A brief history on the Age of Enlightenment and the period's influential philosophers
|The Age of Enlightenment was a time when scholars took the ideas and methods of the Scientific Revolution and used those methods to describe the laws that not only governed the universe, but also governed human society. Applying scientific ideas to human societies meant asking the question of why are things the way they are. The goal of philosophers during the Enlightenment was to rely on human reason and rationalism in order to create a better society for everyone, minimize human suffering, and find solutions to the problems of man.
Though the Age of Enlightenment itself is typically dated from 1650-1800, there were many philosophers in history who influenced the ideals of the Enlightenment. Here, I will provide a brief explanation of some of the eras in Western philosophy leading up to the Age of Enlightenment and later on delve deeper into the work and theories of a selection of thinkers from each of these eras.
The Pre-Socratic Era of philosophy refers to Greek intellectuals who were active before Socrates or were his contemporaries. These philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations of the world that were popular during their time in favor of more rational explanations. They asked questions about where things came from, why the world was the way it was, and how nature could be described and predicated logically with universal principles. These scholars and the questions they asked formed the basis for later philosophical, mathematical, and scientific study.
The Medieval Era of philosophy represents a time of renewed attention to higher thinking after the intellectual drought of the Dark Ages. Many of the philosophers during this time were concerned with proving the existence of God and reconciling their Christianity with classical teachings of philosophy from previous eras. Importantly, in the Medieval Era, the first universities were established and it became accepted and popular to dedicate one’s life to being a professional, full-time scholar.
The Renaissance Era of philosophy is often called the bridge between the previous era of Medieval philosophy and the beginning of the new Modern Era of philosophy and the Age of Reason. During this era, philosophers began moving away from Christianity and toward Humanism, which is more human-centered rather than religion-centered. Humanists have a strong faith in humankind and believe that human beings possess the ability to solve their own problems through reason and the scientific method rather than merely seeing the world as a gateway to the afterlife.
The Modern Era of philosophy is often split into two Ages: The Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Reason is regarded as the start of modern philosophy during which there is a continued shift from theology and faith-based arguments to more unified philosophical ideas, advances in science, and growth of religious tolerance. The Age of Enlightenment advocates freedom, democracy, and reason as the primary values of society. It was marked by the further decline in the influence of the church and the standpoint that minds should be freed from ignorance and superstition to allow mankind to achieve progress.
Finally, the Contemporary Era of philosophy is the era we are currently in now. It is the period that boasts an explosion of new philosophers and several significant scientific and political revolutions and new philosophical movements. The branching tree of philosophy dramatically expands in the Contemporary Era, building off the ideologies of all the previous movements and philosophers.
The basis of the modern ideas of Enlightenment comes from Isaac Newton who believed that mathematical evaluation of the universe showed that the universe operates perfectly and in a predictable way. In his view, God was a clockmaker who set things in motion, but he made such a perfect clock that he never needed to intervene after his creation was complete. In this view, if there are mathematical, logical, and rational laws to explain the natural world, there should also be rational laws to explain all of human society.
Thinkers of the Enlightenment took on a wide variety of issues including political representation, religion, the natural rights of man, how to choose a ruler, what the limits of those rulers should be, and how to create a society that would be beneficial for everybody. Enlightened thinkers believed that if the citizenry had access to the information and knowledge, they would be better able to make informed decisions about their lives and about their country. When provided with the knowledge, the people could ask questions about their own beliefs and the way of the world.
An important lasting result of the Age of Enlightenment was the increase in popularity of scientific literature written for the masses and the inception of journals and encyclopedias of science. Natural history in particular became increasingly popular and the Enlightenment brought the sciences into the public eye. People were more literate and acquiring knowledge became more popular and accepted. The first Universities were established during this time as well where intellectuals could dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the Enlightenment ideals was summarized in two important documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The Declaration of Independence declared that there are natural laws that everyone must follow and that people have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The US Constitution took all of the political ideals and religious freedoms of the Enlightenment and put them into writing effectively saying that even government must follow these ideals. In this way, the structure of society in America is owed to this period in history.
______ ______ ______ ______
The Age of Enlightenment is typically dated from 1650-1800, but was influenced by many great scholars from ancient history and continues to this day through the research of more contemporary thinkers. We all recognize the names of many of the intellectuals from history who either influenced or were influenced by the Age of Enlightenment such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Voltaire, Kant, René Descartes, Newton, Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marx, Foucault, and Nietzsche, but my focus for this second half of my research is to delve into the lives of some of the scholars of the past who you may not be as familiar with.
