Major ideas of Enlightenment: Kant, Rousseau


  • The Enlightenment was intellectual, philosophical, cultural, and social movement that spread throughout Europe (mainly Western Europe) during the 17th and 18th century. The 17th and 18th century is called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.
  • Enabled by the Scientific Revolution, which had begun as early as 16th century, the Enlightenment represented a huge departure from the Middle Ages of Europe.
  • In the Age of Enlightenmen, the cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, such as the Catholic Church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and skepticism. There was a momentous struggle between ideas like liberty & despotism, Protestantism & Catholicism, authority & reason.
  • The millennium of the Middle Ages had been marked by unwavering religious devotion and unfathomable cruelty. Rarely before or after did the Church have as much power as it did during those thousand years of the Middle Ages. With the Holy Roman Empire as a foundation, missions such as the Crusades were conducted in part to find and persecute heretics. Although standard at the time, such harsh injustices would eventually offend and scare Europeans into change.
  • Science, though encouraged in the late Middle Ages as a form of piety and appreciation of God’s creation, was frequently regarded as heresy, and those who tried to explain miracles and other matters of faith faced harsh punishment.
  • Society was highly hierarchical, with serfdom a widespread practice. There were no mandates regarding personal liberties or rights, and many Europeans feared religion—either at the hands of an unmerciful God or at the hands of the sometimes brutal Church itself.
  • The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, however, opened a path for independent thought, and the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics, politics, economics, philosophy, and medicine were drastically updated and expanded. The amount of new knowledge that emerged was staggering. Just as important was the enthusiasm with which people approached the Enlightenment: intellectual salons popped up in France, philosophical discussions were held, and the increasingly literate population read books and passed them around feverishly. The Enlightenment and all of the new knowledge thus permeated nearly every facet of civilized life.
  • Not everyone participated, as many uneducated, rural citizens were unable to share in the Enlightenment during its course. But even their time would come, as the Enlightenment also prompted the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which provided rural dwellers with jobs and new cities in which to live.
  • Whether considered from an intellectual, political, or social standpoint, the advancements of the Enlightenment transformed the Western world into an intelligent and self-aware civilization. Moreover, it directly inspired the creation of the world’s first great democracy, the United States of America. The new freedoms and ideas sometimes led to abuses—in particular, the descent of the French Revolution from a positive, productive coup into tyranny and bedlam. In response to the violence of the French Revolution, some Europeans began to blame the Enlightenment’s attacks on tradition and breakdown of norms for inducing the anarchy.
  • Indeed, it took time for people to overcome this opinion and appreciate the Enlightenment’s beneficial effect on their daily lives. The effects of Enlightenment thought soon permeated both European and American life, from improved women’s rights to more efficient steam engines, from fairer judicial systems to increased educational opportunities, from revolutionary economic theories to a rich array of literature and music.
  • Nearly every theory or fact that is held in modern science has a foundation in the Enlightenment. Yet it is not simply the knowledge attained during the Enlightenment that makes the era so pivotal—it’s also the era’s groundbreaking and tenacious new approaches to investigation, reasoning, and problem solving that make it so important. Never before had people been so vocal about making a difference in the world; although some may have been persecuted for their new ideas, it nevertheless became indisputable that thought had the power to incite real change.

Root of Enlightenment:

  1. The Scientific Revolution
  • The Enlightenment was the product of a vast set of cultural and intellectual changes in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s—changes that in turn produced the social values that permitted the Enlightenment to sweep through Europe in the late 1600s and 1700s. One of the most important of these changes was the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and 1600s.
  • During the Scientific Revolution, European thinkers tore down the flawed set of “scientific” beliefs established by the ancients and maintained by the Church. To replace this flawed knowledge, scientists sought to discover and convey the true laws governing the phenomena they observed in nature.
  • Although it would take centuries to develop, the Scientific Revolution began near the end of the Middle Ages, when farmers began to notice, study, and record those environmental conditions that yielded the best harvests. In time, curiosity about the world spread, which led to further innovation. Even the Church initially encouraged such investigations, out of the belief that studying the world was a form of piety and constituted an admiration of God’s work.

Galileo and Kepler

  • The Church’s benevolent stance toward science changed abruptly when astronomers such as Galileo Galilei (15641642) and Johannes Kepler (15711630) started questioning the ancient teachings of Aristotle and other accepted beliefs.
  • Galileo’s work in the fields of physics and inertia was groundbreaking, while Kepler’s laws of planetary motion revealed, among other things, that the planets moved in elliptical orbits. Galileo especially encountered significant resistance from the Church for his support of the theories of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), who had stated that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system—not vice versa, as Church teaching had always maintained.

Bacon and Descartes

  • Though up against considerable Church opposition, science moved into the spotlight in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Galileo had long said that observation was a necessary element of the scientific method—a point that Francis Bacon (15611626) solidified with his inductive method. Sometimes known as the Baconian method, inductive science stresses observation and reasoning as the means for coming to general conclusions.
  • A later contemporary, Rene Descartes (15961650), picked up where Bacon left off. Descartes’ talents ran the gamut from mathematics to philosophy. His work in combining algebra and geometry revolutionized both of those fields, and it was Descartes who came to the philosophical conclusion “I think, therefore I am”—asserting that, if nothing else, he was at least a thinking being. Descartes’ deductive approach to philosophy, using math and logic, stressed a “clear and distinct foundation for thought” that still remains a standard for problem solving.


  • All developments of the Scientific Revolution were really just a primer for Englishman Isaac Newton (16421727), who built upon the work of his predecessors, and changed the face of science and mathematics.
  • Newton began his career with mathematics work that would eventually evolve into the entire field of calculus. From there, he conducted experiments in physics and math that revealed a number of natural laws that had previously been credited to divine forces. Newton’s seminal work, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), discussed the existence of a uniform force of gravity and established three laws of motion. Later in his career, Newton released Optics, which detailed his groundbreaking work in the field of optics.

