How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


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Week 2 Notes:

Values of the Enlightenment.



Roy Porter concludes his 2001 book on The Enlightenment with the statement:

‘We are still trying to solve the problems of the modern, urban industrial society to which the Enlightenment was midwife.’


However, he adds: ‘In our attempts to [solve these problems] we largely draw upon the techniques of social analysis, the humanistic values, and the scientific expertise which the philosophes generated. We remain today the Enlightenment’s children.’


Enlightenment Values:


It is important to understand the new ideas that were promoted - what I call ‘values’ - and to see how they were related to the values and outlook of previous ages, and of the (contemporary…) ancien rėgime:


With each of these ‘values’ we will need to note (‘Discussion’):

(i) ‘qualifications’ i.e. the exact meaning of each ‘value’ is not as simple as at first glance!

(ii) that there were also, in some cases, quite strong differences of opinion on each – marked ‘however’ below.

(iii) that there have also been criticisms made since the period, which are also noted.


1. humanism


As pointed out above (week 1), Kant exemplifies the humanist approach with his belief that we have an individual core which should dare to know, argue and find out. Another way of seeing this, as O’Hara puts it, is that Enlightenment thinkers turned to new sources of authority; enlightenment was not to be found in the Bible (as it had been in previous centuries), nor in tradition, but humans had the capacity to search out knowledge and identify the truth by themselves.


Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) wrote a famous couplet that sums up this view (and note there is no denial of God here...):

‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan

The proper study of Mankind is Man.


There is also a connection between humanism and the new astronomical knowledge (the new helio-centred vs. the old geo-centred model – see next week). Reason and experience were the new paths to knowledge. This point is expanded below.


It is important, I believe, not to claim that humanism originated in the enlightenment – in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Renaissance and Protestantism had begun to turn away from the established, church-dominated outlook, where the flesh was seen as sinful, and where the spirit and spiritual life took precedence over mere earthly matters. We could say that the Enlightenment was the culmination of this move.



- Aristotle, the Bible etc. were replaced by scientific authority – 17th and 18th cc.

- in regard to political ideas, the theory of the Divine Right of Kings was replaced by the social contract (in the 17th and 18th centuries),

- the expectation that all citizens should have the same religion was replaced by religious tolerance – in the 18th c.


A number of the other values listed here follow, it seems to me, from this humanist philosophy (especially the importance of reason, the belief in progress, and in the freedom of the individual).



1. Humanism:

1.1 qualifications:

- restrictions: as O’Hara (2010 p2) points out, this humanism was restricted to men, who had a superior role to women – e.g. Kant said reason is not trusted by most men, and not trusted by all women.

- Kant was also elitist in regard to the ‘great unthinking masses.’ Porter (2001) suggests that the movement was in reality the emergence of a ‘secular intelligentsia’ – i.e. an elite.


1.2 however:

- we can contrast these ‘elitist’ approaches with Rousseau’s faith in the will of the people, expressed in his belief in the ‘general will.’ Though Rousseau was not simply putting trust in the whole population: the general will must be for the good of the people, and it is not necessarily the same as the ‘will of all’.  Still, Rousseau’s ideas were sufficiently radical as to contribute to the build-up to the French Revolution of 1789. This is an example of the variety of views held by Enlightenment thinkers.


1.3 criticisms made since:

- the religious criticism: the rejection of religion has produced materialism, and hence greed and selfishness. This point, of course, applies even more to the next value:

- although we live in an age which is still largely humanist, and secular, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism marks a continuing opposition to humanism, I would argue. In other words, humanism has not been universally accepted.


2. secularism


Secularism - the disbelief in religion - is an aspect of humanism, but one that I think is worth considering separately. It went with scepticism and the rejection of authority, in Enlightenment thought.



