The scientific revolution of the previous. century had asserted that in order to discover truth, faith in divine revelation was not enough, empirical observation and research were necessary. These were the tools that the 18th. century Enlightenment applied to law, religion, economics and politics.
In politics Enlightenment leaders such as Rousseau and Locke opposed Absolute Monarchy. Their argument was that authority did not come from God, as in divine right, but from citizens. The people also had the right to depose governments which did not respect their rights because political leaders were to be held accountable. In another movement to counter the centuries of Church power, writers like Voltaire also called for the separation of Church and State. These ideas were revolutionary.
Locke proposed constitutional change based on the idea that everyone had the inalienable right to life, liberty and property. These calls for individual rights led to more religious tolerance as governments allowed more freedom of worship to minorities. They also challenged the rights of the nobility and the feudal system by demanding equality. However, thinkers like Rousseau believed that ethnic minorities, women and slaves did not possess the rights of a white man. This was questioned by British women who canvassed for equal rights with men such as Mary Astell (1666-1731) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), mother of Mary Shelley.
Political leaders in the thirteen British colonies of North America applied Enlightenment values to support their declaration of independence in 1776. The rights of individual liberty and equality they promulgated were written into the US Constitution. However, they applied only to white male landowners and slavery still existed for almost a century, abolished in 1865. Women's right to vote took decades longer (1920).
French soldiers returning home from the US war of independence, where they had supported the colonies against the British, brought republican values. Inspired in the Enlightenment these ignited France and led to the revolution of 1789 that abolished the absolute monarchy. In 1791 France's profitable colony, Haiti, where slaves outnumbered owners 10 to 1, revokted demanding liberty and equality. It took thirteen years of war to accomplish that and was followed by over a century of punitive repayments. In the 1800s Simón Bolívar led independence movements against Spain in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. However, the new leaders tended to simply perpetuate the unenlightened systems of the previous colonisers.
In economics Adam Smith complained about mercantilism, the prevailing model of economic isolation, instead of trade. He proposed the novel theories of supply and demand, laissez-faire capitalism and minimum market regulation. The aim was that countries produce what they manufactured well and import what they did not. These ideas set a basis for neoliberalism in later economic thinking.
In art there was a reaction to the previously Baroque and Rococo extravagances. The neoclassical movement looked to the Greco-Roman artistic ideals. This return to simplicity and harmony fitted well with the 18th. century philosophical vision based on rationality. The novel format arose, too, in this century with insistence on fictional realism, consistent with contemporary scientific objectivity.
The northern European philosophers of the 18th century were facing a physical conception of the environment. Empirical science was replacing faith in the understanding of nature. Philosophers returned to a basic question: how do we know? It was the era of epistemology.
The Enlightenment debate also attempted to overcome traditional thinking by integrating the physical and the metaphysical. These were expressed in philosophical terms by British empiricism and French metaphysicians.
George Berkeley, an Irish Bishop, expounded his epistemological theory on the distinction between matter and human perception in Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). He proposes that reality consists exclusively of minds and their ideas and that individuals can only know sensations and ideas, not objects directly. It is solipsism: we can only know the existence of our mind, but the knowledge of what is outside it is unjustifiable. It is an extreme form of empiricism in which knowledge of the world can only be obtained through direct perception:
"There are no things regardless of the spirit that perceives them." George Berkeley
As a clergyman he involved God in his theory. He argued that there is an infinite spirit (God) and a multitude of finite (human) spirits and that we are in communication with God through our experience. In this way our experience of the world is analogous to the language of God and nature is divine grammar. He concludes that it is not necessary to postulate the existence of matter because all reality is mental.
Compared to the empiricism of Locke or Hume, that of Berkeley is more radical. He maintained that we can only know the sensible qualities of bodies and things. He differed from Locke and Hume in believing that what we were experiencing were ideas sent from God and not the things themselves. He chose to remove knowledge of himself and God from his empiricist motto "Esse est percipi." (To be is to be perceived). In other words, experience is the source of all knowledge. (In 1953 Karl Popper published an essay describing how 21 of Berkeley's theses reflected concepts from Mach and Einstein's physics.)
