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The Age of the Enlightenment


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The Age of Enlightenment was a period of scientific awakening, largely centred around France, although the starting point for Enlightenment was John Locke's (1632-1705) book Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which was a relentless attack on metaphysical arguments. Metaphysics is posing the existence of objects that cannot be observed.

The Enlightenment met the church head on, tackling previously avoided issues. It was, at least initially, an act of great courage to defy the church. Kant said 'sapere aude' = 'dare to know'. Having courage of your own understanding.

In particular, the Enlightenment allows people to question anything.

The focus on self-consciousness led to a break with the past rather than a gradual change and the tendency towards specialisations led to hastening of division of disciplines (see Descartes) and spawned many specialist journals and an active printing industry.

Four main transformations

Four areas where significant change occurred were:

  • Religious
    • Questioning of Catholic beliefs and Protestantism led to tolerance for new ideas.
  • Intellectual
    • Free intellectual inquiry resulted from widespread opposition to religious intolerance.
    • The French revolution led to 'age of reason'.
    • Educational institutions free of religious allegiance also spread.
  • Economic
    • Industrial revolution, move away from agrarian fiefdoms led to an increasingly wealthy, independent and educated middle class.
  • Political
    • Nation-states emerged, ruled by kings and parliaments that only paid lip-service to religious rule.
  • Parties and factions which have legitimate differences of opinion.

Hollinger's four summary claims

  • Everything worth knowing can be unified in a set of beliefs that all rational people can accept.
  • Moral principles are rational and provide standards for conduct and judgement.
  • Any contradiction to these is an obstacle to progress and happiness.
  • The truth will set us free.

The Philosophes

The Philosophes were a loose movement interested in all forms of knowledge. They were quite anti-clerical and often campaigned on behalf of its victims.

They regarded knowledge based on experience as the best form of understanding. They heroised Newton and were keen on technology and science.

They focused on legal reform, admired the British Constitution and generally championing reason and tolerance.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784) first published the huge 'Encyclopédie' in 1751 as reference point of human knowledge. It was polemic, tendentious and sometimes scandalous.

The Scottish Enlightenment

David Hume (1711-1776) and the Scottish Enlightenment challenged empiricist tendency to fall back on ordinary moral beliefs which were seen to cause invalid causal explanation.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1784), he argued for rethinking of cause and effect and identified that correlation does not imply causation. He considered knowledge should not be taken for granted and doubt should always remain. Even more than Locke, he opposed metaphysics.


The Enlightenment was double-edged as it contained a critical spirit, yet sought certainty. It did not address gender and racial biases.

Beware the 'mousetrap of social science methodology': the fact/value controversy.

Nietsche criticised the idea that knowledge, truth and rationality are supremely important. Carried to the extremes, they destroy much of what is important in life, including life itself.

See also

Rationalism, Positivism

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