The Enlightenment, often referred to as ‘The Age of Reason’, is sometimes periodised by French historians as the years 1715, the death of Louis XIV, and 1789, the start of the French Revolution. The French referred to the eighteenth century as le Siècle des Lumières; the Germans, as Aufklärung; the Italians, as L’Illuminismo; the Polish, as Oświecenie; and the Spanish, as La Ilustración. It is now common place to talk of the ‘long’ eighteenth century comprised of Early Enlightenment (1685–1730), the High Enlightenment (1730–1780), and the Late Enlightenment (1780–1815). 2 ‘The Enlightenment’ as a signifier as had pride of place in European intellectual history synonymous with the development of public reason, secular liberalism, democracy and the seat of modernity yet only recently has criticism begun to rework the historical category of ‘the Enlightenment’ in terms of its geography and history but also in terms of its historical significance as the grand narrative through which European and American manufacture their own historical self-image in the service of ‘Western history’.

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The standard received view is that Bacon, Hobbes and Descartes, along with ‘natural philosophers’ of the Scientific Revolution Galileo, Kepler and Leibniz, were important precursors. In the standard account the Enlightenment is traced back to England in the 1680 and to the publication of two texts—Isaac Newton’s (1686) Principia Mathematica and John Locke’s (1689) Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The period of high enlightenment focuses on the French ‘philosophes’ including Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Buffon and Diderot, characterised by the Voltaire’s (1764) Philosophical Dictionary and Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751–77). During this period both Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson founding father of the American Constitution took up Enlightenment ideas, especially those of Locke as the basis of the conception of American society. The so-called Late Enlightenment was dominated by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) whose Critique of Pure Reason (1781), alongside his other critiques (The Critique of Practical Reason, 1788; The Critique of Judgement, 1790), came to be viewed as the monumental work that initiated modern philosophy by seeking to determine the limits of reason and metaphysics—that is, what kind of claims can reason be expected to establish securely. Often Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) is included in the potted history as a philosopher of equality and women’s rights.

The standard short view is expressed by the Encyclopedia Britannica in the following terms:

Enlightenment, French siècle des Lumières (literally ‘century of the Enlightened’), German Aufklärung, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.

William Bristow (2010) begins his entry ‘Enlightenment’ for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by focusing on the French philosophes:

The heart of the eighteenth century Enlightenment is the loosely organized activity of prominent French thinkers of the mid-decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called philosophes (e.g. Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot and Montesquieu). The philosophes constituted an informal society of men of letters who collaborated on a loosely defined project of Enlightenment exemplified by the project of the Encyclopedia …. However, there are noteworthy centres of Enlightenment outside of France as well. There is a renowned Scottish Enlightenment (key figures are Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid), a German Enlightenment (die Aufklärung, key figures of which include Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant), and there are also other hubs of Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers scattered throughout Europe and America in the eighteenth century.

Following D’Alembert, Bristow depicts the Enlightenment has having ‘its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries’ and in its successes in describing and explaining the natural world. He also asserts that ‘The Enlightenment is often associated with its political revolutions and ideals, especially the French Revolution of 1789’ substituting a reason-based order of civil society for the ancien regime. Rather than a period Bristow mentions that Enlightenment thinkers conceived of the Enlightenment as a state of mind, as a set of philosophical and spiritual processes, best exemplified in Kant’s (1784) essay ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ where he refers to it as ‘humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”’

Kant’s essay was submitted on invitation to the German periodical the Berliniische Monatsschrift, a monthly magazine edited by Johan Erich Biester and Friedrich Gedike, in response to the question pose a year earlier by the Rev Johan Friedrich Zoller, a Prussian government official. His question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ was addressed to the intellectual community at large. Kant provides his answer in the first line of his response: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’ and he exclaims ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to think for yourself!) as the motto of the Enlightenment. The question is primarily one of courage and Kant whose moral system rests on the concept of autonomy suggests that people must throw off their dependent and childish status and think for themselves rather than relying on the Church or the State. Only through the use of public reason can people become free thinking and learn to trust their own reasoned judgement. The metaphor of exiting from immaturity immediately brings to mind education as cultivation of the intellect and use of reason. It also introduces the difference between children and adults suggesting that the aim of education is to encourage children to become fully autonomous moral human beings. But Kant’s notion of exit also carried a historical or evolutionary note for the human species.

Moses Mendelssohn, the German Jewish philosopher who was an influential figure in the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) had responded to the same question in the same periodical three month earlier, opening with this paragraph, translated for the first time by James Schmidt:

Civilization may be divided into cultivation and enlightening the public mind, the former of which seems to be chiefly practical, and to consist of refinement, beauty, and perfection in mechanics, in the arts, and in the manners of society of talents and industry in the arts, and of moral inclinations and propensities….

Mendelssohn in line with his rationalism argues for the liberalisation of Judaism and the abolition of Judaism’s coercive authority while remaining faithful to the Jewish tradition. Both Kant and Mendelssohn are important figures in the development of political liberalism and liberal education yet both perpetrate the idea that the Enlightenment is a single idea, a single process, and a single narrative.

