"Modern Philosophy" is a term widely used, but seldom with any precision of meaning. In one sense it could be said that the absence of reference to religious authority constitutes modernity. But such a definition cannot be sustained, both because in the two acknowledged fathers of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, one finds various references to religious authority, and because there have been many others in the history of universal philosophy before the modern period who have philosophized without appeal to religious authority.

Particularly in Descartes, one sees his whole literary activity permeated with an anxious desire not to give offence to traditional religion. Leibniz tried actually to correlate his metaphysics carefully with the religions tradition. Spinoza, precisely because he radically differed in his conception of God from the traditional notion, got into serious trouble with religious authorities.

One could try another track -- that of substance and function. Is it not true that this is what characterizes modern philosophy -- that it is concerned more with function than with substance? The difficulty is that we are not as sure of that distinction as we once were. Substance has always remained a dubitable philosophical concept, long before modern philosophy. It has already been argued, both by 4th century (AD) Greek philosophy, especially by the Christian philosophers, and by the Indian philosophical tradition in general, both Haindava and Bauddha, that matter does not have any substance, thus even at the vyaavahaarika level, reality is constituted by gunas rather than vastus. Hence it becomes difficult to make a substance-function distinction or take the marginalization of substance as the distinguishing characteristic of "modern" philosophy.

Perhaps shall we find the characteristic nature of "modern philosophy" by investigating its origins, what it was reacting from, what it sought to establish, and what it has achieved or failed to achieve in relation to its objectives?

The origins of modern philosophy are to be sought in the same region as that of natural science. Natural science in the 17th century set itself to "understand Nature", leaving what is outside nature or super-nature to theology and metaphysics. Modern philosophy grew up as part of this new "Natural Science". Of course, that early natural science was, at least on the surface, very theologically grounded. It was God (with whose revelation in Scripture theology busied itself) who revealed himself also in Nature. On the surface, the two, the natural and the supernatural, were united in God-- The last cause or First cause was always God. For Jacob Boehme and Giordano Bruno, God is Urgrund and Ursgche or principium and causa of nature.

At least in Jakob Boehme, philosophy is also concerned about the knowledge of nature - "Eternal Nature" as he would call it. But the important thing in the Renaissance of Europe was the separation of philosophy from dogmatic theology -- a separation that can be traced back at least to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. But the "philosophy of nature" remained heavily dependent on the older metaphysics of the Greeks -- of Plato and Plotinus, of Aristotle and the Stoics, of Heraclitus and Pythagoras.

It was the turning from the older metaphysics to a more empirically grounded metaphysics that marks the transition, both in natural science and in modern philosophy. But the empiricism of the Humanists like Ludovico Vives, Campanella, Telesio, Sanchez and Montaigne could still not overcome the dualism between inner perception and outer reality. Campanella for example, had to identify knowledge with feeling, though all of these mentioned agreed on the principle of starting with 'facts'.

Bacon, of course, was pursuing "true knowledge of Nature", as distinct from the tradition or the "idols of the tribe" (idola tribus), from the "idols of the cave" (idols specus) by which one lapses into the cave of solipsism (a caveat against the cave of plate), from the vulgar misconceptions of the common people - the idola fori or idols of the marketplace, and from idola theatri or the illusory phantasms of credulously accepted theories.

Baron Bacon's negative thrust was directed against scholasticism and the authority of tradition; his positive effort is for an unprejudiced examination of reality and the finding out of things for oneself by clear and cogent reasoning. Wilhelm Windelband cities Bacon as a clear example of the German Philosopher's general dictum:

"All beginnings of modern philosophy have in common an impulsive opposition against 'Scholasticism', and at the same time a naive lack of understanding for the common attitude of dependence upon some one of its traditions, which they nevertheless all oocupy".3

In the case of Bacon the dependence was on the scholastic notion of causality and the four-fold Aristotelian classification of causes. He wanted to proceed from the study of nature to the "form" of all things through the process of Induction.

The key to modernity in both Descartes and Kant lay in their application of mathematics to the philosophy of nature. In this sense Kepler was more sensitive than Bacon to the mathematics of motion as the key to the understanding of nature, and Galileo developed mechanics as the mathematical theory of motion. While Bacon goes for "forms", Galileo seeks the measurable, the mathematical the experimentable. Geometry, measurement of the earth, becomes the key to certainty.

