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Why do we think the way we do? A.C. Grayling and the birth of the modern mind

March 17, 2017 by anika0

With his upcoming appearance in Byron Bay, Emily Brugman takes a closer look at the musings behind A.C. Grayling’s latest book The Age of Genius.

A.C. Grayling is the Master of the New College of the Humanities, London, a Professor of Philosophy and the author of over thirty books. He is notable for his ability to breathe life into the topic of philosophy for contemporary readers and audiences, which is exactly what he does in his latest work, The Age of Genius.

This latest study delves into the philosophical and scientific revelations that occurred in the 17th century. According to Grayling, this era represents the pivotal point in which the modern mind emerged: the moment in which we did away with the stranglehold of the church and medievalism on the predominant, Western world view, and understood ourselves for the first time as a species within a vast and immense universe, rather than as the central beings within it.

Grayling attributes this shift in thinking to a diverse list of 17th century geniuses from both the sciences and the arts: Newton, Shakespeare, Harvey, Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Galileo and Kepler. We can measure the intellectual progress of an era, he suggests, by the sum total of the dialogue that takes place between the leading minds of that age, their discoveries and the blows for free inquiry that they strike (Grayling in Carroll, 2016). Grayling’s ultimate claim is that, fuelled by radical and unorthodox thinking, technological innovation and war and upheaval, the 17th century can be understood as “the crucible of modernity.”

We can measure the intellectual progress of an era, he suggests, by the sum total of the dialogue that takes place between the leading minds of that age, their discoveries and the blows for free inquiry that they strike

In his Sydney Morning Herald review of the book, author Steven Carroll states that “far from being an academic text, this is a history of ideas for the general reader.” This is also true of A. C. Grayling in-person. While the ideas he tackles can be imposing in their sheer size and weight, he speaks about them in a way that is accessible. What his inquiry boils down to is a simple yet profound set of questions about existence: Who are we? Why do we think the way we do? And what is important? Indeed, as a humanist, Grayling’s discussions invariably lead to an examination of moral codes, of how best to live. “Humanism,” he says, “is the philosophy that you should be a good guest at the dinner table of life.”

What then, can the ideas and discoveries of the tumultuous 17th century tell us about ourselves in the current world climate?

To find out, join A.C. Grayling for his lecture, ‘Progress in Troubled Times: Learning from the Age of Genius’ at Byron Theatre on Thursday 30 March.

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