Historiography of the enlightenment

In an important essay J. G. A. Pocock (2008, p. 84) on the historiography of the Enlightenment writes

‘Enlightenment’ is a word or signifier, and not a single or unifiable phenomenon which it consistently signifies. There is no single or unifiable phenomenon describable as ‘the Enlightenment’….

He argues that while there are important connections between different applications of the term ‘they cannot be reduced to a single narrative.’ There is no single account but only a family of ways of talking about it. In this initial context Pocock refers to John Robertson’s (2005) The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 1680–1740 who ascribes the term first to Naples then to Scotland to describe ‘a moral philosophy that made humans capable of society without needing recourse to God, and then by a political economy that elaborated their capacities in the settings of history and commerce’ (p. 84). He also contemplates the possibility of a ‘Protestant Enlightenment’ emphasizing ‘the historization of the debates over Christ’s nature’ as an aspect of rational criticism in Christology, religious history and textual criticism by reference to Jean Le Clerc who replaced theology with the history of theology thus historizing it as a discourse of ‘natural’ human society. Summarising in crude terms, the result was that Christ became an object of historical criticism and philosophy was expanded to ‘civil philosophy’ to be aided by political economy to suggest that the history of ‘natural’ society did not need the hypothesis of God: the growth of civil society did not require a theological justification. Pocock (2008, p. 95) puts his argument:

To this writer the specificity of ‘Enlightenment’ is better displayed in its plurality than in its unity; there is more, and richer, Enlightenment if there are many and diverse Enlightenments than if it is reduced to a single process. In the present case, it was one kind of Enlightenment to question whether God was necessary to society, another to question whether any church continued the being of God as man.

If ‘Western history’ concerns the ‘supersession of the scared’ and ‘the reduction of the divine to the human’, Pocock (2008, p. 96) raises the question of what counts as history especially when Enlightened Europeans studied Chinese civilisation. Does the history of Confucian China count as history for Enlightenment thinkers? It is noteworthy that both Voltaire and Leibniz both saw China as an ancient civilization that possessed the wisdom the West lacked. Bayle and Montesquieu on China suggests that Enlightenment thinkers attempted to reconcile ethical universalism and cultural diversity with limited success. Neo-Confucian thought was valued by Enlightenment thinkers to be the ideal deistic system and had an effect on secularism including the idea of civil service. Bettina Brandt (2016) argues ‘Over the course of the eighteenth century, European intellectuals shifted from admiring China as a utopian place of wonder to despising it as a backwards and despotic state.’ This reversal emerged from ‘Enlightenment conceptions of political identity and Europe’s own burgeoning global power’ and became the basis for German Orientalism and the origins of modern race theory. On the whole, however, China was viewed by Enlightenment historians as not possessing history because the perception was that it had not progressed rather it was seen as a certain timelessness and of not having a history reducible to rational understanding. These views became more pronounced in Kant and Hegel. Hegel, for instance, writes: ‘The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the Beginning’ (Hegel, 1837/1953). For Hegel, the history of Western modernity is intimately connected with the concept of the western state, and the history of Chinese government as the history of a despotic state. Chinese history was considered static and non-dialectical. The same ethnocentric and racist assumptions vitiated Enlightenment accounts of world history that extolled characteristics of European ‘progress’ as the apex of development and encouraged unfavourable comparisons with other part of the world.

The historiography of the Enlightenment is not just a question of ‘many, not one’—on the plurality of Enlightenment themes but also its conceptual variations (like a musical score) that invokes Wittgenstein’s (1953) ‘family resemblance’ argument that in effect points to overlapping concepts with no essence. While, of course, we can talk about the history of the Enlightenment ideas of freedom, equality, science, autonomy, rationalism, etc. and their various combinations and the paradoxes they can generate, one of the keys to unlocking their conceptual resources is to investigate their social origins and histories, that is, how they were lived and experienced. Historiography also lends itself naturally to the interpretation of historical documents and to interpretation as history that can tell the story from different points of view—of women, of children, of non-Europeans, of those Europeans not from the imperial powers of France, Britain and Germany. Such historiography reveals also not only multiple and sometimes conflicting accounts of the Enlightenment but also its dark side. Famously, Horkheimer and Adorno (1947) referred to ‘the dialectic of the Enlightenment’. While it aimed at human liberation the Enlightenment’s instrumental reason enslaved humanity and led to their death in large numbers. The Nazi Holocaust was not an exception. Reason, they argued, had become irrational. Yet they do not reject the Enlightenment but point to its double nature in terms of formation: ‘Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology’ (p. xviii). Others have celebrated ‘the dark Enlightenment’ which has become the motif those who would turn Nietzsche into a philosopher of the alt-right. 3 The idea and history of the Enlightenment continues to be active in philosophy and politics today but historiography of the Enlightenment reveals that there were voices raised against the Enlightenment at the time and after, beginning with Vico and Nietzsche.

