1.15 The Enlightenment

In 1784, a Prussian philosopher named Immanuel Kant published a short essay entitled What is Enlightenment? He was responding to nearly a century of philosophical, scientific, and technical advances in Central and Western Europe that, he felt, had culminated in his own lifetime in a more enlightened and just age. According to Kant, Enlightenment was all about the courage to think for one’s self, to question the accepted notions of any field of human knowledge rather than relying on a belief imposed by an outside authority. Likewise, he wrote, ideas were now exchanged between thinkers in a network of learning that itself provided a kind of intellectual momentum. Kant’s point was that, more than ever before, thinkers of various kinds were breaking new ground not only in using the scientific method to discover new things about the physical world, but in applying rational inquiry toward improving human life and the organization of human society. While Kant’s essay probably overstated the Utopian qualities of the thought of his era, he was right that it did correspond to a major shift in how educated Europeans thought about the world and the human place in it.

Following Kant, historians refer to the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century as the Enlightenment. Historians now tend to reject the idea that the Enlightenment was a single, self-conscious movement of thinkers, but they still usually accept that there were indeed innovative new themes of thought running through much of the philosophical, literary, and technical writing of the period. Likewise, new forms of media and new forums of discussion came of age in the eighteenth century, creating a larger and better-informed public than ever before in European history.

The Enlightenment: Definitions

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that lasted about one hundred years, neatly corresponding to most of the eighteenth century; convenient dates for it are from the Glorious Revolution in Britain to the beginning of the French Revolution: 1688 – 1789. The central concern of the Enlightenment was applying rational thought to almost every aspect of human existence: not just science, but philosophy, morality, and society. Along with those philosophical themes, central to the Enlightenment was the emergence of new forms of media and new ways in which people exchanged information, along with new “sensibilities” regarding what was proper and desirable in social conduct and politics.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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