2.1 qualification:

Porter (2001 ch 4) points out that there is a danger of over-simplification: e.g. Voltaire was not opposed to all religion. Although Voltaire is famous for having said, of the church and its power, that we should: écrasez l’infame (crush the infamy), and this seems extreme, we must recognise that Enlightenment thinkers lived in a time of lack of freedom of speech, and of authoritarian rulers. In order to get round the censor, and to appeal to the public, they used slogans and, especially in Voltaire’s case, irony (O’Hara). The danger with this, of course, is that you may be held to be saying something different to what you really mean!


So it is probably best to describe the views of Voltaire and others as deism – and this was a significant move away from the sectarianism of preceding centuries (with their many ‘wars of religion’). Religious belief was itself marked by ‘reason’ – i.e. God would not have created a confusing world – there should therefore be more agreement on the basic points in religion (and we shouldn’t quarrel over trivial differences). Leibniz, for example, argued that God would not have made an imperfect world… the idea of providence was widespread. Even the English poet Alexander Pope wrote: whatever is, is right (O’Hara 2010 p 7).


2.2 however:

See also Voltaire on Leibniz in Candide – where Dr Pangloss is mocked for believing that ‘we live in the best of all possible worlds’. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed around 25,000 people – many of them in church for All Saints’ Day – dealt a blow to the prevalent optimism, and to the belief in a kindly God. O’Hara (2010 p 38) goes so far as to argue that this event was as significant in its cultural impact as was the bombing of Hiroshima in the 20th century. From this disaster also came the scepticism which was part of the enlightenment picture.


2.3 criticisms made since:

(As above, on humanism). Current discussion led by such as Dawkins indicates that the religious world-view still has a lot of influence…


3. reason,  based on experience and experiment


Clarification of the role of reason in philosophy:

The Enlightenment was based on the belief that everyone had the ability to reason, and to discover truths from evidence. This belief, central to the Enlightenment, is a mixture, as it were, of rationalism and empiricism. ‘Rationalism’ is the belief that reasoning alone leads to understanding about the real world. The view that perception is what leads us to understanding is ‘empiricism’.


John Locke (1632 – 1704), a founding figure in the Enlightenment, argued that we learn by observing things (empiricism), and our perceptions tell us what is real. But at the same time he believed in innate ‘human rights’ – which is not really compatible with empiricism. With Voltaire, the folly of ignoring the real world (extreme rationalism) is shown in his novel Candide, where Pangloss’s outlook is ridiculed. Pangloss’s optimism was, says Porter (2001), based on the Leibnizian metaphysical conviction that God has created the best possible world. 


Some implications of the emphasis on reason:

Since Reason was universal, and God is the supreme deployer of reason, then humans must be able to follow at least some of God’s thought. This idea, together with the questioning of the idea of ‘original sin,’ – which had its roots in Protestantism (the individual’s ability to reach out to God directly), led to the view of human perfectibility (or at least constant improvement!). Hence also ‘progress’...

(But note that the Protestant emphasis on individual conscience was a more radical idea than the individual’s ability to reason.) Catholicism felt itself under threat from the emphasis on reason (O’Hara 2010).


Psychological theories were developed to show how intrinsic is this ability to reason, and some (e.g. Locke) regarded it as a type of perception, analogous to eyesight.


Truth was a central value – and ‘truth can hardly be too modest’ (d’Alembert) i.e. one should speak out about it. (O’Hara 2010) See below, however, under ‘criticisms’.


3.1 reason - qualification:

In the Enlightenment, experience is central (from Newton) – thus avoiding ‘shallow’ or ‘abstract’ reasoning (which was Burke’s criticism): the philosophes did deal with practical (political, social, economic) questions. Porter (2001) points out that the Victorians and others reacted against what they saw as an emphasis on ‘shallow reason’ etc – but, as stressed above, the enlightenment was for experiment and experience (from Newton), and did not base its arguments on a priori reason. In fact many attacked Descartes and Thomism/scholasticism.


Enlightenment thinkers were critics, not ‘rationalists’ (nor ‘irrationalists’) – after all, they called themselves philosophes or ‘philosophers.’ The English word is, however, not equivalent to the French word: philosophes were involved in the world [engagé?] – journalists, propagandists, activists… they believed in what, later, Marx would call praxis.


