Skepticism and Romanticism

New Movements

  • As the Enlightenment progressed into the mid-1700s, a noticeable shift occurred away from the empirical, reason-based philosophies of most of the leading French and English thinkers. The new philosophies that developed tended to take one of two major directions.
  • Romanticism, a philosophy strongly attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stressed emotion and a return to the natural state of man instead of the confines and constructs of society.
  • Skepticism, which gained prominence under Scottish philosopher David Hume and was later elevated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, questioned whether we as human beings are truly able to perceive the world around us with any degree of accuracy.
  • These two movements, along with Church anti-Enlightenment propaganda and increasing unrest as the French Revolution neared, marked a departure from those thoughts that dominated the peak of the Enlightenment.

David Hume

  • David Hume (17111776) was a Scottish writer and philosopher who paved the way for the future of the skeptical school of thought. A dogmatic skeptic, he devoted a substantial portion of his work to investigating the limits of human reasoning. Hume began his career in law but soon decided to devote himself to writing and philosophy.
  • His first major work was A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), a book that, though now highly regarded, went widely ignored because of its complicated prose. Hume made up for this oversight in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), in which he rearticulated much of the same material in a more approachable manner.
  • Hume’s studies, which have since become fundamental in modern Western philosophy, focus on reason, perception, and especially morals. Hume questioned whether the senses, and thus perception, could be trusted for a consistent view of the world around us. In considering morality, Hume felt that if a person found a particular action reasonable, then that action was a morally appropriate thing to do. By adding this introspective, individual layer to the issues of perception and morality, Hume stripped the philosophical world of its generalizations.
  • Indeed, the unrelentingly skeptical Hume believed that everything was subject to some degree of uncertainty—an idea that turned the intellectual world on end. Regardless of how he himself felt about Enlightenment ideas, he kept returning to one thought: because we will never know anything beyond a doubt, why bother?
  • Hume also applied his skeptical approach to science and religion, saying that even though neither was capable of fully explaining anything, science was stronger because it could admit that it would never be absolutely correct.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  • Orphaned in Geneva at an early age, the nomadic and self-taught Rousseau (17121778) drifted about for most of his youth, contributing intellectually however he could. He devised a new system for musical composition, submitted articles to Diderot’s Encyclopedie, and composed essays on various topics. It was one of these essays, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1750, which first earned him renown.
  • He followed it up with Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), which solidified his reputation as a bold philosopher. This work charted man’s progression from a peaceful, noble state in nature to an imbalanced state in society, blaming the advent of various professions and private property for the inequality and moral degradation.
  • The novel Julie (1761) told the story of a forbidden love, while Emile (1762) provided a revolutionary dissertation on the proper way to rear and educate a child.
  • Emile set the stage for Rousseau’s best-known and arguably most influential work, The Social Contract (1762). In it, Rousseau describes what he sees as the perfect political system: one in which everyone articulates their wants but ultimately compromises for the betterment of the general public. This general willwould thus contain traces of every citizen’s individual will and thus would in some way serve everyone. The general will finds its clearest expression in the general and abstract laws of the state. All laws must ensure liberty and equality: beyond that, they may vary depending on local circumstances.
  • With the famous phrase, “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains,” Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is our birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, comes only from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual preservation.
  • Rousseau calls the collective grouping of all citizens the “sovereign,” and claims that it should be considered in many ways to be like an individual person. While each individual has a particular will that aims for his own best interest, the sovereign expresses the general will that aims for the common good. Rousseau recommends the death penalty for those who violate the social contract.
  • While the sovereign exercises legislative power by means of the laws, states also need a government to exercise executive power, carrying out day-to-day business. There are many different forms of government, but they can roughly be divided into democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, depending on their size. Monarchy is the strongest form of government, and is best suited to large populations and hot climates. While different states are suited to different forms of government, Rousseau maintains that aristocracies tend to be the most stable.
  • Rousseau was opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly Template. The notion of the general wills is wholly central to Rousseau’s theory of political legitimacy. The government is composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the general will. The “sovereign” is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly. Under a monarchy, however, the real sovereign is still the law.
  • Rousseau ended his career in solitude, though not before releasing the deeply intimate Confessions (17651770), an autobiographical piece that chronicled his struggle to stick to his principles in the face of mounting fame and wealth.
  • As with many of the other philosophes, Rousseau admitted that his idea of the perfect system as outlined in The Social Contract was just that—an idea. It wasn’t actually in practice anywhere, nor was it likely that it ever would be. In fact, when asked to provide concrete advice to other countries’ governments, Rousseau would often give advice that was far more moderate than the suggestions of The Social Contract, simply because he knew his ideas would likely not work in practice. In this sense, Rousseau was an idealist, heavily influenced by the “utopian” republics of ancient Greece and Rome, in which each citizen had a vote and a say in the government.
  • In his vision of a perfect world, Rousseau wanted people to be at their most natural state; he hated the idea of “civilized” society and its encroachment on the natural state of man but knew that it was necessary. His frequent denouncements of inequality and the ownership of private property even bore an early suggestion of communism.


