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The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment refers to the 18th century in European philosophy, and is often thought of as part of a larger period which includes the Age of Reason.

The term also more specifically refers to an intellectual movement, "The Enlightenment," which is described as being the use of rationality to establish an authoritative ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. This movement's leaders viewed themselves as a courageous, elite body of intellectuals who were leading the world toward progress, out of a long period of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which began during a historical period they called the "Dark Ages". This movement provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, as well as the rise of capitalism and the birth of socialism. It is matched by the high baroque era in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts.

Another important movement in 18th century philosophy, closely related to it, was a focus on belief and piety. Often rationalism was used to demonstrate the existence of a supreme being. Piety and belief were an integral part of the exploration of natural philosophy and ethics as well as political theories of the age. At the same time prominent Enlightenment philosophers, such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau questioned and attacked existing institutions of both Church and State.

The 18th century also saw a continued rise of empirical philosophical ideas, and their application to political economy, government and sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology.

It is preceded by the Age of Reason, if thought of as a short period, and by the Renaissance and Reformation if thought of as a long period. It is followed by Romanticism.


Short history of Enlightenment philosophy

The boundaries of the Enlightenment are often thought to cover much of the 17th century as well, though others term the previous era "The Age of Reason." For the present purposes, these two eras are split, however, it is equally acceptable to think of them conjoined together as one long period.

Through the 1500s and half of the 1600s, Europe was wracked by religious wars. When the political situation stabilized, after the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the English Civil War, there was a sharp turn from the mysticism and belief in individual revelation that was perceived to have driven instability. Instead, according to those that split the two periods, the Age of Reason sought axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as its foundations of knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and René Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism, and a quest for the nature of "knowing." The Age of Reason's quest for knowing from axioms would reach its height in pure philosophy with Benedictus de Spinoza and his Ethics, which expounded, a monistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one. This idea would become central to the Enlightenment from Newton through Jefferson.

The Enlightenment was, in many ways, a successor to the ideas of Pascal, Leibniz, Galileo and other philosophers of the previous period. There was a wave of change across European thinking which was exemplified by the natural philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton, mathematical genius and brilliant physicist. The ideas of Newton, his ability to fuse axiomatic proof with physical observation into a coherent system which was easily able to make useful predictions set the tone for much of what would follow in the century after the publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

But Newton was not alone in the "systematic revolution" in thinking, merely the most visible and famous example. The idea of uniform laws for natural phenomenona mirrored the greater systematization in a variety of studies. If the previous era was the age of reasoning from first principles, the Enlightenment saw itself as looking into the mind of God by studying creation and adducing the basic truths of the world. This view seems over-reaching to the present, where truth is seen as more provisional, but in its time it was a powerful assertion, which turned on its head the basic notions of the sources of legitimacy.

For those that divide the "Age of Reason" from the "Enlightenment," the precipitating figure of Newton offers a specific example of the importance of the difference, because he took empirically observed and codified facts, such as Kepler's planetary motion, and the "opticks" which had explained lenses, and began to create an underlying theory of how they functioned. This shift unified the pure empiricism of such Renaissance figures as Sir Francis Bacon with the axiomatic approach of Descartes. The belief in a comprehensible world, under an orderly Christian God, was to provide much of the impetus for philosophical inquiry. On one hand, religious philosophy focused on the importance of piety, and the majesty and mystery of God's ultimate nature; on the other hand, ideas such as Deism stressed that the world was amenable to human reason, and that the "laws" which governed its behavior were understandable. The notion of a "clockwork god" or "god the watchmaker" became prevalent, as many in the time period saw new and increasingly sophisticated machines that kept order as a reflection of a seemingly orderly universe.

Central to this philosophical tradition was the belief in an objective "truth" which was independent of the observer, but yet expressible in rigorous and human terms. The quest for the expression of this truth would lead to a series of philosophical works which alternately advanced the scepticist position that experience cannot know reality, and the idealist position that the mind was capable of encompassing a reality which lies outside of its direct experience. The relationship between being and perception would be explored by George Berkeley and David Hume, and would eventually be the problem that occupied much of the life's work of Kant.

