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What Is Enlightenment Essay, Research Paper

What is Enlightenment?

In the eighteenth century in France Britain and Germany a general

intellectual move towards greater reliance on the human sciences and their

relevance to the boundaries of existing knowledge began.

This movement was referred to as “The Enlightenment”. As the name

suggests the movement set out to shed a greater on humanity, human nature

and the nature of existence. A great desire was shared to determine the

extent of our knowledge of the world and for ways to gain a greater

understanding of it.

This movement relied on a mass rejection of tradition and already called for

the removal of all established conceptions and prejudices commonly held.

The Catholic Church, and indeed all religions came under heavy scrutiny

and rejection due to their all pervasive grip on all matters educational,

scientific and philosophical. Religious morals and guidelines also came to be

disregarded in philosophical terms.

Science, logic and rationalism became the principal tools of philosophy in

this era as was evidenced by the new methods employed in argument,

debate, analysis and critique.

Tradition in all its forms, be it religious or scientific was eschewed in favour

of a clean slate from which to begin re-assessing what we can know.

Although Descartes was the first Philosopher to employ reason as a tool and

Francis Bacon greatly influenced Enlightenment thought it is John Locke,

an English Protestant philosopher based in Amsterdam who is perceived to

be the father figure of this movement. In France a legion of intellectuals

known as the philosophes became a phenomena, and globally thinkers such

as Hume and Kant helped define the enlightenment movement.

In order to understand what the Enlightenment is one must consider the

historical period it influenced and took its influence from.


The enlightenment took place against a historical background of momentous

cultural change. The reformation of the fifteenth century and the great split

of the Catholic Church into Roman Catholicism and the various forms of

Protestantism led to much intellectual chagrin with the prevalent Churches.

The main effect of the reformation was its undermining of clerical authority

in all things intellectual, artistic and philosophical. This factored greatly in

paving the way for the rejuvenating Renaissance period experienced in

Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

During the Renaissance scholars began to study in their own right, free of

the shackles of religous sponsorship and its entailing limitations. This form

of study and self-improvement is exactly what the enlightenment was

intended to allow the common man. One of the implications of the

movement is that any man can better himself through education. As such

modern science and philosophy prospered and flourished and began to

advance at a more rapid pace than had ever been seen before. A scientific

revolution took place. This revolution further tore down reliance on


Man began to re-assess his position in nature through scientific method.

This reliance on scientific method became all pervasive in the philosophy of

the time.

Furthermore the enlightenment heralded in a more rational time in political

thought and came at a time of great revolution. In England inspired by this

new Enlightenment thought, the Monarchy abdicated its sovereignty to the

English Parliament in sixteen-eighty-eight, indicative of a re-appraisal of the

belief that the monarch was God’s voice on earth and ruled by divine right.

This led to a time of great growth and change in England. England

established the first “Bill of rights” protecting its subjects and itself. London

became a cosmopolitan capital and a centre of great learning and innovation.

The country experienced an Agricultural revolution as a result of the rapidly

advancing scientific progress brought about through the Enlightenment.

In France a similar growth period was being experienced. Paris became the

focal point of all enlightenment thought. Philosophical texts the world over

were being universally written in French, which was seen as indicative of


new intellectual sophistication growing around the world in this time

period. Paris had become the epitome of cultural sophistication and was

seen as the pinnacle of what society can be. It set the tone in literature, art,

fashion and science. Within this newly intellectual society an elite group of

prevalent thinkers, known as the “Philosophes” became key to the spread of

the enlightenment and its ideals.


The Philosophes were Parisian noblemen who shared a common interest in

all things philosophical and scientific. Their search and thirst for knowledge

exemplifies the intellectual climate of the enlightenment era. They could be

described as the “militant wing” of the enlightenment movement as they

were dedicated to the spread of these new ideals. These men were not

professional philosophers nor even academics in the classical sense, but

rather a community of intellectuals with common interests.

