The flour is what matters, and not the mill, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote in his notebook in 1799. ‘When we ask what time it is, we don’t want to know how watches are constructed.’
A telling assertion, considering Lichtenberg’s place and time. For nearly two centuries, the ‘mechanical philosophy’ had ground down tradition and metaphysics into reason and material processes. Enlightenment metaphors were mechanical: God as the divine watchmaker; or, in Leibniz’s image, the Cartesian mind and body as two clocks, synchronised but separate. As an experimental physicist, Lichtenberg practised the Enlightenment method, experiment and induction. But his frustration with matter and reason was Romantic. He was ready, in Anthony Gottlieb’s formulation, for the rest of modern philosophy, beginning with the deep-diving, muddy Germans.
As are we, after reading The Dream of Enlightenment. Gottlieb’s survey of
philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason (2000), has been acclaimed as a modern classic. Its sequel, an expert account of mechanical scepticism and political theory from Descartes to Voltaire, is the lucid central panel of a triptych. If Gottlieb can pull off his final volume, he will surely supplant Bertrand Russell as the under- graduate’s guide.
Gottlieb frames each thinker in his historical context. Hobbes hedges his bets after the English Civil War, Spinoza reacts against the newly observant Sephardim of Amsterdam, and Rousseau cannot stand anyone else. Their potted biographies are limned in sharp lines, but the primary colours of personal eccentricity are balanced with the secondary and tertiary complexities of intellectual life. Descartes solicits Hobbes’s comments on Meditations, then ridicules his correspondent. Hobbes and Spinoza share cryptic similarities on the possibility of miracles and the nature of God. Hume hides his contempt for priestly doctrine beneath a veil of Georgian manners, and covets the afterlife, not of the soul but of intellectual immortality.