This focus on law, on the separation of rule from the particulars of behavior or experience, was also essential to the rise of a philosophy which had a much stronger concept of the individual, his rights as being based on other than ancient usage, or tenure, and instead on an intrinsic quality of a person. John Locke wrote his Two Treatises on Government to argue that property was not a family right by tenure, but an individual right brought on by mixing labor with the object in question, and securing it from other use. This focus on process and procedure would be honored, at times, in the breach, as England's own "Star Chamber" court would attest to. However, once the concept was established, that there were "natural" rights, as there were "natural" laws - it became the basis for the exploration of what we would now call economics, and political philosophy.

In his famous 1784 essay "What Is Enlightenment?," Immanuel Kant defined it as follows:

"Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity . Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!"

The Enlightenment began then, from the belief in a rational, orderly and comprehensible universe - and proceeded, in stages, to demand a rational and orderly organization of knowledge and the state, such as found in the idea of Deism. This began from the assertion that law governed both heavenly and human affairs, and that law gave the king his power, rather than the king's power giving force to law. The conception of law as a relationship between individuals, rather than families, came to the fore, and with it the increasing focus on individual liberty as a fundamental reality, given by "Nature and Nature's God," which, in the ideal state, would be as expansive as possible. The Enlightenment created then, the ideas, of liberty, property and rationality which are still recognizable as the basis for most political philosophy even to the present era: that is, of a free individual being most free within the context of a state which provides stability of the laws.

The "long" Enlightenment is seen as beginning out of the Renaissance drive for humanism and empiricism. Building on the natural philosophy that was growing with the application of algebra to the study of nature, and the discoveries brought about by the invention of the microscope and the telescope. There is also an increasingly complex philosophy of the role of the state and its relationship to the individual. The turbulence of religious wars had brought about a desire for balance, order, and unity.

A good paradigm for understanding why there are those that split the Age of Reason from the Enlightenment is the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes, a product of the age of reason, systematically pursues and categorizes human emotion, and creates the need for a rigid system to hold back the chaos in his work Leviathan. While John Locke is clearly an intellectual descendant, for him the state of nature is the source of all rights and unity, and the protection of the state is to protect, and not hold back, the state of nature. This fundamental shift, from a rather chaotic and dark view of nature, to a fundamentally orderly view, is an important aspect of the Enlightenment.

A second wave of Enlightenment thinking begins in France with the Encyclopædists, the founders of the sort of project of which Wikipedia is an example. Their ideal was that there is a moral architecture to knowledge. Mixing personal comment with the attempt to codify knowledge, Diderot and D'Alembert sought liberation for the mind in the ability to grasp knowledge.

The Enlightenment was suffused with two competing strains. On one hand there is an intense spirituality, and faith in religion and the church. On the other hand, there is a growing streak of anti-clericalism which mocked the distance between the supposed ideals of the church, and the practice of priests. For Voltaire "Écrasez l'infâme!" would be a battle cry for the ideal of a triumphant, rational, society.

By mid-Century what is regarded by many as the pinnacle of purely Enlightenment thinking was being reached with Voltaire - whose combination of wit, insight, and anger made him the most hailed man of letters since Erasmus. Born Francois Marie Arouet in 1694, he was exiled to England between 1726 and 1729, and there he studied Locke, Newton, and the English Monarchy. Voltaire's ethos was that "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" - that if people believed in what is unreasonable, they will do what is unreasonable.

This point is, perhaps, the central point of contention over the Enlightenment: whether the construction of reason and credibility creates, inherently, as many problems as it deals with. From the perspective of many crucial figures of the Enlightenment, credible reports, viewed through the lens of reason annealed knowledge, empirical observation, and knowledge should be compiled into a source which stood as the authoritative one. The countervailing view, held with increasing force by the Romantic movement and its adherents, is that this process is, inherently, corrupted by social convention, and bars "truth" which is unique, individual and immanent from being spelt or spoken.

The Enlightenment balanced then, on the call for "natural" freedom which was good, without "license" which would, in their view, degenerate. Thus the Age of Enlightenment sought reform of Monarchy by laws which were in the best interest of the subjects, and the "enlightened" ordering of society. The idea of enlightened ordering was reflected in the sciences by, for example, Linnaeus' categorization of biology.

In mid-century Germany, the idea of philosophy as a critical discipline began with the work of Lessing and Herder. Both argued that formal unities that underlie language and structure hold deeper meaning than a surface reading, and that philosophy could be a tool for improving the virtue, political and personal, of the individual. This strain of thinking would influence Kant's critiques, as well as subsequent philosophers seeking an apparatus to examine works, beliefs and social organization, and it is particularly notable in the history of later German philosophy.

