Reading Comprehension for CAT(Quiz-16)

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Modernity cannot be identified with any particular technological or social breakthrough. Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us. Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power over nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past. Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as either a disinheritance or an emancipation; much of modern politics is determined by which side you take on this question. But it is always disorienting.

If we are looking for the real origins of the modern world, then, we have to look for the moment when that world was literally disoriented—stripped of its sense of direction. Heliocentrism, the doctrine that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, was announced by Copernicus in 1543 and championed by Galileo in the early sixteen-hundreds. This revelation was immediately experienced as a profound dislocation, as John Donne testified in his 1611 poem “An Anatomy of the World”: “The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit / Can well direct him where to look for it.” More than two hundred and fifty years later, Nietzsche was reeling from the same cosmic loss of direction: “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? . . . Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?” Modernity is a vertigo that began in the sixteenth century and shows no sign of letting up.

Nietzsche is usually classified as a philosopher, Donne as a poet, and Galileo as a scientist. But one of the premises of Anthony Gottlieb’s new book, “The Dream of Enlightenment” —the second installment of his lucid, accessible history of Western philosophy—is that thought cannot be divided according to disciplines in this way. For philosophy, in particular, such a division is misleading. Today, we tend to think of philosophy as a specialized academic pursuit: a philosopher is a professor of philosophy. But none of the founders of modern philosophy whom Gottlieb discusses fit that description. Some were mathematicians: René Descartes invented the Cartesian coordinate system with its x- and y-axes, and Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus (around the same time as, but independently of, Isaac Newton). Some were professionals: Baruch Spinoza ground lenses for optical equipment; John Locke was a doctor and a diplomat. And some were literary writers, like David Hume, who was better known in his lifetime for his “History of England” than for his philosophical works. Usually, they overlapped several categories.

One of Gottlieb’s central insights is that, as he wrote in his previous volume, “The Dream of Reason,” which covered thought from the Greeks to the Renaissance, “the history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline.” You might say that philosophy is what we call thought in its first, molten state, before it has had a chance to solidify into a scientific discipline, like psychology or cosmology. When scientists ask how people think or how the universe was created, they are addressing the same questions posed by philosophy hundreds or even thousands of years earlier. This is why, Gottlieb observes, people complain that philosophy never seems to be making progress: “Any corner of it that comes generally to be regarded as useful soon ceases to be called philosophy.”

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