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This is a lecture about “The Enlightenment” for AP European History


Social Studies  




Title – The Enlightenment
By – K
Primary Subject – Social Studies
Grade Level – 11

“The Enlightenment”


      A philosophical movement of the 18th century that emphasized the use of reason to scrutinize previously accepted doctrines and traditions and that brought about many humanitarian reforms.
      ~The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as courageous and elite, and regarded their purpose as leading the world toward progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny (which they believed began during a historical period they called the “Dark Ages”).
    ~This movement also provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, the Latin American independence movement, and the Polish Constitution of May 3, and also led to the rise of capitalism and the birth of socialism, liberalism and fascism. It is matched by the high baroque and classical eras in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts, and receives contemporary application in the unity of science movement which includes logical positivism.

Some Enlightenment Philosophers

    Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume

Some History of Enlightenment Philosophy

      ~Throughout the 1500s and half of the 1600s, Europe was ravaged by religious wars. When the political situation stabilized after the Peace of Westphalia and at the end of the English Civil War, there was an upheaval which overturned the notions of mysticism and faith in individual revelation as the primary source of knowledge and wisdom was perceived to have been a driving force for instability. Instead, the Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as the foundations for knowledge and stability.
      ~The Enlightenment was, in many ways, influenced by the ideas of Pascal, Leibniz, Galileo and other philosophers of the previous period. For instance, E. Cassirer has asserted that Leibniz’s treatise On Wisdom “. . . identified the central concept of the Enlightenment and sketched its theoretical program” (Cassirer 1979: 121-123).
      ~Enlightenment thinkers saw themselves as looking into the mind of God by studying creation and deducing the basic truths of the world. This view may seem overreaching to some in the present-day, where belief is that human beings apprehend a truth that is more provisional, but in that era it was a powerful notion which turned on its head the previous basic notions of the sources of legitimacy.
    ~The Age of Enlightenment sought reform of the Monarchy by laws which were in the best interest of its subjects, and the “enlightened” ordering of society.

Key Conflicts

      ~One key conflict is on the role of theology – during the previous period, there had been the splintering of the Catholic Church, not, as with previous schisms, largely along political control of the papacy, but along doctrinal lines between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies. Consequently, theology itself became a source of partisan debate, with different schools attempting to create rationales for their viewpoints, which then, in turn, became generally used. Thus philosophers such as Spinoza searched for a metaphysics of ethics. This trend would influence pietism and eventually transcendental searches such as those by Immanuel Kant.
      Religion was linked to another feature which produced a great deal 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, the state began to assume more and more authority and power. The response against this was a series of theories on the purpose of, and limits of state power. The Enlightenment saw both the cementing of absolutism and counter-reaction of limitation advocated by a string of philosophers from John Locke forward, who influenced both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
      ~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. The effect that this series of discoveries had on both pragmatic commerce and philosophy was momentous. The excitement of 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 would show its fundamental influence in 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 there were two main theories contending 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.

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 philosophies.
      The Enlightenment represents the basis for modern ideas of liberalism against superstition and intolerance. Influential philosophers who have held this view are JÃrgen Habermas and Isaiah Berlin.
      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.
      The Enlightenment was used as a powerful symbol to argue for the supremacy of rationalism and rationalization, and therefore any attack on it is connected to despotism and madness, for example in the writings of Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Nozick.
    This is not to be confused with the role of specific philosophers or individuals from the Enlightenment, but the use of the term in a broad sense by writers in the present of varying points of view.

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