How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Billericay 2018, Week 2 Summary:

A closer look at the ‘values’ of the Enlightenment:


                                                                                                            Links: Notes for week 2


Introduction – the continuing importance of the Enlightenment:

(i) Roy Porter concludes his 2001 book on The Enlightenment with the statements:

‘We are still trying to solve the problems of the modern, urban industrial society to which the Enlightenment was midwife... In our attempts to [do this] 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.’

(ii) 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) the exact meaning of each ‘value’ (not as simple as at first glance!) (ii) there were also, in some cases, quite strong differences of opinion on each (iii) criticisms made since.


1. Humanism: against the unquestioning acceptance of ‘authority’ (political, religious or traditional) and for the freedom to reason for ourselves – for the benefit of humankind. (See Kant) This does not mean promoting a selfish egoism – though note the criticisms of ‘possessive individualism’ made against ‘liberal’ political beliefs. Note also the elitism of some Enlightenment thinkers.


- the Bible, Aristotle etc were replaced as sources of knowledge by science.

Typified by Alexander Pope’s verses:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night,/God said ‘let Newton be’, and all was light

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of Mankind is Man.’

 - in place of the ‘divine right’ of kings a ‘social contract theory’ was developed

- there was religious tolerance rather than conflict and persecution.



(i) Kant: reason is mistrusted by some men and all women – and he wrote of ‘the great unthinking masses’ – elitist? (ii) Contrast Rousseau: the ‘general will,’ the noble savage?

(iii) the religious objection: materialism, greed, selfishness; and what of the soul?


2. Secularism: NB not the same as atheism. Note the context of authoritarian rulers (Louis XIV) and the prevalent censorship. Deism: God must exist because the world is wonderful and seems to follow order. However, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake undermined belief in a kindly God.



(i) Voltaire: ‘ecrasez l’infame’... but probably a deist (see on ‘reason’ below). (ii) Leibniz’s optimism (mocked by Voltaire) and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Scepticism. (iii) Today: Dawkins feels a need to attack religious beliefs – they must still hold sway?


3. Reason: founded on a belief in our innate reasoning abilities and our powers of perception (psychological theories). Truth. The link with Protestantism (perfectibility). 


Note that experience is central in the Enlightenment – not ‘shallow’ or ‘abstract’ reasoning (which was Burke’s criticism): the philosophes did deal with practical (political, social, economic) questions.



(i) ‘Philosophes’ not the same as ‘philosophers’ (engagė). (ii) What about the ‘passions’ (emotions)? Compare David Hume: ‘reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions’ and Rousseau: ‘It is by the activity of the passions that our reason is improved, for we desire knowledge only because we wish to enjoy.’ (Quoted by O’Hara 2010)

The British/Scottish enlightenment and ‘sympathy’ etc. (iii) Conservatism, romanticism and postmodernism...


4. Individual liberty: Locke linked property with freedom and rights, (thereby excluding women and anyone else who didn’t own property). Adam Smith: individual self-interest can promote the general good (in the market mechanism). These ideas led to utilitarianism (Bentham). Growth of merchant class, freedom to travel.



(i) Kant: as (‘private’) citizens we should have the freedom to think for ourselves and voice criticism, but not in our professional (‘public’) lives. He admired Frederick the Great (‘enlightened despot). (ii) Individuals: ‘by nature’ selfish (Hobbes) or benevolent or empathic (Smith, Rousseau)? (iii) Possessive individualism.’ Socialism. 


5. Tolerance: follows from all the above. Note the role of salons, coffee-houses, and periodicals. Anthony Pagden (2013) emphasises ‘cosmopolitanism’ also.



(i) But the philosophes were critical of: ‘government for their inequities, aristocracies for their gratuitous privileges, and the masses for their servility’ [and their ignorance!] (Krieger in O’Hara 2010). (iii) How far should tolerance go?


6. A belief in progress: confidence in human powers, and that we have the ability to improve (maybe perfect) ourselves. Follows from Newton’s discovery of the physical laws of the universe (see the quote from Pope above). Compare also Locke’s argument that society and government are ‘mechanisms’ (that can be altered and improved). 1688.

Joseph Priestley (O’Hara 2010 p 7 – 8) epitomizes Enlightenment optimism on progress.



(ii) The French more radical than the British Enlightenment thinkers. Note also a current of scepticism (e.g. Hume, Americans). (iii) Current concerns about ‘progress’: was what was done to the native Americans, Australian aborigines, and other colonised peoples ‘progress’?  Is it progress to damage the environment?

Joseph Priestley (from O’Hara 2010 p 7 – 8):

‘All 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 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.’