In the face of such tensions within the Enlightenment, one response is to affirm the power of the Enlightenment to improve humanity and society long beyond the end of the eighteenth century, indeed, down to the present day and into the future. This response embraces the Enlightenment and interprets more recent emancipation movements and achievement of recognition of the rights and dignity of traditionally oppressed and marginalized groups as expressions of Enlightenment ideals and aspirations. Critics of the Enlightenment respond differently to such tensions.
Critics see them as symptoms of disorder, ideology, perversity, futility or falsehood that afflict the very core of the Enlightenment itself. As another example, we may point to some post-modern feminists, who argue, in opposition to the liberal feminists who embrace broadly Enlightenment ideals and conceptions, that the essentialism and universalism associated with Enlightenment ideals are both false and intrinsically hostile to the aspirations to self-realization of women and of other traditionally oppressed groups.
See Strickland and the essays in Akkerman and Stuurman. Many of the leading issues and positions of contemporary philosophical ethics take shape within the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment in the West, ethical reflection begins from and orients itself around religious doctrines concerning God and the afterlife. The highest good of humanity, and, accordingly, the content and grounding of moral duties, are conceived in immediately religious terms.
During the Enlightenment, this changes, certainly within philosophy, but to some significant degree, within the population of western society at large. As the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and dissemination of education advance in this period, happiness in this life, rather than union with God in the next, becomes the highest end for more and more people. Also, the violent religious wars that bloody Europe in the early modern period motivate the development of secular, this-worldly ethics, insofar as they indicate the failure of religious doctrines concerning God and the afterlife to establish a stable foundation for ethics.
In the Enlightenment, philosophical thinkers confront the problem of developing ethical systems on a secular, broadly naturalistic basis for the first time since the rise of Christianity eclipsed the great classical ethical systems. However, the changes in our understanding of nature and cosmology, effected by modern natural science, make recourse to the systems of Plato and Aristotle problematic. The Platonic identification of the good with the real and the Aristotelian teleological understanding of natural things are both difficult to square with the Enlightenment conception of nature.
The general philosophical problem emerges in the Enlightenment of how to understand the source and grounding of ethical duties, and how to conceive the highest good for human beings, within a secular, broadly naturalistic context, and within the context of a transformed understanding of the natural world. The basis of human action that Hobbes posits is immediately intelligible and even shared with other animals to some extent; a set of moral duties constructed on this basis would also be intelligible, de-mystified, and fit within the larger scheme of nature. Samuel Clarke, an influential rationalist British thinker early in the Enlightenment, undertakes to show in his Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion , against Hobbes, that the absolute difference between moral good and moral evil lies in the immediately discernible nature of things, independently of any compacts or positive legislation by God or human beings.
Likewise for the rest of what morality enjoins upon us. Rationalist ethics so conceived faces the following obstacles in the Enlightenment. First, as implied above, it becomes increasingly implausible that the objective, mind-independent order is really as rationalist ethicists claim it to be. Second, even if the objective realm were ordered as the rationalist claims, it remains unclear how this order gives rise on its own, as it were to obligations binding on our wills.
David Hume famously exposes the fallacy of deriving a prescriptive statement that one ought to perform some action from a description of how things stand in relation to each other in nature. Alongside the rationalist strand of ethical philosophy in the Enlightenment, there is also a very significant empiricist strand. Empirical accounts of moral virtue in the period are distinguished, both by grounding moral virtue on an empirical study of human nature, and by grounding cognition of moral duties and moral motivation in human sensibility, rather than in reason. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, author of the influential work Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times , is a founding figure of the empiricist strand.
Shaftesbury conceives the core notion of the goodness of things teleologically: something is good if it contributes to the well-being or furtherance of the system of which it is a part. Individual animals are members of species, and therefore they are good as such insofar as they contribute to the well-being of the species of which they are a part. Thus, the good of things, including human beings, for Shaftesbury as for Clarke, is an objective quality that is knowable through reason. However, though we can know what is good through reason, Shaftesbury maintains that reason alone is not sufficient to motivate human action.
Shaftesbury articulates the structure of a distinctively human moral sensibility. Moral sensibility depends on the faculty of reflection. When we reflect on first-order passions such as gratitude, kindness and pity, we find ourselves approving or liking them and disapproving or disliking their opposites. By virtue of our receptivity to such feelings, we are capable of virtue and have a sense of right and wrong.
In this way, Shaftesbury defines the moral sense that plays a significant role in the theories of subsequent Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume. Doing what is morally right or morally good is intrinsically bound up with a distinctive kind of pleasure on their accounts. It is significant that both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, the two founders of modern moral sense theory, articulate their ethical theory in conjunction with an aesthetic theory. Arguably the pleasure we feel in the apprehension of something beautiful is disinterested pleasure.
