Age of Enlightenment

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Philosophy

The Age of Enlightenment refers to either the eighteenth century in European philosophy, or the longer period including the seventeenth century and the Age of Reason. It can more narrowly refer to the historical intellectual movement The Enlightenment, which advocated Reason as a means to establishing an authoritative system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and logic, which would allow human beings to obtain objective truth about the universe. Emboldened by the revolution in physics commenced by Newtonian kinematics, Enlightenment thinkers argued that same kind of systematic thinking could apply to all forms of human activity.

The intellectual leaders regarded themselves as a courageous elite who would lead the world into progress from a long period of doubtful tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny, which they imputed to the Dark Ages. The movement helped create the intellectual framework for the American and French Revolutions, the Latin American independence movement, and the Polish Constitution of May 3; and led to the rise of classical liberalism and capitalism. It is matched with the high baroque and classical eras in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts; it receives contemporary attention as being one of the central models for many movements in the modern period.

The enlightenment was mirrored by the Jewish Haskalah, which in Western Europe and particularly in Germany resulted in the elevation and eventual replacement of Yiddish by Hebrew, as well as the Jewish reform and Zionist Nationalist movements.

History of Enlightenment philosophy

Another important movement in 18th century philosophy, closely related to it, focused on belief and piety. Some of its proponents, such as George Berkeley, attempted to demonstrate rationally the existence of a supreme being. Piety and belief in this period were integral to the exploration of natural philosophy and ethics, in addition to political theories of the age. However, prominent Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume questioned and attacked the existing institutions of both Church and State.

The 19th 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.

The Enlightenment (if thought of as a short period) was preceded by the Age of Reason or (if thought of as a long period) by the Renaissance and the Reformation. It was followed by Romanticism.

William Blake's Newton as a divine geometer (1795)
William Blake's Newton as a divine geometer (1795)

The boundaries of the Enlightenment cover much of the seventeenth 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 as one long period.

Europe had been ravaged by religious wars; when peace in the political situation had been restored, after the Peace of Westphalia and the English Civil War, an intellectual upheaval overturned the accepted belief that mysticism and revelation are the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom—which was blamed for fomenting political instability. Instead, (according to those that split the two periods), the Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as foundations for knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and René Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism and inquiry into the nature of "knowledge." The goal of a philosophy based on self-evident axioms reached its height with Baruch (Benedictus de) Spinoza's Ethics, which expounded a pantheistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one. This idea then became central to the Enlightenment from Newton through to Jefferson. The ideas of Pascal, Leibniz, Galileo and other philosophers of the previous period also contributed to and greatly influenced the Enlightenment; for instance, according to E. Cassirer, Leibniz’s treatise On Wisdom ". . . identified the central concept of the Enlightenment and sketched its theoretical programme" (Cassirer 1979: 121–123). There was a wave of change across European thinking, exemplified by Newton's natural philosophy, which combined mathematics of axiomatic proof with mechanics of physical observation, a coherent system of verifiable predictions, which set the tone for what followed Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in the century after.

The Age of Enlightenment is also prominent in the history of Judaism, perhaps because of its conjunction with increased social acceptance of Jews in some western European states, especially those who were not orthodox or who converted to the officially sanctioned version of Christianity.

Key conflicts within Enlightenment-period philosophy

As with theology, philosophy became a source of partisan debate, with different schools attempting to develop rationales for their viewpoints, which then, in turn, became generally accepted. Thus philosophers such as Spinoza searched for a metaphysics of ethics. This trend later influenced pietism and eventually transcendental searches such as those by Immanuel Kant.

Religion was linked to another concept which inspired a great amount 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 system existed because of 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, however, the state assumed more and more authority and power. Intellectuals responded with a series of theories on the purpose of, and limits of state power. Therefore, during The Enlightenment absolutism was cemented and a string of philosophers reacted by advocating limitation, from John Locke forward, who influenced both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Enlightenment ideas influenced organisations seeking to effect state and social development, such as the Freemasons and Illuminati. And they ultimately had a profound effect on the actions of politically active individuals worldwide.

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 idea that society is a contract between individual and some larger entity, whether society or state, continued to grow throughout this period. A series of philosophers, including Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume and Jefferson advocated this idea. Furthermore, thinkers of this age advocated the idea that nationality had a basis beyond mere preference. 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, had a decisive influence in the development of liberalism, democracy and constitutional government which followed.

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, precipitated 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 was a time when 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. These series of discoveries had a momentous effect on both pragmatic commerce and philosophy. The excitement engendered by 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, greatly influenced both religious and secular ideas. If Newton could order the cosmos with natural philosophy, so, many argued, could political philosophy order the body politic.