Both Descartes and Kant sought to rescue the western world from the skepticism of the Greeks by providing a "Method" of sure, certain, self-certifying knowledge not dependent on Tradition. To start from the simple and most self-evident truth, and then to advance by mathematical procedures to more complex and not-so-apparent truths — this is what Descartes attempted. Cogito, ergo sum is the one indubitable fact -- the fact of the doubting consciousness which is beyond doubt. Augustine had come upon this insight already in the 5th century and there need be no doubt that Descartes got the principle from his reading of Augustine under the Jesuits with whom he studied. The Greeks and Latins had, for Augustine, overthrown all certainty. The Sceptics, who had been drawn largely from the Latin Academy (Pyrrhc Arcesilaus, Carneades, Clitomachus, Aenesidemus etc.,) had denied the possibility to know the nature of things. Pyrrhon (4) himself (ca 560 BC to 270 BC), founder of the Sceptic school had taught that man cannot attain to truth, but can know only appearances; that the search for truth had no solid basis or starting point; that to every proposition one could oppose a contrary and equally probable proposition; that the wise man should therefore abstain from passing judgements.

Modern philosophy, one could say, is the fight against the peril of skepticism. Carneades (ca 214 — 129 BC) the outstanding Sceptic philosopher and founder of the Third Academy, had performed that set of two fine speeches in Rome in 155 B.C., one for justice, and the other against justice, both so equally convincing -- that Cato the Elder, Censor of Rome had to expel him from Rome. Cleitomachus, student and successor of Carneades, was a Carthaginian and Augustine knew the writings of these skeptics. For him the only indubitable point was the existence of the fact of doubting and of the doubting consciousness. Augistine started with the fact of doubt and the existence of the doubter. Descartes, more than a millennium later, found the same indubitable starting point -- the indubitable fact of thinking and therefore the existence of the thinking consciousness.

Descartes was only 25, when he shut himself up alone in a stove-heated room in mid-winter(5) and Sought an indubitable starting point for his cogitations, and a method for arriving at truth by pure individual cogitation, with "the simple resolve to strip oneself of all opinions and beliefs formerly received“.

Descartes tried then to do away with Tradition in general and the scholastic tradition in particular; his effort was to start with one indubitable self-evident datum, and from the foundation to build up the architechtonic structure of "truth" using only clear reasoning based on four strict principles: a) an honest personal judgment, b) analysis of problems into parts, c) reasoning from the simple to the more complex and d) being as exhaustive as possible in exploring alternative possibilities.(6)

But Descartes’ attempt to pull down the old ramshackle intellectual building of Scholastic tradition and to build a whole new edifice designed and constructed by a single mind was qualified by some other rules, which strike one as being exactly the opposite of what he wanted to do in the architechtonic. For example the first of his additional rules related to personal conduct in the intellectual enterprise goes like this: "to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering constantly to the religion in which by God's grace I had been instructed since my childhood".(7)

So Descartes wants both-- a rational architechtonic without tradition, and traditional religion. The assumption is that there is no conflict, at least no unresolvable conflict, between the two. He may have succeeded to his own satisfaction, but to his posterity this reconciliation of the two proved impossible; Enlightenment and Secularization, the twin processes that accompany western modernity, rejected Traditional religion, and decided to place Reason on the throne with the Senses as executives and informants. Critical Rationality and Empiricism thus became the watchwords of modernity.

In Immanuel Kant too, the religious element is strongly there, but his effort was to make the reasoning process independent of all religious propositions, He saw three worlds -- the world of nature, the world of mind or consciousness, and the transcendent world. Pure Reason was no use in understanding the third. Reason did achieve some understanding of the world of nature by a process which had been unexamined. Critical reason had to turn back upon itself, make the mind-world its object, and analyze, not the noemata which the later and full-fledged phenomenologists analyzed, but the noetic process itself. Before we could make the world of nature properly our object, we have to make reason itself an object, analyze its processes and laws, name the categories of the understanding and forms of intuition which a priori determine how we understand the world of nature, and discover its limits.

Pure Reason, for Kant, can deal with only objects that confront our sensibility, and neither religion nor values can be in this category and the pure understanding is thus useless for religion and ethics.

