The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture

The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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    The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture
    Book Description:

    The prestige of the Enlightenment has declined in recent years. Many consider its thinking abstract, its art and poetry uninspiring, and the assertion that it introduced a new age of freedom and progress after centuries of darkness and superstition presumptuous. In this book, an eminent scholar of modern culture shows that the Enlightenment was a more complex phenomenon than most of its detractors and advocates assume. It includes rationalist as well as antirationalist tendencies, a critique of traditional morality and religion as well as an attempt to establish them on new foundations, even the beginning of a moral renewal and a spiritual revival.

    The Enlightenment's critique of tradition was a necessary consequence of the fundamental modern principle that we humans are solely responsible for the course of history. Hence we can accept no belief, no authority, no institutions that are not in some way justified. This foundation, for better or for worse, determined the course of the following centuries. Despite contemporary reactions against it, the Enlightenment continues to shape our own time and still distinguishes Western culture from any other.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13368-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    This book had its origin in the surprise I experienced many years ago when considering the fundamental change in thinking and valuing that occurred during the period stretching from the second half of the seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth. Curious to know what the intellectual principles of modern thought were, I made a study of the beginnings of modern culture before turning to the critical epoch that forms the subject of the present book. It soon appeared that no direct causal succession links the humanism of the fifteenth century with the Enlightenment. When Max Weber described modernity...

  5. 1 A Definition and a Provisional Justification
    (pp. 1-17)

    In 1783 the writer of the article “Was ist Aufklärung?” (What Is Enlightenment?), published in theBerlinische Monatschrift, confessed himself unable to answer the question he had raised.¹ Today it remains as difficult to define the Enlightenment. The uncertainty appears in the conflicting assessments of the movement. The second edition of theOxford English Dictionarydescribes it as inspired by a “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority.” Obviously a definition of this nature is not very helpful for understanding a phenomenon distinct by its complexity. But neither is Kant’s famous description of it as “man’s release...

  6. 2 A Different Cosmos
    (pp. 18-44)

    During the Enlightenment the concept of power that had dominated ancient and medieval physics underwent a profound transformation. Previously thought to derive from a source beyond the physical world, it came to be viewed as immanent in that world and eventually as coinciding with the very nature of bodiliness. Aristotle’s theory that all motion originated from an unmoved mover had continued to influence Scholastic theories throughout the Middle Ages. For Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers, the impact of divine power went beyond motion and extended to the very existence of finite beings. According to the doctrine of creation, the dependence...

  7. 3 A New Sense of Selfhood
    (pp. 45-77)

    The success of the physical and mathematical sciences inspired a demand for a science of human nature. Not only would a systematic knowledge of the person round out the circle of sciences, but, as Hume understood it, such a knowledge would place all other sciences on a secure basis. “It is evident that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature; and that, however wide any of them may seem to run from it, they still return by one passage or another. Here then is the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in...

  8. 4 Toward a New Conception of Art
    (pp. 78-111)

    Artistically the Enlightenment may not compare favorably with the Renaissance or Baroque periods, but the aesthetic criticism of the eighteenth century surpassed that of the two earlier periods and provided most of the categories used in the two centuries that followed. One of its major achievements was to raise the idea of beauty to the level of truth. It accomplished this in three stages: at the beginning the imitation theory prevailed, next the expressive theory, and at the end the symbolic theory made a tentative entrance. Each of these movements made a definitive contribution to the modern conception of art...

  9. 5 The Moral Crisis
    (pp. 112-152)

    In chapter 1, I expressed reservations about applying the term “crisis” with its modern negative meaning to eighteenth-century culture as a whole. The questioning of the traditional foundations of morality, however, definitely caused a crisis. In France, libertinism flourished among the rich and the educated. During the reign of Louis XIV much of the Court was thoroughly corrupt—from the king’s own brother down. Corruption increased during the regency period and the reign of Louis XV. England also passed through a period of moral decline. The axiomatic beliefs that had supported traditional moral principles had become dubious. In the wake...

  10. 6 The Origin of Modern Social Theories
    (pp. 153-186)

    The Enlightenment may have made its most lasting impact on the way we live and think today through its social theory. Our institutions and laws, our conception of the state, and our political sensitivity all stem from Enlightenment ideas. This, of course, is particularly true in the United States, where the founding fathers transformed those ideas into an unsurpassed system of balanced government. Remarkably enough, at the center of these ideas stands the age-old concept of natural law. Much of the Enlightenment’s innovation in political theory may be traced to a change in the interpretation of that concept. Originally it...

  11. 7 The New Science of History
    (pp. 187-228)

    The writing of history has always been inspired by the belief that the knowledge of the past sheds light on the present. Yet the nature of this knowledge has varied from one period to another. Ancient writers, both classical and biblical, assumed that the essential patterns of life remained identical and therefore that history provided lasting models for instruction and imitation. Hence the search for historical prototypes of current customs and institutions. Legendary founders of cities, ancestors of existing professions, prehistorical legislators, and establishers of rituals were believed to grant them legitimacy. This belief in tradition persisted among Christians, even...

  12. 8 The Religious Crisis
    (pp. 229-268)

    The impact of the Enlightenment was undoubtedly felt most deeply in the area of religion, either as loss or as liberation. It was particularly severe in France and in England, where for a long time skeptical philosophies had undermined the foundations of Christian beliefs. By the end of the eighteenth century, the French masses, pressed by economic hardship, felt abandoned by a Church closely linked to a political regime indifferent to their suffering. In England, after two centuries of religious turmoil, the willingness of the Church to adapt its doctrine to the will of the sovereign had drained common people...

  13. 9 The Faith of the Philosophers
    (pp. 269-311)

    In this chapter I shall discuss the main philosophical responses to the challenges to religion described in the preceding one. Some philosophers, such as Leibniz and Clarke, responded from within the rationalist tradition. Others, among them Malebranche, Berkeley, and Jacobi, considered philosophical rationalism the very source of the religious crisis and repudiated it altogether. The first group attempted to revive philosophical theology, a branch of metaphysics that had existed since the early Stoics and that aimed at establishing the existence and nature of God. The Arabs, in their commentaries on the works of Aristotle, revived it as a rational foundation...

  14. 10 Spiritual Continuity and Renewal
    (pp. 312-333)

    The ideas discussed in this chapter differ considerably from the ones we have come to consider characteristic of the Enlightenment. Not only do they fall outside the rationalist trends of the age, but they contrast just as much with those that opposed that rationalism. Some of the most prominent and influential thinkers of the time appear to have bypassed the dominant controversies altogether. Unlike the so-called anti-Enlightenment thinkers, the ones presented here do not seek, or do not seek in the first place, alternatives to the prevailing ideologies. They mostly ignore them. Their ideas remain largely continuous with those of...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 334-340)

    The ideas of the Enlightenment continue to influence our present culture. The ideal of human emancipation still occupies a central place among them, though it has since passed through a number of changes. Marxism, which until recently played a leading role in European life, may serve as an example both of the continuity with and the transformation of the original ideal. It derived its goal of social liberation from the eighteenth-century ideal of emancipation. Yet the kind of social liberation Marx had in mind obviously differs from the emancipation pursued by the Enlightenment. Eighteenthcentury thought had at least in principle...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 341-382)
  17. Index
    (pp. 383-398)