635BC – 370BC Pre-Socratic Era: Pythagoras of Samos
The Greek mathematician Pythagoras (570-490BC) was likely the first person to actually call himself a philosopher (lover of wisdom). You will likely recognize his name from his well-known contribution to mathematics, the “Pythagorean Theorem,” but he made many more contributions to science and mathematics that are less well-known. Pythagoras was a figure shrouded in secrecy and little is known about him as none of his original writings survived. Many of his students and followers also had the tendency to publish works under his name, further confusing the matter. Most of what is known about his life and teachings was passed down through the secret religious society he formed whose followers called themselves the Mathematikoi (“learners”). They lived a very simple and structured life centered on philosophical and religious teachings and continued to develop the mathematic and scientific work that Pythagoras began. Uncommon for the time, both male and female students were accepted into the Mathematikoi and all followers were required to live ethically, love one another, practice pacifism, eat no meat, and devote themselves to the mathematics of nature. Central to the beliefs of the Mathematikoi was the “essence of being,” which emphasized that the stability of all things that create the universe can be found in numbers and balance. They also believed in reincarnation of the soul until the soul became moral and that if someone was ever in doubt of what to say, they should remain silent. Finally, Pythagoras was one of the first people to think that the Earth was round and revolved around a central point he referred to as “the fire.”
500 - 1300 Medieval Era: William of Ockham
William of Ockham (1285-1348) is considered the father of Nominalism, which argues that only individuals exist and supernatural essences or forms are merely abstractions of the human mind. You may recognize his name from the popular principle known as “Occam’s Razor” which states that the simplest explanation is most likely and no more assumptions should be made than are necessary to explain something. Ockham was strongly committed to the ideas of Aristotle and the simplification of methods and theories down to their essence. He believed that the workings of the world were best explained by the simplest theory and one should not construct unnecessary and overelaborate explanations. Though many of his contemporaries in the Medieval Era of philosophy were concerned with proving the existence of God, Ockham maintained that God is a matter of faith rather than knowledge and rejected the idea that theology could be based in science. For Ockham, the theories of religion and science were not linked as they were for many of his contemporaries and he believed that human reason could not prove the immorality of the soul nor could it prove the existence of God. This does not mean Ockham did not have faith in God, merely that he relied on his faith rather than his science or his logic to prove it.
1300 - 1600 Renaissance Era: Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the brilliant minds of the Renaissance Era of philosophy. He promoted inductive reasoning and the use of the scientific method, both of which continue to be used in modern science today. Despite his poor health as a child, he met Queen Elizabeth when he was very young and she was so thoroughly impressed by his precocious intellect that she allowed him the opportunity to travel with Sir Amias Paulet through France, Italy, and Spain to further his studies. His ambitions to discover the truth and serve his country eventually led him into politics, during which time he was knighted and married a 14 year old, but was eventually banished from London due to counts of corruption and bribery. This banishment allowed Bacon to devote himself to his writing and scientific work. Bacon advocated that scientific inquiry, inductive reasoning, and real world observations were the only logical ways to investigate the natural world. He is well-known for his quote “knowledge is power” as well as his aspirations for an ideal world with greater rights for women, the abolition of slavery, separation of church and state, and freedom of religious and political expression. Several conspiracy theories have arisen surrounding Bacon including that he may have been the real author of many of Shakespeare’s plays, that he may have been Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son, and that he faked his own death to advance to an Ascended Master of the Freemasons.
1600 - 1900 Modern Era: David Hume
David Hume (1711-1776), along with John Locke and George Berkeley, was a major figure in the Empiricism movement during the Age of Enlightenment. Empiricism is the idea that all knowledge is based in sensory experiences. It emphasizes the role of evidence and sensory perception and that knowledge must be based on real world experiences rather than ephemeral ideas. At the age of 18, Hume is said to have experienced a mysterious intellectual revelation that kick-started his philosophical studies. At only 26, Hume published “A Treatise of Human Nature: An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects” which is now considered Hume’s most important work and one of the most important works in all of Western philosophy. Hume also concerned himself with the ideas of Epistemology, or the study of knowledge. Epistemology deals with the production of knowledge and asks how knowledge is obtained and the difference between “knowledge” and “belief.” Hume admitted that people can form beliefs based on their experience, but argued that to say those beliefs are knowledge is inaccurate because they cannot be proven in experience or observation.
1900-Present Contemporary Era: John Dewey
John Dewey (1859-1952) is the first American I’ve put on this extremely truncated list, but I chose him to research because he was one of the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism and his own doctrine of Instrumentalism. Pragmatism is a style of studying philosophy that states that something is true only insofar as it works. Instrumentalism is the notion that theories are useful instruments measured not only by whether the theories correctly depict reality, but also on how effective they are at predicting phenomena. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a strong influence on Dewey’s own theories and he even published a book titled, “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought” in 1910. This was one of his total of 40 published books and over 700 articles in 140 journals, most of which were published after he was 60 years old. Ethically, Dewey believed that life was neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad and that it could be improved through effort and a bottom-up strategy. While he honored the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, he believed that only the scientific method could reliably further human good.
Written for: "Emily's Wodehouse Challenges!" March 2019
Word Count Part One: 926
Word Count Part Two: 1,256
Prompt: Research and write an essay (<1000 words) about the Age of Enlightenment. Give summaries (<500 words each) of five scholars of the Enlightenment from the following Eras: Pre-Socratic, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, and Contemporary.