The Legacy of the Scientific Revolution

  • During the Scientific Revolution, physics, philosophy, earth science, astronomy, and mathematics all experienced bold new innovation. The methods of scientific exploration were refined. The thinkers of the Scientific Revolution generated the concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning, as well as the general observe-hypothesize-experiment methodology known as the scientific method.
  • Ultimately, these movements yielded the work of Newton whose approach to the world encouraged observation and the realization not of causes but of effects. Just as important, Newton showed that scientific thought and methods could be applied to nonscientific topics—a development that paved the way for numerous later thinkers of the Enlightenment.

2. Exploration and Imperialism

  • In addition to these scientific milestones, political and cultural change was taking place in Europe as the result of exploration and the extension of overseas empires, especially in the Americas. In addition to the new discovery of America, European explorers also used new transportation technologies to explore already known locales in Africa and Asia in greater depth than ever before.
  • As these explorers returned from across the world with stories of peoples and cultures never previously known, Europeans were introduced to drastically different lifestyles and beliefs. Some explorers brought foreign visitors to Europe, which introduced common people—who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel—to these foreign influences. The Orient mystified Europeans: its religions, familial relationships, and scientific discoveries astounded Westerners to such a degree that the emulation of Chinese culture briefly came into fashion. All in all, this worldlier perspective provided Enlightenment-era thinkers with the inspiration and impetus for change.

3. The Declining Influence of the Church

  • Yet another major change in the lives of Europeans prior to the Enlightenment was the weakening of adherence to traditional religious authority. The questioning of religion itself can largely be traced to the tensions created by the Protestant Reformation, which split the Catholic Church and opened new territory for theological debate.
  • Additional seeds were planted by Baruch Spinoza (16321677), a Jewish philosopher from Amsterdam who developed a philosophy emphasizing ethical thought as the guide to conduct. Spinoza called into question the tenets of both Judaism and Christianity: he believed in God but denied that the Bible was divinely inspired and rejected the concept of miracles and the religious supernatural. He claimed that ethics determined by rational thought were more important as a guide to conduct than was religion.
  • As other seventeenth century thinkers similarly questioned the authority of organized religion, it became much more common in European intellectual circles to put the concepts of religious belief to question. Although the Church’s influence still remained strong, especially among the lower classes, the ideas of Spinoza combined with the new discoveries of the Scientific Revolution threatened the supremacy of Church doctrine considerably. Most devastating was the philosophical approach many scientists were taking, which often led to conclusions that God either did not exist or at least did not play much of a role in daily life.
  • Moreover, these advances in thought coincided with anti-church and government sentiment that was already growing among European commoners. The Catholic Church at the time was famously corrupt, and it often ruled using intimidation, fear, and false knowledge and was violently intolerant toward dissenters and heretics. Subsequently, when Enlightenment philosophers came along praising liberty and self-empowerment, people found willing ears.

4. Anti-War Sentiments

  • Another major change in Europe prior to the Enlightenment was an increased questioning of the justness of absolute monarchy. For centuries, the common citizens of Europe had little or no role in their governments. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, developments occurred that caused the authority of European divine right—the idea that monarchs were infallible because their titles were granted by God—to weaken.
  • Perhaps the most immediate catalyst of the Enlightenment in this regard was the Thirty Years’ War, which broke out in 1618 when Bohemian Protestants revolted against religious intolerance of their Catholic king. The ensuing battle between Protestants and Catholics spread into Germany, and over the course of the next thirty years, nearly a third of the German population was killed.
  • The atrocities that the German public endured over those three decades inspired leading European thinkers and writers to decry war as an institution. Czech reformer John Comenius (15921670) questioned the necessity of war, emphasizing the similarity of man by writing that “we are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood.”
  • Meanwhile, Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius (15831645) wrote that the right of an individual to live and exist peacefully transcends any responsibility to a government’s idea of national duty. Grotius’s desire for humane treatment in wartime was expressed in his On the Law of War and Peace (1625), which proposed such wartime policies as the declaration of war, the honoring of treaties, and humane treatment of war prisoners.
  • Comenius’s and Grotius’s antiwar sentiments were the first developments of the Enlightenment in the sense that they went against tradition and took a humanistic approach to the atrocities in the world. Grotius was perhaps most significant for defining the God-given duties of man and then showing how war infringed upon them, thus “proving” that war is wrong. Comenius, for his part, went so far as to question the idea of nationalism and the obligation one has to give one’s life for one’s country.

Individualism, Relativism, and Rationalism

  • Ultimately, from this slew of scientific, cultural, social, and political developments in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emerged three fundamental ideas that encompassed everything the Enlightenment would stand for.
  1. Individualism, which emphasized the importance of the individual and his inborn rights.
  2. Relativism was the concept that different cultures, beliefs, ideas, and value systems had equal merit.
  3. Rationalism was the conviction that with the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth and improve the world.
  • These three ideas reveal the fundamental concepts that would pervade the Enlightenment—man’s ability to reason, to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for himself.
  • Moreover, these ideas represented the separation and autonomy of man’s intellect from God—a development that opened the door to new discoveries and ideas and threatened the Europe’s long-standing institutions.


Q. “The Enlightenment represented Alternative Approaches to Modernity, Alternative Habits of Mind and Heart, Sensibility”. Comment.

  • (For answer, refer to previous years solved papers in this website)


  1. Please name the source material too, So that i could make up my mind regarding whether to read other books or not. This is a good Site and please keep it going.

Leave a Reply to selfstudyhistory Cancel reply