  • Rousseau’s emphasis on natural order and the natural state of man, along with his unprecedented autobiographical candor in Confessions, ushered in a whole new era of thinking that eventually developed into Romanticism.
  • Romanticism stressed a return to life as it can be seen, felt, and experienced and thus encouraged a reliance on emotion, intuition, and instinct as opposed to reason in guiding human behavior.
  • Shakespeare’s romantic tragedies were received with a new appreciation during the Romantic era, as were the works of countless other authors and poets that would come to prominence during the next century of Romantic writing.
  • The innate, approachable philosophies of Romanticism also appealed to the public more so than the pure rationalism and reason of the Enlightenment, which often came across as cold.
  • Although Rousseau certainly was not the only notable Romantic author, he was one of the first, and two of his works resonated greatly with the public. Though certainly not breaking new ground, La Nouvelle Heloise told a story of forbidden love in a relatable manner that struck a chord with readers. Likewise, Rousseau’s Confessions opened up a whole new world of personal revelation in the genre of autobiography. No previous memoirist had ever discussed his anxiety over the struggle for integrity—nor elucidated his own flaws—so openly. By being so frank and personal, Rousseau not only questioned the developments taking place in the world but also provided a contrast to the cold, sarcastic musings of Voltaire and Hume. People of all classes loved it, and it spawned countless imitators in the decades and centuries that followed.

Q. “The Promptings of the Heart are more to be Trusted than the Logic of the Mind.”: Rousseau. Comment.

  • (See answer in the section of previous years solved paper )

Q. “Rousseau’s political philosophy contains the seeds of Socialism, Absolutism and Democracy.” Comment.

  • (See answer in the section of previous years solved paper )

The German Enlightenment

Hurdles to the German Enlightenment

  • The political, social, and cultural layout of Germany in the eighteenth century inhibited much of the Enlightenment advancements that took place in France. Germany was divided into a number of smaller states, most of which were ruled by despots who stifled intellectual development. The total number of German newspapers had barely increased at all in the 150 years leading up to the Enlightenment, and the literary language in the country was predominantly Latin, which made the dispersion of other Enlightened works difficult.
  • Moreover, whereas France had a combination of antsy intellectuals and flighty nobility, as well as a boom in middle-class literacy, Germany did not. Germany lacked the distinct rift between the middle class and the aristocracy, and there was not nearly the popular discontent with religion or the Church that there was in France. As a result, many German intellectuals refuted the French idea of empiricism, refusing to believe that a simplistic set of laws, akin to the laws of physics or astronomy, could dictate the operation of human society. Germany’s literary landscape was also quite jumbled: it had no distinct literary style, and different regions pulled from different languages and influences.

The Aufklarung

  • Nonetheless, after King Frederick the Great of Prussia introduced some Enlightenment ideas from other parts of Europe, a small German Enlightenment (often known by its German name, the Aufklarung) began, although it went off in an entirely different direction from the English or French movements. The German Enlightenment never subjected religion to the same scrutiny as in other countries; in fact, the Aufklarung retained a somewhat mystical view of the world, with some of Germany’s leading writers adhering to the idea of combining reason with religion.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

  • The first major figure in the German Enlightenment was the brilliant Leibniz (16461716), who began his career in law but quickly moved out into other fields. Mathematically, he was Newton’s equal, as both “discovered” calculus at the same time. Although the two would bicker for some time over proper credit, a few elements of calculus have been attributed exclusively to Leibniz.
  • Foraying into metaphysics, Leibniz proposed the idea that everything in the universe consisted of monads, which he conceived of essentially as “spiritual atoms” that constitute our perception of the world but lack physical dimension. Unlike many figures in the French and English Enlightenment, Leibniz was very religious and in fact saw monads as the work of a perfect God.
  • Leibniz’s deep religious faith and affinity for tradition kept him conservative in his approach to his work, permeated his writings, and paved the way for the mysticism of the rest of the German Enlightenment. Even so, Leibniz laid a foundation that all future Enlightenment scholars would build upon. His monadologial approach to metaphysics may come across as bizarre, but it brought metaphysics into the spotlight and left it ripe for both elaboration and criticism, the latter of which came at the hands of Hume and Kant. Although these two prominent later philosophers disagreed with Leibniz, he gave them something to think about and in that sense enabled their own advances.