Our susceptibility to aesthetic pleasure can be taken to reveal that we apprehend and respond to objective or, anyway, universal values, not only or necessarily on the basis of reason, but through our natural sensibility instead. Thus, aesthetics, as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson independently develop an account of it, gives encouragement to their doctrines of moral sensibility. But an account of moral virtue, unlike aesthetics, requires an account of moral motivation.
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As noted above, both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson want to do justice to the idea that proper moral motivation is not the pursuit of pleasure, even disinterested pleasure, but rather an immediate response to the perception of moral value. The problem of giving a satisfying account of moral motivation is a difficult one for empiricist moral philosophers in the Enlightenment. While for Shaftesbury, at the beginning of the moral sense tradition, moral sense tracks a mind-independent order of value, David Hume, motivated in part by a more radical empiricism, is happy to let the objective order go.
We have no access through reason to an independent order of value which moral sense would track.
For Hume, morality is founded completely on our sentiments. Such subjectivism is relieved of the difficult task of explaining how the objective order of values belongs to the natural world as it is being reconceived by natural science in the period; however, it faces the challenge of explaining how error and disagreement in moral judgments and evaluations are possible. But there are some philosophers in the Enlightenment who are radical in the revisions they propose regarding the content of ethical judgments themselves.
The Marquis de Sade is merely the most notorious example, among a set of Enlightenment figures including also the Marquis de Argens and Diderot himself in some of his writings who, within the context of the new naturalism and its emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure, celebrate the avid pursuit of sexual pleasure and explicitly challenge the sexual mores, as well as the wider morality, of their time. Rousseau advances the cultivation and realization of human freedom as the highest end for human beings and thereby gives expression to another side of Enlightenment ethics.
As Rousseau describes it, the capacity for individual self-determination puts us in a problematic relation to our natural desires and inclinations and to the realm of nature generally, insofar as that realm is constituted by mechanistic causation. Though Rousseau places a great deal of emphasis on human freedom, and makes significant contributions to our understanding of ourselves as free, he does not address very seriously the problem of the place of human freedom in the cosmos as it is conceived within the context of Enlightenment naturalism.
Kant follows Rousseau, and disagrees with empiricism in ethics in the period, in emphasizing human freedom, rather than human happiness, as the central orienting concept of practical philosophy. Though Kant presents the moral principle as a principle of practical reason, his ethics also disagrees significantly with rationalist ethics in the period. Through interpreting the faculty of the will itself as practical reason, Kant understands the moral principle as internally legislated, thus as not only compatible with freedom, but as equivalent to the principle of a free will, as a principle of autonomy.
As noted above, rationalists in ethics in the period are challenged to explain how the objective moral order which reason in us allegedly discerns gives rise to valid prescriptions binding on our wills the gap between is and ought. For Kant, the moral order is not independent of our will, but rather represents the formal constraints of willing as such. This ordinary sense of moral requirements is not easily accommodated within the context of Enlightenment empiricism and naturalism.
As noted above, Kant argues that the application of the causal principle is restricted to the realm of nature, thus making room for freedom, compatibly with the causal determination of natural events required by scientific knowledge.
Though the Enlightenment is sometimes represented as the enemy of religion, it is more accurate to see it as critically directed against various arguably contingent features of religion, such as superstition, enthusiasm, fanaticism and supernaturalism. However, controversy regarding the truth-value or reasonableness of religious belief in general, Christian belief in particular, and controversy regarding the proper place of religion in society, occupies a particularly central place in the Enlightenment. Alongside the rise of the new science, the rise of Protestantism in western Christianity also plays an important role in generating the Enlightenment.
The original Protestants assert a sort of individual liberty with respect to questions of faith against the paternalistic authority of the Church.
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The original Protestant assertion initiates a crisis of authority regarding religious belief, a crisis of authority that, expanded and generalized and even, to some extent, secularized, becomes a central characteristic of the Enlightenment spirit. The original Protestant assertion against the Catholic Church bases itself upon the authority of scripture.
However, in the Enlightenment, the authority of scripture is strongly challenged, especially when taken literally. Developing natural science renders acceptance of a literal version of the Bible increasingly untenable. But authors such as Spinoza in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus present ways of interpreting scripture according to its spirit, rather than its letter, in order to preserve its authority and truth, thus contributing to the Enlightenment controversy of whether some rationally purified version of the religion handed down in the culture belongs to the true philosophical representation of the world or not; and, if so, what its content is.
