Progress of the philosophical Enlightenment

Traditionally, at universities students try to „learn“ philosophy by attending lectures and seminars discussing

  • books of classical philosophical thinkers
  • basic philosophical topics (ontology, epistemology, moral philosophy, political philosophy, aesthetics, etc.)
  • the history of philosophical thinking (pre-Socratic philosophy, classical Greek philosophy, Scholastic philosophy, Modern philosophy, the Age of Enlightenment, Postmodernism,etc.):

? – From your perspective, are the philosophical questions academically discussed in this way still “big” questions? How do you see the future of these questions?


Mario Bunge:

Some of the big philosophical problems have been solved by science, at least to a 1st approximation. Examples: the problems of matter, and mind. Only philosophical reactionaries, like Noam Chomsky, claim that they are and will remain mysteries. Physicists and chemists know what matter is, and cognitive neuroscientists know that mental processes are brain processes. Of course much remains to know, but we know how to learn: through scientific research.


There were times when philosophers seemed to be trendsetting intellectuals in the cultural systems of their societies. During the Enlightment they even appeared to be counselors of political leaders:

? – What is your opinion looking at the status of philosophy in society and culture today? What has become of the philosophical enlightenment?


Mario Bunge:

The slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité“ is still much alive, but also incomplete, because it concerns only social life. In order to gain and enjoy freedom, attain and protect equality, and practice fraternity (or better solidarity), individuals must have jobs, and to hold jobs they must be healthy and reasonably well educated. Hence the 18th century triad should be completed with this one: Work, Health, Education.

Contemporary philosophers are facing problems that were unthinkable only one century ago, such as whether space and time are mutually Independent, whether there is objective chance or only uncertainty, whether physics can explain chemical change, whether our behavior is fully determined by our genomes, whether ideation can change the brain, or whether either the economy or ideas are the ultimate roots of the social. A philosopher who is not curious about scientific news cannot tackle any such problems. Likewise with social problems, such as whether capitalism can be saved or whether, as John Stuart Mill and Louis Blanc proposed in the 1850s, cooperative ownership and management is preferable because it is more just and more efficient.


? – What is your assessment: Which of the ideals of the Enlightment have been implemented consistently and have been developed continuously? Where did progress came to a standstill? Where did it completely fail? What is the future of enlightened thinking?


Mario Bunge:

The Enlightenment was an enormous progress, but it was followed by the Counter Enlightenment, so that its ideals were not realized. Besides, we are facing new social problems, such as technological unemployment and environmental degradation, that were unknown two centuries ago. We need to revamp the Enlightenment once in a while. Opposing the Enlightenment because of its shortcomings, the way the Frankfurt school did, is as absurd as closing schools because they cannot teach everything that is known.


Currently renowned intellectuals try to ban critical thinking: Traditional standardsshould be protected and not be“damaged“ bycritical thinking– for this purpose philosophical rationalityand faith should be reconciled. MichaelSandelexpressed this ideain a recent interviewwith the German weekly newspaper „Die Zeit“-Jürgen Habermas argues for a“strict boundary between faith and knowledge,“ and claims an „opaque core“ of subjectivity which should be beyond the range of rational analysis.

? – How do you assess this suspension of rationaland philosophical analysis in favor of certain traditions – a trend describedby Hans Albert as „suspension of the use of reason“ (“Beschränkung des Vernunftgebrauchs”)?


Mario Bunge:

I disagree. One should believe only what can be chosen to be true or just. Irrational (or unjustified) beliefs should be avoided because they can have disastrous practical consequences. Only the stupid and the wicked can fear rational criticism. – I agree with Albert, but I don’t believe that criticism is enough: we need to plant seeds in addition to weeding.


Science and Philosophy


In your works you deal with the results of modern empirical science extensively.Howevermany of yourphilosophicalcolleaguesseea serious conflictbetween the vital interestsofindividuals and social groups on the one handand the effectsof scientific andtechnological thinkingon the other hand.They practiseafundamental defensivenessespecially againstmodern science:

? – With that it mind, what is your opinion? What is the significance of empirical and scientific evidence for your philosophical thinking?


Mario Bunge:

I do not share Michel Foucault’s mistrust of science, because I reject his view that science is only politics through other means. Scientists are after knowledge, not power, and too many people in power fear (social) science because it may show that certain political groups serve special interests instead of the public good. Serious sociology of science, like Robert Merton’s, does not politicize science.

I have nothing to fear from serious social studies of science, and I hope that my philosophy will help progressive science policies while showing that the most modern views of science are ignorant and regressive, even if they are accompanied by a leftist-sounding rhetoric.


? – In your view,what are theboundaries betweenphilosophy and science– which role do they play, respectively – and what is the name of the game they a playing?


Mario Bunge:

There is a continuum between science and philosophy. As Fichte said (but did not practice), philosophy should be the science of sciences. And as a few Philosophers have noted, scientific research presupposes some philosophical theses, such as that reality is intelligible.


? – Sciences seem to give all the important rational explanations of the world. What is it that philosophy can contribute that goes beyond scientific rationality and scientific expertise?


Mario Bunge:

Suffice it to recall 3 examples from the history of philosophy:

  • Lucretius’ principle „nothing comes out of nothing“,
  • Holbach’s hypothesis, that very thing is a system or part of one, and
  • Alcmaeon’s , that mental processes are brain processes.

he first principle encouraged the search for invariants in change, the second helped look for systems in collections, and the third is no less than the mother of biological psychology (or cognitive neuroscience).

Every day we can observe a “flood” of scientific reports. On a daily basis the AAAS publishes a variety of references tonew studies on


?- What is the advice of a philosopher of science: How can laymen cope with this complexity and how can they find guidance to understand the world?


Mario Bunge:

Whereas scientists may remain satisfied with the latest scientific findings, philosophers may warn that it will always be too early to hail the latest as the last. For example, they may share the physicists’ wonder at the latest findings about single electrons and photons, but they may warn that theoretical physics has been stuck in unsolved problems, and that cosmology is still marred by myths such as the creation of the universe out of nothing.


? – Is philosophy still able to provide a “compass” which operates on the basis of stable assumptions?


Mario Bunge:

Yes, philosophy can help laymen spot and reject the numerous pseudoscientific beliefs that survive in the media, such as the fantasies of psychoanalysts, evolutionary psychologists, and economic equilibrium theorists. In particular, philosophers may ask what is the evidence for such fantasies. Moreover, they may suggest a few rules for evaluating any knowledge claim:

  • Is it compatible with the bulk of what is known?
  • Is it supported by solid empirical evidence?
  • Does it suggest new research projects?
  • Does it threaten any basic social value, such as peace and wellbeing?
  • Can it give succour to any of the enemies of moral and social progress?


The Big Questions come in bundles!- End of part 2 of our interview – start of part 3
– back to part 1

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