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Enlightenment, The

Page history last edited by Robert Goldman 15 years, 6 months ago

 The Enlightenment was an 18th century social, political, religious, and philosophical upheaval in Western Europe. Almost a misnomer, 'the' Enlightenment occurred in many forms throughout Europe.  The best know aspect of the Enlightenment is attributed to French philosophes. This movement served to reject corruption, mainly of the Catholic Church, through the promotion of freedom and individual thought. Having stemmed from the desire to maximize the freedom of the peoples (such as freedom from corrupt power, speech, trade, and of the individual), this radical movement brought about the emergence of a new, more secular society by advocating the power of reasoning and observation, the faculties believe by the the philosophes to lead to acquisition of the "real truth." It is a movement dedicated to the pursuit of truth, though regionally that took different forms. Enlightenment thinkers believe that by combining the power of Reason and observation, individuals can arrive at the Truth, progress towards perfection.


Empiricist Enlightenment thinkers believe that there exists objectively understandable laws that govern nature, and by understanding these laws through the scientific method, a uniform and objective body of knowledge could be produced.   The philosophes admire Newton, an observer who used the scientific method to infer results. It is the unity of reason and observation that makes progress and the attainment of truth possible.  Newton believed that facts are discovered through observation rather than abstract reasoning and noticed that these facts show patterns and relationships. This aspect of the Enlightenment is therefore a shift from a religious to a scientific mindset. Man can form ideas and understand the world around him through perception, the senses and experience, for knowledge exists in its immediacy. 


Many Enlightenment philosophers and scientists applied the scientific method not only to natural science, but also to social systems, insitutions, relationships, and virtually all of humanity.  They saw the possibility that absolutely everything could be quantitatively measured and calcluated, or if nothing else believed institutions could be improved by systematically studying them.  Seeing social systems as mechanistic and as having underlying Truths, philosophers attempted to rationally identify and replace the parts of society that were not geared toward progress or promoting human rationality.  These philosophers believe that by rationally critiquing institutions, a more perfect society could be created.  Contrary to previous thought, they see humans as capable of critically examining the self and other aspects of humanity and coming to the similar conclusions.  They believe that intellectual progress was the basis of the journey towards the general  progress of humankind. By scientifically studying the nature of man and the environment in which he lives, humans can direct their focus to progress towards perfection.


The Enlightenment also saw the rejection of religious dogma and superstition, criticisms of the state, and the advocacy of basic human freedoms.  The French Philosophes were particularly passionate about liberation from the oppression of the Catholic Church and the State.  Most of all, the Enlightenment became an avenue for philosophical thought to translate into real world change, and was unique and powerful in its practical applications.


That is not to say that empiricist approaches went without criticisms, or that empiricism was supported across the whole of the Enlightenment. Many social theorists, such as Immanuel Kant (an enlightenment thinker) and Michel Foucault, critiqued "the Enlightenment": Kant critiqued correspondence epistemology, Foucault critiqued the notion that 'Enlightenment' thinking is simply about "humanism." 


Kant argues that the mind is never able to fully perceive objective reality. In Kant’s perspective, the mind always filters its perception of reality and therefore interprets it subjectively. Kant uses the terms noumena and phenomena to describe this process. Noumena are the material objects in the world that exist external from the individual while phenomena are things as we perceive them.  Perception of noumena always come through filtered categories, what Kant calls a priori categories.  Kant argues that we can only perceive the noumena in a phenomenal form. 


Kant is also critical of the empiricism of the Enlightenment is because he thinks it is important to recognize the limits of empiricism. According to Kant, there is knowledge that exists outside of empirical knowledge that is measured through other means than experiencing the external world. To illustrate this point, Kant discusses a priori categories, which exist in the mind and are separate from the “noumenal” world. Time and space both fall into these categories.  There are no perceptible traits of "time" or "space" the necessitate the way they are commonly perceived.  Instead, the mind (and society?) create a priori categories through which the world can become more comprehendible. The importance of a priori categories is that they are ideas rather than facts. Ideas, such as the mind’s construction of time, exist outside of the realm of empiricism and therefore cannot be measured using the epistemology of Empiricism.  Kant advocates for a "mediated" epistemology: perception is mediated through a priori categories.  This approach to epistemology is in contrast to correspondence theories of epistemology, which argue that the world can be understood via directly perceptible traits.  Correspondence theories argue that the world can be known directly (a 1-1 correspondence) through sensory perception. 