It is convenient to discuss religion in the Enlightenment by presenting four characteristic forms of Enlightenment religion in turn: deism, religion of the heart, fideism and atheism. Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason.
Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher. Deism is the form of religion fitted to the new discoveries in natural science, according to which the cosmos displays an intricate machine-like order; the deists suppose that the supposition of God is necessary as the source or author of this order.
Though not a deist himself, Isaac Newton provides fuel for deism with his argument in his Opticks that we must infer from the order and beauty in the world to the existence of an intelligent supreme being as the cause of this order and beauty. Samuel Clarke, perhaps the most important proponent and popularizer of Newtonian philosophy in the early eighteenth century, supplies some of the more developed arguments for the position that the correct exercise of unaided human reason leads inevitably to the well-grounded belief in God.
He argues that the Newtonian physical system implies the existence of a transcendent cause, the creator God. This argument concludes from the rationalist principle that whatever exists must have a sufficient reason or cause of its existence to the existence of a transcendent, necessary being who stands as the cause of the chain of natural causes and effects. Clarke also supports the empirical argument from design, the argument that concludes from the evidence of order in nature to the existence of an intelligent author of that order.
In his second set of Boyle lectures, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion , Clarke argues as well that the moral order revealed to us by our natural reason requires the existence of a divine legislator and an afterlife, in which the supreme being rewards virtue and punishes vice. Enlightenment deism first arises in England. In On the Reasonableness of Christianity , Locke aims to establish the compatibility of reason and the teachings of Christianity. Voltaire carries deism across the channel to France and advocates for it there over his long literary career.
Deism plays a role in the founding of the American republic as well. Many of the founding fathers Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Paine author statements or tracts that are sympathetic to deism; and their deistic sympathies influence the place given or not given to religion in the new American state that they found. Religion of the Heart.
Opposition to deism derives sometimes from the perception of it as coldly rationalistic. The God of the deists, arrived at through a priori or empirical argument and referred to as the Prime Mover or Original Architect, is often perceived as distant and unconcerned with the daily struggles of human existence, and thus as not answering the human needs from which religion springs in the first place.
Some important thinkers of the Enlightenment — notably Shaftesbury and Rousseau — present religion as founded on natural human sentiments, rather than on the operations of the intellect. I have no need to be taught artificial forms of worship; the dictates of nature are sufficient. Is it not a natural consequence of self-love to honor those who protect us, and to love such as do us good? But it deserves separate mention, because of its grounding in natural human sentiments, rather than in reason or in metaphysical or natural scientific problems of cosmology. Deism or natural religion of various sorts tends to rely on the claim that reason or human experience supports the hypothesis that there is a supreme being who created or authored the world.
Naturally, the critical, questioning attitude characteristic of the Enlightenment in general is directed against the arguments on which natural religion is based. Cleanthes, the character who advances the design argument in the dialogue, proceeds from the rule for empirical reasoning that like effects prove like causes. He points out that the argument is only as strong as the similarity between nature or parts of nature and man-made machines, and further, that a close scrutiny reveals that analogy to be weak.
Moreover, according to the principle of the argument, the stronger the evidence for an author or authors of nature, the more like us that author or authors should be taken to be. Consequently, according to Philo, the argument does not support the conclusion that God exists, taking God to be unitary, infinite, perfect, et cetera. Also, although the existence of evil and disorder in nature may serve actually to strengthen the case for the argument, given the disorder in human creations as well, the notion that God authors evil and disorder is disturbing.
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If one denies that there is disorder and evil in nature, however implausibly, the effect is to emphasize again the dissimilarity between nature and human products and thus weaken the central basis of the argument. With these and other considerations, Philo puts the proponent of the empirical argument in a difficult dialectical position.
But Cleanthes is not moved.
He holds the inference from the phenomenon of the curious adaptation of means to ends in nature to the existence of an intelligent and beneficent author to be so natural as to be impervious to the philosophical cavils raised by Philo. And, in the ambiguous conclusion of the work, Philo seems to agree.
The ambiguous upshot of the work can be taken to be the impotence of rational criticism in the face of religious belief, rather than the illegitimacy of religious belief in the face of rational criticism. This tends toward fideism, the view according to which religious faith maintains its truth over against philosophical reasoning, which opposes but cannot defeat it. Atheism is more present in the French Enlightenment than elsewhere. In the writings of Denis Diderot, atheism is partly supported by an expansive, dynamic conception of nature.
