The Enlightenment’s Legacy Prof Mark Knights

The Enlightenment’s Legacy
Prof Mark Knights
Key questions
• Why is it important for modernists to
understand the Enlightenment?
• What was its legacy and why is that legacy a
controversial one?
• Isms: liberalism, socialism, conservatism,
romanticism, fascism, colonialism,
• Is the Enlightenment a useful term, does it
have a coherence, a common set of values?
The Enlightenment Legacy for the
Modern World
1) Liberalism: toleration of
opinion and of religions;
separation of church and
state; consensual
government; free
speech; free market
(social progress through
the market;
capitalism); natural
rights (right to resist
tyranny in self-defence,
natural equality and
liberty, sexual liberty).
1859, John Stuart Mill,
On Liberty
2) Socialism
Natural equality
Brotherhood and sociability
Rousseau’s Social Contract and A
Discourse on Inequality (1754) for
its critique of self-love.
Utilitarianism – the greatest
happiness of the greatest number
The French revolution (declaration
of the rights of man 1792
permeated by Enlightenment
ideals) and social revolution
Henri Comte de Saint-Simon
(1760-1825), founder of French
socialism, influence on Karl Marx –
eradicating the hand of greed;
planned society
Charles Fourier (1772-1837),
another Utopian socialists thinker
– decent minimum wage to
eradicate poverty and communal
approach to society
"Liberty Leading the People", (Eugene Delacroix, 1830).
Fourier’s Phalanstère (1834)
3) Scientific and medical mentalities
• Confidence in
scientific approach
• Public health,
• Scientific societies
(Lunar Society)
• Museums and
• Science and industry
• Scientific truth
4) International
• C18th era of warfare – large-scale wars on a frequent basis
between Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Prussia, Russia. 7
Years War 1756-1763: war on a global scale. Wars against
France 1792-1815
• Enlightenment critique of war based on emergence of
international law – right of states to defend themselves but
also benefit of peaceful co-existence
• Saint-Pierre, Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace
(1712); Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant both
wrote schemes for ‘perpetual peace’ via international
• League of Nations 1919-45, United Nations (1945),
European community
Rejecting or questioning the
Important to recognise that ‘enlightening’ was a
contested process in the eighteenth century.
Strong adherence amongst some to the
‘ancien régime’, including at the popular level.
A satire of Joseph Priestley and Tom Paine, supping
with the devil and depicted as dangerous
1) Conservatism
• Particularly in
response to the
French revolution
• Edmund Burke,
Reflections on the
French Revolution
(1790), rejected
natural rights in
favour of what was
tried and tested eg
monarchy and church
• Joseph de Maistre
(1753-1821) stressed
hierarchy, order,
church (catholic)
• Regimes of 1849-1918
Burke’s Reflections bearing down on Dr Price
Edmund Burke's Philosophical
Inquiry into the Sublime and
Beautiful (1757)
Influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(the Enlightenment critiquing
itself): reaction against the
excessive stress on reason, instead
emphasising emotion and feeling,
including rapture of nature. The
Confessions (completed 1770, pub.
1781) – self-conscious
autobiography. ‘I must have
mountain torrents, steep rrocks,
firs, dark forests, mountains,oads
to climb or descend, precipices at
my side to frighten me’.
Brothers Grimm’s folk tales (18121814)
Romantic movement of 1790-1840s
Irrationalism 1880-1920s
2) Romanticism
3) Colonialism
Global empires, c.1750. The Enlightenment was strongest in colonising nations
4) Racism: ambiguities
• On the one hand a drive against
intellectual slavery
• On the other, the C18th
witnessed the enslavement of
many (6 million Africans
transported by Britain, France,
Spain, Holland)
• Categorisation of exotic peoples –
notions of primitive, savage.
Enlightenment could lead to a
sense of alienation over the
people or things that were
dominated. Cultural superiority?
• Rousseau and Denis Diderot
attempted to praise ‘noble
savage’; and Voltaire attacked the
fact that the price of sugar
consumption was slavery; but
more done against the slave trade
by evangelicals?