These ideas became volatile at the point where the idea that natural freedom was more self-ordering than hierarchy, since hierarchy was the social reality. As that social reality repeatedly disappointed the fundamentally optimistic ideal that reform could end disasters, there became a progressively more strident naturalism which would, eventually, lead to the Romantic movement.

Thinkers of the last wave of the Enlightenment - Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant as well as Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe adopted the increasingly biological metaphor of self-organization and evolutionary forces. This represented the impending end of the Enlightenment: which believed that nature, while basically good, was not basically self-ordering - see Voltaire's Candide for an example of why not - but instead had to be ordered by reasoning and maturity. The impending Romantic saw the universe as self-ordering, and that chaos was, in a real sense, the result of an excess of rational imposition on an organic world.

This boundary would produce political results: with increasing force in the 1750s there would be attempts in England, Austria, Prussia and France to "rationalize" the Monarchical system and its laws. When this failed to end wars, there was an increasing drive for revolution or dramatic alteration. The Enlightenment idea of rationality as government found its way to the heart of the American Declaration of Independence, and the Jacobin program of the French Revolution, as well as the American Constitution of 1787.

The French Revolution, in particular, represents the Enlightenment philosophy through a violent and messianic lens, particularly during the brief period of Jacobin dictatorship. The desire for rationality in government lead to the attempt to end the Catholic Church, and indeed Christianity, in France, change the calendar, clock, measuring system, monetary system and legal system along lines suggested by what was seen as an orderly rationality. It also took the ideas of social and economic equality further than any other major state to that time.

But it would be with Napoleon that the Enlightenment and its style would breathe its last, and longest. Napoleon reorganized France into departments, and would fund a host of projects. One example of the Enlightenment idea at work in Revolutionary and Imperial France was the metric system. In a uniform system of weights and measures, based on axiomatic units - the radius of the earth, the weight and thermodynamic properties of water - prices would float based on measurable quantities, rather than price being fixed. It was thought that this would liberate industry from the tyranny of old production laws, and hence from Medieval structure.

Key conflicts within Enlightenment-period philosophy

As with most periods, the individuals present within the Enlightenment were more aware of their differences than their similarities, within the period there were schools of thought which saw themselves as widely divergent, even as later perspective has come to consider them similar.

One key conflict is on the role of theology - during the previous period, there had been the splintering of the Catholic Church, not, as with previous schisms, largely along political control of the papacy, but along doctrinal lines between Catholic and Protestant theologies. This meant that theology itself had become a source of partisan debate, with different schools attempting to create rationales for their viewpoints, which then, in turn, became generally used. Thus philosophers such as Spinoza searched for a metaphysics of ethics, and this trend would influence pietism and eventually transcendental searches such as those by Immanuel Kant.

Religion was linked to another feature which produced a great deal of Enlightenment thought, namely the rise of the Nation State. In medieval and Renaissance periods, the state was restricted by the need to work through a host of intermediaries. This had been a response to poor communication, where localism thrived in return for loyalty to some central organization. With the improvements in transportation, organization, navigation and finally the influx of gold and silver from trade and conquest, the state began to assume more and more authority and power. The response against this was a series of theories on the purpose of, and limits of state power. The Enlightenment saw both the cementing of absolutism and counter-reaction of limitation advocated by a string of philosophers from John Locke forward, who influenced both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Within the period of the Enlightenment, these issues began to be explored in the question of what constituted the proper relationship of the citizen to the monarch or the state. The continued growth of the idea that society is a contract between individual and some larger entity, whether society or state, would be advocated by a series of philosophers, including Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume and ultimately Jefferson. The idea that nationality had a basis beyond mere preference would also be advocated. Philosophers such as Johann Gottfried von Herder reasserted the idea from Greek antiquity that language had a decisive influence on cognition and thought, and that the meaning of a particular book or text was open to deeper exploration based on deeper connections, an idea now called hermeneutics. The original focus of his scholarship was to delve into the meaning in the Bible and in order to gain a deeper understanding of it. These two concepts - of the contractual nature between the state and the citizen, and the reality of the "nation" beyond that contract, would have decisive influence in the development of liberalism, democracy and constitutional government that would follow.

