Enlightenment and the Idea of Progress

Enlightenment Philosophers

‘Un dîner des philosophes’, Jean Huber (1772)

The Enlightenment is an umbrella term used to describe the 18th century philosophy with revolutionary and rationalist characteristics that emerged in various intellectual centers of Europe, such as France, Scotland and Germany. Having been influenced by earlier philosophers, such as Descartes, Newton and Locke, the philosophers of the 18th century fundamentally changed the way humans perceived the world, religion and sciences, hence the name ‘Enlightenment’.

These philosophers have all promoted an idea of progress, and by ‘progress’ they referred to a combination of scientific and social developments. Progress was, by definition, gathering of new knowledge through scientific method and applying the newly acquired knowledge in social and individual practice and thus improving the life conditions and intellectual development of the society.

The scientific method, a key element to this progress, was defined as making observations and experimentations, and then analyzing the results to find concrete and true knowledge. This method was encouraged by the Enlightenment philosophers as an antithesis of the dogmatic and metaphysical teachings of the Church.

As the humanity adopted these values of the Enlightenment, our species has not only made groundbreaking inventions and discoveries in natural and social sciences but also successfully improved overall welfare and life conditions all around the globe. Therefore, it is clear that the Enlightenment has had overwhelmingly positive effects on the course of humanity ever since the 18th century.

The first and foremost positive influence of the Enlightenment has been the popularization and spread of scientific progress and, through this progress, humankind has reached peaks in many aspects of life that had not been seen before.

Steven Pinker, in his recently published work, displays a data that shows the increasing average life expectancy and population growth around the world since the 1760’s and then builds his argument upon this data about how the Enlightenment and the scientific progress followed by it have launched “a Great Escape from poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy, and premature death, first in the West and increasingly in the rest of the world”.

The fact that the average life expectancy for a human has more than doubled in just 200 years clearly highlights the importance of the idea of scientific progress presented by the Enlightenment. If anything, the Enlightenment helped the acceleration of scientific progress by separating it from traditional philosophy and popularizing it.

Another profound aspect that the Enlightenment has heavily influenced is the concept of intellectual and social development. The Enlightenment philosophy has either directly or indirectly created modern liberal concepts like pluralist democracy, free thought and free market, which paved the way for modern human progress.

According to Immanuel Kant, a leading Enlightenment philosopher, the only requirement for the realization of Enlightenment was freedom, more specifically the freedom of rational thought and its appliance in every area of life. This ideal of freedom was a core element in the Enlightenment philosophy and its triumph over anti-rationalist dogmas have greatly influenced the society even just decades after the Age of Enlightenment.

According to the data presented by ourworldindata, literacy rates doubled between 1750 and 1850, reaching an average of 70% in Europe per country. Number of universities and academic publications also saw sharp rise before the end of the 19th century. Thus, the positive influence over humanity that the adoption of the values of Enlightenment brought can be clearly seen in statistical data and even today these social and political ideals of the Enlightenment still guide humanity into further progress and development.

Conservative Critique of the Enlightenment

The most serious criticisms against the ideals of the Enlightenment and their effects have come from the members of a philosophical movement called Conservatism. Conservatives believe that the revolutionary and radical ideals of the Enlightenment often ignore countless years of practical human experience and just try to create general principles for social and political theories solely through rationalism.

According to conservatives, the values of Enlightenment have caused more destruction to human civilization than actually providing progress. Roger Scruton, a well-known contemporary conservative philosopher, emphasizes that political understanding, as a form of practical judgment, does not readily translate itself into universal principles and conservatism takes its main inspiration from what is and does not meddle with what is merely possible. The conservative view mainly focuses on the preservation of historically and empirically proven knowledge against the newly coined concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

This conservative approach, which states that the humans are too flawed to think up schemes from scratch and that they are better off sticking with traditions they already have, has been heavily criticized by modern progressive philosophers and thinkers who try to uphold the Enlightenment values.

Pinker denounces this conservative approach by pointing out to the fact that the world was darkened by plagues, superstitions, genocides and wars before the Enlightenment and says that it is a good thing humanity god rid of those traditions. Although humans are far from being flawless, it is evident from historical evidence that humans have made the most progress when they applied rational thought into problems and abandoned tradition when necessary.

Therefore, conservative view fails to see that traditional values and institutions they propose often involve harmful and limiting practices that prevent human progress in natural and social sciences and consequently prevent better life conditions for all humanity.

The Enlightenment philosophy is a topic that needs to be better researched and learned by modern society. It has, either directly or indirectly, provided us with numerous abstract and concrete concepts and ideals that make our lives better, healthier and more prosperous compared to the life of an average human being from 300 years ago.

The argument that Enlightenment has destroyed the knowledge and tradition of hundreds of years is irrelevant since it has provided us far more progressive ones. Thus, it is of vital importance for the humankind to study the Enlightenment philosophy and following approaches that are both for and against it.

Rather than arriving at absolute statements about the Idea of Progress or Conservatism, and turning it into a fruitless and violent debate between these approaches, one should use these philosophical discussions for the sake and benefit of humanity and its future.


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