“The Age of Enlightenment” is a title given to describe the time period between approximately 1650 to 1800 in European history. Propelled by the cultural revolution that started in the Renaissance, this era saw the return and popularization of the scientific method as a format for employing the emerging leitmotif of the enlightenment; the focus on logic and reason. It is accordingly considered the period of intellectual resurgence, which would eventually contribute to the industrial and technological revolutions of future eras. The developments that inspired the title given to this time period were plentiful, and resulted from the contributions of many brilliant minds.
The European Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries laid the foundation for the rise of enlightenment. This period brought about the easing of religious domination over culture and values, allowing for the Age of Enlightenment to utilize the extensive cultural developments of the Renaissance as a platform for the resistance of belief-based power. Of particular importance was the freedom that was gradually allotted to the previously persecuted scientific community as the movement spread throughout Europe. Reason and logic were resurrected during the Renaissance, and flourished throughout the subsequent Age of Enlightenment.
There were several philosopher-researchers that made essential contributions to the ideologies that became predominant in Europe, and later North America, during the Enlightenment. Accordingly, there is some debate about the prominence of each contributing party. The argument is strong that Baruch Spinoza provided the blueprints for the period, and had more influence on the movement than any other figure (Lord, 2012). Spinoza’s theories offered theological concepts that emphasised observation and reason, rather than the dogmatic, inherited traditions of religion. These early efforts would get him banned from Judaism, but the expulsion did little to temper the impact of his work, or to inhibit his philosophical ambitions. Spinoza’s posthumously released works may have been his most poignant, offering serious challenges to Descartes’ mind-body dualism, and providing another avenue with which to oppose the dominance of religion.
Another person to make a substantial contribution to the Enlightenment, John Locke, was one of the first empiricists. His theories promoted the rejection of all subjective systems in the research process, including spiritual beliefs. Complimentary to Locke’s work, by advancing many mathematical subfields, introducing the theory of gravity, and making many other contributions, Isaac Newton became a pillar of support for legitimizing the superiority of objectivity in the laws that govern the universe (Casini, 1988). Additionally, the French philosopher Voltaire served as a primary promoter of free religion and expression, as well as encouraging the separation of church from state being a necessary step in this process. Several other important figures also influenced the Age of Enlightenment, but those discussed here are among the most prominent examples.
The Enlightenment was criticized and opposed by Romanticists, leading to its conclusion near the dawn of the nineteenth century. Detractors insisted that human emotion is too influential to be suppressed, making the quest of rationalism a false, aimless endeavor. While the movement subsided, the importance of objectivism remained engrained in the functioning of most social aspects. One far-reaching effect was the exponential increase in the dissemination of information. The availability of writings on many topics resulted in sweeping changes to education, healthcare, governmental policy, personal beliefs, and the research process in general. The Modernist mindset evolved from the Age of Enlightenment (Code, 2012), as rationality and scientific objectivity remained (and continue to remain) the primary concern in managing the activities of many, if not most, social institutions. The scientific freedom gained through this period has propelled social development ever since, as is especially observable during the industrial and technological revolutions.
Casini, P. (1988). Newton’s’ Principia’and the Philosophers of the Enlightenment. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 42(1), 35-52.
Code, L. (2012). WiredCities: Community, Technology, and Changing Urban Place (Lecture module 4). Department of Geography,York University: Toronto, Canada.
Lord, B. (2012). Spinoza’s Theological‐Political Treatise: A Critical Guide. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20(3), 636-639.