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University of Groningen Library

University of Groningen LibraryHeritageFrans Hemsterhuis (1721-1790)

His philosophical thought

Frans Hemsterhuis (1721-1790)

Hemsterhuis’s philosophy occupied the boundary between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, between reason and emotion. The central theme was human beings and their relationships (rapports) with their environment. In one way or another, everything is interwoven with everything else, with humanity occupying their own position within the whole.

Humankind too has contact with the external world through innumerable relationships. We gain access through our senses, which serve both as gateways and filters for charting these relationships. Everything that is observed actually exists, but not everything is observed about all that exists. Hemsterhuis was particularly interested in optics, and the 17th and 18th-century inventions of the microscope and telescope had also broadened the scope of observation.

This made Hemsterhuis both an empiricist (he was an admirer of Newton) and a relativist: other organs and their associated relationships could offer a different insight into reality and hence a different view of the world. By understanding these limitations, it was possible to overcome the limitations of empiricism.

After Newtonian physics came Eros, the Platonic desire for understanding. We seek passionately to gain an understanding of the relationships with which our existence is entwined. Hemsterhuis’s philosophy thus leads us from physics to metaphysics. All existing knowledge is encompassed and the philosopher takes pleasure in helping people acquire a deeper understanding. Hemsterhuis presented himself as a teacher in the Socratic style and found a willing audience.

Last modified:08 February 2017 11.15 a.m.
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