'Have the courage to use your own understanding,' is therefore the motto of the enlightenment. –Immanuel Kant
As for so many other areas of thought, the Enlightenment marks, if not exactly the origins of philosophy of history, at any rate of a characteristically modern approach to it. It will therefore be useful to spend some time with that epoch as a whole, by way of background, before discussing particular intellectuals who thought and wrote about history at that time. This series will proceed chronologically, from the eighteenth century to the most recent developments. The focus will be on new ways of approaching the study of the past, or of understanding it as a whole, as offered by philosophers, historians, and occasionally also sociologists. It will also be supplemented by occasional discussions of the historical background against which these intellectuals were writing.
The Enlightenment is the name we give to a broad intellectual movement, beginning in about the middle of the seventeenth century and concluding near the end of the eighteenth with the French Revolution. After that, it is customary to refer to the overall way of looking at the world, if not the particular ideas of the Enlightenment, as “modernity”—a term that usually also covers a whole series of structural changes in the economy that are certainly important but are outside our immediate interest.
The Enlightenment was centered on France, at that time by far the most powerful state in Europe, but it was not by any means an exclusively French phenomenon. German and British intellectuals also played a prominent role, and the Enlightenment had admirers and contributors throughout the West. Leading French intellectuals such as Montesquieu and Voltaire often drew their inspiration from Great Britain, which seemed to them a more tolerant and rational society than their own. They contrasted the absolutism of the Bourbon monarchy with the constitutional balance between the Hanoverian monarchy and Parliament; the aristocratic contempt for manual labor in France with the booming commerce and industry of Britain; the uselessness of Sorbonne theology with the practical discoveries of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle; and the bloody persecution of the Huguenots by the Gallican church with the mutual toleration shown by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc. Historians have since doubted that these French intellectuals actually understood the British society they so admired, but the point is that they believed Britain offered a model for France to imitate. Anything that was backward and shameful in France, they were certain, was being done better in Britain, and later, in the United States, and therefore could and should be done better in France as well.
We might usefully summarize the ideas that they derived from these comparisons with the following motto: “Reason discovers Truth and makes Mankind free and happy.” The capitalized words in this expression denote particular rather than general meanings of the terms, and by discussing them we can perhaps see how Enlightenment thought differed from its predecessors. People have always “reasoned,” of course, if by that term we mean that they have tried to think systematically about the world. Enlightenment Reason, by contrast, typically (though not always) meant a particular type of reasoning—induction from observation, that type characterized by the methods of Newton and Boyle, which we call scientific, and which we might contrast with deduction based on logic, the method of Plato, Spinoza, and Descartes. The inheritors of the first method we call empiricists, and of the second we call rationalists.
Enlightenment Reason also meant the belief that the old authorities could not be trusted, and in this sense the Enlightenment began in the sixteenth rather than in the seventeenth century, though it took a long time for the implications of this to be fully realized. For more than a thousand years, the task of all serious intellectual activity had been to understand and to reconcile the two major strands of the Western intellectual tradition. On the one hand were the master minds of classical antiquity—Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc.—and on the other were the prophets, apostles, saints, etc., whose lives and sayings constituted the principle revelation of God to man. As different as these two intellectual traditions were, they had at least one thing in common—they were very, very old, and therefore authoritative. However, beginning at about the turn of the sixteenth century, a series of discoveries, such as that of the Americas, a water-route to India, the heliocentric theory, and so on, of which the ancients had known nothing, began to undermine their authority, while the tremendously bloody Wars of Religion, in which partisans of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation slaughtered one another with gusto, similarly corroded the prestige of Christianity. In short, Descartes's decision to doubt everything he had been told was not just the private act of a thoughtful individual, though it was that. It was a response to the general collapse of the prestige of inherited tradition. The medieval assumption that whatever could be done now had been done better in Greece and Rome began to give way to the opposite assumption, starting about the time of Descartes (c. 1650). Thus Enlightenment Reason meant, besides induction based on observation, the rejection of all ancient authority in favor of what people now living could learn about the world simply by inquiring openly and honestly about it.