Immanuel Kant

  • Considered the last major philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (17241804) was enormously influential and essentially founded an entire school of thought out of the blue. Living and working in relative isolation in East Prussia, for his entire life, Kant began his career as a tutor and then took a position as professor in a local university. He spent that time, however, studying the works of other philosophers and formulating his own postulates about the world, which he finally released as the Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
  • The Critique is a response to the questions that Descartes, Hume, Leibniz, and other contemporaries had posed about perception and reality. Attacking the age-old question of knowledge versus experience, Critique proposes that all people are born with an inborn sense of raw experience—a phenomenon that Kant dubbed transcendental idealism. Whereas the Enlightenment had been built around the idea that man can discover the laws of nature with his mind, Kant countered that it is the mind that gives those laws to nature. In so doing, he elevated skepticism to unfathomable heights, cemented his place high atop the pantheon of philosophy, and knocked the Enlightenment down a few rungs.
  • Kant’s work with skepticism perfectly sums up the German Enlightenment’s mistrust of empiricism. The Critique suggests that we all are born with our own ideas and perceptions of the world and, as such, can never know what is “real” and what is “our perception.” In other words, reality is in the eyes of the beholder. However, because nothing really exists separate from its existence in the eyes of the observer, then perceptions and observations in the world cannot be trusted. As a result, empirical evidence cannot be trusted either. By thus stating that only a select few universal truths in the world were valid, Kant effectively disagreed with the premise of the entire French Enlightenment.
  • Kant also tried to define morality, another timeless philosophical question, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). In this work, he argues that reason must be the basis for moral action and that any action undertaken out of convenience or obedience cannot be considered moral, even if it is the right thing to do. Rather, the morality of an action depends on the motivation for the action. Hence, if an individual arrives at the conclusion that a certain action is right and pursues that course of action as a result, then that behavior is moral.
  • The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept in the deontological moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, it in a moral law that is unconditional or absolute for all agents, the validity or claim of which does not depend on any ulterior motive or end. “Do not steal,” for example, is categorical as distinct from the hypothetical imperatives associated with desire, such as “Do not steal if you want to be popular.” For Kant there was only one such categorical imperative, which he formulated in various ways. “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, and never as only a means.”
  • According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in an imperative, or ultimate commandment of reason, from which all duties and obligations derive.
  • These and other ideas of Kant’s continued to influence philosophers—especially German philosophers—long after his death. Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche all borrow significantly from Kant’s line of thinking.
  • In his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one’s own intelligence. Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.


  • Though known less for his philosophy, Goethe (17491832) would nevertheless emerge from the Enlightenment regarded as Germany’s finest writer. He churned out two landmarks in German literature. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), about a young boy who falls for an unattainable girl and eventually kills himself out of despair, had an unimaginable impact on German youth at the time. It is primarily for that work that Goethe is considered the most prominent figure in Germany’s Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement, a roughly twenty-year period from the 1760s to 1780s in which young German intellectuals, inspired by Rousseau’s emphasis on emotion, revolted against optimism and reason and plunged into darker, more anarchic themes.
  • Goethe was never terribly concerned with the politics of his era, even amid the massive governmental shifts that were taking place in Germany at the time. He was a writer and scholar, plain and simple, and spent the bulk of his career creating an enormous body of literature, translations, and scientific inquiries. The Sorrows of Young Werther had such an impact that German youngsters started dressing like Werther and even killing themselves; in subsequent editions, Goethe felt obligated to include a warning discouraging readers from taking their lives. In Faust, his monumental foray into satire and social commentary, Goethe continued in his intimate, emotional vein.
  • Just like Rousseau’s works in France, Goethe’s works focused on emotions and innate human feelings, signaling the end of the German Enlightenment, which flowed right into the Romantic movement that was burgeoning throughout Europe.

Results of the German Enlightenment

  • Although the pessimism and anarchism of the Sturm und Drang movement exposed a one-sidedness to German thought at the time, the movement was brief, and contrasting forces prevailed. A strong nationalistic voice emerged during the German Enlightenment, which did much to unify Germany culturally. Although other factors played in as well, political unity came hand in hand with cultural unity: laws and districts were consolidated, more freedoms were granted to the press, and judicial treatment became more humane. Ultimately, Germany would become a unified nation in 1871.
  • Is this much depth required?

    • For optional, yes……Some pretty good questions have been asked if you see the question bank…

  • Naik

    Hello SIr, Thanks a ton for posting this great piece of work. I just want to know, this much is suffice to solve the history questions in mains?
    Please suggest if any additional reading is required. Thanks in advance

  • Sushil Lamba

    Sources for Renaissance and modern thinkers??

  • Prudhvi

    Thank you sir, if possible complete the entire note.thank you once again…….

  • Siddhant Srivastava

    ITS mentioned below the previous year questions “(See answer in the section of previous years solved paper )”,….HOwever I Cannot find this section…Please it would be a great help if anyone can provide me this if there is any…Please also suggest a good book where I can find the solution of previous year paper


    • We have uploaded previous years solution which you can find at the starting of the blog. But you have to pay to access it.

  • Siddhant Srivastava

    Please let me know the payment details

  • Sir, if i join for two test only.will iget the solved answers.