As was encouraged by the scientists, philosophers and novelists of the time

this group discussed, argued, dissected collaborated and created the key

ideas prevalent at the time. They shared a common desire for knowledge

and went out of their ways to ensure the spread of this knowledge to all.


open houses were held in the “Salons” of Paris which could be attended by

anyone with an interest could come and share in the debate of knowledge.

It was one of these men, Denis Diderot, who made possibly the most

relevant contribution of the enlightenment to society. It is a contribution

characteristic and significant of the enlightenment and its relevance is

Unarguable – The Encyclopaedia. This encyclopaedia aimed to be the

comprehensive resource of all the knowledge in the world. It took twenty

years to complete the project which consisted of approximately 75,000

entrys and 2,500 illustrations and engravings. It held enough information to

make up twenty-eight separate volumes.

The Encyclopaedia was of immense fascination to the public at large. With

the encyclopaedia, the Philosophes campaigned to spread the new science

and philosophy to the public readership. This was made possible due to the

further advances the enlightenment encouraged in the field of printing and

the printed word.


Although the tradition and theology of the Christian religions were widely

debated and criticised it would be wrong to believe that the enlightenment

heralded an age of decline for the church.

In time, and after much debate many of the enlightenment thinkers began to

extole God as still being of scientific and philosophical relevance. God

became identified with nature in certain dissertations. It was held that the

newly discovered regularities of the natural world testified to the existence

of a higher power. The example of the watch found in the desert is used to

verify this; If one was to find a perfectly working watch in the desert, one

would assume that it was left there by a watchmaker. God is compared to

this watchmaker and the world the watch. The many intricately working

processes of the world are so perfect that they can only have been instigated

by some first source.

Rather than the fear of a public backlash, the churches problems lay

elsewhere. The theological reliance on miracles and scripture was seen as

ignorant or blind to the new scientific “certainties” discovered by the

Enlightenment. The Scottish philosopher David Hume was the principal

critic of this reliance on the unprovable non-scientific world.

The real relevance to religion of the enlightenment was its relegation from

being the figurehead of all scientific and philosophical thought that it had

come to be. Humanity became viewed in a more non-denominational light,

rather as separate groups of different Religions or creeds. Atheism and faith

were viewed equally, and as such equally irrelevant to enlightenment

thought. It no longer mattered what you believed in or if you believed in

anything at all. Religous effects on philosophy and science was now


Reaction to the Enlightenment

It is undeniable that the enlightenment has deeply affected the world today.

The American and French revolutions were innately inspired by the

Enlightenment. Humanity’s renewed faith in the possibility of change and

positive progress was key to the seeds of these revolutions being sown.

However, a greater reliance on Science has lead to a similar blind faith in

Sciences all-encompassing relevance. Many would contend that scientific

thought is no more relevant to the world than religous thoughts and can

just as easily be called into question.

Criticism of the enlightenment.

The end of the Enlightenment period came with the beginning of the

Romantic period of the early nineteenth century. It was in fact one of the

most noted Enlightenment thinkers Jean-Jacque Rousseau who was at the

forefront of the Romanticism period.

Rousseau criticised the enlightenment for being to concerned with the

external world, and that the only way one could really learn anything about

oneself or the world a greater emphasis should be placed on internal study.

Rather than study knowledge’s relevance to the world, Rousseau wanted to

study knowledge’s relevance to himself. Rousseau sought to bring about an

“Inner Enlightenment”.

The Romanticism era became a time where blind optimism, pessimism and

thought were used rather than employing reason, rationale or science. A new

era of thought was heralded in.

In modern times such thinkers as Hans-Georg Gadamer try to criticise the

still pervasive influence of the enlightenment. Gadamer criticicizes the

enlightenment s distrust of tradition and established boundaries. To ignore

these factors like the enlightenment does denies the impossibility of making

them irrelevant. He contends that the clean slate analysis of the world as

used in the enlightenment can never allow us a realistic view of the world as

in our daily lives there is no way we can ignore them.

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