The Enlightenment Elsewhere in Europe

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The Enlightenment Elsewhere in Europe


The English and Scottish Enlightenments might be looked upon as complementary halves of a whole. English thinkers supplied very little philosophical importance to the Enlightenment, being mostly concerned with the development and application of technological and scientific ideas. Scottish thinkers, by contrast, made some of the most original and lasting contributions to philosophy in the eighteenth century. Unlike France, where the philosophes developed Paris into a center of literary ferment and glittering social life, the Enlightenment in England had no center, produced very little literature of note, and spawned a very different social venue for the exchange of ideas. Through their written works, the French Enlighteners hoped to encourage their country's government to adopt social reforms. In England, by contrast, Enlightenment thought concentrated on what could be done in the private sector to bring about progress. In France the Enlightenment was in the hands of "men of letters." In England it was businessmen, industrialists and agricultural entrepreneurs who saw themselves as leading the charge toward the future. Significantly, English thinkers were always in the hunt for new things, "new things" being understood to mean innovations whose value could be measured by their impact on the profit margin, and the commercial cast of much eighteenth-century English political and social writing is undeniable when compared against the French philosophes. The one gathering that might pass as a salon in England was the Literary Club that the painter Joshua Reynolds organized in the 1760s in London around his friend Samuel Johnson. Otherwise, those interested in discussing progress and the future came together in scientific associations and literary and philosophical societies. These met on a weekly basis, with a lecture or demonstration serving as the starting point for conversation. The best known of the English associations was the Lunar Society of Birmingham, founded by the industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), famous then for the success of his tool and die factory but better known in history for supplying the capital that allowed James Watt to develop the steam engine. The Lunar Society met only on nights when the moon was full, so that there would be sufficient light for members to make their way home.


In France and England, the Enlightenment did not have much connection with the universities. In both states the universities remained the territory of the clergy, the group of thinkers most antithetical to Enlightenment thought. This was not the case in Scotland where, with the notable exception of David Hume (1711–1776) who was suspected of being an atheist, most of the leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment held positions in the university. Glasgow was the university most open to Enlightenment thought. Adam Smith (1723–1790), the great eighteenth-century economic theorist, held a chair in Moral Philosophy there. Smith's tenure was followed by Thomas Reid (1710–1796), founder of the "Common Sense" school of Scottish philosophy, which challenged the skepticism of Hume. They argued that what humans need to know is obvious to them as common sense. Another Enlightenment figure that taught at Glasgow was the chemist Joseph Black (1728–1799), famous for first identifying the properties of carbon dioxide. During the 1780s, Edinburgh began to replace Glasgow as a center of Enlightenment thinking, especially after the founding of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. Much like the scientific societies in England, the Royal Society provided a venue in which visiting speakers could lecture and discuss their ideas with members. In this way, the society brought the culture of the Enlightenment in Scotland into alignment with that in England.

The Enlightenment in Germany.