Kant was seeking to establish modern philosophy on a secure basis, by ruling out certain disputed areas out of the discourse, by focusing on the process of the understanding as it forms concepts, by determining a priori the categories that determine the understanding and shape its products. The question, of course, which Hegel raised, and which Jurgen Habermas has restated recently, is "what is the process by which the knowing process is known; if it is not the same as the process by which external objects are known, what is the validation for the knowledge about knowledge?" (8) If empirical testing is part of what constitutes modernity, then certainly Kant's Transcendental Logical (Transzendentallogisch) method is speculative, unscientific and unmodern.

Hegel's solution was, of course, worse than Kant's according to Habermas. The great idealist philosopher simply dismissed the problem about the reliability of knowledge as merely psychological, an unjustified fear of error. But that was precisely the point of modern science and modern philosophy, to reduce the fear of error by having objective standards of measurement and testing. Thus Hegel too fails to qualify as a modern philosopher.

But his critique of Kant still stands. There is no way of ultimately validating the knowing process by any analysis of that process itself; the knowing mind, in the knowing process, is a subjective agent; but in being known, it is transformed into a known object, and then a new mind as knowing subject has to appear on the scene to effect this knowing of the knowing mind. The knowing ego slips away every time we try to fix our attention on it, and in place of the knowing subject that we wanted to know, a known object appears. At the same time as the old knowing subject disappears and is transformed into a known object, a new knowing subject appears as the knower and we cannot get hold of this knower as it is, i.e, as knowing subject; for the very moment we reflect on this knower, he is transformed into the known.

The knowledge of the knowing process thus remains problematic, and inadequate as certification for the reliability of knowledge yielded by the process. It was this problem which the neo-Kantians like Ernst Cassirer and Susan Langer sought to solve but with no dramatic success, that has recently been picked hp by Hans-Georg Gadamer in a new framework.

More or less rejecting Hegel's proposal to understand the knowing mind in terms of its origins (9) rather than its functioning, Gadamer goes to the roots of the subjectivist-historicist tradition popularized by Dilthey and Heidegger, and proposes the hermeneutical principle that all knowledge is fore-knowledge, i.e. that the knowing act is basically a thetic one, in which the perceiving mind projects a particular concept from within itself to the external object seeking confirmation or repudiation.(10)

German thinking, which despises Anglo-Sexon rationality as philistine and somewhat commercial(11) wants something more integral, and the geisteswissenschaft literally created by Wilhelm Dilthey, and used by Windelband, Rickert, Simmel, Webber and others, serves as in integrating category for meaningful understanding ('deutend verstehen' of Max Weber) of all reality, social or physical.

And yet neither Dilthey nor Gadamer would claim that their theories are empirically verifiable or falsifiable. What they insist is that this Anglo-Saxon insistence on objective standards of verifiability almost to the point of denying any function for the subjective in knowledge, is both foolhardy and impractical.

Anglo Saxon Philosophy of Science has today come full circle to the acknowledgment that "objectivity" devoid of any subjective element and "proof" are both unattainable in Science.(l2)

There is correspondingly a collapse of this great faith in something called "modernity" in philosophy. Philosophy in the west is in a cul-de-sac, perhaps in three or four different culs-de-sac. Neither Linguistic-Analytical philosophy, nor Phenomenology or Existentialism, yes, not even Structuralism or Game Theory of knowledge, have been able to certify themselves as reliable ways of approaching reality.

Marxism, and the German Hermeneutic School, by allowing the idea that Science is a human construction gained in the process of dealing with reality, one that is never final and ever dynamic, always open to critical reexamination, have kept one element of modernity, namely the insistence that all knowledge should be doubted and subjected to criticism. They have only partially been able to maintain the other element of modernity, namely empirical verification or certification.

What has not yet happened on a wide scale in the west is a recurrence of the kind of scepticism popularized in the Third Academy of Carneades (214-129120) and Clitomachus (2nd cent. BC). Nor have they known our kind of scepticism --the brutal dialectic of Nagarjuna, or the Prasangika-Madhyamikas in general who delighted in demolishing other people's theories about essence and existence, function and causality, being and nonbeing and all the rest.

But it may be the case, that with the collapse of the alleged foundations of modernity, which seems imminent at least in some of the developed market economy countries of the west, they too may come to a greater modernity by reviving the traditions of Vedanta or Madhyamika or Taoist philosophies.