David Hume published his Treatise on Human Nature (1737) at the age of 26. He argued that all human knowledge can be divided into two categories: relations of ideas (mathematical and logical propositions) and facts (example: the sun appears in the east). Ideas come from our impressions or feelings. In contrast to the French rationalists, he said that even our most basic beliefs about the natural world cannot be established by reason, but we instinctively accept them, - a clearly empirical point of view.
Central to Hume's thinking is the problem of induction: how can we conclude that observed objects behave the same as when they are not observed? He proposed as a solution that it is natural instinct, rather than reason, that explains our ability to make inductive guesses. However, the application of the inductive method in science suggests that it is based on a logical error because it assumes that the observation of now will be reproduced in the future when there is no observer. This forced Hume, a great admirer of empiricism, to conclude that, although he recognized the logical fallacy, it seems that in practice science works.
Causality is another problem related to induction. Hume concluded that causality is a mental act of association, not a physical fact. If we are playing pool and two balls touch, it is random. There is no determination, they just touch. However, a player who pushed one of the balls can understand that he has determined the trajectory of the ball. He says he has caused the action. Actually, the cause is in your brain, not the ball. Hume criticized the acceptance of causality related to the real. His argument is that it is the brain that interprets what happens as causation, but that in reality the link between two events is accidental, not causal.
"Causes and effects cannot be discovered by reason, but by experience." David Hume
In this way determinism would be an assumption, a construction of the brain to try to make sense of real chaos. In fact, the natural law would be randomness.
Hume entered the epistemological debate with his views on personal identity. He argued that we could not conceive of an apple without smell, color, shape, taste, etc ... otherwise it would cease to exist. He applied the same argument to people and claimed that the person himself was nothing more than a cluster of interconnected perceptions. This contradicted the Cartesian concept of 'I think therefore I exist'. (Modern neurology agrees with Hume's vision.)
Like Hobbes, Hume attempted to reconcile human freedom with the deterministic belief in physics. He proposed that freedom requires necessity. Furthermore, for us to be morally responsible our behavior has to be either caused or necessary.
As for religion Hume's empiricism could not reconcile the idea of God and sensory data. He argued that it was impossible to deduce the existence of a God from the existence of the world because causes cannot be determined by effects. He left open the possibility of miracles that would be singular events different from the laws of nature. He added, with his traditional skepticism, that he did not know of such an event in history. (Modern medicine defines a miracle of physical healing as an event not yet explained by science.)
He opposed the argument of a designer God saying that there is design in nonsense things like snowflakes and therefore design does not prove intelligence. He also asked, "Who designed the Designer?"
In 1745 Denis Diderot was invited to translate Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia into French. He accepted the job, but soon altered the publication, L'Encyclopédie, using it as a radical and revolutionary body of opinion against traditional church and state forces. His underlying philosophy was rationalism and faith in the progress of the human mind.
His philosophical project was a radicalization of empiricism towards a materialistic metaphysics. At the same time it does not pretend to explain a universal order or even a complete intellectual system, but remains skeptical (an influence of Malebranche). He practiced this through an eclecticism that rejected binary dogmatic thinking, playing with ironies, satire, and humor as a way to underline the limitations of human understanding.
Voltaire anonymously published his most extensive philosophical work, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif in 1764. It consisted of 73 articles already published in the famous Encyclopédie. His dictionary was burned in Geneva, The Hague and Paris and banned by The Holy Office in Rome.
The concept of freedom is central to Voltaire's thinking. In his Traité de metaphysique (1734) he took a position between the determinism of rational materialists and the spiritual transcendentalism of Christian theology of the time. For Voltaire humans are not machines determined by matter. For him, movement and free will exist. But humans are natural people governed by inexorable natural laws. In his ethics correct action was guided by the natural light of reason.
