19.1: The Enlightenment
19.1.1: Introduction to the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that dominated in Europe during the 18th century, was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.
Explain the main ideas of the Age of Enlightenment
- The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that dominated in Europe during the 18th century. It was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and it advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. However, historians of race, gender, and class note that Enlightenment ideals were not originally envisioned as universal in today’s sense of the word.
- The Philosophic Movement advocated for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation.
- There were two distinct lines of Enlightenment thought: the radical enlightenment, advocating democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and eradication of religious authority. A second, more moderate variety sought accommodation between reform and the traditional systems of power and faith.
- While the Enlightenment cannot be pigeonholed into a specific doctrine or set of dogmas, science came to play a leading role in Enlightenment discourse and thought.
- The Enlightenment brought political modernization to the west, in terms of focusing on democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies.
- Enlightenment thinkers sought to curtail the political power of organized religion, and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war. The radical Enlightenment promoted the concept of separating church and state.
- The term that refers to several related but distinct philosophical positions regarding the connections between phenomena, or theories, “reducing” one to another, usually considered “simpler” or more “basic.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy suggests a three part division: ontological (a belief that the whole of reality consists of a minimal number of parts); methodological (the scientific attempt to provide explanation in terms of ever smaller entities); and theory (the suggestion that a newer theory does not replace or absorb the old, but reduces it to more basic terms).
- A doctrine that involves following the principles and using the methods of natural philosopher Isaac Newton. Newton’s broad conception of the universe as being governed by rational and understandable laws laid the foundation for many strands of Enlightenment thought.
- A general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It had many writers and was edited by Denis Diderot, and, until 1759, co-edited by Jean le Rond d’Alembert. It is the most famous for representing the thought of the Enlightenment.
- A theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism and skepticism, it emphasizes the role of experience and evidence (especially sensory experience), in the formation of ideas, over the notion of innate ideas or traditions.
- scientific method
- A body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford Dictionaries Online define it as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and it advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the church, and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.French historians traditionally place the Enlightenment between 1715, the year that Louis XIV died, and 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. Some recent historians begin the period in the 1620s, with the start of the scientific revolution. However, different national varieties of the movement flourished between the first decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century.
The ideas of the Enlightenment played a major role in inspiring the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and emphasized the rights of the common men, as opposed to the exclusive rights of the elites. However, historians of race, gender, and class note that Enlightenment ideals were not originally envisioned as universal in the today’s sense of the word. Although they did eventually inspire the struggle for rights of people of color, women, or the working masses, most Enlightenment thinkers did not advocate equality for all, regardless of race, gender, or class, but rather insisted that rights and freedoms were not hereditary. This perspective directly attacked the traditionally exclusive position of the European aristocracy, but was still largely limited to expanding the political and individual rights of white males of particular social standing.
In the mid-18th century, Europe witnessed an explosion of philosophic and scientific activity that challenged traditional doctrines and dogmas. The philosophic movement was led by Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation. The political philosopher Montesquieu introduced the idea of a separation of powers in a government, a concept which was enthusiastically adopted by the authors of the United States Constitution. While the philosophers of the French Enlightenment were not revolutionaries, and many were members of the nobility, their ideas played an important part in undermining the legitimacy of the Old Regime and shaping the French Revolution.
There were two distinct lines of Enlightenment thought: the radical enlightenment, inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, advocating democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and eradication of religious authority. A second, more moderate variety, supported by René Descartes, John Locke, Christian Wolff, Isaac Newton and others, sought accommodation between reform and the traditional systems of power and faith.
Much of what is incorporated in the scientific method (the nature of knowledge, evidence, experience, and causation), and some modern attitudes towards the relationship between science and religion, were developed by David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume became a major figure in the skeptical philosophical and empiricist traditions of philosophy. Immanuel Kant tried to reconcile rationalism and religious belief, individual freedom and political authority, as well as map out a view of the public sphere through private and public reason. Kant’s work continued to shape German thought, and indeed all of European philosophy, well into the 20th century. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of England’s earliest feminist philosophers. She argued for a society based on reason, and that women, as well as men, should be treated as rational beings.
“If there is something you know, communicate it. If there is something you don’t know, search for it.” An engraving from the 1772 edition of the Encyclopédie. Truth, in the top center, is surrounded by light and unveiled by the figures to the right, Philosophy and Reason.
While the Enlightenment cannot be pigeonholed into a specific doctrine or set of dogmas, science came to play a leading role in Enlightenment discourse and thought. Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had backgrounds in the sciences, and associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favor of the development of free speech and thought. Broadly speaking, Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought, and was embedded with the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress. As with most Enlightenment views, the benefits of science were not seen universally.
Science during the Enlightenment was dominated by scientific societies and academies, which had largely replaced universities as centers of scientific research and development. Societies and academies were also the backbone of the maturation of the scientific profession. Another important development was the popularization of science among an increasingly literate population. Many scientific theories reached the wide public, notably through the Encyclopédie (a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772) and the popularization of Newtonianism.
The 18th century saw significant advancements in the practice of medicine, mathematics, and physics; the development of biological taxonomy; a new understanding of magnetism and electricity; and the maturation of chemistry as a discipline, which established the foundations of modern chemistry.
Modern Western Government
The Enlightenment has long been hailed as the foundation of modern western political and intellectual culture. It brought political modernization to the west, in terms of focusing on democratic values and institutions, and the creation of modern, liberal democracies.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes ushered in a new debate on government with his work Leviathan in 1651. Hobbes also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.
John Locke and Rousseau also developed social contract theories. While differing in details, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau agreed that a social contract, in which the government’s authority lies in the consent of the governed, is necessary for man to live in civil society. Locke is particularly known for his statement that individuals have a right to “Life, Liberty and Property,” and his belief that the natural right to property is derived from labor. His theory of natural rights has influenced many political documents, including the United States Declaration of Independence and the French National Constituent Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Though much of Enlightenment’s political thought was dominated by social contract theorists, some Scottish philosophers, most notably David Hume and Adam Ferguson, criticized this camp. Theirs was the assumption that governments derived from a ruler’s authority and force (Hume) and polities grew out of social development rather than social contract (Ferguson).
Enlightenment era religious commentary was a response to the preceding century of religious conflict in Europe. Enlightenment thinkers sought to curtail the political power of organized religion, and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war. A number of novel ideas developed, including Deism (belief in God the Creator, with no reference to the Bible or any other source)and atheism. The latter was much discussed but there were few proponents. Many, like Voltaire, held that without belief in a God who punishes evil, the moral order of society was undermined.
The radical Enlightenment promoted the concept of separating church and state, an idea often credited to Locke. According to Locke’s principle of the social contract, the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he said must therefore remain protected from any government authority. These views on religious tolerance and the importance of individual conscience, along with the social contract, became particularly influential in the American colonies and the drafting of the United States Constitution.
While the philosophy of the Enlightenment was dominated by men, the question of women’s rights appeared as one of the most controversial ideas. Mary Wollstonecraft, one of few female thinkers of the time, was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
Introduction to the Enlightenment
“Age of Enlightenment.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Science in the Age of Enlightenment.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_in_the_Age_of_Enlightenment. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Encyclopedie_frontispice_full.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment#/media/File:Encyclopedie_frontispice_full.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.
“Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_c._1797.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft#/media/File:Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797).jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.