined immaturity as man’s “inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another”, and it is this dependence on other people that Kant claimed stunts man’s philosophical growth (1). What then was Kant’s solution? Freedom, he claimed, was all that was needed to find enlightenment. It was not just any freedom, but the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (1). He vehemently insisted that the public use of man’s reason must always be free, and we were left to wonder why Kant was so adamant about keeping it that way. However, before we can dwell deeper, we first have to clarify what Kant meant by a man’s public and private uses of his reason.