Western Culture

Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher

Søren Kierkegaard arose during the Romantic era as an influential thinker and a prominent critic of reason. According to Kierkegaard, philosophers of the past tried to find meaning “out there” using reason, but they were looking in the wrong places. Kierkegaard said that true meaning was found “in here,” on the inside of each individual. Inside ourselves is where we find meaning to our lives in our passions, desires, and choices. Ultimately, Kierkegaard said that meaning was subjective, and it was so personal that it could not be communicated to anyone else. According to Kierkegaard, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard advocated the idea of taking a leap of faith, making a personal choice to create meaning for ourselves based on our passions. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of liberal Christianity,” took Kierkegaard’s ideas and similarly applied them to Christianity. He said that the Bible didn’t have to be literally true; as long as it provides you meaning in life, then it’s true for you. Schleiermacher’s liberal theology reduced Christianity to a mere inward feeling or experience.


When modern thinkers who tried to use reason alone to determine ultimate answers ran into a number of dead ends, some people turned to philosophies which emphasized that irrational faith by itself could give us meaning by looking within ourselves. One of the first movements against modernism that emphasized this way of thinking was called Romanticism, which was known for its paintings, literature, and music. Romanticism rejected the idea that reason and science were the ultimate forms of knowledge, because reason and science weren’t leading to greater moral and spiritual progress as was promised. Romantic thinkers also rejected that the universe and human beings were merely physical machines; instead, they focused on the inner life of passions, emotions, and desires and emphasized individual creativity and spirituality. Romantics understood these things as the non-rational aspects of human life that should be indulged. They redefined creativity as breaking away from established rules and traditions of the past and felt that through individual creativity you could create spiritual meaning in your life.

Logical Positivism

Because of the influence of Kant, Western philosophy began to undergo a split in its way of thinking. Both sides agreed that reason was a dead end for ultimate answers, but some abandoned reason and embraced irrational faith while others stuck to reason but limited its scope. The thinkers who continued to affirm that only reason was useful became known as proponents of analytic philosophy. These thinkers wanted to make philosophy much more scientific. They rejected the transcendent realm beyond the physical world and hoped that analytic philosophy could correct the imprecise work of past philosophers in this regard. They developed more sophisticated uses of logic and focused on giving words very technical, precise definitions to help science pursue truth. Logical positivism was an even more extreme form of analytic philosophy which claimed that we can only posit or state things that can be empirically verified. Because of this, logical positivists believed that statements about the metaphysical weren’t true or false; rather, those statements were actually meaningless. Today, however, there has been a resurgence of the pre-modern way of thinking among analytic philosophers that rejects its initial naturalistic assumptions.

Evolution and the Mechanical View of the World

After Kant’s influence, some thinkers continued down the path of attempting to only use reason to understand the world. They concluded that there were no ultimate answers, because reason alone couldn’t give us ultimate answers, but reason could at least help us do science. They focused their philosophy predominantly on the physical realm, the phenomena of nature. If you reject the transcendent realm and limit yourself to only nature, you are likely to conclude that there is no ultimate truth. Because of this, the mechanical view of the world began to gain influence – viewing the world as nothing more than a machine controlled by the laws of nature. The theory of evolution was a pivotal development in this area, because it alleged that humans were just physical machines themselves, just a part of the larger machine of nature. These reductionistic views caused people to view things like morality, love, art, beauty, meaning, purpose, and humanity itself as not really valuable in and of themselves but merely as expressions of how nature and evolution had programmed us.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was a giant in the history of Western thought. In fact, one of Adam’s seminary professors claimed that many Christians have been influenced more by Immanuel Kant than by Jesus Christ. Kant was a pivotal thinker, standing at the end of an era of optimistic hope in reason and the beginning of an era of critiquing reason. Kant initially set out to rescue reason, science, and absolute certainty from Hume’s crushing skepticism. To do this, he shifted the focus of knowledge from the universe “out there” to our own minds “in here,” claiming that categories in our minds completely shape our understanding of the world. By doing this, he limited the reach of reason, deducing that we can only know with absolute certainty how things appear to our minds, not how they are in reality. Finally, Kant thought he had rescued faith by separating it from reason and placing beliefs in God or the afterlife beyond the reach of reason. However, he ended up redefining faith as being opposed to reason, an idea that is unfortunately still very influential in our culture today.