According to the viewpoint developed by Diderot, we ought to search for the principles of natural order within natural processes themselves, not in a supernatural being. The appeal to a transcendent author does not extend our understanding, but merely marks and fixes the limits of it. The metaphysical background of the ethics he presents is deterministic materialism. Modern systematic philosophical aesthetics not only first emerges in the context of the Enlightenment, but also flowers brilliantly there. Philosophical aesthetics flourishes in the period because of its strong affinities with the tendencies of the age.
Alexander Baumgarten, the German philosopher in the school of Christian Wolff, founds systematic aesthetics in the period, in part through giving it its name. The Enlightenment in general re-discovers the value of the senses, not only in cognition, but in human lives in general, and so, given the intimate connection between beauty and human sensibility, the Enlightenment is naturally particularly interested in aesthetics. Also, the Enlightenment includes a general recovery and affirmation of the value of pleasure in human lives, against the tradition of Christian asceticism, and the flourishing of the arts, of the criticism of the arts and of the philosophical theorizing about beauty, promotes and is promoted by this recovery and affirmation.
The Enlightenment also enthusiastically embraces the discovery and disclosure of rational order in nature, as manifest most clearly in the development of the new science. It seems to many theorists in the Enlightenment that the faculty of taste, the faculty by which we discern beauty, reveals to us some part of this order, a distinctive harmony, unities amidst variety.
Thus, in the phenomenon of aesthetic pleasure, human sensibility discloses to us rational order, thus binding together two enthusiasms of the Enlightenment. French classicism begins from the classical maxim that the beautiful is the true. Wolff affirms the classical dictum that beauty is truth; beauty is truth perceived through the feeling of pleasure. Wolff understands beauty to consist in the perfection in things, which he understands in turn to consist in a harmony or order of a manifold. We judge something beautiful through a feeling of pleasure when we sense in it this harmony or perfection.
Beauty is, for Wolff, the sensitive cognition of perfection. Thus, for Wolff, beauty corresponds to objective features of the world, but judgments of beauty are relative to us also, insofar as they are based on the human faculty of sensibility. Though philosophical rationalism forms the basis of aesthetics in the early Enlightenment in France and Germany, thinkers in the empiricist tradition in England and Scotland introduce many of the salient themes of Enlightenment aesthetics.
Lord Shaftesbury, though not himself an empiricist or subjectivist in aesthetics, makes significant contributions to this development. He maintains that aesthetic response consists in a disinterested unegoistic pleasure; the discovery of this capacity for disinterested pleasure in harmony shows the way for the development of his ethics that has a similar grounding.
Thinkers of the period find in our receptivity to beauty a key both to understanding both distinctively human nature and its perfection. As in the domain of Enlightenment ethics, so with Enlightenment aesthetics too, the step from Shaftesbury to Hutcheson marks a step toward subjectivism. If beauty is an idea in us, rather than a feature of objects independent of us, then how do we understand the possibility of correctness and incorrectness — how do we understand the possibility of standards of judgment — in this domain?
But if a judgment of taste is based on, or expresses, subjective sentiments, how can it be incorrect? Hume develops the empiricist line in aesthetics to the point where little remains of the classical emphasis on the order or harmony or truth that is, according to the French classicists, apprehended and appreciated in our aesthetic responses to the beautiful, and thus, according to the classicists, the ground of aesthetic responses. Immanuel Kant faces squarely the problem of the normativity of judgments of taste. Influenced by Hutcheson and the British empiricist tradition in general, Kant understands judgments of taste to be founded on a distinctive sort of feeling, a disinterested pleasure.
However Kant continues to maintain that judgments of beauty are like cognitive judgments in making a legitimate claim to universal agreement — in contrast to judgments of the agreeable. The question is how to vindicate the legitimacy of this demand. The order and harmony that we experience in the face of the beautiful is subjective, according to Kant; but it is at the same time universal and normative, by virtue of its relation to the conditions of human cognition. The emphasis Kant places on the role of the activity of the imagination in aesthetic pleasure and discernment typifies a trend in Enlightenment thought.
Whereas early in the Enlightenment, in French classicism, and to some extent in Christian Wolff and other figures of German rationalism, the emphasis is on the more-or-less static rational order and proportion and on rigid universal rules or laws of reason, the trend during the development of Enlightenment aesthetics is toward emphasis on the play of the imagination and its fecundity in generating associations. Denis Diderot is an important and influential author on aesthetics.
Like Lessing in Germany, Diderot not only philosophized about art and beauty, but also wrote plays and influential art criticism. Diderot is strongly influenced in his writings on aesthetics by the empiricism in England and Scotland, but his writing is not limited to that standpoint. Diderot repeats the classical dictum that art should imitate nature, but, whereas, for French classicists, the nature that art should imitate is ideal nature — a static, universal rational order — for Diderot, nature is dynamic and productive.
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