The Enlightenment and the Role of the Philosophers

Essay by Lane HartleCollege, UndergraduateA+, March 1995

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The Enlightenment is a name given by historians to an intellectual movement that was

predominant in the Western world during the 18th century. Strongly influenced by the

rise of modern science and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed

the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes in France) were

committed to secular views based on reason or human understanding only, which they hoped

would provide a basis for beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.

The more extreme and radical philosophes--Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Baron

d'Holbach, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-51)--advocated

a philosophical rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy that

would replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny of humanity; these men

were materialists, pantheists, or atheists. Other enlightened thinkers, such as Pierre

Bayle, Voltaire, David Hume, Jean Le Rond D'alembert, and Immanuel Kant, opposed

fanaticism, but were either agnostic or left room for some kind of religious faith.

All of the philosophes saw themselves as continuing the work of the great 17th century

pioneers--Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and John Locke--who

had developed fruitful methods of rational and empirical inquiry and had demonstrated the

possibility of a world remade by the application of knowledge for human benefit. The

philosophes believed that science could reveal nature as it truly is and show how it could

be controlled and manipulated. This belief provided an incentive to extend scientific

methods into every field of inquiry, thus laying the groundwork for the development of the

modern social sciences.

The enlightened understanding of human nature was one that emphasized the right to self-

expression and human fulfillment, the right to think freely and express one's views publicly

without censorship or fear...