Ideas of Enlightenment

2020-2021 Summer
Immersion 1
Arts and Humanities

Is humanity making progress? Are we becoming more and more reasonable, increasingly unbiased and politically free? Should these values from the standard by which we measure progress? Should the ideals of the Enlightenment – reason, freedom, autonomy, science – be our ever-guiding principles?

To seek answers to these questions, this module will explore some of the main ideas of the Enlightenment period in three clusters: freedom and toleration, authority and reason, and religion and science. In each of these cases, we will be looking at different and opposing historical perspectives on these ideas; thus it will become clear that there were important historical disagreements on each of these issues, even amongst proponents of the Enlightenment itself.

What is distinctive of the Enlightenment is that its proponents self-consciously saw themselves as using secular, philosophical reason to reform society. The underlying purpose of the module is to question this phenomenon: what does it mean to use “reason” in such a political manner? To what extent were these figures successful in doing so, or did they end up making compromises as well?

To make these questions vivid, the module extensively uses Jonathan Israel’s distinction between the “moderate” and “radical” Enlightenments, where the former in practice was willing to make alliances with existing political and religious institutions and in so doing frequently put limits to the extent to which reason was allowed to manifest itself. We will look at moderate and radical perspectives on each of the three clusters of ideas.

The module asks students to make up their own minds about these notions, informed by their historical role and prompted by the way Israel’s distinction problematizes them. The module ends by reviewing some important critiques that have been made of the Enlightenment, such as its views on women and its connections to slavery and racism, or its allegedly misguided conception of reason and prejudice.