My academic specialty is known among philosophers as “early modern” philosophy, and by that is typically meant a string of canonical figures extending from Descartes to Kant. Before Descartes, philosophy is all medieval (the story goes); after Kant, it is an assortment of heady idealism, existentialism, utilitarianism, and nascent naturalism. (Philosophers mostly disregard the Renaissance and the term “Enlightenment,” as it is pretty difficult to tease out arguments from philosophers falling under those headings without having to study a lot of other stuff, like literature and history and politics.) For the most part, philosophers sort out historical periods on the basis of when certain figures they happen to find useful happened to live.
Of course, this is silly, and we all know it is, but it is convenient for things like organizing sessions at conferences and classifying both jobs and job-seekers, so it is retained. But, setting aside the fact that the practice won’t change anytime soon, I’d like to explore a more meaningful way to divide philosophy’s comparatively recent history.
In my mind, the modern period begins with Gutenberg’s invention, around 1450. There is a long and complicated story to be told here, involving both the Renaissance and the Reformation, but it is the advent of printed books that forcefully changed the nature of the learned European world. Scholars were rapidly inundated with such a variety of authors and ideas that it became imperative to construct new orderly systems. The grand cathedral of monotheistic Aristotelianism was blown apart into many cottages built by individuals trying to find new ways to make sense of it all.
We can identify this period of individual system-builders as the “early modern” period. It’s not that these individuals acted in complete independence, of course – the Republic of Letters arose inevitably as an attempt for everyone to keep track what everyone else was up to. But there were very nearly as many systems as there were system-builders, a flourishing of philosophical species, while early science began to develop as a sort of strain to separate winners from losers.
In my mind, the “early” segment of the modern period came to an end in roughly 1750, with the rise of truly encyclopedic thinking. The French Encyclopédie was put forward as a sum total of knowledge, not written by a single person, but written by a team of philosophes actively constructing a new cathedral to house the Enlightenment. The overall shift, seen from this high altitude, was from books representing individual projects to books identified under themes of large and broad movements. Philosophical efforts were less individualistic and more communal (excepting the early existentialists, who bucked the ruling trend). This to my mind is the true modern period, which begins with the Enlightenment. The very question, “What is Enlightenment?”, is a peculiarly modern question.
When did the modern period end, and the post-modern period begin? Though of course there is a genre of philosophical literature called “post-modern,” I don’t think there really has been any post-modern period. (It sort of fizzled, didn’t it?) So long as there are large banners of thought, and people enlisting themselves within schools of ideas, we are in a modern period. There may come a time when the question “what kind of thinker are you?” is met with a blank stare, and schools within disciplines and even disciplinary thinking itself becomes extinct – but it hasn’t happened yet.