At the same time, the integration of algebraic thinking, acquired from the Islamic world over the previous two centuries, and geometric thinking which had dominated Western mathematics and philosophy since at least Eudoxus, created a scientific and mathematical revolution. Sir Isaac Newton's greatest claim to prominence came from a systematic application of algebra to geometry, and synthesizing a workable calculus which was applicable to scientific problems. The Enlightenment can be aptly thought of as the time where the solar system was truly "discovered": with the accurate calculation of orbits, such as Halley's comet, the discovery of the first planet since antiquity, Uranus by William Herschel, and the calculation of the mass of the Sun using Newton's theory of universal gravitation. The effect that this series of discoveries had on both pragmatic commerce and philosophy cannot be overstated. The excitement of creating a new and orderly vision of the world, as well as the need for a philosophy of science which could encompass the new discoveries would show its fundamental influence in both religious and secular ideas. If Newton could order the cosmos with "natural philosophy," so, it was argued by many, could political philosophy order the body politic.

Within the Enlightment there were two main theories contending to be the basis of that ordering: "divine right" and "natural law." It might seem that divine right would yield absolutist ideas, and that natural law would lead to theories of liberty. The writing of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) would set the paradigm for the divine right: the universe was ordered by a reasonable God, and therefore his representative on earth had the powers of that God. The orderliness of the cosmos was seen as proof of God, and therefore as proof of the power of monarchy. Natural law, began, not as a reaction against divinity, but instead, as an abstraction: God did not rule arbitrarily, but through natural laws that he enacted on earth. Thomas Hobbes, though an absolutist in government, drew this argument in Leviathan. Once the concept of natural law was invoked, however, it took on a life of its own. If natural law could be used to bolster the position of the monarchy, it could also be used to assert the rights of subjects of that monarch, that if there were natural laws, then there were natural rights associated with them, just as there are rights under man made laws.

What both theories had in common, however, was the need for orderly and comprehensible function of government. The "Enlightened Despotism" of, for example, Catherine the Great of Russia is not based on mystical appeals to authority, but on the pragmatic invocation of state power as necessary to hold back chaotic and anarchic warfare and rebellion. Regularization and standardization were seen as goods, because they allowed the state to reach its power outwards over the entirety of its domain, but also because the liberated people from being entangled in endless local custom, and expanded the sphere of economic and social activity.

Thus rationalization, standardization and the search for fundamental unities would occupy much of the Enlightenment and its arguments over proper methodology and nature of understanding. The culminating efforts of the Enlightenment: for example the economics of Adam Smith, the physical chemistry of Antoine Lavoisier, the idea of evolution pursued by Goethe, the declaration by Jefferson of "inalienable" rights, would, in the end overshadow the idea of "divine right" and direct alteration of the world by the hand of God. It would also be the basis for an overthrow of the idea of completely rational and comprehensible universe, and lead, in turn, to the metaphysics of Hegel and the search for an emotional truth of Romanticism.

Role of the Enlightenment in later philosophy

The Enlightenment's role in modern and post-modern thought

The Enlightenment occupies a central role in the justification for the movement known as modernism. The neo-classicizing trend in modernism came to see itself as being a period of rationality which was overturning foolishly established traditions, and therefore analogized itself to the Encyclopediasts and other philosophes. A variety of 20th century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism traced their intellectual heritage back to the "reasonable" past, and away from the "emotionalism" of the 19th century. Geometric order, rigor and reductionism were seen as virtues of the Enlightenment. The modern movement points to reductionism and rationality as crucial aspects of Enlightenment thinking which it is the inheritor of, as opposted to irrationality and emotionalism. In this view, the Enlightenment represents the basis for modern ideas of liberalism against superstition and intolerance. Influential philosophers who have held this view are Jürgen Habermas and Isiah Berlin.

This view asserts that the Enlightenment was the point where Europe broke through what historian Peter Gay calls "the sacred circle," where previous dogma circumscribed thinking. The Enlightenment is held, in this view, to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as being the primary values of a society. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious and racial tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view the tendency of the philosophes in particular to apply rationality to every problem as being the essential change. From this point on, thinkers and writers were held to be free to pursue the truth in whatever form, without the threat of sanction for violating established ideas.

With the end of the Second World War and the rise of post-modernity, these same features came to be regarded as liabilities - excessive specialization, failure to heed traditional wisdom or provide for unintended consequences, and the "romanticization" of Enlightenment figures - such as the Founding Fathers of the United States, prompted a backlash against both "Science" and Enlightenment based dogma in general. Philosophers such as Michel Foucault argued that the "age of reason" had to construct a vision of "unreason" as being demonic and subhuman, and therefore evil and befouling, whence by analogy to argue that rationalism in the modern period is, likewise, a construction. On the opposite side of the coin, the Enlightenment was used as a powerful symbol to argue for the supremacy of rationism and rationalization, and therefore any attack on it is connected to despotism and madness, for example in the writings of Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Nozick.

