What Was The Enlightenment?

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.

- Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. In 1696 the Edinburgh student, Thomas Aitkenhead, claimed theology was "a rhapsody of feigned and ill invented nonsense". He was hanged for his trouble - just one victim of a repressive religious society called the Scottish Kirk. Yet within 60 years Scotland was transformed by the ideas sweeping the continent in what we call the Enlightenment. This Scottish Enlightenment emerged on a broad front. From philosophy to farming it championed empiricism, questioned religion and debated reason. It was crowned by the philosophical brilliance of David Hume and by Adam Smith – the father of modern economics. But what led to this ‘Scottish Miracle’, was it an indigenous phenomenon or did it depend on influence from abroad? It profoundly influenced the American revolutionaries and the British Empire, but what legacy does it have for Scotland today?

Listen to the In Our Time episode on The Enlightenment in Scotland

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The Enlightenment has been defined in many different ways, but at its broadest was a philosophical, intellectual and cultural movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It stressed reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought over dogma, blind faith, and superstition. Logic wasn’t a new invention, having been used by the ancient Greeks, but it was now included in a worldview which argued that empirical observation and the examination of human life could reveal the truth behind human society and self, as well as the universe.

All were deemed to be rational and understandable. The Enlightenment held that there could be a science of man and that the history of mankind was one of progress, which could be continued with the right thinking...

Continue reading Robert Wilde's article: A Beginner's Guide to the Enlightenment

Further Reading

...Kant defines “enlightenment” in his famous contribution to debate on the question in an essay entitled “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Expressing convictions shared among Enlightenment thinkers of widely divergent doctrines, Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of one’s own reason and experience. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one’s intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the Enlightenment by William Bristow

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 Equality | FreedomHistory | Human Rights | Kant | Science

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