In both France and Britain the Enlightenment took place outside of government circles. In Germanic lands, by contrast, the Aufklärung, as the Enlightenment was known, became a reform movement that was, in fact, sponsored and directed by rulers. The reformist ideas of the French philosophes were not taken all that seriously by the government at Versailles, but in royal palaces in Berlin and Vienna, the capitals respectively of the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria, these ideas became the basis for the first serious efforts at social reform. In Berlin the Enlightenment occasioned a great outpouring of writings on culture and religion by German intellectuals. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), whose impact on philosophy was not equaled by any of his contemporaries, was a product of the Prussian Enlightenment. Still the Enlightenment in the Holy Roman Empire was made most vividly evident to ordinary Germans through the efforts of territorial rulers to modernize their societies through the application of ideas that emerged in France. The idea that the Enlightenment should be implemented from the top downward was the first and most important French idea embraced by the Germans. Voltaire had argued for it, and wrote a history of Louis XIV entitled Le siécle de Louis XIV (The Century of Louis XIV; 1751) to demonstrate the glory that might be acquired by a ruler who took the initiative to reform his realm. The notion first attracted an audience in Potsdam, where the summer palace of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, was located. Frederick tried to expose the Prussian ruling class to the new ideas that were developing in France. In 1744, he revived the Berlin Academy of Science, which had been established by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1700, but which had fallen into neglect. At the suggestion of Voltaire, Frederick invited the French mathematician Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759) to serve as president of the Academy, and when Maupertuis stepped down, Frederick unsuccessfully sought to have Jean d'Alembert, one of the two original editors of the Encyclopédie, take the position. During Frederick's reign the publications of the Academy were all in French, but as an institution it still opened doors for German intellectuals. The most striking example of its fulfillment of this function came in 1763 when the Jewish intellectual Moses Mendelssohn won an Academy-sponsored essay contest on the nature of metaphysics. Frederick the Great was the first and greatest example of what historians have labeled an "enlightened despot," meaning a ruler who exercised absolute control over his state but who used this authority with a mind to improving the lives of his subjects. Perhaps the best illustrations of these instincts were Frederick's decree establishing religious toleration in his lands and his reforms of the Prussian judicial system. The second great eighteenth-century ruler to sponsor similar reforms was Joseph II of Austria (1741–1790), the eldest son of the empress Maria Theresa. He ruled with his mother from 1765 to 1780, and by himself from 1780 to 1790. Unlike Frederick the Great, Joseph imported French ideas, but he did not bother to bring French philosophes to his court. His most important reforms involved the state's relationships with the Catholic Church. He closed many monasteries and turned their revenues toward the founding of hospitals and other social welfare institutions. He sought to reform education also, on the one hand freeing the University of Vienna from clerical control, and on the other establishing a system of state-maintained seminaries for the training of priests. He granted freedom of worship to Protestants and Jews, and attempted to free the serfs. Although his ambitions for Austria were great, his enlightened reforms led to revolts across Austria and Hungary, and Joseph died a broken man.

Immanuel Kant.

The greatest philosopher of the German Enlightenment was undoubtedly Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), a thinker whose ideas have long puzzled and perplexed his readers but who made a major contribution to the emergence of psychology as a discipline in the modern world. As a philosopher living in the early-modern era, Kant treated many issues that are now the preserve of psychologists. The topics that early-modern philosophers often treated—particularly their return over and over again to the subject of human epistemology and cognition—have now been explained scientifically, that is by cognitive research that has been validated by a stream of experiments. Early-modern philosophers lacked the ability to perform such tests, but even more importantly, they lacked the mindset that would seek to adjudicate a dispute by reference to quantitative data. They thought of explaining thinking only in terms of the logical analysis of thought. Or, to put the point in the terms that Kant would put it, they attempted to use a tool—in this case, the human mind—to explain the functioning of that tool. What made the work of Kant so important for the future was his insistence that instead of allowing the constraints to the operation of human consciousness to serve as obstacles to an understanding of such consciousness, it is better to identify those constraints and to seek to determine how they shape human consciousness. In this way Kant reconciled the major differences between rationalism and empiricism, and moved philosophical discussion to a new stage. Kant was the greatest Enlightenment figure to go against the grain of the ideals set down by the French philosophes. He was born in the Prussian city of Königsberg, and over the course of his eighty years never traveled more than sixty miles from it. He was reputedly so punctual in his habits that the town clock was set according to his daily routine. After many years of working as a private tutor for noble families, Kant was awarded a professorship at the University of Königsberg only in 1771. There he completed his most important work, including his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In the text Kant shows how the dialectical opposition posed by the rationalists and empiricists could be resolved through a new synthesis. The substance of Kant's critique of the ideas of these two groups of philosophers treated what their questions about human thinking revealed about the character of thought. Take, for example, the question of the nature of the existence of time and space, of "extension" as René Descartes had formulated it. It is impossible for any human to grasp any phenomenon without mentally fixing that phenomenon in space and time. The rationalists identified time and space as innate features of human consciousness, while the empiricists saw them as developing as a result of experience. Kant argued that both approaches assumed that the mind was passive in its reception of phenomena, but he asserted that, in fact, the mind is an active participant in the framing of phenomena, and that time and space are transcendent categories that exist at a precognitive level. In other words, time and space are best understood, not as innate or learned phenomena, but as part of the very character of the mind as a tool. Said a third way, like the teeth of a saw or the tip of a screwdriver, time and space are attributes that help give the mind its identity as a tool. The mind has other characteristics, such as the capacity to distinguish quality and quantity, features that aid its capacities to frame mentally the phenomena it engages. Understanding the mind, and what it brought to the process of understanding thus became for Kant the very goal of philosophy itself, although in the time since he wrote, his ideas have tended to become more and more the preserve of cognitive psychologists rather than philosophers.