His hedonistic morality was based on positively valuing bodily pleasure and an ethic that maximized pleasure and minimized pain, similar to utilitarianism. He attacked Christian asceticism that was prevalent in the traditional teachings of the time.
Skepticism was used by Voltaire to defend freedom. He argued that no authority can be immune to the challenge of critical reason. He was not an atheist, but he criticized the ecclesiastical power; he was monarchical but critical of the sacred mysteries that upheld the aristocratic authority of the Ancien Régime. In the same way, he questioned the philosophical authority of Descartes, Malebranche and Leibniz. Deep down his apparent anti-religiosity was really motivated by his skepticism and libertarian doctrine.
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Voltaire
In Candide (1759) he attacked Leibniz's philosophy and his religious and philosophical optimism with satire and irony. He also criticized the pessimism of his philosophy of human depravity and tried to adopt a middle way in which moral virtue could be found through reason.
Montesquieu published his most novel work L’Esprit des lois in 1750 in which he exposes the theses on his political thought.
The first is its new classification of governments. He abandoned the traditional classical divisions in monarchy, aristocracy and democracy and proposed another analysis: the republic based on virtue; the monarchy based on honor; despotism, based on fear. This classification is based on the way of deciding policies, not the position of power. It is not descriptive but a historical analysis.
The second thesis is the theory of the separation of powers. He argues that, to promote freedom, political authority must be divided into independent legislative, executive and judicial branches. His model was the British Constitution set out in Book XI Chapter 6. He inspired the Declaration of Human Rights and the US Constitution.
Jean Le Rond d'Alembert is best known, philosophically, for his Discours préliminaire de l'Encyclopédie (1751). He divides human knowledge into three branches of thought: memory, reason and imagination. Memory recalls feelings and ideas; reason compares, sequences and judges knowledge; imagination combines the previous ones to create new ideas and possibilities.
D'Alembert's goal was to synthesise the two epistemologies of the Enlightenment: Descartes's rationalism with his metaphysics and Locke's empiricism with his dedication to sensory data. (Kant would become interested in the same problem 30 years later in his Critique of Pure Reason.)
Locke's empiricism remained an unsolved problem for D'Alembert because it does not explain how ideas and sensory data combine in the mind.
On the other hand, Descartes extended his rationalism to areas that he could not verify (that God puts ideas in our minds does not sufficiently explain how they appear).
Adam Smith published his first Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and revised it up to six times later. It was the basis of his future writings on philosophy, psychology and ethics and where he first mentioned 'the invisible hand' to describe the benefits of acting in one's own interest. He explains how humanity can form formal moral judgments despite its natural inclination toward selfishness. He concluded that moral consciousness is born in social relationships and proposed a theory of 'empathy' in which the act of observing others makes people more aware of themselves and the morality of their behavior. He suggests that individuals had a vested interest in developing this empathy.
In his most famous work The Wealth of Nations (1776) Smith argued that, even granting that human motivations are often selfishness and greed, competitiveness in the free market would have to benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low and at the same time maintaining production. He added that the division of labor would increase production and that, although the free market seems chaotic, in fact, it is guided by "an invisible hand" to produce goods in the correct number and variety. (Economic liberalism in force today is based on Smith's ideas.)
Rousseau formed part of the Lumières like Diderot and Voltaire who shared the belief that reason was the key to progress. They rejected religious revelation and faith in authorities. However, Rousseau later became critical of this ourright defense of reason and he defended religious faith as a path to truth. He is known as the `father of romanticism´ for his defence of the individual against an overpowering State, his evocation of a past natural Eden and the belief that humans are good by nature. His ideas led to the artistic concept of free expression and the rejection of rules imposed by the collectivity.
Immanuel Kant began his epistemology with the traditional distinction between 'the truths of reason', which he called analytic propositions (those which are true simply by virtue of their meaning and only explain words) and 'the truths of facts', which he called synthetic propositions (those that claim to explain further). He added two more concepts: a priori knowledge (that which results from reasoning independently of experience and typical of analytic propositions) and a posteriori knowledge (that which results from experience and which is typically applied to synthetic propositions).
"Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is a simple intellectual game." Immanuel Kant
On the one hand, empiricism admits synthetic propositions and a posteriori knowledge; on the other hand, rationalism admits analytical propositions and a priori knowledge. Kant maintained that the two could be combined and that synthetic a priori statements were possible and that there were propositions that applied to, but did not derive from the physical world, but were established by negotiation. He argued that knowledge resulted from a synthesis of experience and concepts. Without the senses we would not be aware of an object and without understanding and reasoning we could not form a concept of it.
Perhaps Kant's most original contribution to philosophy was the idea that it is representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes representation possible. This introduced the concept of the human mind as an active creator of experience, rather than a passive recipient of perception, and put the role of the human subject, the knower, at the center of the study of how we know.
However, Kant also placed limitations on knowledge. He distinguished between appearance (the world of phenomena) and reality (the world of the noumenon). Although our senses tell us that things exist outside of us, the real substance of an object (the thing itself) remains unknowable. We have certain predispositions about what exists and only the things that fit into these exist for us.
In his Critique of Pure Reason (1788), he makes the argument that while empirical objects like books and chairs are real they may not be 'transcendentally real'. Chairs are real in that they are objects that conform to our categories of perception, but we cannot be sure that they are transcendentally real because to confirm this we would have to transcend our own transcendental limitations. He concludes that we can experience real objects, but we cannot know if other non-empirical objects exist.
Regarding reason, Kant argued that it was a useful tool, but it must be controlled, so as not to thoughtlessly accept things for which we have no evidence. What he called the 'critical method' is a philosophical model that allows us to discover which questions reason can answer and which it cannot. Following this logic encourages discarding things that we do not need for true moral behaviour such as religious practices
He was interested in the question of how a God could fit into the essentially mechanical and deterministic universe drawn by 17th-century physicists. He was also intrigued by the question of doubts about philosophical studies that Hume's scepticism had exposed.
Jeremy Bentham published Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789 where the three bases of his moral philosophy appear: the principle of greatest happiness; universal selfishness; artificial identification of personal interests with those of others. These will form the basic rational principles for legal, social and moral reform.
Bentham calls the principle of greatest happiness the 'principle of utility', a term coined by Hume. What is morally obligatory is what produces the greatest happiness for the majority (understanding taking happiness as pleasure and absence of pain). That which does not maximize the greatest happiness, such as an act of ascetic sacrifice is, then, morally wrong. However, this is not universal but naturalistic hedonism.
"The greatest good for the greatest number." Bentham
The advantages of a utility-based philosophy of morality are several according to Bentham. First, it is a clear reference, allows disinterested and objective public discussion and helps to make decisions when there is conflict. It is also egalitarian because in seeking the happiness of the majority it presupposes that everyone is valued in the same way.
Mary Wollstonecraft's book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) uses the contemporary beliefs in reason and equality to argue for women's rights. She criticises Rousseau's romantic character Sophie, educated to please her husband. Wollstonecraft blames the education system for maintaining women in a secondary position and sets out how it should change.
The Rise of the Novel
When Descartes published his Méthode in 1637 he expressed a new interpretation of reality. Understanding of reality was no longer to depend on accepting the stable, timeless, traditional world of the Middle Ages. On the contrary, nothing was to be taken on trust. Doubt was now the path to knowledge.
This worldview broke with the past and gradually changed thinking based on tradition to that based on independent, individual interpretation. Personal experience replaced the collective tradition in understanding reality.
Language changed to incorporate this resetting of outlook:
- "original" in medieval thought meant 'from the origins'; in the Enlightenment it signified new, first hand.
- "realism" referred to universal in the Middle Ages; in the new age of empiricism it referred to comprehension through the senses.