The dark side of the enlightenment

The claim that the Enlightenment was racist and the home of modern race thinking has created a storm, encouraging us to confront our constructed histories of the Enlightenment by acknowledging its dark side. Bouie (2018) begins his article for Slate

The Enlightenment is having a renaissance, of sorts. A handful of centrist and conservative writers have reclaimed the 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement as a response to nationalism and ethnic prejudice on the right and relativism and ‘identity politics’ on the left. Among them are Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who sees himself as a bulwark against the forces of ‘chaos’ and ‘postmodernism’; Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive psychologist who argues, in Enlightenment Now, for optimism and human progress against those ‘who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress’; and conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, who, in Suicide of the West, argues in defense of capitalism and Enlightenment liberalism, twin forces he calls ‘the Miracle’ for creating Western prosperity.

For Pinker and Petersen, the Enlightenment ‘is a straightforward story of progress’ celebrating Western rationalism, science and classical liberalism but forgetting or ignoring the more troublesome episodes. Pinker’s (2018) polemical work is a continuation of the high levels of optimism of The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) that celebrates the Enlightenment for ‘the goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience.’ The trouble is that Pinker does not engage with the years of scholarship on the Enlightenment or the arguments developed by scholars over the years but presents evidence-based data. 4 His interpretation of Nietzsche defies all scholarly conventions: he writes of Nietzsche’s ‘genocidal ravings’ that ‘inspired the romantic militarism that led to the First World War and the Fascism of the Second’ as well as becoming ‘the Nazi court philosopher’—‘Nietzsche was an inspiration to relativists everywhere’, ‘Distaining the truth-seeking among scientists and Enlightenment thinkers’. While he can attribute and name some of those Nietzsche influenced—Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, Foucault—Pinker is on the side of the Enlightenment and against all Nietzsche followers and those that want to inquire into the Enlightenment’s historical self-image. It’s a pity he hasn’t read Foucault’s essay on the Enlightenment.

Another best-selling psychologist who by contrast is Nietzsche’s friend even though his favourite target for scathing but uninformed criticism is ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’. He extracts a Nietzsche that bolsters his defence of ‘classical liberalism’ that borders on fascism to support the alt-right and he uses it to criticise the ‘postmodern Left’, all without reading or engaging with anything of the Nietzsche canon of criticism. 5 His colleague Ronald Beiner (2018) in Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right traces the philosophical roots of the alt-right including Richard Spencer, Aleksandr Dugin, and Steve Bannon to the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger and their rejection of the Enlightenment and liberal democracy. Beiner (2018, p. 24) writes ‘Western civilization is going down the toilet because of too much emphasis on truth and rationality and too much emphasis on equal human dignity’. He evinces a similar hysterical reading of Nietzsche as Pinker does in his heroic defence of the Enlightenment against the scourge of Nietzsche. 6

What is interesting about these contemporary interventions concerning the Enlightenment and its Nietzschean critique is that it has fuelled both the intellectual sources of Nietzsche for the alt-right, and the Left, as well as an impassioned defence of the Enlightenment by those who want see themselves as protecting the liberal-democracy way of life. Nietzsche is alive and well and throwing sticks of dynamite into the fray. It is also a revitalisation of the question of the Enlightenment but in most cases the polemic has been truncated from most of the tradition of Enlightenment and Nietzsche criticism of the last couple of hundred years. These are positions in the raw, so to speak, made straight off the page without the mediating wisdom of textual criticism. It is as though these contemporary critics thumb their noses at history, humanities and criticism. By contrast, I feel obliged even within the scope of this brief essay to provide an acknowledgement, at least, of some of the great scholars and interpreters that have gone before. Of course, as we will find every great philosopher generates sympathetic and aggravated criticism.

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Both before and after Berlin there has been a veritable outpouring of books on the Enlightenment. One source identifies 224 works, often on single philosophers of the Enlightenment. 8 There are a set of classic interpretations or works of intellectual history and a number of recent additions that focus on why is still matters, the Encyclopédie, foundations of the modern age, the Islamic Enlightenment, the religious Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment, and the democratic Enlightenment. 9

Berlin coined the term ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ to describe multiple strands of thinking originating in the late eighteenth century that provide a critique of Enlightenment themes and acting as a forerunner to German Romanticism of the nineteenth century. The fact is that both Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) and Nietzsche were critics of the Enlightenment but also tied to it. In works like De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia, Vico (1710) opposed both Cartesian metaphysics and the expansion of modern rationalism. And in Scienza Nuova (The New Science, 1725) he return to a pre-modern form of reasoning initiating modern historiography, a philosophy of history based on the method of narrative. Like Marx, Vico saw the achievement of equality not in terms of the intellectual history of ideas but the result of social class struggle. Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) thought is no less than a comprehensive attack on Enlightenment thought which also initiated one of the latest and most important revivals of Nietzsche and his critique of the Enlightenment in the works of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Sarah Kofman and others.

Lewis Call’s (1995) Nietzsche as Critic and Captive of Enlightenment (∼station/dissertation.html) provides a useful set of ideas that explore Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment’s utopianism especially its faith in ‘progress’, his attacks of the origins of the Enlightenment especially Cartesian rationality, his critique of Rousseau (that Nietzsche labels Nietzsche contra Rousseau), his critique of Kant’s rational system of morality based on the autonomous subject that is used also to attack the political systems of the day, and his critique of nineteenth century rationality and scientific method. Call (1995) comments