This is not to be confused with the role of specific philosophers or individuals from the Enlightenment, but the use of the term in a broad sense by writers in the present of varying points of view.

Precursors of the Enlightenment

Important figures of the Enlightenment era

  • French Encyclopédistes
  • Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783) French. Mathematician and physicist, one of the editors of Encyclopédie
  • Thomas Abbt (1738-1766) German. Promoted what would later be called Nationalism in Om Tode für's Vaterland (On dying for one's nation).
  • Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) French. Literary critic known for Nouvelles de la république des lettres and Dictionnaire historique et critique.
  • James Boswell (1740-1795) Scottish. Biographer of Samuel Johnson, helped established the norms for writing Biography in general.
  • Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Irish. Parliamentarian and political philosopher, best known for pragmatism, considered important to both liberal and conservative thinking.
  • Denis Diderot (1713-1784) French. Founder of the Encyclopédie, speculated on free will and attachment to material objects, contributed to the theory of literature.
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American. Statesman, scientist, political philosopher, author. As a philosopher known for his writings on nationality, economic matters, aphorisms published in Poor Richard's Alamanac and polemics in favor of American Independence. Involved with writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787.
  • Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) English. Historian best known for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  • Johann Gottfried von Herder German. Theologan and Linguist. Proposed that language determines thought, introduced concepts of ethnic study and nationalism, influential on later Romantic thinkers. Early supporter of democracy and republican self rule.
  • David Hume Scottish. Historian, philosopher and economist. Best known for his empricism and scepticism, advanced doctrines of naturalism and material causes. Influenced Kant and Adam Smith.
  • Immanuel Kant German. Philosopher and physicist. Established critical philosophy on a systematic basis, proposed a material theory for the origin of the solar system, wrote on ethics and morals. Influenced by Hume and Isaac Newton. Important figure in German Idealism, and important to the work of Fichte and Hegel.
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American Statesman, political philosopher, educator. As a philosopher best known for the Declaration of Independence and his interpretation of the Constitution which he pursued as president. Argued for natural rights as the basis of all states, argued that violation of these rights negates the contract which bind a people to their rulers and that therefore there is an inherent "Right to Revolution."
  • Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German Dramatist, critic, political philosopher. Created theatre in the German language, began reappraisal of Shakespeare to being a central figure, and the importance of classical dramatic norms as being crucial to good dramatic writing, theorized that the center of political and cultural life is the middle class.
  • John Locke (1632-1704) English Philosopher. Important empricist who expanded and extended the work of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. Seminal thinker in the real of the relationship between the state and the individual, the contractual basis of the state and the rule of law. Aruged for personal liberty with respect to property
  • Moses Mendelssohn
  • Montesquieu
  • Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828) Spanish. Dramatist and translator, support of republicanism and free thinking. Transisitonal figure to Romanticism.
  • Isaac Newton
  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American. Pamphleteer and polemicist, most famous for Common Sense attacking England's domination of the colonies in America.
  • Abbé Raynal
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Adam Smith
  • Benedict Spinoza
  • Voltaire
  • Condorcet
  • Helvétius
  • Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab
  • Cesare Beccaria
  • Marquis de Condorcet
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Olympe de Gouges
  • Paul d'Holbach
  • Fontenelle
  • Madame de Geoffren
  • Antoine Lavoisier
  • G.L. Buffon
  • Francois Quesney
  • John Wilkes

See also

External links


  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996
  • Louis Dupre The Enlightenment & the Intellctural Foundations of Modern Culture 2004
  • Redkop, Benjamin , The Enlightenment and Community, 1999
  • Melamed, Yitzhak Y , Salomon Maimon and the Rise of Spinozism in German Idealism, Journal of the History of Philosophy, Volume 42, Issue 1
  • Porter, Roy The Enlightenment 1999
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, 2004
  • Buchan, James Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind 2003
  • Jacob, Margaret Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents 2000
  • Thomas Munck Enlightenment: A Comparative Social History, 1721-1794
  • Arthur Herman How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of how Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It 2001
  • Mark Hulluing Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes 1994
  • Stuar Brown ed., British Philosophy in the Age of Enlightenment 2002

Last updated: 10-13-2005 20:33:56
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