In an article in response to the question "What is Enlightenment?", Kant lays out his approach to how Enlightenment can be understood.  Enlightenment, for Kant, is human beings' escape from immaturity.  Immaturity is when one does not rely on their own capacity for reason, but instead listens to the dictates of others. He supported ‘reason for reason’s sake,’ rather than individuals accepting prescribed ideas from society.  Kant does, however, leave a caveat to his support for reason.  He divides the world of reason into two distinct camps: public reason and private reason.  Public reason is that which happens in the public sphere, in a realm of open, free discourse.  In this realm, humans must escape immaturity and reason, reason, reason.  In the private sphere, though, there are limits to the appropriateness of reason.  Individuals must use their reason to the task they are assigned/must perform.  A priest, for example, should do his/her best to reason for the purpose of performing his/her priestly tasks. Sermons questioning the bible would not be supported by Kant.  A priest actively participating in public discussion (outside of the title of 'priest') would be applauded.  In the private realm, in which one has obligations to fulfill, reason must be pared down only to how it will aid in the completion of specific tasks.  Reason freely in public; reason narrowly in private. 


Foucault's Critique: 


Michel Foucault's essay, What is Enlightenment, discusses the "blackmail of the enlightenment", and how contemporary individuals can learn from the experience of the Enlightenment to promote the project of human freedom.  Foucault begins by classifying the Enlightenment as an attitude.  Kant's piece purporting to answer the question "What is Enlightenment" is Foucault's starting point.  Foucault does not concern himself with the explicit content of the piece as much as the form.  Kant's response is an attempt, by Kant, to step outside of history and perceive (in a temporal vacuum) what the project of 'Enlightenment' means.  This represents to Foucault the attitude of Enlightenment: An act of dehistoricizing the present, an attitude of constant self-remaking, assuming onesself capable of reason outside of history.  This attitude is explained in terms of the attitude of modernity, an attitude that constantly heroizes the present.


With the attitude of Enlightenment in mind, Foucault turns to the question of 'What is Enlightenment?'

 Foucault argues that one does not have to be "for" or "against" the enlightenment. He calls this the blackmail of Enlightenment.  If the Enlightenment is understood as a series of events that supported human reason and maturity, then opposition to it means rejecting with 'reason' all the good and back that comes with it.  The alternative, for Foucault, is that one cannot remove onesself from history to critique the Enlightenment.  The task of creating human freedom is one of understanding in what was the Enlightenment has created the people of today.  He labels this as a project of taking a geneological, historical, etc. approach to understanding how the Enlightenment has constructed the human view of the world.  Such an approach would allow humans to situate their perceptions of freedom in terms of their antecedents.  One can then investigate what parts of the Enlightenment are and are not necessary to dispense with in order to complete the project of human freedom.   

Comments (4)

Nina said

at 3:37 pm on Dec 11, 2008

The general thought on the Enlightenment is that it is a shift from religious-centered thought to that of science. Man’s ability to reason is key to the Enlightenment. Observing the world and applying his mind to his observations can increase man’s advantage. Science becomes a way to control the world around us, both humans and the natural world. Enlightenment is an embrace of reason & observation, and of man and nature.

Nina said

at 9:47 am on Dec 12, 2008

Science as an ideology:
During the enlightenment, science became the new ideology replacing religious beliefs. The technical innovations of science invoked a modern approach to the truth. The dangers in placing so much emphasis on an ideology is that it is generally an idea of the ruling class and dominates marginalized groups. The intellectuals of the enlightenment invited news ways of thinking and reasoning, but at the same time imposed a new set of values on others.

Robert Goldman said

at 4:18 pm on Dec 12, 2008

Science as an ideology. Yes, science has emerged an an ideology in the time since the Enlightenment, but it was also initially about locating "emancipatory knowledge." Initially, these ideas about methodologies of discovering truth presented a challenge to the dominant institutions and ruling classes of that epoch. How these ideas became an ideology that supported the interests of ruling classes makes for an interesting story. How would Foucault narrate this story? How would Althusser? How would Marx?

cbishop@... said

at 7:53 pm on Dec 14, 2008

I attempted to make this section more cohesive and less repetitive, but I may have just failed miserably. Sorry.

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