Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

13: The Enlightenment

  • Page ID
    12523
  • In 1784, a Prussian philosopher named Immanuel Kant published a short essay entitled What is Enlightenment? He was responding to nearly a century of philosophical, scientific, and technical advances in Central and Western Europe that, he felt, had culminated in his own lifetime in a more enlightened and just age. According to Kant, Enlightenment was all about the courage to think for one's self, to question the accepted notions of any field of human knowledge rather than relying on a belief imposed by an outside authority. Likewise, he wrote, ideas were now exchanged between thinkers in a network of learning that itself provided a kind of intellectual momentum. Kant's point was that, more than ever before, thinkers of various kinds were breaking new ground not only in using the scientific method to discover new things about the physical world, but in applying rational inquiry toward improving human life and the organization of human society. While Kant's essay probably overstated the Utopian qualities of the thought of his era, he was right that it did correspond to a major shift in how educated Europeans thought about the world and the human place in it.

    Following Kant, historians refer to the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century as the Enlightenment. Historians now tend to reject the idea that the Enlightenment was a single, self-conscious movement of thinkers, but they still (usually) accept that there were indeed innovative new themes of thought running through much of the philosophical, literary, and technical writing of the period. Likewise, new forms of media and new forums of discussion came of age in the eighteenth century, creating a larger and better-informed public than ever before in European history.

    • 13.1: The Enlightenment- Definitions
      The central concern of the Enlightenment was applying rational thought to almost every aspect of human existence: not just science, but philosophy, morality, and society. Along with those philosophical themes, central to the Enlightenment was the emergence of new forms of media and new ways in which people exchanged information, along with new “sensibilities” regarding what was proper and desirable in social conduct and politics. We owe to the Enlightenment fundamental modern beliefs.
    • 13.2: Context and Causes
      One of the major causes of the Enlightenment was the Scientific Revolution. It cannot be overstated how important the work of scientists was to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, because works like Newton's Mathematical Principles demonstrated the existence of eternal, immutable laws of nature that were completely rational and understandable by humans. Indeed, in many ways the Enlightenment begins with Newton's publication of the Principles in 1687.
    • 13.3: Enlightenment Philosophes
      The term most often used for Enlightenment thinkers is philosophe, meaning simply "philosopher" in French. Many of the most famous and important philosophes were indeed French, but there were major English, Scottish, and Prussian figures as well. Some of the most noteworthy philosophes included the following.
    • 13.4: Politics and Society
      Philosophes tended to openly attack the most egregious injustices they perceived in royal governments and the organized churches, but at the same time their skepticism about the intellectual abilities of the common people was such that almost none of them advocated a political system besides a better, more rational version of monarchy. Likewise, philosophes were quick to salute monarchs who they thought were living up to their hopes for the ideal of rational monarchy.
    • 13.5: The Radical Enlightenment and the Underground
      The so-called Radical Enlightenment (the term was invented by historians, not people involved in it) had to do with the ideas too scandalous for mainstream philosophes to support, like outright atheism. One examples of this phenomenon was the emergence of Freemasonry, "secret," although not difficult to find for most male European elites, groups of like-minded Enlightenment thinkers who gathered in "lodges" to discuss philosophy, make political connections, and socialize.
    • 13.6: Implications of the Enlightement
      Even though most of the major figures of the Enlightenment were themselves social elites, their thought was ultimately disruptive to the Christian society of orders. Almost all of the philosophes claimed that the legitimacy of a monarch was based on their rule coinciding with the prosperity of the nation and the absence of cruelty and injustice in the laws of the land. The implication was that people have the right to judge the monarch in term of his or her competence and rationality.

    Thumbnail: Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher (Public Domaon; Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735 via Wikipedia).

    • Was this article helpful?