Anyone who did this, Enlightenment intellectuals held, would discover Truth, which meant not simply the way things are (i.e., truth with a little “t”), and not something hidden, mysterious, and very difficult to discover, as Plato and the ancients generally held, but things that are self-evident: all people find tyranny and oppression hateful; the state exists for the well-being of the people; commerce and industry enrich human life; superstition impoverishes the mind and hinders understanding; design in the universe furnishes evidence of a creator, and so on. Thomas Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be self-evident" was not simply a rhetorical flourish; it expressed the entire mood of the age. There were some things that were simply not open to dispute, though. As our last clause perhaps indicates, what counts as a “self-evident truth” has changed a bit since Voltaire and Jefferson. In general, Enlightenment thinkers were deists and monarchists, though there were exceptions (d’Holbach was an atheist, Rousseau a republican; Diderot, who was both, famously declared, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”). All Enlightenment thinkers, however, were at least skeptical about Catholicism in particular, and Christianity in general, and most were actively hostile. They preferred the “natural religion” of a simple, honest "savage" who looks up at the stars and feels a powerful sense of beauty and oneness with the universe. All later additions, and this certainly included theology ("priestcraft," as they called it), were held to be corruptions of the true, timeless, simple, and universal faith of Mankind.
Further, Enlightenment intellectuals tended to regard the universe as a mechanism, wholly material in character, and susceptible, like any mechanism, to rational analysis and ultimately to manipulation. Newton and Boyle had demonstrated this, and thereby proven the dictum of Francis Bacon that “knowledge is power.” Their laws quickly set the standard for all serious intellectual activity. The universe, as a law-governed and rationally knowable mechanism, could be understood and therefore also manipulated, presumably for the benefit of all mankind. That such knowledge would be used in this way was one of those “self-evident truths” of Reason that is perhaps not so self-evident today, but it was, in any case, the near-universal doctrine of Enlightenment intellectuals.
The notion of universality brings us to the third term of our motto: Mankind. Again, people have always recognized something of themselves in other people, but the Enlightenment adopted the idea of humanism, which had its origins in the Italian Renaissance, and turned it into one of the self-evident truths of Reason. In the hands of the Enlightenment, humanism, which had meant, in the time of the Italian Renaissance, the revival of Protagoras' dictum "Man is the measure of all things," became the idea that people have always behaved, thought, and felt more or less as they do now, and that one can therefore learn everything one needs to know about them simply by looking around. Where the ancients distinguished quite sharply between Greek and Barbarian, Jew and Gentile, believer and infidel, and in general between Of My Tribe and Not Of My Tribe, Enlightenment intellectuals tried to break down these barriers. A Frenchman and an Englishman were both men first and foremost, and that was what mattered—differences in language and custom were relatively minor affairs, and could easily be overcome through good will and education. (Only a few radicals believed that this was true across sexes as it was of nations—another “self-evident truth” that we do not, perhaps, regard as quite so self-evident any longer.) This was partially a response to the Age of Discovery, which quickly gave way to that of Imperialism, and which brought Europeans into much closer contact than they had before experienced with distant peoples. It was also a response to the Industrial Revolution, which created an increasingly urban and commercial society, with a correspondingly more cosmopolitan set of values.
This, then, was the intellectual background against which eighteenth-century historical thought in particular, and to a lesser extent all subsequent historical thought in general, took shape. It was a progressive, materialist, humanist, rational, cosmopolitan worldview, hostile to clerics but usually friendly to monarchy. Throughout the eighteenth century, it went from strength to strength, dispelling, as they saw it, the long shadow of the dark ages through the light of reason. As it gained momentum, it generated at least two consequences that are important for understanding subsequent historical thought, and indeed subsequent history: the French Revolution, and the Counter-Enlightenment.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We must first discuss the historical thought of the Enlightenment, through three of its characteristic voices: Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and the Marquis de Condorcet. Ironically, though, the Counter-Enlightenment must have the first word, for Giambattista Vico, one of the most important and influential philosophers of history who ever lived (and the subject of our next article), wrote before them all.
Immanuel Kant: What is Enlightenment? (1784)
Michel Foucault: What is Enlightenment? (1978)
This post in the first in a series on the philosophy of history. The next in the series is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.