Age of Enlightenment  

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"Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" (1947) interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant."--Sholem Stein

"With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker. More generally, there is no mention of the powerful illiberal current in Enlightenment thinking, expressed in the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks, which advocated and practised methodical violence as a means of improving society."--" --"Hidden Angels and Dark Mirrors: Pinker on Peace" in an updated edition of Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings, John Gray, also published as "Steven Pinker Is Wrong About Violence and War"

"We are bound to Enlightenment values — the universality of moral principles, the sanctity of individual volition, a detestation of wanton cruelty — and yet we have no choice but to indict the very civilization that begat those values as it goes careening through time leaving pain, death, bewilderment, the wreckage of aboriginal tribes and of rain forests in its wake. But again, the terms of that indictment can be spelled out only in the language of those values. This, and not the mincing word games of the deconstructionists, is the true aporia. The criminal is also accuser and judge."--Higher Superstition (1994) by Gross and Levitt

"The motto of enlightenment was expressed by Immanuel Kant in "sapere aude ." Have courage to use your own intelligence!". While seventeenth century philosophy saw the detachment of philosophy from theology, although it still offered arguments for the existence of – a deity, 18th-century philosophy was to go still further, leaving theology and religion behind altogether." --Sholem Stein

“Perhaps the Enlightenment was a more down-to-earth affair than the rarefied climate of opinion described by textbook writers, and we should question the overly highbrow, overly metaphysical view of intellectual life in the eighteenth century.” --The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) by Robert Darnton

"Of course the Enlightenment was a highly contradictory movement. It contained thinkers such as Spinoza, who despite his faith in reason knew that humans would always live by illusions; sceptics such as David Hume, for whom history was the working out of chance events; Schopenhauer, who used the work of Kant — the supreme Enlightenment philosopher — to argue that history is a kind of dream; and Freud — the greatest twentieth-century Enlightenment thinker — who showed that humans could only ever be partially sane. But it was the Enlightenment belief in progress that had mass appeal, and here religion comes back into the picture. Like much else in secular thought the idea of progress is a legacy of Christianity." --introduction to Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings

 The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, was an automaton in the form of duck, created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739.   Voltaire wrote that "without [...] the duck of Vaucanson, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France." ("Sans...le canard de Vaucanson vous n'auriez rien qui fit ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.") This is often misquoted as "Without the shitting duck, we would have nothing to remind us of the glory of France."
The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, was an automaton in the form of duck, created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. Voltaire wrote that "without [...] the duck of Vaucanson, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France." ("Sans...le canard de Vaucanson vous n'auriez rien qui fit ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.") This is often misquoted as "Without the shitting duck, we would have nothing to remind us of the glory of France."
Traité des trois imposteurs by anonymous (date unknown, edition shown 1777)
Traité des trois imposteurs by anonymous (date unknown, edition shown 1777)
Thérèse Philosophe (1748) was the bestseller of the French Enlightenment
Thérèse Philosophe (1748) was the bestseller of the French Enlightenment

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The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange. It opposed superstition and intolerance, with the Catholic Church as a favorite target. Some Enlightenment philosophes collaborated with Enlightened despots, who were absolute rulers who tried out some of the new governmental ideas in practice. The ideas of the Enlightenment have had a long-term major impact on the culture, politics, and governments of the Western world.

Originating about 1650 to 1700, it was sparked by philosophers Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), Voltaire (1694–1778) and physicist Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Ruling princes often endorsed and fostered these figures and even attempted to apply their ideas of government in what was known as enlightened absolutism. The Scientific Revolution is closely tied to the Enlightenment, as its discoveries overturned many traditional concepts and introduced new perspectives on nature and man's place within it. The Enlightenment flourished until about 1790–1800, after which the emphasis on reason gave way to Romanticism's emphasis on emotion, and a Counter-Enlightenment gained force. The Romantics complained that the Enlightenment had neglected the force of imagination, mystery, sentiment could not handle the emergence of new phenomenon.

In France, Enlightenment was based in the salons and culminated in the great Encyclopédie (1751–72) edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and (until 1759) Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783) with contributions by hundreds of leading intellectuals who were called philosophes, notably Voltaire (1694–1778), Rousseau (1712–1778) and Montesquieu (1689–1755). Some 25,000 copies of the 35 volume encyclopedia were sold, half of them outside France. The new intellectual forces spread to urban centres across Europe, notably England, Scotland, the German states, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Italy, Austria, and Spain, then jumped the Atlantic into the European colonies, where it influenced Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among many others, and played a major role in the American Revolution.

The Enlightenment was followed by Romanticism, which was a reaction against the rationalization of nature by the Enlightenment.



The French Encyclopédie was a quintessential summary of thought and belief of the Enlightenment. It tried to destroy superstitions and provide access to human knowledge. In ancien régime France it caused a storm of controversy, however. This was mostly due to its religious tolerance (though this should not be exaggerated; the article on "Atheism" defended the state's right to persecute and to execute atheists). The encyclopedia praised Protestant thinkers and challenged Catholic dogma. The entire work was banned; but because it had many highly placed supporters, work continued and each volume was delivered clandestinely to subscribers.

Social and cultural interpretation

The public sphere of the Enlightenment

In opposition to the intellectual historiographical approach of the Enlightenment, which examines the various currents, or discourses of intellectual thought within the European context during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the cultural (or social) approach examines the changes that occurred in European society and culture. Under this approach, the Enlightenment is less a collection of thought than a process of changing sociabilities and cultural practices – both the “content” and the processes by which this content was spread are now important. Roger Chartier describes it as follows:

This movement [from the intellectual to the cultural/social] implies casting doubt on two ideas: first, that practices can be deduced from the discourses that authorize or justify them; second, that it is possible to translate the terms of an explicit ideology the latent meaning of social mechanisms.

One of the primary elements of the cultural interpretation of the Enlightenment is the rise of the public sphere in Europe. Jürgen Habermas has influenced thinking on the public sphere more than any other, though his model is increasingly called into question. The essential problem that Habermas attempted to answer concerned the conditions necessary for “rational, critical, and genuinely open discussion of public issues”. Or, more simply, the social conditions required for Enlightenment ideas to be spread and discussed. His response was the formation in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the “bourgeois public sphere”, a “realm of communication marked by new arenas of debate, more open and accessible forms of urban public space and sociability, and an explosion of print culture". More specifically, Habermas highlights three essential elements of the public sphere: it was egalitarian; it discussed the domain of "common concern"; argument was founded on reason.

Public institutions

The public institutions of the Enlightenment

The public institutions of the Enlightenment included Academies, the book industry (scientific literature, journals, newspapers, The Republic of Letters and Grub Street), coffeehouses, debating societies, freemasonic lodges and Salons.

See also

18th century literature, 17th century philosophy, 18th century philosophy, Radical Enlightenment

Contemporary art movements


Key people

Spinoza - Denis Diderot - Immanuel Kant - Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Marquis de Sade - Voltaire


anti-clericalism - anti-enlightenment - capitalism (rise of) - clandestine and anonymous publishing - libertine - materialism - radical politics - reason (main trope) - French Revolution - Industrial Revolution (rise of) - print culture (result of)

Historians and texts

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