This epistemological change in philosophies trickled through to the art of storytelling in written narrative and produced a new art form: the novel. This involved the creation of a variety of new narrative techniques by writers:
- The Narrative flow in classical texts like Homer's and those of the Middle Ages rarely refers to a specific time and place, personal identities, personal stories or reports of individual human experiences. The novel, on the other hand, relies on these elements to build the story. Its narrative can be compared to the kind of information a jury would need in a court. They are told the time and location of the crime, the accused is clearly identified, witnesses recount their individual experiences in their own words and expert witnesses bring objective data before the court. The classical tales relied on general allusions drawn from other unified traditional stories; the novel required individualised references and circumstantial evidence. It turned to formal realism to express its art.
- Plots in classic literature until the Renaissance were based on the premise that Nature is complete and unchanging, so experiences were repetitive and predictable. Storylines were drawn from mythology, fables, legends, history and so on. The accounts were familiar and their retelling was comforting since it reinforced the prevalent idea that reality was known and unchanging. Conformity and uniformity was the accepted cultural outlook.
Beginning with the Renaissance there was a promotion of a new view of humanity and its place in the universe called humanism: humankind can determine its own salvation. This viewpoint continued in the Reformation with a populist religious movement undermining the established kChurch hierarchy. Bible translations from Latin into the vernacular languages meant individuals could begin to interpret the book avoiding the mediation of the clergy. In the 17th century thinking continued to move away from faith-based reasoning and medieval models such as scholasticism. Instead, philosophical systems such as rationalism and empiricism came into vogue. (Philosophical liberalism also led to an interest in political philosophy and finally to the Civil War in the U.K. (1642–1651).
The Cartesian method of a philosophy created through personal thinking affected philosophical thought for the next centuries. The 18th century Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Hume in the UK underlined individual experience as a source of knowledge. This new thinking was transferred to the novel art of narrative using individual experience as the plot. In the early 18th century Defoe wrote the first novels in English which were the stories of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) and their personal experiences in life. In both cases the plot was a fictional autobiography.
- The Characters in traditional stories were recognisable human types such as Everyman (1510) a morality tale, or Christian, the protagonist of Pilgrims Progress (1678), a stock character like everyman. This fitted well with the Aristotelian concept that universals are the ultimate reality.
In the new era Locke argued that sensory experience led to particular ideas which filled the mind. Personal identity was also built up through memories according to Locke. Hume added causality as another psychological building block. Both empiricists insisted that reason, not authority, was how we made sense of the world.
Influenced by this contemporary thinking the novel sought to create characterisation anew by placing its fictional personalities in a defined time and place, recognisable to contemporary readers.This particularisation of characters also required that they have proper names. Both plot and characterisation were subjected to the test of credibility based on what could be reasonably expected within the cultural experience. This reasonableness effectively eliminated romance narratives about mythological creatures, fantastic heroes and implausible tales of classical times.
- Time in the classical age was of secondary importance since timelessness was the reference in an unchanging world. Based on Aristotle's Poetics the traditional writers based their dramas on the ahistorical scenario of unity of time, place and action. Everything took place within a day. Life was portrayed in 24 hours.
In the 17th century Locke introduced the concept of individual identity measured through time and location. Newton's clockwork description of the planets' relationships reinforced the idea that time was a key element in the comprehension and measurement of the universe. (The accurate pendulum clock was invented in 1656.)
The novel incorporated these contemporary ideas by using time as a factor in human relationships and character development. Time was no longer a coincidence but a cause of human development following Hume's distinction between causality and casuality. Crusoe took care to write a diary, the cornerstone of his autobiography, and record his time on the island using a calendar. Richardson's recorded time in his characters' letter exchanges by dating them and even mentioning the exact hour of writing, what he termed 'writing to the moment'.
- Place in pre-modern times was a generality. Shakespeare mentions Denmark at the beginning of Hamlet or locates it in Verona in Romeo and Juliet and the Merchant of Venice even cites the city in the title, but these places have little import on the narrative. They are general references. In similar fashion Homer describes Ulysses' return voyage to Itaca locating his adventures in fantasy places.
