By definition Enlightenment can mean: A philosophical movement of the 18th century that emphasized the use of reason to scrutinize previously accepted doctrines and traditions and that brought about many humanitarian reforms. Or even in Buddhism & Hinduism. It means a blessed state in which the individual transcends desire and suffering and attains Nirvana.
The Age of Enlightenment (Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange. The Enlightenment was a revolution in human thought. This new way of thinking was that rational thought begins with clearly stated principles, uses correct logic to arrive at conclusions, tests the conclusions against evidence, and then revises the principles in the light of the evidence.
Enlightenment thinkers opposed superstition and intolerance. Some Enlightenment thinkers collaborated with Enlightened deposits, absolutist rulers who attempted to forcibly put some of the new ideas about government into practice. The ideas of the Enlightenment continue to exert significant influence on the culture, politics, and governments of the Western world.
The Scientific Revolution is closely tied to the Enlightenment, as its discoveries overturned many traditional concepts and introduced new perspectives on nature and man’s place within it. The Enlightenment flourished until about 1790–1800, at which point the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, gave way to Romanticism, which placed a new emphasis on emotion; a Counter-Enlightenment began to increase in prominence. The Romantics argued that the Enlightenment was reductionist, insofar as it had largely ignored the forces of imagination, mystery, and sentiment. Enlightenment was mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance.”
Up until this time most intellectual debates revolved around “confessional” – that is Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), or Anglican issues, and the main aim of these debates was to establish which bloc of faith ought to have the “monopoly of truth and a God-given title to authority”. After this date everything thus previously rooted in tradition was questioned and often replaced by new concepts in the light of philosophical reason. After the second half of the 17th century and during the 18th century a “general process of rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology’s age-old hegemony in the world of study”, and thus confessional disputes were reduced to a secondary status in favor of the “escalating contest between faith and incredulity”.
This period saw the shaping of two distinct lines of enlightenment thought: Firstly the radical enlightenment, largely inspired by the one-substance philosophy of Spinoza, which in its political form adhered to: “democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state”.
Secondly the moderate enlightenment, which in a number of different philosophical systems, like those in the writings of Descartes, John Locke, Isaac Newton or Christian Wolff, expressed some support for critical review and renewal of the old modes of thought, but in other parts sought reform and accommodation with the old systems of power and faith. These two lines of thought were again met by the conservative Counter-Enlightenment, encompassing those thinkers who held on to the traditional belief-based systems of thought.
Although Enlightenment thinkers generally shared a similar set of values, their philosophical perspectives and methodological approaches to accomplishing their goals varied in significant and sometimes contradictory ways. The Enlightenment comprised “many different paths, varying in time and geography, to the common goals of progress, of tolerance, and the removal of abuses in Church and state.”
The Enlightenment broke through “the sacred circle,” whose dogma had circumscribed thinking. The Sacred Circle is a term he uses to describe the interdependent relationship between the hereditary aristocracy, the leaders of the church and the text of the Bible. This interrelationship manifests itself as kings invoking the doctrine “Divine Right of Kings” to rule. Thus the church sanctioned the rule of the king and the king defended the church in return.
The Enlightenment is also the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy, and reason as primary values of society – as opposed to the divine right of kings or traditions as the ruling authority. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view, the tendency of the philosophies, in particular to apply rationality to every problem is considered the essential change. Later critics of the Enlightenment, such as the Romantics of the 19th century, contended that its goals for rationality in human affairs were too ambitious to ever be achieved. A variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism, traced their intellectual heritage back to the Enlightenment.
In opposition to the intellectual historiographical approach of the Enlightenment, which examines the various currents or discourses of intellectual thought within the European context during the 17th and 18th centuries, the cultural (or social) approach examines the changes that occurred in European society and culture. Under this approach, the Enlightenment is less a collection of thought than a process of changing sociability’s and cultural practices – both the “content” and the processes by which this content was spread are now important. This movement, from the intellectual to the cultural/social, implies casting doubt on two ideas: first, that practices can be deduced from the discourses that authorize or justify them; second, that it is possible to translate into the terms of an explicit ideology the latent meaning of social mechanisms. The creation of the bourgeois public sphere to two long-term historical trends: the rise of the modern nation state and the rise of capitalism. The modern nation state in its consolidation of public power created by counterpoint a private realm of society independent of the state – allowing for the public sphere. Capitalism likewise increased society’s autonomy and self-awareness, along with creating an increasing need for the exchange of information.
The context of the rise of the public sphere was the economic and social change commonly grouped under the effects of the Industrial Revolution: “economic expansion, increasing urbanization, rising population and improving communications in comparison to the stagnation of the previous century”. Rising efficiency in production techniques and communication lowered the prices of consumer goods at the same time as it increased the amount and variety of goods available to consumers (including the literature essential to the public sphere). Meanwhile, the colonial experience (most European states had colonial Empires in the 18th century) began to expose European society to extremely heterogeneous cultures. The end result was the breaking down of “barriers between cultural systems, religious divides, gender differences and geographical areas”. In short, the social context was set for the public sphere to come into existence.
The word “public” implies the highest level of inclusivity – the public sphere by definition should be open to all. However, as the analysis of many “public” institutions of the Enlightenment will show, this sphere was only public to relative degrees. While the nature of public opinion during the Enlightenment is as difficult to define as it is today, it is nonetheless clear that the body that held it (i.e. the public sphere) was exclusive rather than inclusive. This observation will become more apparent during the descriptions of the institutions of the public sphere, most of which excluded both women and the lower classes.
Because of the focus on reason over superstition, the Enlightenment cultivated the arts. Emphasis on learning, art and music became more widespread, especially with the growing middle class. Areas of study such as literature, philosophy, science, and the fine arts increasingly explored subject matter that the general public in addition to the previously more segregated professionals and patrons could relate to.