Within the Enlightenment, two main theories contended 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) set the paradigm for the divine right: that 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; therefore it was a 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 was the need for an orderly and comprehensible function of government. The "Enlightened Despotism" of, for example, Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia (a state within The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation), 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. Frederick the Great was raised by his French governess, importing the Enlightenment to "Germany." Regularization and standardization were seen as good things because they allowed the state to reach its power outwards over the entirety of its domain and because they liberated people from being entangled in endless local custom. Additionally, they expanded the sphere of economic and social activity.

Thus rationalization, standardization and the search for fundamental unities occupied 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 Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the declaration by Jefferson of inalienable rights, in the end overshadowed the idea of divine right and direct alteration of the world by the hand of God. It was also the basis for overthrowing the idea of a completely rational and comprehensible universe, and led, in turn, to the metaphysics of Hegel and Romanticism.

Role of the Enlightenment in later philosophy

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 Enlightenment, and away from the purported 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 of which it is the inheritor, as opposed 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 Isaiah 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 is considered to be 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 are often understood as arguing 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. In their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote a penetrating critique of what they perceived as the contradictions of Enlightenment thought: Enlightenment was seen as being at once liberatory and, through the domination of instrumental rationality tending towards totalitarianism.

Alternatively, the Enlightenment was used as a powerful symbol to argue for the supremacy of rationalism and rationalization, and therefore any attack on it was connected to despotism and madness, for example in the writings of Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Important figures of the Enlightenment era

  • Kant | French Encyclopédistes | Voltaire | Leibniz | Lord Monboddo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Condorcet | Helvétius | Fontenelle | Olympe de Gouges | Ignacy Krasicki | Francois Quesney | Benedict Spinoza | Cesare Beccaria | Adam Smith | Isaac Newton | John Wilkes | Antoine Lavoisier | Mikhail Lomonosov | Mikhailo Shcherbatov | Ekaterina Dashkova | Montesquieu | Mary Wollstonecraft |
  • 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 Vom 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.
  • G.L. Buffon (1707-1788) French. Author of "L'Histoire Naturelle" who considered Natural Selection and the similarities between humans and apes.
  • James Burnett Lord Monboddo Scottish. Philosopher, jurist, pre-evolutionary thinker and contributor to linguistic evolution. See Scottish Enlightenment
  • 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.
  • Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801) Polish. Outstanding poet of the Polish Enlightenment, hailed by contemporaries as "the Prince of Poets." After the election of Stanisław August Poniatowski as king of Poland in 1764, Krasicki became the new King's confidant and chaplain. He participated in the King's famous "Thursday dinners" and co-founded the Monitor, the preeminent periodical of the Polish Enlightenment, sponsored by the King. Consecrated Bishop of Warmia in 1766, Krasicki thereby also became an ex-officio Senator of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American. Statesman, scientist, political philosopher, pragmatic deist, author. As a philosopher known for his writings on nationality, economic matters, aphorisms published in Poor Richard's Alamanac and polemics in favour 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. Theologian 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 empiricism and scientific skepticism, advanced doctrines of naturalism and material causes. Influenced Kant and Adam Smith.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) 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 United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and his interpretation of the United States Constitution (1787) 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."
  • Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830) German who founded the Order of the Illuminati.
  • Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812) Polish. He was active in the Commission for National Education and the Society for Elementary Textbooks, and reformed the Kraków Academy, of which he was rector in 1783-1786. An organizer of the townspeople's movement, in 1789 he edited a memorial from the cities. He co-authored the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, and founded the Assembly of Friends of the Government Constitution to assist in the document's implementation. In 1791-1792 he served as Crown Vice Chancellor. In 1794 he took part in the Kościuszko Uprising, co-authoring its Uprising Act (March 24, 1794) and Proclamation of Połaniec (May 7, 1794), heading the Supreme National Council's Treasury Department, and backing the Uprising's left, Jacobin wing.
  • Gotthold Ephraim 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 centre 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 realm of the relationship between the state and the individual, the contractual basis of the state and the rule of law. Argued for personal liberty with respect to property.
  • Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828) Spanish. Dramatist and translator, support of republicanism and free thinking. Transitional figure to Romanticism.
  • Montesquieu (1689-1755) French political thinker. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions all over the world.
  • Nikolay Novikov (1744-1818) Russian. Philanthropist and journalist who sought to raise the culture of Russian readers and publicly argued with the Empress. See Russian Enlightenment for other prominent figures.
  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809) English. Pamphleteer, Deist, and polemicist, most famous for Common Sense attacking England's domination of the colonies in America.
  • Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos. Main figure of the Spanish Enlightment. Preminent stateman.

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