The novel, on the other hand, is careful to place its characters in contemporary scenarios, recognisable to readers. Crusoe's island is described in physical detail. Fielding uses specific settings in which to place his characters such as the graphic details of Tom's journey to London on the highways in Tom Jones. Richardson uses natural scenery and details his interior locations. Later French novels such as Le Rouge et le Noir or Le Pere Goriot both open their narratives with a description of the environment.
- Language in the older tradition is rhetorical and aims at beauty. Romances used figurative language.
In The Enlightenment Locke defined language in an empirical mode as aimed at conveying knowledge. It was Flaubert in the 19th century French tradition of the realistic novel who pronounced that his writing was "le réel écrit". It was accepted that language was referential and words were not the equivalent of objects.
In 1695 State censorship ended and there were generally elections almost every two years for the next two decades. This provoked a huge increase in political pamphleteering, canvassing for the parties. Famous writers like Daniel Defoe worked in the Review writing political essays defending government policy. Jonathan Swift also contributed to The Examiner. Both writers invented novel narrative techniques in their pamphleteering, experimenting with mock formats, invented characters, satire and anonymity to attack the political adversary. Another genre which appeared in the 18th. century was the periodical, particularly The Tatler and The Spectator which dealt with all sorts of topics: fashion, politics, commerce...
Among the works of European literature that reflected neoclassical values are: “Fables” by Jean de la Fontaine, Swift's “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, “Leisures of my Youth” by Jose Cadalso Vazquez and “Essay on Man by Alexander Pope.
Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719. It is said to be the first work of a new genre, the novel, which is part of a fresh aristotelian mindset. This vision believes that reality is particular, made of concrete objects and subject to the senses. It rejects the platonic, medieval heritage composed of universals, classes and abstractions. The realistic outlook of the novel is summarised in the long original title of Defoe's book which details its fictional realism of place, time, plot and autobiographical authorship:
"The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account how he was at last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself."
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was a contributer to The Spectator. His Rape of the Lock (1714) is an ironic comment on contemporary society, which is presented as a veneer covering bubbling energy. It is written in heroic couplet. He also translated The Illiad and The Odyssey.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is most famous for his satire. A Tale of a Tub (1704) which mocks a hack periodical writer with no respect for facts. He employs an impersonation technique in The Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708), narrated by a nominal Christian. He uses the irony of an invented character in A Modest Proposal (1729) to suggest an outrageous solution to hunger: eat babies. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is another critical, ironic message about human nature, extending to a harsh denunciation of its own narrator.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) contributed to the literary revival with his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). It was used as a primordial reference for the use of English until the publication of The Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.
The neoclassical movement in painting, sculpture and architecture was established in the middle of the 18th. century. It was based on the Greco-Roman ideals of simplicity and harmony, a reaction against Baroque excesses. It is said that the archaeological discoveries of Pompeii (1738) and Herculaneum (1748) encouraged this movement.
In art the painter Jacques Louis David is one representative of the neoclassical style. His subjects are drawn from Greco-Roman times and painted in sombre colours, except for reds and some blue for the main narrative. His paintings are balanced and clear with minimal embellishing and strong, bold lines. His style is exemplified in The Oath of the Horatii:
Neoclassical sculpture also took its inspiration from classical and mythological sources. The subjects were smoothly finished and idealised, similar to Greco-Roman statues on a life-like scale.
Neapolitan Fisherboy With a Shell (1861) by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux;
Architects in the neoclassical age created impressive buildings, but without the extra ornamentation of Rococo. The Greco-Roman elements were columns, geometric forms and flat or domed roofs. The Pantheon in Paris is an example:
Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745)
George Berkeley (1685 - 1753)
Friedrich Händel (1685 - 1759)
Carlo Goldoni (1707 - 1793)
Leonhard Euler (1707 - 1783)
David Hume (1711 - 1776)
Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717 - 1783)
Baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789)
Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804)
Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728 - 1777)
Antoine Lavoisier (1743 - 1794)
Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744 - 1829)
Francisco de Goya (1746 - 1828)
Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 - 1827)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797)