It may become more modern given the present trends, to see empirical reality merely as pravartika-satta or Samvrti-satya, or as the Tao in its Wu (nothing) form. The west may study again Sankara and Nagarjuna and Kumarajiva and Chung-Tzu and Tao-sheng, and find new meaning and new modernity in them. They have already for some time been exposed to Yoga and Zen in their more elementary and practical forms.


Modernity was basically a reaction against tradition, a desire to develop a critical rationality based on reason and experience alone without any dependence on tradition. It is this attempt that has failed. In Hans-Georg Gadamer the west has come full circle and recognized the inescapability of some dependence on tradition seen as the linguistic, conceptual and methodological as well as cultural equipment that we inherit from our societies and which we carry with us in all acts of understanding.

The problem has been, however, that the west was too heavily dependent on one particular tradition, namely that of classical scholasticism born out of Latin rationalization of the Greek classics. In repudiating this tradition, and seeking to start out afresh led by Kant and Descartes, they have now come to recognize that there is no knowledge possible without tradition. Both Descartes and Kant were mistaken. Descartes thought he could demolish the ramshackle (carelessly constructed) intellectual house his generation had inherited, and single-handedly build a new one, designed and constructed by a single mind. His method was to start from one indubitable premise (cogito, ergo sum) of the individual consciousness and thence by careful logic construct an edifice of thought. This edifice is now crumbling. So is Kant's. Kant thought that he could analyze the world of mind through which the world of objects was perceived and thereby arrive at sure and certain knowledge. He too has failed. The process by which the mind itself is made an object of the understanding is certainly not well established or universally accepted. There is no system at all which honestly establishes the objectivity of the external world. It seems such a solid world exists only in very superficial philosophy. This is what modern philosophy demonstrates.

Structuralism and Game Theories are epistemologically efforts of an affluent society to accept the world as simply given, and not to ask any deep questions about the meaning of the total structure itself or the total game. They are younger theories which may last a little longer before proving themselves to be sterile.

What we need today, it seems to me, is a recovery of and reentry into the universal tradition of philosophy as the search for true wisdom. Here the west, as well as those of us brought up in a western system of education, should develop the courage and the openness to enter into other aspects of the human tradition. This cannot be done by individuals alone. Only when a body like the Indian Philosophical Congress or similar bodies in other countries can wake up from their varying species of dogmatic slumber do we have some hope that philosophy instead of pursuing any false ideal of modernity, can once again become the light of humanity, lighting the way to wisdom and truth and fulfillment.


* Jacob Boehmex Six Theosophic Points Ann Arbor Paperbacks,
Univ. of Michigan, 1958.
2. See Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy - Vol: II —
Renaissance, Enlightgpment, Mgdern. Harper Torchbooks, New York,
1958, Part IV, Ch, 1:29 pp-576 — 577.
3. op.cit. Part: IV: on; 2=5o p.365
4. It seems Pyrrhon never left any philosophical writings. We are
dependent on his disciple Timon for his teaching. See L.Robin,
Pyrrho et la scepticism grég, 19¢4_
5. Discourse on Method. Part II first and last paras;
6. Ibid. Part 11
7. Method - Part III
8. Jurgen Habermas, Kn9wledge ggd Human Interests, Eng.Tr. Jeremy
J- Shapiro, Beacon Press, Boston,l97l, p.7. The phrasing of the
question above is my own.
9. i.e. through understanding a) the process by whihh the sociali-
zation hf the individual takes place; b) the universal history
of humankind, and 0) through the three fomms of the Absolute
Mind, namely religion art and science, through which history moves.
10. Gadamer puts it this way: "The hermeneutical experience is concerned
with what has been transmitted in tradition. This is what is to
be experienced. But tradition is not simply a process that we
learn to know and be in command of through experience; it is language,
i.e. it express itself like a "Thou". A 'Thou' is not an object
but stands in a relationship with us“. Truth & Method, Eng. Tr.
p.52l. His point is that all knowledge is a dialogue with
11. "a philistine culture with a void at the centre lacking anything
worth being called a philosophy i.e. any kind of conceptual
thinking that tries to make sense of life as a whole, or even of
the social order in which culture is embedded" — Georg Lichtheim
Lukacs, Fontana/Collins, l97O, p.25,
l2. Professor Imre Lakatos says ".........now very few philosophers or
scientists still think that scientific knowledge, is or can be,
proven knowledge. But few realize that with this the whole
classical structure of intellectual values falls in ruins and
has to be replaced ......." §ritioism_and The Growth of Knowledge
p. 92.