Week 6 Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment Across Europe

The sixteenth century saw the reexamining of classical knowledge in the fields of physics, astronomy, and medicine.  These new natural philosophers looked at classical figures like Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen, discarded the theories that did not seem to work, and tried out new ones.  This created an explosion of knowledge and learning. This knowledge allowed for a revolution in thought that made people reexamine their place within the natural order of things. This change in thought has been called by some the Scientific Revolution.

This was the time of Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon, and Newton. Voltaire himself once claimed that Newton was perhaps the greatest man in history: for if true greatness consists in having received from heaven the advantage of a superior genius, with the talent for applying it for the interest of the possessor and mankind, a man like Newton and such a man is hardly to be found within ten centuries is surely by much the greatest man.

A continuation of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment was the philosophical culmination of the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes.  Taking a cue from the Scientific Method, Enlightened philosophers (known as philosophes) preached progress, not just because it improved society, but because they believed it was a law of nature. According to the historian J.M. Roberts, it was truly the end of the intellectual Middle Ages.  In essence, the Enlightenment was based on the advancement of the human condition in many ways through the belief that scientific principles could be applied to all human activities. At its center, the Enlightenment was focused on the application of human reason to improve society.

The Enlightenment brought many progressive ideas to Europe, including the spread of literacy, penal and legal reform, the principle of free speech, and the beginnings of a conversation to end slavery (though Voltaire would merely call it part of humanities penchant for power and domination). There were also a number of contradictions that existed from the works of the philosophes. The readings this week will focus largely on one of these: the place of women in European society. On one side, we have Rousseau, whose most famous work, The Social Contract begins with Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains. He believed that through reform a general will could transform society in a truly rational manner. On the other, we have Mary Wollstonecrafts A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she challenges Rousseaus view of the ideal woman in Emile and creates the foundation text for womens rights in the 19th and 20th centuries. These two sides show not only the contradiction but also the extreme intelligence and discourse going on in the Age of Reason.

The Enlightenment was so popular amongst European elites, many monarchs of the 18th century took up the ideas of the Enlightenment, with many supporting or funding the philosophes who supported monarchy. Voltaire, perhaps one of the most famous members of the Enlightenment, worked directly in the Court of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (the predecessor to modern Germany). Most of these Enlightened Despots show the contradictions, but at the same time mass appeal, of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It was evident that the intellectual groundwork for the modern age was laid during the 18th century, but it would take a cataclysmic event triggered by its ideas to reshape the face of Europe.

In the end, the historian Michel Foucault is perhaps the most insightful when he suggested that the Enlightenment way of thinking has shaped the modern worldview. The largest influence of the Enlightenment likely rests in the creation of a critical perspective toward knowledge, society, and politics that it championed. This critical perspective, for better or worse, defines the modern world the Enlightenment ushered in.

This week, we will once again have both a Discussion Posts and the Discussion Paper due.

Discussion Prompt

Immanuel Kant, from your readings this week, asked this fundamental question: what is Enlightenment? Using the information we covered this week from the Scientific Revolution and/or the Enlightenment, what was enlightenment during this period? How do you think it was defined by the people living through this period of major intellectual change?

Please do not be overly general, but instead, illustrate specific details from the assigned material. Remember, your posts should be at least one to two paragraphs. Keep in mind a paragraph is three to five complete sentences.

Respond to this thread and this thread only. Do your best not to repeat the examples given by your fellow students. Also, remember that you need to respond to at least one other post to receive full points.