Philosophy and the Enlightenment.

The lifespan of the Enlightenment is one of those topics upon which there is no consensus among historians. Older treatments of the subject were content to have the Enlightenment end just in time for the start of the French Revolution. More recently, as a result of the influence of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, many have come to see the Enlightenment as synonymous with the entire sweep of modern culture. Thus some have now depicted the Enlightenment as a thriving historical reality that has only in the later twentieth century been called into question by "Post-Modern" theory. Both these arguments for a "short" and a "long" Enlightenment associate the movement primarily with the rise and decline of the philosophes centered in Paris. While granting the importance of the Enlightenment as it happened in other locales, historians almost always come back to the salons of Paris. At the same time it must be admitted that the philosophes had very little to say in the great eighteenth-century philosophical debates that captivated Europe's intellectuals. In the heyday of the French Enlightenment, in the middle of the eighteenth century, very little philosophy emerged from Paris. Instead it was the ideas of figures like Hume and Kant, with their emphasis on problems of consciousness, that were to become the most relevant contributions to existing debates within philosophy. And while the ideas that Rousseau promoted in Paris in the 1750s and 1760s were a significant departure in philosophy that were to become more important in the decades that followed, those ideas had not been formulated in the Parisian milieu. Rousseau, in fact, was an émigré who developed his thought in relative isolation before coming to Paris. It seems fair to conclude, then, that the Enlightenment, as defined by historians, and philosophy were two ships that passed in the night. Such a conclusion, though, prompts three questions. The first is "What connections existed between the Enlightenment and philosophical discourse?" Primarily, the Enlightenment development of a culture of coffeehouses and salons broadened the audience for philosophical thought, although very few of the new "bourgeois" readers seems to have read Hume and Kant directly. Instead they learned of these debates through the writings of others who popularized their ideas, just as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein came to be known to most twentieth-century readers, not firsthand, but through the works of others who summarized their conclusions. A second question that arises is "Did the Enlightenment have any essential impact on the development of philosophy?" A better, though counterfactual, version of this question would be, "Would Hume and Kant have written their works even if the Enlightenment had not occurred?" The answer here must be yes, given the evidence of the ideas that went into the work of these two men. Even though the Enlightenment helped to popularize serious philosophy, it should be kept in mind that serious philosophy was propelled forward by an impetus only tangentially related to the concerns of the Enlightenment. A third question is "Did the Enlightenment have any lasting legacy on the development of philosophy?" Another way of putting this question would be, "Did the Enlightenment contribute anything to the mix that produced Rousseau's new departure?" Here also the answer must be yes. This answer requires some brief explanation. As much as Rousseau was a forerunner of Romanticism, he was equally a forerunner of the type of public figure readers demanded by the end of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment's constant discussion of how society might be improved focused intellectual attention on the question of the role of government in directing society. The philosophes left the task of forcing the government to fulfill its obligation to lead to those in power. Rousseau made it squarely the task of the participants in civil society to hold government to its duties. As he argued, the path forward to liberty ran through collective effort. Rousseau synthesized the public reaction to the movement for political reform, a game at which French Enlightenment philosophes had been playing over the previous decades, and forge it into a new paradigm of political action. In that sense he was an ancestor to Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and the other Americans who interpreted the Enlightenment primarily in terms of politics.


A. Broadie, The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

D. Daiches, J. Jones, and P. Jones, eds., A Hotbed of Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment, 1730–1790 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1986).

F. Delekat, Immanuel Kant (Heidelberg, Germany: Quelle and Meyer, 1966).

Jean Guéhenno, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Trans. J. Weightman and D. Weightman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).

R. Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982).

H. M. Scott, ed., Enlightened Absolutism: Reforms and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe (Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1990).

see also Literature: The Enlightenment in Germany

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The Enlightenment Elsewhere in Europe

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