The Enlightenment was a philosophical, cultural and intellectual movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which stressed on the use of reason, logical criticism and freedom of thought. Science and empiricism gained centre stage, as it was believed that even man could be explained through science (Wilde 1). The Enlightenment had deep repercussions in Europe and throughout the world, with a gradual shift in the power of the Church and the monarch, and utmost importance being placed on the individual. The Enlightenment era is also regarded to have led to the Modern Age.
Despite the stress the Enlightenment era, often called the “age of reason”, placed on a universal set of meanings and values, the Enlightenment was never a simple, uniform movement. While Enlightenment thinkers agreed on certain broad categories, each had distinct views about particular subjects. There was never a “monolithic Enlightenment project” (Porter 17). Tolerance was central to Enlightenment thought, and great importance was placed on debates. Dissent was seen as a means to search for truth. The Enlightenment was a movement with a mission to modernize; with the aim to enlighten the nation. Therefore, the critical assessments surrounding the Enlightenment are also varied, and sometimes, even conflicting. I would like to briefly discuss some of the seminal assessments which attempt to define the Enlightenment, with special focus on Roy Porter’s “Introduction” from Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World.
Immanuel Kant reflects on the Enlightenment during the phenomenon itself, and offers a succinct definition of the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”. (Kant 1). He feels that the Enlightenment gives man the resolution to think for himself, something which a minority had been doing for the masses for a long time till then. He stresses on the need for freedom for independent thought to develop, but warns that the Enlightenment would be a slow process, because a change in attitude would take years to be complete. Thus his conclusion that his age was not enlightened, but an “age of enlightenment” (Kant 4). Kant divides the use of reason into public and private, and limits the function of reason as an end in itself.
Foucault presents a more complicated analysis of the Enlightenment as he can view the era from the frame of reference of tomorrow, while Kant’s frame of reference was the present. Foucault feels that Kant viewed the Enlightenment merely as an exit from another age, while he feels that it is an era in itself, with impacts so great so as to modify the present itself. The Enlightenment witnessed a mass change in attitudes of people, and Kant saw Enlightenment as the moment when man uses his reason independently. Foucault, however, feels that it is an age, and not particular events, that is a marker of a mass change in attitudes. Thus for Foucault, the Enlightenment is a process; one in which each person participates individually, but the individual participation is to such an extent that it becomes a widespread movement which attracts individual participation (Foucault 4). Foucault also feels that the function of reason was not an end in itself, but to critique, which is another of the main ideas propagated by the Age. He shows how the Enlightenment Age led to the Modern Age. By shifting the focus of importance from the Church or the ruling class to the public sphere, it facilitated the gradual shift of this focus to the individual, as it comes to be in the Modern Age. Thus the Enlightenment is a historical force which shaped our present, and we must view it as such, and not in a moralistic way by questioning whether the Enlightenment was good or bad.
After the Second World War, the Enlightenment was regarded with distrust and seen to provide a foundation for Western imperialism and an ideological foundation for fascism, Nazism and Stalinism (the moralistic stand Foucault opposed). The reason for this was the utmost importance the Enlightenment thinkers placed on rationality and logic. Roy Porter feels that such a harsh view of the Enlightenment is unjustified. He regards Enlightenment in a favourable light, and feels that we, as inheritors of the world the Enlightenment thinkers dreamed of- a world which believes in the unity of mankind, tolerance, knowledge; we should use the same rationality while analyzing the Enlightenment and its ideas (Porter 18). The main argument Porter gives for such a framework with which to view the Enlightenment was because, as he says, there was never a “monolithic Enlightenment project” (Porter 17). The Enlightenment was such a wide-ranging and complex phenomenon that it meant different things even for the Enlightenment thinkers who agreed on its broad aspects.
Roy Porter’s approach helps us to better understand the various and often critical discourses surrounding the Enlightenment. By viewing the Enlightenment as a conglomeration of various ideas, and not a single, unified voice, we can easily accommodate both Kant’s limited understanding of reason and Foucault’s view of Enlightenment as a determining process which has helped shape modernity. Even Isaiah Berlin’s idea of a counter-enlightenment, a movement which arose in the eighteenth century in opposition to major Enlightenment ideas, and its various strains, can be understood to have co-existed with the Enlightenment with Roy Porter’s approach.
The various strains of the Enlightenment, and its wide-ranging impacts, defy a simple, succinct definition of it. It also prevents us from viewing it as an isolated age, or a single event. By accommodating its various shades, we can see that it was a phenomenon whose ideas continue to shape the present.
Berlin, Isaiah. “The Counter-Enlightenment”. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?”. Print.
Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?”. 1784. Print.
Porter, Roy. “Introduction”. Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. USA: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.
Wilde, Robert. “The Enlightenment.” European History. Web. http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/thenineteenthcentury/a/enlightenment.htm