Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, Its Ideas, Players and Legacy

The Enlightenment was a European intellectual movement starting in the 1600s and lasting at least until the 18th century. The Central ideas of Enlightenment were the everyday application and celebration of reason, rational argument and scientific method through which humans understand their place in the universe and can improve life on earth. This was a major departure from the Renaissance in that the Renaissance sought to better man’s gifts, but still adhered closely to religion and the promise of afterlife, while Enlightenment thinkers encouraged men to be free; to use knowledge to better his own lot in this life.

The Enlightenment saw the application of mathematical methods applied to critical thought and reasoning and much of this new way of thinking was the direct result of Newton’s success. The Enlightenment produced the first modern secularized theories of psychology and ethics.

Time period: 1600s – 1800s

*The Enlightenment would have a significant impact on the American Independence Movement and the anti-slavery / abolitionists in England and America.

Key Thinkers

  • Rene Descartes: 1596–1650. Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, argued that you could reason the existence of God. Descartes’s ideas (known as Cartesian philosophy) lasted well into the 18th century and formed the basis for the Enlightenment cult of Reason. Around 1634-1636, Descartes finished his scientific essays Dioptique and Meteors, which apply his geometrical method to these fields. He also wrote a preface to these essays in the winter of 1635/1636 to be attached to them in addition to another one on geometry. This “preface” became his famous Discourse on Method.
  1. “When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist’, he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognises it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind. This is clear from the fact that if he were deducing it by means of a syllogism, he would have to have had previous knowledge of the major premiss ‘Everything which thinks is, or exists’; yet in fact he learns it from experiencing in his own case that it is impossible that he should think without existing. It is in the nature of our mind to construct general propositions on the basis of our knowledge of particular ones.”  Author’s Replies to the Second set of Objections to Meditations on the First Philosophy (1641), in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (1985), trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, Vol. 2, 100.
  • Michel Montaigne 1533–1592. Montaigne pointed out values of other cultures were just as worthy as those of Europeans and what right did Europe have to impose their values on others? Writes series of essays describing the human condition.
  1. CHAPTER II——OF SORROW: “No man living is more free from this passion than I, who yet neither like it in myself nor admire it in others, and yet generally the world, as a settled thing, is pleased to grace it with a particular esteem, clothing therewith wisdom, virtue, and conscience. Foolish and sordid guise! —[“No man is more free from this passion than I, for I neither love nor regard it: albeit the world hath undertaken, as it were upon covenant, to grace it with a particular favour. Therewith they adorne age, vertue, and conscience. Oh foolish and base ornament!” Florio, 1613, p. 3] —The Italians have more fitly baptized by this name—[La tristezza]— malignity; for ’tis a quality always hurtful, always idle and vain; and as being cowardly, mean, and base, it is by the Stoics expressly and particularly forbidden to their sages.”
  • Blaise Pascal, 1623–1662. The mathematician Pascal agreed with Descartes on the importance of mathematics, but didn’t think that emotion had anything to do with reason and logic.
  1. From The Pensees, Section 1 – “All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those[Pg 2] who do not of themselves perceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it. We must see the matter at once, at one glance, and not by a process of reasoning, at least to a certain degree. And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind does not do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technical rules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a few can feel it.”
  • Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679. Hobbes believed that the nature of humanity was pretty brutish and therefore, people needed a strong government, or single authoritative ruler to keep them in line
  • John Locke, 1632–1704. Locke believed that people were the result of their experiences and observations but that all are born equal. His philosophy would be significant to the founding of America.

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