How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Billericay Sep. 2018

Week 1 summary notes:

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Link: Notes for week 1


1. Definition of the enlightenment

2. Its importance to us

3.What kind of movement was it?


1. Definition:

The period in 18th century European history known as ‘The Enlightenment’ (roughly 1688 – 1789: from the ‘glorious revolution in Britain, industrial revolution, to the French Revolution) was “characterized by the emphasis on experience and reason, mistrust of religion and traditional authority, and a gradual emergence of the ideals of liberal, secular, democratic societies” (Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996).


Kant (1724 – 1804) in his 1784 essay: Was ist Aufklärung? (‘What is enlightenment?’) said the ‘enlightenment’ was: ‘mankind’s final coming of age’ – his ‘release from his self-incurred tutelage’ [Outram 2005 has ‘immaturity’], his emancipation from ignorance, superstition and error.

Kant’s statement of the motto of the Enlightenment was: ‘Sapere aude’ (from Horace): dare to know. The ‘Encyclopédie’ epitomizes its aims.

However, in answer to the question from a contemporary ‘do we live in an enlightened age?’ Kant said ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’


All this of course implies that the previous age (‘middle ages’) was: dominated by religion (Christian, Catholic), but still ‘superstitious’ (miracles etc; witchcraft); based on tradition (feudalism); intolerant (wars of religion, crusades); repressive (power of the monarchy to censor etc).


It is worth noting, however, that the development of science, and the emphasis on reason, began in the 16th and 17th centuries (Galileo, Descartes).


2. Its importance to us:

We are, then, Todorov says, inheritors of the Eighteenth Century European Enlightenment and (2009 p 2) ‘it is … responsible for our present identity.’

And (p 151) he writes of ‘the vocation of our species: to pick up the task of enlightenment with each new day, knowing that it is interminable.’


For me, the enlightenment is characterised by the adoption of a set of (‘modern’?) values:

humanism, secularism, reason (based on experience & experiment), individual liberty, tolerance, a belief in progress, confidence in human powers. Todorov adds the belief that these values apply to all people, by virtue of being human: universality.


These ‘values’ and their exact meaning for enlightenment thinkers, (there were differences between them!) will be touched on below, and discussed in more detail next week.


However, in 2018, it seems to me that these values are being questioned and even rejected – and this is a recent development… For example:

Are feelings/emotions playing a more important role than facts and reasoning in politics today?

Have ‘experts’ (scientists etc) lost their authority?

Aren’t some people regarded as ‘not human’?


3. What kind of movement was it?


Other (recent) views on the enlightenment:


(i) There were several different ‘enlightenments’ and it was not ‘homogeneous’.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (2008): there were several different ‘enlightenments’. For example, the ‘social virtues’ of the British Enlightenment have been forgotten (as against the French emphasis on reason). Also, there were differences between key thinkers (e.g. Rousseau, who questioned the idea of progress).

Note that she also defends the enlightenment against recent criticisms (e.g. that it represents ‘cultural imperialism’).


(ii) Was it elitist?

O’Hara (2010): it was elitist, or ‘top-down’ (e.g. Condorcet). Outram (2005): but some thinkers believed everyone would become more educated (Moses Mendelssohn).

O’Hara also says that it marked the beginning of ‘public opinion’ – for Porter a ‘secular intelligentsia’ emerged.


(iii) The rejection of religion?

Critics of the enlightenment say this has produced materialism, and hence greed and selfishness. But John Gray (2013) sees the enlightenment as deriving from the Christian project to seek the ‘truth’.


(iv) It was an age of passion as well:

Andrew Marr (2012): it was the time of the industrial revolution and the creation of the British Empire, and free thinkers like Voltaire were persecuted by would-be ‘enlightened despots’ (e.g. Frederick the Great of Prussia). And it culminated in the bloody upheaval of the French Revolution (1789) and the execution of Louis XVI (1793).



Roy Porter 2001: The Enlightenment;

Dorinda Outram 2005: The Enlightenment; 

Dan Hind 2007: The Threat to Reason;

Gertrude Himmelfarb 2008: The Roads to Modernity;

Roy Todorov 2009: In Defence of the Enlightenment 

Kieron O’Hara 2010:  The Enlightenment, a beginner’s guide;

Anthony Pagden 2013: The Enlightenment and why it still matters; John Gray 2013: review of Pagden 2013 in New Statesman (22/6/2013).


Ian’s website: