THE ENLIGHTENMENT PERIOD
What was Enlightenment philosophy?
Enlightenment philosophy was written during the time associated with the Enlightenment, which occurred roughly around the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment was an historical period in which the ideas of philosophers played dominant cultural roles, in contrast to the importance of religion during the medieval period, or the importance of science and technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
What was the Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment was known to its contemporaries and future generations as The Age of Reason. The Enlightenment went beyond intellectual activity to affect painting, literature, architecture, religion, the sciences, and, of course, politics, culminating in the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799). While there were common Enlightenment intellectual themes, conditions in different nations produced distinctive types of thought. Also, there was a marked development of ideas from the first half of the 1700s to the second half, principally because of the major social and political changes preceding and accompanying the American and French Revolutions.
What were the common themes of the Enlightenment?
The common themes were a set of values that included the following:
1. Imbuing all other values was the importance of reason and its uses to discover ideal forms of human nature and society.
2. The belief in the natural goodness of man, which was to be rediscovered by the reform of corrupt institutions.
3. An overall secularity and downplaying of traditional Christian transcendence.
4. A new aesthetic and ethics based on the goodness of nature.
5. Perhaps most important, a great faith in progress or the belief that the present is better than the past and that the future will be better than the present.
Nevertheless, none of the paramount Enlightenment thinkers simply played out these themes in direct ways. They almost all used reason or rational thought—together with a fair amount of wit—to propound and develop their ideas. The ideas themselves, though, sometimes had unforeseen consequences. That is, often the Enlightenment geniuses went too far, or were not able to fully think things through. As a result, skepticism, pessimism, and romantic madness took over when the ideas of progress and the ideals of human reason ran out.
What was meant by "reason" during the Enlightenment?
Reason was considered a universal capacity of all people that was brought to fruition by logic and the knowledge of science. It required people to abandon superstition and oppressive institutions, such as absolute monarchy and doctrinaire religion.
Is there a sharp distinction between Enlightenment philosophers and other intellectuals?
No, both Enlightenment philosophers and other intellectuals influenced the ideas of the time. Among philosophers, those who have endured historically as part of the present philosophical canon are limited to George Berkeley, David Hume, Thomas Reid, Jeremy Bentham, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Giambattista Vico. (John Locke is also strongly associated with the Enlightenment, although he dates back to the seventeenth century). However, during their times, brilliant thought in other fields by writers and personalities such as Ethan Allen, Marquis de Condorcet, Denis Diderot, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Baron d'Holbach, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph-Marie de Maistre, Charles Baron du Montesquieu, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestly, Adam Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Voltaire (Frangois Marie Arouet) were part of the intellectual climate for philosophers, as well.