2022 Abstracts Stage 2

The Enlightenment: Can Progress be Achieved Through Reason?

This project aims to construct an impartial exploration into the historical era known as the Enlightenment. Also regarded as the ‘Age of Reason’ or ‘Age of Light’, the Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement which was largely based in Europe. Despite much speculation surrounding the commencement of such period in history; with some philosophers claiming it began in the seventeenth century and others in the eighteenth century, the project at hand considers the notion that humanity are in an epoch of postmodernity and that the Enlightenment is still ongoing. In spite of the uncertainty surrounding the origins of the Enlightenment, it is definite that there are conflicting opinions as to whether the movement was positive. Not merely regarded as a period in time, but also as a set of values, the Enlightenment encompasses a normative horizon whereby individuals were urged to question their morality.

Predominantly characterised with the overthrowing of religious dogma and tradition, the Enlightenment enabled individuals to come “face-to-face with the profound questions of man’s history and destiny” (Porter 2001, 14). Such questions were those that the Bible could not readily answer which allowed for the moral authority of the church to be thrown into dispute (ibid). The discredit of religious dogma and metaphysics was facilitated through the augmented importance and consequential reliance upon empirical science and reason. This major intellectual upheaval revealed a shift in how individuals perceived the everyday world due to the movement presenting a momentous challenge to old, traditional ideas so to expose them to the light of rationality in order to discover if they were valuable. Upon the discount of previously accepted authorities and wisdom, everything began to be viewed differently, permitting basic presumptions of ideas to be questioned. As a result of the re-examination of truth and tradition, religion and metaphysical explanations of the world and its happenings became disadvantaged in comparison to scientific procedure and the relevance of fact. The Enlightenment aimed to demystify the world from metaphysics with the use of science, reason and knowledge by removing sovereignty from ecclesiastic institutions, so to put it back into mankind.

In attempting to answer the overarching question of the project, ‘can progress be achieved through reason?’, the French philosophes proved crucial in demonstrating radical changes in political and social dynamics. Their goal to rely on human reason and rationalism in order to create a better society hints at a sense of progress. Concerned with how people of different social classes should relate to one another and what the relationship of ordinary people should be to their government, thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu recognised the importance of liberty and basic rights of life which prior to the Enlightenment were not considered proper outside of the Church. To understand the philosophes appropriately, the precursors to the Enlightenment, namely Isaac Newton and John Locke, retain great importance.

Advocating religious toleration as influenced by Locke and making clear the link between “the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century with its seventeenth century origins” (Cobban 1963, 119) Voltaire is arguably the foremost figure in answering the question of this project. Voltaire, as well as Frederick Nietzsche, seen the Enlightenment as the ‘Age of Criticism’ and utilised the movement to scrutinise Christian values and demonstrate that the sovereignty of the church and state is not as powerful as it once was. Providing individuals with an opportunity to question traditional thought with the interrogation of the Christian religion, both thinkers sought to mentally liberate man with approximations of the truth. This was employed with the hope to enable mankind to morally progress beyond the realms of Original Sin and the teachings in the B