The philosophe was someone who dares to think for himself, ‘trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds’… (Diderot and d’Alembert defining philosophes in the Encyclopédie – quoted in Porter 2001 p 3).


However, just as one did not appeal to authority first any more, there was also less interest in ‘mystery’, magic/alchemy etc (O’Hara 2010). Marina Warner (in a book on the ‘Arabian Nights’ called Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus 2011)) makes the case that before the Enlightenment ‘science, philosophy and art recognised no frontiers, that is in both the Christian and the Islamic world) even though Christendom and Islam were politically in conflict. Yet this openness to different ideas closed somewhat from the Enlightenment on, and east and west became more separate. In the Enlightenment, magic was ‘sealed off’ from science, imagination from reason, and also east from west.’ At this point, the Arabian Nights (a collection of Arab-Islamic texts, translated into French early in the 18th century) became popular, as a form of ‘foreign magic’ which it was easy (easier than home-grown magic) to ‘disown, or otherwise hold in intellectual or political quarantine.’ (These arguments draw on the work of Edward Said on ‘orientalism’.)


See Robin Yassin-Kassab’s review Observer 12.11.11.


3.2 reason - however:

There was disagreement on the relative role and importance of reason in relation to the ‘passions’ (emotions). Pope argued that reason balanced the passions, and Hume argued that ‘reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions’. Rousseau saw the two interacting: ‘… the human understanding is greatly indebted to the passions which, it is universally allowed, are also much indebted to the understanding. It is by the activity of the passions that our reason is improved, for we desire knowledge only because we wish to enjoy…’  (O’Hara 2010 p 12 – 13)


For Hume and science see: science.

For Rousseau and politics see:


3.3 reason - criticisms made at the time and since:


Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and other conservatives believed that it was dangerous to rely on ‘abstract reason’, especially when dealing with the real world and the world of politics: here, experience and therefore tradition should not be ruled out of court. (See Scruton’s account in his Dictionary of Philosophy). If the values of tradition and community are destroyed, and too much emphasis put on individual freedom, revolution, and abstract ‘rights’ the result will be chaos and violence (as in the French Revolution – and other similar events).


Recently, David Brooks in his book: The Social Animal (2011) puts forward ideas about ‘how success happens’ (in society and politics), which are ‘steeped in the anti-rationalist reflections of the British Enlightenment’ (Guardian article by Stuart Jeffries, G2 19/05/11). Jeffries goes on to say: “Brooks hails British rather than French Enlightenment thinkers as the guys who really understood what makes the social animal tick. While Voltaire, Condorcet and Descartes used reason to confront superstition and feudalism, thinkers across the Channel – Brooks cites Burke, Hume and Adam Smith – thought it unwise to trust reason. Rather, and here Brooks quotes Hume with approval: “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.”


Issues concerning ‘reason’ in the 20th century and today:


1. Postmodern commentators also have a view that is suspicious of ‘reason’ – for them, ‘reason’ was merely a term for the way that a particular sector of a particular society saw the world – it has no universal value. See also Political Philosophy Part 2: postmodernism.  Foucault made a similar point by demonstrating how beggars, petty criminals and the mentally sick were excluded or institutionalised in the 18th century. (Further in Porter Chapters 3,4).


2. Marxism. Porter (2001) points out that the critical Marxist theorists Adorno and Horkheimer saw a link between reason/science and absolutism - if science and reason encourage the view that there is an absolute distinction between right and wrong, rather than there being a plurality of ‘truths’ (‘discourses’ or ‘narratives’).  (This seems odd to me, for surely Hume pointed out that the kind of ‘reason’ we use in science is not the same as in social science?)


3. New Age. On the other hand, we could argue that ‘new age’ culture has brought back an interest in the mystical, spiritual, etc. This viewpoint could be seen a similar to the romantic objection to the Enlightenment: everything has been subjected to a ‘mechanical’, scientific point of view, which has taken the mystery and beauty out of society.


