Saturday, February 21, 2015

Introduction: What is Enlightenment?

Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment."
Immanuel Kant

"I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity."
Michel Foucault

The Enlightenment was a cultural fluorescence which took shape in 18th century Europe, and was centered in France. It drew inspiration from the historical examples of Greece and Rome, as well as contemporary Britain and, later, the North American Colonies. Enlightenment thinkers advocated a limited government which would be responsible to the people, human rights, toleration, economic reform, and the pursuit of "natural philosophy." The purpose of government, enlightenment thinkers agreed, was to seek the welfare of the governed - not to pursue the interests of the Monarch or the Church, as their opponents thought. The highest goal of statecraft should be to imitate the rational, free, and virtuous republics of Greece and Rome. Above all, Enlightenment thinkers were motivated by faith in the power of human understanding. Reason, they were certain, would create a happier and a better world.

Leading lights of the Enlightenment include:

Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727), the natural philosopher who discovered gravitation, the calculus, and the laws of motion.

John Locke (1632 - 1704), the political philosopher whose work forms the basis of modern liberalism.

Montesquieu (1689-1755), the political theorist who first proposed checks and balances as a means of guarding against arbitrary authority.

Voltaire (1694-1778), the satirist, historian, and philosopher who championed mutual toleration, and spoke as the consciousness of the Enlightenment.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher who developed the empirical and skeptical traditions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the French moral and political philosopher who championed the role of emotion in the authentic human life, and developed the doctrine of the general will.

Adam Smith (1723-1789), the evonomist who advocated laissez faire and worked out the theoretical foundations of capitalism

Immanuel Kant (1724-1794), the Prussian epistemologist who founded the idealist and critical traditions in philosophy.

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), the English historian who created the first modern history of the Roman Empire, and crystallized the essential political mythology of the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinkers rejected all supernatural explanations in favor of a rational, orderly, regular, and comprehensible universe. They were divided over the question of whether God existed, with the older generation tending to Deism and the younger to Atheism. Both denounced theology as an absurd abuse of reason which could only lead to bigotry, ignorance, and mutual slaughter.
Throughout the 18th century the Enlightenment went from strength to strength, consistently overwhelming it's theological and absolutist opponents. Enlightenment thinkers saw themselves as the champions of a new age of reason, fighting back the tide of Mid Eval ignorance and superstition.

During the French Revolution, a tradition of criticism toward the Enlightenment emerged called Conservatism, which was much more cautious about the potential of human reason and nature, and defended property, tradition, and religion from the Enlightenment criticism. It is usually associated with the thought of Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and Prince Metternich. In our own time, Post Modernism has also challenged the assumptions of the Enlightenment, arguing that the defining activity of the Enlightenment was not the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, but the ruthless pursuit of power.

The Enlightenment is the cultural, as the industrial revolution is the economic, and the French revolution the political, foundation of modernity. Every time we invoke the consent of the governed, respect for human rights, the importance of freedom, or the necessity of reason, we invoke the Enlightenment.

Paintings are An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768), the Orrery (1766), and The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone Discovers Phosphorous (1771), by Joseph Wright of Derby 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Enlightenment

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (I of XVII)

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