As a historical category, the term
"Enlightenment" refers to a series of changes in European
thought and letters. It is one of the few historical
categories that was coined by the people who lived through
the era (most historical categories, such as "Renaissance,"
"early modern," "Reformation," "Tokugawa Enlightenment,"
etc., are made up by historians after the fact). When the
writers, philosophers and scientists of the eighteenth
century referred to their activities as the "Enlightenment,"
they meant that they were breaking from the past and
replacing the obscurity, darkness, and ignorance of European
thought with the "light" of truth.
There are two distinct developments in Enlightenment thought: the scientific revolution which resulted in new systems of understanding the physical world (this is covered in a later chapter), and the redeployment of the human sciences that apply scientific thinking to what were normally interpretive sciences. In the first, the two great innovations were the development of empirical thought and the mechanistic world view. Empiricism is based on the notion that human observation is a reliable indicator of the nature of phenomena; repeated human observation can produce reasonable expectations about future natural events. In the second, the universe is regarded as a machine. It functions by natural and predictable rules; although God created the universe, he does not interfere in its day to day runnings. Once the world is understood as a machine, then it can be manipulated and engineered for the benefit of humanity in the same way as machines are.
The Human Sciences
These ideas were steadily exported to the human sciences as well. In theories of personality, human development, and social mechanics, seventeenth century thinkers moved away from religious and moral explanations of human behavior and interactions and towards an empirical analysis and mechanistic explanation of the laws of human behavior and interaction.
The first major thinker of the
seventeenth century to apply new methods to the human
sciences was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) whose book
Leviathan is one of the most revolutionary and
influential works on political theory in European history.
Hobbes was greatly interested in the new sciences; he spent
some time in Italy with Galileo and eagerly read the work of
William Harvey, who was applying the new physical science
methods to human physiology. After the English Civil War,
Hobbes determined that political philosophy had to be
seriously revised. The old political philosophy, which
relied on religion, ethics, and interpretation, had produced
what he felt was a singular disaster in English history. He
proposed that political philosophy should be based on the
same methods of exposition and explanation as were being
applied to the physical sciences.
These were radical ideas. In the first,
Hobbes believed that human beings were material, physical
objects that were ruled by material, physical laws.
Everything that human beings feel, think, and judge, are
simply physical reactions to external stimuli. Sensation
produces feeling, and feeling produces decision, and
decision produces action. We are all, then, machines. The
fundamental motivation that spurs human beings on is
selfishness: all human beings wish to maximize their
pleasure and minimize their pain. As long as political
philosophy is built on some other principle, such as
morality, the human inclination to selfishness will always
result in tragedy.
Human beings, however, could not be
trusted simply to live by their agreements. For this reason,
authority was created in order to enforce the terms of the
social contract. The creation of authority, by which Hobbes
meant a monarch, transformed society into a state .
For Hobbes, humanity is better off living under the
circumscribed freedoms of a monarchy rather than the violent
anarchy of a completely equal and free life.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish
philosopher living in the Netherlands who applied the new
sciences to questions of ethics and philosophy. His most
famous work, the Ethics , attempts to use a system of
demonstration first outlined by Francis Bacon and fully
theorized by René Descartes that begins with certain
definitions and draws from these consequent axioms and
corollaries. His basic definition of good ("The highest good
of the mind is knowledge of God and the highest virtue of
the mind is to know God") formed the foundation of all of
his ethical statements, including some highly controversial
statements ("Pity is not a virtue"). The work was
extraordinarily controversial, for from his base definitions
he derived the notion that God and nature were essentially
identical. He argued the same thing that the Greek
philosopher Parmenides did almost two thousand years
earlier: there is one and only one thing in the universe and
that one thing is God. Everything else is simply a part of
God. Any proposition concerning the physical is, then, a
proposition about the nature of God. For Spinoza the new
physical sciences were, by and large, coterminous with
theology. This position would be reiterated by Isaac Newton
and the deists, who argued that understanding the rational
workings of the universe would also mean understanding the
rational workings of its creator, God.
The last important philosopher, besides
Pascal and Descartes, of human sciences in the seventeenth
century was John Locke (1632-1704). Locke was steeped in the
new physical sciences; he was an avid reader of Francis
Bacon and Isaac Newton, and he was a close friend of Robert
Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry. He also read
Pascal and Descartes avidly. He wrote two far-reaching and
massively influential works on human sciences, An Essay
Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Two
Treatises on Government (1690).