4. A number of books have been written reflecting on the nature of human reason. For example Daniel Khaneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow, which adopts a psychological point of view. 

The latter idea has been used by Michelle Baddeley, in Copycats and Contrarians – this looks at two different kinds of ‘herding instinct’ (the tendency to follow others): [from a review by Kathryn Hughes, Guardian 28th July 2018] the first depends on cognitive function  - i.e. the part of the brain that deals with slow, steady thinking, and the second rests on emotion (the amygdala is active here). She claims there is a region of the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex which mediates between the two. All this also relates to the question that philosophers in the enlightenment grappled with: do people mainly make decisions in their own individual interest, or do they consider (the good of) the crowd? Can we use ‘group instinct’ in a way that works best for individuals and the crowd?


5. ‘Post-fact’ (‘fake news’ etc). With the election of Donald Trump (2016), and the spread of extreme right wing (alt-right) views, there is an increasing tendency for the public to fall in with feelings rather than reason.


See also: Enlightenment - Conclusion.


4. individual liberty


– the eighteenth century saw the emergence of ideas of individual rights and freedoms, also (O’Hara 2010) individual self-interest - especially in Locke (1632 – 1704), Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) et al…


(See my other notes  ..\pp9locke.htm  ..\pp13 liberalism - adam smith.htm).


This individualism probably arose with the changing class structure, and especially the growth of a merchant class, and its demands for freedom to travel and to trade being central.


Adam Smith formulated the idea that the free market allows individuals to pursue their self-interest to the benefit of all. (Though my view is that he did not approve of this, even though he suggested no alternative to the market, and no remedy for its failings).


The (later) philosophical theory that most clearly justified individualism (individuals free to pursue their self-interest) was utilitarianism – the pursuit of happiness was (self-evidently!) the only rational goal. See  ..\pp14 utilitarianism.htm 


(O’Hara p2, Outram p2) Kant did not think every individual should be free to reason (and criticise the ruler) – he favoured an enlightened despot such as Frederick the Great of Prussia – a high degree of freedom, as in a republic, would not in fact produce the best thoughts (my words) ‘a lower degree of civil freedom provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to his full capacity.’ He also argued that in our ‘official’ capacities (our calling, e.g. the doctor, minister etc – what he [confusingly!] called the private sphere) we should not be free in what we say – but in what he called the public sphere (and what we would call private!) we should be free: ‘The public [I think we would say private] use of man’s reason must always be free, for it alone can bring about Enlightenment.’


See also: Kant's ethics.


4.1 qualifications:


There were differences in regard to the precise ‘nature’ of the individual: perhaps benevolence was natural? Or (Rousseau) ‘natural’ man was more like the uncivilized ‘savage’ who did not suffer from civilisation’s obsession with private property and status etc. There was also discussion of the relative role of reason and the passions noted above - 2.3 (b).


Anthony Pagden (The Enlightenment and why it still matters, OUP 2013) places great emphasis on ‘sympathy’ as a key Enlightenment value – along with ‘cosmopolitanism’...


Note, also, that ‘nature’ is a key concept in the Enlightenment… but is it more than a ‘buzz word’? (A word used to ‘win’ arguments, but that when subjected to scrutiny is ambiguous, or means different things to different people).


4.2 however:

See above on Kant – he was not alone in being close to ‘enlightened despots’ (Diderot and Catherine the Great for example)


4.3 criticisms made since:

There is a strong criticism to be made of the ‘possessive individualism’ of ‘liberal’ theory in the 17th and 18th centuries (C.B. MacPherson): this freedom was only, in fact, for propertied males; a point noted by feminists as well, of course. Yet the theory claimed to be ‘universal’ – to be applied to all humans (this claim to universality only makes sense, it could be argued, if Locke and others simply didn’t see non-propertied men, or women, as fully human).


