Enlightenment: A History of Philosophy

  1. History of philosophy
  2. Modern philosophy
  3. Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a period in history when humanity began to re-examine traditional notions of knowledge, truth, and morality. It was a time of great intellectual and philosophical change that saw society move away from the authority of monarchs and towards the ideals of democracy, reason, and freedom. In this article, we will explore the history of Enlightenment philosophy, from its roots in the works of early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Locke to its later developments in the works of Immanuel Kant and beyond. The Enlightenment was a period of great philosophical debate, as thinkers strove to answer fundamental questions about human nature and the nature of knowledge. We will explore how different concepts such as reason, emotion, and morality were viewed during this time, and how they shaped the development of modern philosophy.

Finally, we will examine how Enlightenment philosophy continues to influence contemporary thought, particularly in terms of our understanding of democracy, liberty, and human rights.

The Enlightenment

was a philosophical movement that began in the late 17th century, and was marked by an emphasis on reason and scientific inquiry. At the time, Europe was in the midst of religious turmoil, with different sects vying for power. The Enlightenment sought to replace faith with rational thought as the basis for understanding the world. It was also a period of political upheaval, with revolutions taking place in England, America, France, and elsewhere.

Its key thinkers included John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Enlightenment saw a shift from the traditional feudal system towards democracy and the idea of a social contract between the rulers and the ruled. This was accompanied by an increased focus on individual rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The Enlightenment also saw a rise in secularism, with a rejection of religious authority in favour of scientific reasoning and logic.

The Enlightenment also led to a new understanding of human nature. It emphasised the idea that humans were rational creatures capable of making their own decisions, rather than being subject to divine authority or fate. This led to a greater emphasis on education and self-improvement, and a rejection of superstition and blind obedience. The Enlightenment also gave rise to new ideas about science and progress.

Its thinkers argued that through rational inquiry and experimentation, humanity could make advances in knowledge and improve their lives. This led to an era of exploration and discovery, with new inventions such as the steam engine transforming industry and transportation. The effects of the Enlightenment are still felt today. Its emphasis on individual rights has resulted in increased civil liberties around the world, while its focus on science and progress has led to advances in technology that have transformed our lives.

It has also had an influence on art and literature, with writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau drawing on its ideas.


The legacy of the Enlightenment is still felt today in many ways. Its influence on civil liberties, advances in technology, and its impact on art and literature are all testament to its far-reaching effects. The Enlightenment was responsible for the emergence of modern democracy and the belief in basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. It also sparked a revolution in science and technology, with new inventions such as the steam engine and electric power leading to a whole new era of industrialization. In terms of art and literature, the Enlightenment was also hugely influential. Its focus on reason and rationality led to a new appreciation of classical authors, such as Homer and Virgil, while its emphasis on individualism led to the emergence of a distinctively modern form of literature, such as the novels of Jane Austen and the plays of William Shakespeare. The Enlightenment's legacy can also be seen in its impact on philosophy.

Its focus on reason and empiricism led to the development of modern philosophical systems, such as Kantianism and Utilitarianism, which are still influential today.

Influence on Society

The Enlightenment was an influential period of intellectual, political and social change that had a lasting impact on modern society. It was a movement away from traditional feudal systems towards democracy, with a focus on individual rights and freedoms, a greater acceptance of secularism, and an evolving understanding of human nature. Politically, the Enlightenment promoted the idea of government based on the consent of the governed, with the promise of liberty and justice for all. This led to the American Revolution of 1776, followed by the French Revolution of 1789, which sought to abolish absolute monarchy and replace it with a more egalitarian society. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in 1789 as part of the French Revolution, which enshrined key principles such as freedom of speech, press, assembly and religious belief. In terms of religion, the Enlightenment saw a shift away from traditional Christianity towards more secular values.

This was reflected in the writings of philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who argued for a more tolerant and rational approach to faith. This rejection of religious dogma gave rise to the Age of Reason, which encouraged people to question accepted beliefs and customs. The Enlightenment also saw an increased focus on individual rights and freedoms. Philosophers such as John Locke argued that individuals had the right to life, liberty and property, and should not be subjected to arbitrary government control. This notion was further developed in Immanuel Kant's work on moral autonomy, which argued that individuals should be free to make their own decisions and be held accountable for their actions. Finally, the Enlightenment brought about a new understanding of human nature.

Philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith argued that human beings were inherently rational creatures, capable of making decisions based on reason rather than instinct or emotion. This belief in human rationality led to new advances in science and technology, as well as a greater emphasis on education. The Enlightenment was an important period that had a profound and lasting effect on society. It brought about a shift from traditional feudal systems to democracy and greatly increased the focus on individual rights. Its emphasis on reason and scientific inquiry led to advances in knowledge that have had a lasting impact, from civil liberties to advances in technology and its influence on art and literature. The legacy of the Enlightenment still lives on today, showing the importance of this period in history and the progress it made towards advancing human knowledge.

Its effects can still be seen in our society, whether it be in terms of civil liberties, technology, or art and literature.