The Enlightenment Philosophers: What Was Their Main Idea

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Literature Network » Literary Periods » The Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, sometimes referred to as the Age of Reason, was a confluence of ideas and activities that took place throughout the eighteenth century in Western Europe, England, and the American colonies. Scientific rationalism, exemplified by the scientific method, was the hallmark of everything related to the Enlightenment. Following close on the heels of the Renaissance, Enlightenment thinkers believed that the advances of science and industry heralded a new age of egalitarianism and progress for humankind. More goods were being produced for less money, people were traveling more, and the chances for the upwardly mobile to actually change their station in life were significantly improving. At the same time, many voices were expressing sharp criticism of some time-honored cultural institutions. The Church, in particular, was singled out as stymieing the forward march of human reason. Many intellectuals of the Enlightenment practiced a variety of Deism, which is a rejection of organized, doctrinal religion in favor of a more personal and spiritual kind of faith. For the first time in recorded Western history, the hegemony of political and religious leaders was weakened to the point that citizens had little to fear in making their opinions known. Criticism was the order of the day, and argumentation was the new mode of conversation.

Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton are frequently mentioned as the progenitors of the Enlightenment. In the later phase of the English Renaissance, Bacon composed philosophical treatises which would form the basis of the modern scientific method. Bacon was also a logician, pointing out the false pathways down which human reason often strays. He was also an early proponent of state funding for scientific inquiry. Whereas Bacon worked in the realm of ideas and language, Isaac Newton was a pure scientist in the modern sense. Like Galileo, he relied on observation and testing to determine the soundness of his theories. He was a firm believer in the importance of data, and had no philosophical qualms regarding the reliability of the senses. Newton’s Principia, completed in 1687, is the foundation of the entire science of physics. This mechanistic view of the universe, a universe governed by a set of unchanging laws, raised the ire of the Church fathers. However, the mode of inquiry which both Bacon and Newton pioneered became much more influential than the Church’s teachings. The Enlightenment would see these ideas applied to every segment of life and society, with huge ramifications for citizens and rulers alike.

The Enlightenment was, at its center, a celebration of ideas – ideas about what the human mind was capable of, and what could be achieved through deliberate action and scientific methodology. Many of the new, enlightened ideas were political in nature. Intellectuals began to consider the possibility that freedom and democracy were the fundamental rights of all people, not gifts bestowed upon them by beneficent monarchs or popes. Egalitarianism was the buzzword of the century, and it meant the promise of fair treatment for all people, regardless of background. Citizens began to see themselves on the same level as their leaders, subject to the same shortcomings and certainly subject to criticism if so deserved. Experimentation with elected, consensual leadership began in earnest. The belief was that the combined rationality of the people would elect the best possible representatives. The idea of a collective, national intelligence led many to imagine that virtually all the world’s serious problems would soon be solved. Discussion and debate were considered healthy outlets for pent-up frustrations, not signs of internal weakness. Argumentation as a style of decision-making grew out of the new scientific method, which invited multiple hypotheses to be put to the test. Empiricism, or the reliance...
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