A Maori chief as drawn by Sydney Parkinson,
Thomas Cook’s artist (1769)
5) Sexism: ambiguities
Some traditional ways of thinking: Rousseau
in Emile (1762) ‘Sophie should be a woman
as Emile is a man. That is to say, she should
have everything that suits the constitution of
her species and of her sex so as to take her
place in the physical and moral order. …
woman is specially made to please man’.
Attacked by Mary Wollstonecraft, A
Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) :
But the private or public virtue of woman is
very problematical, for Rousseau, and a
numerous list of male writers, insist that she
should all her life be subjected to a severe
restraint, that of propriety. Why subject her
to propriety--blind propriety--if she be
capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she
be an heir of immortality? Is sugar always to
be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the
human species, like the poor African slaves,
to be subject to prejudices that brutalise
them, when principles would be a surer
guard, only to sweeten the cup of man? Is
not this indirectly to deny woman reason?
for a gift is a mockery, if it be unfit for use
Marquis de Sade, Juliette (1797), sexual
freedom – what were the limits?
6) Fascism and absolutism
• Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
Social Contract (1762): the
force of the general will,
forcing to be free
• Enlightened absolutism:
harnessing enlightened
ideals to enhance the
power of the state,
particularly in eastern
Europe (Prussia, Russia,
Austria). Bureaucratic
domination. All subjects
become instrumental to
the state. Theology
displaced by a form of
Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of
Reason Produces Monsters,
Etching and aquatint
(Caprichos no. 43: El sueño
de la razon produce
monstruos.), 1796-1797
The critique of Theodor Adorno & Max
Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment [1944,
“In the enigmatic readiness of the technologically educated masses to
fall under the sway of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to
popular paranoia, and in all uncomprehending absurdity, the
weakness of the modern theoretical faculty is apparent. … The flood
of detailed information and candy-floss entertainment
simultaneously instructs and stultifies mankind; progress becomes
regression…. Enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system”
"In the most general sense of progressive thought, the
Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and
establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates
disaster triumphant”
‘Mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking
into a new kind of barbarism’
‘We are wholly convinced that social freedom is inseparable from
enlightened thought. Nevertheless, the notion of this very way of
thinking already contains the seed of the reversal universally
apparent today’
Irresponsible, fantastical utopianism
• Thinkers as dreamers, enthusiasts whose cult of reason was
irrational. Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘Pure reason became
• Belief in human perfectibility and progress is naïve and
• Progress defeats itself. ‘Progress has a tendency to destroy
the very ideas it is supposed to realise and unfold.
Endangered by the process of technical civilisation is the
ability of independent thinking itself. Reason today seems
to suffer from a kind of disease. This is true in the life of the
individual as well as of society. The individual pays for the
tremendous achievements of modern industry, for his
increased technical sill and access to goods and services,
with a deepening impotence against the concentrated
power of the society which he is supposed to control’.
7) The postmodern challenge
• Critical of the Enlightenment’s
notion of ‘truth’; post-modernism stresses relativism
notions of class, gender and race
meta-narrative of progress of Western civilisation and
claim to be the ‘origins’ of modernity
confidence in human agency – rather post-modernism
stresses the way in which cultures shape individuals
its sense of domination – intellectual, cultural, colonial,
environmental (has a scientific way of thinking about
crop production been a good thing?)
Useful term?
• Is the Enlightenment a useful term, does it have a
coherence, a common set of values? It has
evolved to mean many different things.
• ‘the’?
• Enlightenments – according to time and place?
According to status, gender, race
• Do the ideas of the Enlightenment still have any
use for us in the C21st? Is it the cause of all ills? Is
its approach wrong-headed? Do we have
confidence in progress and reason?
Kant, An Answer to the Question:
What is Enlightenment
Enlightenment is man’s release from his selfincurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to
make use of his understanding without
direction from another. This tutelage is selfincurred when its cause lies not in lack of
reason but in lack of resolution and courage to
use it without direction from another. Sapere
aude! Have the courage to use your own
reason! That is the motto of the