What Is Enlightenment Essay, Research Paper
What is Enlightenment?
In the eighteenth century in France Britain and Germany a general
intellectual move towards greater reliance on the human sciences and their
relevance to the boundaries of existing knowledge began.
This movement was referred to as “The Enlightenment”. As the name
suggests the movement set out to shed a greater on humanity, human nature
and the nature of existence. A great desire was shared to determine the
extent of our knowledge of the world and for ways to gain a greater
understanding of it.
This movement relied on a mass rejection of tradition and already called for
the removal of all established conceptions and prejudices commonly held.
The Catholic Church, and indeed all religions came under heavy scrutiny
and rejection due to their all pervasive grip on all matters educational,
scientific and philosophical. Religious morals and guidelines also came to be
disregarded in philosophical terms.
Science, logic and rationalism became the principal tools of philosophy in
this era as was evidenced by the new methods employed in argument,
debate, analysis and critique.
Tradition in all its forms, be it religious or scientific was eschewed in favour
of a clean slate from which to begin re-assessing what we can know.
Although Descartes was the first Philosopher to employ reason as a tool and
Francis Bacon greatly influenced Enlightenment thought it is John Locke,
an English Protestant philosopher based in Amsterdam who is perceived to
be the father figure of this movement. In France a legion of intellectuals
known as the philosophes became a phenomena, and globally thinkers such
as Hume and Kant helped define the enlightenment movement.
In order to understand what the Enlightenment is one must consider the
historical period it influenced and took its influence from.
SOCIAL CLIMATE AND CULTURE.
The enlightenment took place against a historical background of momentous
cultural change. The reformation of the fifteenth century and the great split
of the Catholic Church into Roman Catholicism and the various forms of
Protestantism led to much intellectual chagrin with the prevalent Churches.
The main effect of the reformation was its undermining of clerical authority
in all things intellectual, artistic and philosophical. This factored greatly in
paving the way for the rejuvenating Renaissance period experienced in
Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
During the Renaissance scholars began to study in their own right, free of
the shackles of religous sponsorship and its entailing limitations. This form
of study and self-improvement is exactly what the enlightenment was
intended to allow the common man. One of the implications of the
movement is that any man can better himself through education. As such
modern science and philosophy prospered and flourished and began to
advance at a more rapid pace than had ever been seen before. A scientific
revolution took place. This revolution further tore down reliance on
Man began to re-assess his position in nature through scientific method.
This reliance on scientific method became all pervasive in the philosophy of
Furthermore the enlightenment heralded in a more rational time in political
thought and came at a time of great revolution. In England inspired by this
new Enlightenment thought, the Monarchy abdicated its sovereignty to the
English Parliament in sixteen-eighty-eight, indicative of a re-appraisal of the
belief that the monarch was God’s voice on earth and ruled by divine right.
This led to a time of great growth and change in England. England
established the first “Bill of rights” protecting its subjects and itself. London
became a cosmopolitan capital and a centre of great learning and innovation.
The country experienced an Agricultural revolution as a result of the rapidly
advancing scientific progress brought about through the Enlightenment.
In France a similar growth period was being experienced. Paris became the
focal point of all enlightenment thought. Philosophical texts the world over
were being universally written in French, which was seen as indicative of
new intellectual sophistication growing around the world in this time
period. Paris had become the epitome of cultural sophistication and was
seen as the pinnacle of what society can be. It set the tone in literature, art,
fashion and science. Within this newly intellectual society an elite group of
prevalent thinkers, known as the “Philosophes” became key to the spread of
the enlightenment and its ideals.
THE PHILOSOPHES AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT’S OBSESSION WITH KNOWLEDGE.
The Philosophes were Parisian noblemen who shared a common interest in
all things philosophical and scientific. Their search and thirst for knowledge
exemplifies the intellectual climate of the enlightenment era. They could be
described as the “militant wing” of the enlightenment movement as they
were dedicated to the spread of these new ideals. These men were not
professional philosophers nor even academics in the classical sense, but
rather a community of intellectuals with common interests.
