Sophie’s World

The Seventeenth Century


Sophie on the Baroque (pp. 226-232)


  • baroque: "a pearl of irregular shape"



  • describes art of the 17th century
  • describes the tensions between irreconcilable contrasts, like those between science and religion.
  • describes the schizoid nature of an age which reflected both the Renaissance's unremitting optimism for social progress and the Counter- Reformation's movement towards religious seclusion and self-denial
  • describes pompous and flamboyant self-expression vs. monastic withdrawal
  • describes carpe diem vs. memento mori
  • describes vanity and affectation vs. anxiety about the ephemeral nature of life
  • The Baroque era was an age on conflict: the Thirty Years War 1618-1648
  • The Baroque era was an age of great class differences.
  • The Baroque era was typified by a fascination with illusion and theatre: "Life is a Dream."


Jacques from Shakespeare's As You Like It


All the world's a stage 
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.



Philosophical Conflict during the Scientific Revolution:


idealism vs materialism

materialism: all real things derive from concrete material substances

Thomas Hobbes believed that all phenomena, including man and animals, consist exclusively of particles of matter which function in a mechanical manner. Even human thought is composed of particles moving in the brain.

Belief in materialism was nourished by the scientific revolution: Newton's laws of motion explained all movement in the universe, from the movement of the planets to those of molecules. All phenomena derive from unbreakable laws of cause and effect. Mechanism governs all motion (even thoughts) in the universe. 

The French mathematician La Place suggested that if we can know the position of all particles of matter at any given moment in time, 'nothing would be unknown and both the future and the past would lie open before our eyes.' 

idealism: what exists is at base spiritual

Idealists had to reconstruct the existence of a spiritual realm after the Copernican revolution and Galileo's discoveries made it impossible to conceive of heaven as a part of the cosmos. Idealists turned their attention to the realm of thought and posited that the ideal realm could be accessed through ideas, much as Plato had originally argued.

Can a thought be divided into smaller parts? The difference between the material and the spiritual worlds is that substance can be broken into smaller and smaller bits, but the soul cannot even be divided in two.

The greatest philosophers of the seventeenth century, Descartes and Spinoza, sought to protect the spiritual realm from the assault of materialist science.


Sophie on Descartes (1596-1650)

Discourse on Method (1637)

Descartes was the father of modern philosophy:

  • focus on the problem of knowledge
  • considers the relationship between the mind and the body
  • limits the place of mechanical cause and effect to the material world
  • posits a new understanding of the nature of the soul

He founds the philosophical school of Continental Rationalism:


Rationalism: certain knowledge is only achievable using reason;

innate ideas exist in the mind prior to experience.

  • Using only deductive logic and relying upon his expertise in geometric proof, Descartes constructed the universe in his mind. (He invented the “Cartesian Plane” which you guys use to plot points, lines and curves in space and to understand motion.) 
  • Descartes uses simple axioms to construct the universe and locates man’s place in it . 
  • He begins by doubting everything his senses tell him: how can we distinguish between reality and illusion, between waking and dreaming? He concludes that we cannot truly be sure of knowing anything that our senses tell us.
  • First Axiom: one thing must be true: I am thinking. “Cogito Ergo Sum”: I think; therefore, I am. The thinking ‘I’ is more real than the material world. 
  • Second Axiom: God must exist because the idea of perfection exists.


Dualism: The universe has two realities:

  • The material world of ‘extension’ is quantitative, mechanistic, and determined.
  • The qualitative world of perception and thought is indivisible and immeasurable.
  • Human reason enables us to rise above the mechanism of the body and behave rationally.
  • Descartes theorized that the ‘pineal gland’ enables connection between the mind and body.


Sophie on Spinoza (1632- 1677)


Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated

  • A Jew in Amsterdam who made his living as a lens grinder.
  • A critic of established religion which he regarded as pure dogma and ritual
  • Spinoza developed a historio-critical interpretation of the Bible regarding it as a text written in a specific time and place by a variety of different teachers

Perception of the Universe:

  • Infinite in time as well as space
  • Nature is God.

Mathematical Method for Philosophical Reflection:

  • Monism: the universe is composed of one substance: thought and extension are both attributes of God
  • Determinism: the laws of nature determine reality: we are free to wriggle our thumbs but we can’t make them jump off our hands and do a dance on the table.
  • Morality: To a large extent outer conditions determine our development: a plant given sun and water grows better that one that is denied them in its environment. Our behavior is a product of the environment in which we are raised. Our passions also prevent us from recognizing out situation in life: the natural necessity of our being. Our goal as thinking humans should be to align ourselves with reality and to see our situation within the larger perspective of Nature’s design.

Sophie on John Locke (1632-1704)

Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)


Locke helped found the ‘school’ of British Empiricism.

Empiricism: No innate thoughts. Our minds consist solely of phenomena experienced through our senses.      We must scrutinize conceptions like ‘God’, ‘eternity’, and ‘substance’ to see if there is a basis for them in experience. Can a conception be verified by the senses?

Locke's Epistmology: tabula rasa: our minds are filled by sense experiences which are then classified and processed. Knowledge that cannot be traced back to a simple sensation is false.


  • Primary Qualities (extension): Matter possesses primary qualities which can be measured and upon which we can all agree: weight, motion, size, number.
  • Secondary Qualities such as color, taste, smell and sound rely upon our mind’s interpretation of reality. Reason can only be applied with certainty to the primary qualities of substance.

Locke’s philosophy is inconsistent because his epistemology does not fit with his political ideas: 

  • He believed in innate ideas: God and natural rights
  • His political ideas justified the coup detat in the Glorious Revolution which brought William of Orange to the throne
  • His political ideas helped found the liberal political tradition


Sophie on David Hume (1711-1776)


Radical Empiricism


Hume insists that all ideas must be connected to observed sense experiences if they are to be considered true. Only our spontaneous experience of the world can be trusted.


A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)

Direct Impressions vs. Complex Idea

  • Most of our delusions are founded upon complex ideas generated by association; for instance, an angel is a false conception caused by associating the experience of observing flying animals and the experience of seeing humans.
  • Impressions derive from our direct sensual experience of reality. Ideas are recollected impressions.
  • Hume believed our conception of human identity to be a complex idea imposed upon a huge number of direct impressions. In reality our identities are in constant flux. 

Hume Breaks the Link between Knowledge and Faith

  •  It is impossible to be certain of the existence of the soul.

Hume Breaks the Link between Cause and Effect:

  • It is impossible to be certain of any scientific law. Only probabilities can be generated, not certainties.

Hume Breaks the Link between Reason and Morality

  • The ability to distinguish between good and evil is not inherent in human reason; rather, our sentiments truly determine our notions of right and wrong. Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others.

Sophie on George Berkeley (1685-1753)

Radical Empiricism

  • Berkeley extends Hume’s notion of impression vs. idea a step forward and questions the reality of the material world itself. To assume the existence of a material reality is to jump to conclusions.
  • We cannot perceive the reality of the material world: when we pound our fist on a table or slam our foot against a rock, we experience sensations (of pain), but that sensation tells us about our own sensations, not necessarily about the material world. To assume the existence of the material world is to make a logical jump which cannot be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt.
  • Time and space may not exist. For Berkeley, the world makes sense and we find our place in it only through the beneficence of God who causes the existence of the physical world from moment to moment.
  • God is a novelist, and Sophie realizes that she is merely a character in a novel. The question of the novel (and of Sophie’s existence) now turns upon whether or not she is capable of a free act. Hilde will join with Sophie to try and see whether a free act truly is possible.