From beginner-friendly introductions to classic works of the enlightenment, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s worth noting that there is no single best book on the enlightenment. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best philosophy books on the enlightenment in no particular order.
The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction – John Robertson
Publisher description: A foundational moment in the history of modern European thought, the Enlightenment continues to be a reference point for philosophers, scholars and opinion-formers. To many it remains the inspiration of our commitments to the betterment of the human condition. To others, it represents the elevation of one set of European values to the world, many of whose peoples have quite different values. But what is the relationship between the historical Enlightenment and the idea of ‘Enlightenment’, and can these two understandings be reconciled?
In this Very Short Introduction, John Robertson offers a concise historical introduction to the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement of eighteenth-century Europe. Discussing its intellectual achievements, he also explores how its supporters exploited new ways of communicating their ideas to a wider public, creating a new ‘public sphere’ for critical discussion of the moral, economic and political issues facing their societies.
The Enlightenment – Dorinda Outram
Publisher description: What is the Enlightenment? A period rich with debates on the nature of man, truth and the place of God, with the international circulation of ideas, people and gold. But did the Enlightenment mean the same for men and women, for rich and poor, for Europeans and non-Europeans? In this fourth edition of her acclaimed book, Dorinda Outram addresses these and other questions about the Enlightenment and its place at the foundation of modernity. Studied as a global phenomenon, Outram sets the period against broader social changes, touching on how historical interpretations of the Enlightenment continue to transform in response to contemporary socio-economic trends. Supported by a wide-ranging selection of documents online, this new edition provides an up-to-date overview of the main themes of the period and benefits from an expanded treatment of political economy and imperialism, making it essential reading for students of eighteenth-century history and philosophy.
The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy – Anthony Gottlieb
Publisher description: Western philosophy is now two and a half millennia old, but much of it came in just two staccato bursts, each lasting only about 150 years. In his landmark survey of Western philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb documented the first of these, which came in the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Now, in The Dream of Enlightenment, Gottlieb expertly navigates the second great explosion of thought, taking us to northern Europe in the wake of its wars of religion and the rise of Galilean science. In a relatively short period – from the early 1640s to the eve of the French Revolution – Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume all made their mark. The Dream of Enlightenment tells their story and that of the birth of modern philosophy. …
The Portable Enlightenment Reader – Issac Kramnick
Publisher description: The Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, also called the Age of Reason, was so named for an intellectual movement that shook the foundations of Western civilization. In championing radical ideas such as individual liberty and an empirical appraisal of the universe through rational inquiry and natural experience, Enlightenment philosophers in Europe and America planted the seeds for modern liberalism, cultural humanism, science and technology, and laissez-faire Capitalism This volume brings together works from this era, with more than 100 selections from a range of sources. It includes examples by Kant, Diderot, Voltaire, Newton, Rousseau, Locke, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Paine that demonstrate the pervasive impact of Enlightenment views on philosophy and epistemology as well as on political, social, and economic institutions.
Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
Publisher description: The Second Treatise is one of the most important political treatises ever written and one of the most far-reaching in its influence.
In his provocative 15-page introduction to this edition, the late eminent political theorist C. B. Macpherson examines Locke’s arguments for limited, conditional government, private property, and right of revolution and suggests reasons for the appeal of these arguments in Locke’s time and since.
Discourse on the Method – Rene Descartes
Publisher description: This edition contains Donald Cress’s completely revised translation of the Meditations (from the corrected Latin edition) and recent corrections to Discourse on Method, bringing this version even closer to Descartes’s original, while maintaining the clear and accessible style of a classic teaching edition.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
Publisher description: A landmark of Enlightenment thought, Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is accompanied here by two shorter works that shed light on it: A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh, Hume’s response to those accusing him of atheism, of advocating extreme skepticism, and of undermining the foundations of morality; and his Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature, which anticipates discussions developed in the Enquiry.
In his concise Introduction, Eric Steinberg explores the conditions that led Hume to write the Enquiry and the work’s important relationship to Book I of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft
Publisher description: This volume brings together extracts of the major political writings of Mary Wollstonecraft in the order in which they appeared in the revolutionary 1790s. It traces her passionate and indignant response to the excitement of the early days of the French Revolution and then her uneasiness at its later bloody phase. It reveals her developing understanding of women’s involvement in the political and social life of the nation and her growing awareness of the relationship between politics and economics and between political institutions and the individual. In personal terms, the works show her struggling with a belief in the perfectibility of human nature through rational education, a doctrine that became weaker under the onslaught of her own miserable experience and the revolutionary massacres.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Topics in the Enlightenment – University of Winnipeg
- The Enlightenment and its Critics – Fordham University
- I am very interested in reading and learning about philosophy and want to start with books from enlightenment thinkers. Which books are a good place to start?
- Brief books on The Enlightenment?
- Could someone suggest a good book or resource about history of Philosophy especially during the renaissance and the enlightenment periods?
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on the History of Philosophy
- The Best Books on or by David Hume
Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy readings lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.
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