Matthew Taylor (chief executive of the RSA) in The Observer 09.09.12, argues that we have moved away from ‘Enlightenment’ views: ‘individualism is the dominant force of our times. But unlike classical or Enlightenment conceptions of the good life well lived, it is a narrow and materialistic form of individualism.’



The socialist objection is similar: we are not atomised individuals, in competition with each other, but we need to co-operate and share property and the proceeds of labour. There is an alternative explanation of the origins and nature of the Enlightenment here, as well: the real driving force was the accumulation of wealth by the ruling classes, and it only benefited them, at the expense of workers, and people in developing countries.


5. tolerance


Given the combination of a search for new ways of thinking, based on experience or experiment, together with scepticism of authority and faith in the individual, it is obvious that tolerance must follow. This is especially true in contrast with previous times, when intolerance of religious difference led to persecution and civil war.


It was (O’Hara 2010) a ‘very social movement’ – with much conversation, discussion, etc, in coffee-houses (London), clubs such as the Lunar Society – bringing together industrialists and intellectuals, in Birmingham, or the Select Society (Edinburgh), and in salons run by well-connected Parisian ladies (Mme d’Epinay, Sophie de Condorcet et al). There were also new journals; The Spectator, The Rambler.


Note: Anthony Pagden (2013) says that the goal of the Enlightenment was ‘cosmopolitanism’.


5.1 qualifications:

O’Hara (2010) also points out that the ‘enlightened’ thinkers were particularly intolerant of ‘unenlightened’ people! (This goes with the point made below about elitism). He quotes (p14) Leonard Krieger: they ‘were in the anomalous position of writing on behalf of the whole society and at the same time castigating large sections of it for chronic abuses – governments for their inequities, aristocracies for their gratuitous privileges, and the masses for their servility.’


5.2 however:

The Enlightenment surely marked a great improvement on the intolerance of previous times...


5.3 criticisms made since:

Our present-day discussion over tolerance usually revolves around the question: how far can it be allowed to go? Some believe we should not tolerate racist, and not allow them a platform for their views. Others that dialogue is the only way to deal with extremism.


‘Political correctness’ (whether we like it or not!) is a recognition that there are limits to how abusive and insulting we should be to each other.


6. belief in progress – and confidence in human powers.


A belief in progress follows from Newton’s discoveries: he explained physical laws (motion, gravity, nature of light etc) and showed how we could affect them.


‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night,

God said ‘let Newton be’, and all was light’

(Alexander Pope)


Likewise Locke’s position with regard to political laws facilitated the idea of progress: he saw government as a mechanism which may need adjusting or even replacing with a better-working model. The influence of the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ is important here: a ‘reasonable’ constitutional settlement was arrived at, after the 17th century civil war and the execution of the king.


We can say that the Enlightenment was an optimistic age: there was also less nostalgia for ancient Greece or the Biblical world. As Joseph Priestley said:

 ‘[A]ll knowledge will be subdivided and extended; and knowledge, as Lord Bacon observes, being power, the human powers will, in fact, be increased; nature, including both its materials, and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in the world abundantly more easy and comfortable; they will probably prolong their existence in it, and will grow daily more happy… Thus, whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal, beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.’ (O’Hara 2010 p 7 – 8).


6.1 qualifications:


Note Edmond Burke’s differences with Tom Paine – the conservative view that we should respect tradition etc, against the liberal view that radical change is needed to improve things.


6.2 however:


Note O’Hara’s points (above) about scepticism, including that Bayle was sceptical of Newton’s theories. He also suggests that the Americans were more sceptical, and therefore more conservative in their politics, as against the French, who went along with a top-down radical change. Even Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft were worried about the extremism of French revolutionary ideas. O’Hara suggests this difference between America and France is still true today… Yet, he says, it is likely that it was the radical ideas that had most long-term influence. (p9)


6.3 criticisms:

Is it fair to say that opinion on ‘progress’ is divided? Some nowadays would say we continue to make progress – others employ the ecological objection: that the whole notion has led us to damage and nearly destroy our environment (see next week).