Short History of Enlightenment Philosophy
The boundaries of the Enlightenment are often thought to cover 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 as one long period conjoined together.
Through the 1500's and half of the 1600's, 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 away from the mysticism and belief in individual revelation that was perceived to have driven instability. Instead, the Age of Reason sought axiomic philosophy and absolutism as its foundations of knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and Rene 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 Benedict De Spinoza and his Ethics, which focused on 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, Gallileo and other philosophers of the previous period. What changed was a wave across European thinking which was exemplified by the natural philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton, mathematical genius, and creator of physics. The ideas of Newton, his ability to fuse axiomic 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 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 phenomenon 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 both over-reaching to the present, where truth is more provisional, but in its time it was a powerful assertion, which turned on its head the basic notions of the source of legitimacy.
A good paradigm for splitting 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 catagorizes 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 Encyclopediasts, the founders of the sort of project which Wikipedia is an example. Their ideal that there is a moral architecture to knowledge, mixing personal comment with the attempt to codify knowledge, Diderot and D'Alambert sought liberation for the mind in the ability to grasp knowledge.
The Englightenment was suffused with two competing strains, on one hand there is an intense spirtuality and faith in religion, and the church. On the other hand, there is a growing streak of anti-clercism which mocked the distance between the supposed ideals of the church, and the practice of priests.
By mid-Century 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. Francois Marie Arouet , born in 1694, he was exiled to England in 1726 through 1729, there he studied Locke and 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 the Enlightenment, credible reports, viewed through the lens of reason annealed knowledge, and knowledge should be compiled into a source which stood as the authorative one. The contraveiling 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 immament 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, Linneus' catagorization of biology.
These ideas became volatile at the point were 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 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 1750's 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.
But it would be with Napolean that the Enlightenment and its style would breath its last, and longest. Napolean 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 axiomic 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. This was thought to liberate industry from the tyranny of old production laws, and hence from Medieval structure.
Precursors of the Enlightenment
Important figures of the Enlightenment era
- Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996
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