The Enlightenment is one of the
most mentioned movements in human history. Many philosophers such as Francis
Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, etc.,
had shaped the Western world in many ways, especially how people perceive life.
The focal point of the Enlightenment is the celebration of reason, and that is
why this movement is often known as the Age of Reason. Mathematics and other
empirical sciences had unquestionably played a major role in the Enlightenment
movement. In addition, the Enlightenment was also recognized for its political
advancements. The French Revolution is a great manifestation of both political
and intellectual achievement. The fruits of the Enlightenment were many, but
most dominantly known were the flourishing of reason, the thirst for liberation
from authorities, and the desire for human happiness. Thus, the characteristics
of the Enlightenment revolved around four pillars: nature, reason, experience,
and progress. Most thinkers in this movement had demonstrated their great
desire to liberate human beings from the authority of the state, of religious beliefs,
and of individuals. They believed that the intellectual power, possessed by all
men, was the key to build a successful society. These thinkers were identified
as rationalists, empiricists, and skeptics. As a result, Scholastic Epistemology
was heavily challenged by these thinkers. This essay aims to offer a general overview
of these school of thoughts, which were highly held in respect by many
philosophers up to the present time.
B. Rationalism in the Enlightenment
whether René Descartes was the founding father of the Enlightenment is disputable,
it is undeniable that Descartes was a major figure in the movement. The famous
method of doubt by which Descartes postulates that the only way that human
beings can know the truth is through a clear and distinct idea. As a result,
human beings ought to doubt all propositions, which had been established by
others. More than that, Cartesian dualism also challenges the principle of the
unity between the soul and body as well as Aristotelian and Thomistic epistemology.
Descartes insists that the soul and the body, although do not exist separately,
they are two distinct entities, which could have been created by God
independently from each other. In other words, Descartes’ dualistic theory
claims that the existence of the soul does depend upon the necessity of a
physical body. Cartesian dualism raises several philosophical questions. What
is the relationship between the soul and the body? How can one lift his arm?
What is the nature of causality in the physical world? Thus, many people
believe that Descartes had a great ambition to liberate human beings from the
authority of the state.
Spinoza is also considered to be a rationalist in the Enlightenment. In
contrast to Descartes’ dualism, Spinoza posits an ontological monism in which he
claims that without God, it is impossible for anything to be conceived. Spinoza
believes that God is an absolutely infinite being, and a substance. Most
readers can also find in the works of Spinoza the notion of pantheism. Spinoza claims that although
God exists independently from everything, He is not transcendent to the material
world. In other words, to Spinoza, God is not hidden, but He is the most
obvious being. As a result, there is no separation between God and nature to
again, rationalism advocates the liberation of human being from the authority
of the state, and of religious beliefs.
C. Empiricism in the Enlightenment
the Enlightenment, it is obvious to see that there was a tendency for empirical
sciences moving toward the independence from metaphysics. For instance, although
Francis Bacon was not deemed to be an influential philosopher in his time, he
was held to be the early founder of Empiricism. His most famous work was the
invention of inductive method, which influenced many philosophers after him
among whom was John Locke.
Bacon, John Locke is another key empiricist in the Enlightenment. One of Locke’s
most influential works was the notion of innate ideas. Locke claims that knowledge
is not acquired through sense perception, but is infused into the mind. Both
Locke and Descartes examine the capacity of human knowledge through their
epistemological articulations. One of the issues with both Locke and Descartes
was, “how can one be certain that physical objects do not appear in one way
before the mind and exist in another way in the reality?” George Berkeley, an
empiricist who was influenced by Locke, introduces an idealistic approach to
metaphysics. Berkeley posits that physical objects of perception are nothing
but ideas to the mind.
characteristic of the Enlightenment can be seen as a progress in which the
validity of religious dogmas became questionable, and that it was a duty for
the philosophers to challenge those beliefs.
D. Skepticism in the Enlightenment
Due to the fact that the power of human
intellect was one of the key elements in the Enlightenment, skepticism holds a high
place in philosophy during that time. For instance, Descartes formulates in his
work, Meditations on First Philosophy, in which as mentioned earlier, he introduces a skeptical
method, namely, the method of doubt. David Hume is another fitting illustration
for this claim. Like many philosophers during this Age of Reason, Hume was
skeptical about sense perception. Hume formulated many skepticisms in his works.
He questioned the validity of inductive reasoning and the notion of causality.
To Hume, there are two kinds of reasoning, relations
of ideas and matters of fact. Hume
claims that the first kind of reasoning—relations of ideas, is the knowledge of
natural sciences; and the second kind of reasoning—matters of fact, the power
of human intellect.
is undeniable that the Enlightenment had offered many influential ideas, which enabled
human beings to progress in major fields such as science, philosophy, religion,
politics, etc., it also gives rise to many concerns in regard to the
relationship between human beings and nature. The Enlightenment was the
culmination of different cultural and intellectual contributions through
Its four pillars, nature, reason, experience, and progress which were demonstrated
by rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism had characterized the Age of Reason.
1William F. Lawhead, The Voyage of Discovery: The Modern Voyage 1400-1900 (Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002), 272.