As was encouraged by the scientists, philosophers and novelists of the time
this group discussed, argued, dissected collaborated and created the key
ideas prevalent at the time. They shared a common desire for knowledge
and went out of their ways to ensure the spread of this knowledge to all.
open houses were held in the “Salons” of Paris which could be attended by
anyone with an interest could come and share in the debate of knowledge.
It was one of these men, Denis Diderot, who made possibly the most
relevant contribution of the enlightenment to society. It is a contribution
characteristic and significant of the enlightenment and its relevance is
Unarguable – The Encyclopaedia. This encyclopaedia aimed to be the
comprehensive resource of all the knowledge in the world. It took twenty
years to complete the project which consisted of approximately 75,000
entrys and 2,500 illustrations and engravings. It held enough information to
make up twenty-eight separate volumes.
The Encyclopaedia was of immense fascination to the public at large. With
the encyclopaedia, the Philosophes campaigned to spread the new science
and philosophy to the public readership. This was made possible due to the
further advances the enlightenment encouraged in the field of printing and
the printed word.
THE RELEVANCE OF RELIGION TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT.
Although the tradition and theology of the Christian religions were widely
debated and criticised it would be wrong to believe that the enlightenment
heralded an age of decline for the church.
In time, and after much debate many of the enlightenment thinkers began to
extole God as still being of scientific and philosophical relevance. God
became identified with nature in certain dissertations. It was held that the
newly discovered regularities of the natural world testified to the existence
of a higher power. The example of the watch found in the desert is used to
verify this; If one was to find a perfectly working watch in the desert, one
would assume that it was left there by a watchmaker. God is compared to
this watchmaker and the world the watch. The many intricately working
processes of the world are so perfect that they can only have been instigated
by some first source.
Rather than the fear of a public backlash, the churches problems lay
elsewhere. The theological reliance on miracles and scripture was seen as
ignorant or blind to the new scientific “certainties” discovered by the
Enlightenment. The Scottish philosopher David Hume was the principal
critic of this reliance on the unprovable non-scientific world.
The real relevance to religion of the enlightenment was its relegation from
being the figurehead of all scientific and philosophical thought that it had
come to be. Humanity became viewed in a more non-denominational light,
rather as separate groups of different Religions or creeds. Atheism and faith
were viewed equally, and as such equally irrelevant to enlightenment
thought. It no longer mattered what you believed in or if you believed in
anything at all. Religous effects on philosophy and science was now
Reaction to the Enlightenment
It is undeniable that the enlightenment has deeply affected the world today.
The American and French revolutions were innately inspired by the
Enlightenment. Humanity’s renewed faith in the possibility of change and
positive progress was key to the seeds of these revolutions being sown.
However, a greater reliance on Science has lead to a similar blind faith in
Sciences all-encompassing relevance. Many would contend that scientific
thought is no more relevant to the world than religous thoughts and can
just as easily be called into question.
Criticism of the enlightenment.
The end of the Enlightenment period came with the beginning of the
Romantic period of the early nineteenth century. It was in fact one of the
most noted Enlightenment thinkers Jean-Jacque Rousseau who was at the
forefront of the Romanticism period.
Rousseau criticised the enlightenment for being to concerned with the
external world, and that the only way one could really learn anything about
oneself or the world a greater emphasis should be placed on internal study.
Rather than study knowledge’s relevance to the world, Rousseau wanted to
study knowledge’s relevance to himself. Rousseau sought to bring about an
The Romanticism era became a time where blind optimism, pessimism and
thought were used rather than employing reason, rationale or science. A new
era of thought was heralded in.
In modern times such thinkers as Hans-Georg Gadamer try to criticise the
still pervasive influence of the enlightenment. Gadamer criticicizes the
enlightenment s distrust of tradition and established boundaries. To ignore
these factors like the enlightenment does denies the impossibility of making
them irrelevant. He contends that the clean slate analysis of the world as
used in the enlightenment can never allow us a realistic view of the world as
in our daily lives there is no way we can ignore them.