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Early ModernDefining The Modern Tradition: Cartesian Beginnings, Nature As Mechanism, Theory Of Sense Perception, Skepticism And The Cartesian Framework

Modern philosophy is generally thought to be distinguished by an "epistemological turn." Prior philosophical tradition accorded special status to metaphysics, or "first philosophy" (the general philosophical investigation into the nature of reality). The modern tradition, by contrast, holds that it is necessary to determine the nature and bounds of human knowledge before any sure advance into metaphysics can be achieved.

Modern epistemologies are traditionally sorted out as "rationalist" or "empiricist." According to the rationalist position, the intellect is the foundation of all human knowledge, including knowledge of the material world; the classic expression of rationalism in the modern era is found in the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650), who took a cue from Plato and held that the senses are detrimental to true knowledge. But according to the empiricist position, sense experience is the foundation of knowledge. Much of the development of empiricism in the early modern era involved the purification of its principles through the removal of vestigial traces of Cartesian rationalism; this purification reached its pinnacle in the philosophy of David Hume (1711–1776). The "critical philosophy" of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is generally regarded as the culmination of the modern tradition, since it arose out of an assessment of the shortcomings of both empiricism and rationalism, and a synthesis of their insights.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background