Enlightenment, The

The period of European thought which is equated with an emphasis on reason, experience, scepticism of religious and traditional authority, and a gradual emergence of the ideals of secular, liberal, and democratic societies. Often dated from the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1686 and John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises on Government three years later, some argue it began earlier, in the seventeenth century, with the works of Bacon and Hobbes in England, and in France, with Descartes's emphasis on unaided reason. It is the eighteenth century, however, which is generally seen as the heyday of the Enlightenment, especially in France, with the Encyclopédie and anti-clerical encyclopédistessuch as Rousseau , Diderot, Montesquieu , and Voltaire. David Hume , a Scottish philosopher, aimed to bring the experimental method into the study of the human mind, and believed natural science, culminating in Newtonian mechanics, could find a few basic principles which would make it possible to discern order in the apparent chaos of natural systems. Adam Smith , in The Wealth of Nations, outlined his optimistic ideas about free markets in the economy and the benefits of a division of labour. The German physicist and philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that knowledge of space and time is subjective, and distinguished between things as they are in themselves and things as they appear to us, thus separating out experience and thought.
There were many strands to the Enlightenment, running through literature and the arts, science, religion, and philosophy, Overall, however, it is equated with a materialist view of humanity, an optimism about the possibility of rational and scientific knowledge, progress through education, and a utilitarian approach to ethics and society. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have argued in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972) that there is a hidden logic of domination and oppression behind Enlightenment rationality. The desire to control nature, which was at the core of the Enlightenment, also entailed the domination of human beings. The legacy of the Enlightenment, if thoroughly analysed and understood, can be seen as the triumph of an instrumental rationality that led to the development of a bureaucratic rationality from which some argue there is no escape. See also empiricism ; epistemology ; progress ; Scottish Enlightenment.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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