David Hume

In the 18th century, philosopher David Hume shook the thinking of the Western world when he challenged the empiricists of his day and claimed that absolute certainty was not actually possible to attain. He claimed that “all knowledge degenerates into probability.” If empiricism was right in claiming that all knowledge comes through our senses, through our experiences, then in fact we can’t be absolutely sure about anything, even things like causality, the laws of nature, and especially religion. David Hume is sometimes known as the most famous skeptic in history because he proposed that reason is a dead end and that there are no ultimate answers. David Hume’s ideas were so influential that Immanuel Kant, usually considered one of the greatest Western thinkers, built his philosophy as a response to Hume’s skepticism.

What Makes Something Morally Good or Bad?

Everyone seems to have an idea of right and wrong. We know that being loving and forgiving are good things to do. We know that it is wrong to murder or to rape. We all know about the existence of moral rules, such as "Thou shalt not steal" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." In philosophy, the study of these moral rules, of right and wrong, good and bad, is called ethics. So, what makes something good or bad? We might know what things are good and bad, but why is something good or bad? Who's to say that loving someone is good but hating them is bad? Where do right and wrong come from? In philosophy, this area of study is known as "metaethics," and in this series, Adam explores both theistic and atheistic theories of what makes something morally good or bad. Is God the foundation of morality, or is God not needed to explain the source of moral values and duties? What does it even mean to say that God is the "foundation" of morality?

Scientism and Deism

In the 1600s and 1700s, modern Western culture tried to go down a path of using reason by itself. Descartes pushed Western philosophy from the pre-modern era into the modern era, and that gave birth to many new ideas. Descartes’ mistake was that he thought he could prove things with absolute certainty using reason alone. This led to a greater focus on science as the means of knowing reality, which led to scientism, the belief that scientific knowledge is the only type of knowledge that can be trusted to give reliable answers about the world. Scientism introduced a shift from thinking of science as a means to know God to merely a mechanism for human progress using only those things we can know through reason and nature. Because of this, the idea of deism became popular among Western thinkers. Deism is the idea that God exists but that He reveals truth to us only through nature, not through Scripture or special revelation.

René Descartes and Empiricism

The transition from the pre-modern era to the modern era began to take shape through the thinking of René Descartes (1596-1650) and his philosophy of rationalism and empiricism. Because of the uncertainty present in the attitudes of the culture of his day, Descartes set out in search of absolute certainty for his beliefs. To build a system to achieve absolute certainty, Descartes needed to find a foundation to build on: an idea that couldn’t be doubted. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore, I am. Descartes concluded that you cannot doubt your own existence because if you’re doubting, you must be thinking, and thus you must exist. Based on this foundation, Descartes said we could be skeptical of everything else and only believe those things we can prove with absolute certainty. Eventually in Western culture, Empiricism became the method to accomplish this, by using the data from our physical senses. These ideas subsequently influenced philosophers and scientists such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.

Plato, Aristotle, and the Scientific Revolution

Two ancient Greek thinkers who had an immense influence on Western thought and philosophy were Plato and Aristotle. Plato is known for his belief that universal truths, such as good or beauty, existed in and of themselves, not just in our minds. Plato believed that these objective, universal, absolute truths existed in a transcendent realm outside of us. Hundreds of years later, Augustine was greatly influenced by the ideas of Plato and said that Plato didn’t know it, but what he was actually describing was the mind and nature of God. Whereas Plato emphasized the reality of a transcendent realm and thought the physical world was merely shadows, Aristotle disagreed and thought the physical world was also important and could be studied and understood. Hundreds of years later, Aquinas took Aristotle’s ideas to heart in believing that both the transcendent and natural realms were important and could be understood. These ideas, emphasizing that the physical world could be studied and understood, led to the Scientific Revolution.