The Philosophy of the Enlightenment

The Philosophy of the Enlightenment

Alan Charles Kors

10 Mins
November 18, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Editor's Note: As the following Atlas Society interview demonstrates, no scholar is better qualified than Alan Charles Kors to provide an understanding of the Enlightenment. He is the author of several scholarly works in the field, including a two-volume study of atheism in Enlightenment France, and another study of the Enlightenment thinker Baron d'Holbach. He is also editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment(forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

In addition, Kors has made his knowledge of the Enlightenment available to the general public via several DVDs produced by The Teaching Company .

The Atlas Society (TAS) : Let us start with the Enlightenment's metaphysics, if we may. Did the Enlightenment believe in a traditional God, a spirit who had created the universe out of nothing?

Alan C. Kors

Kors: A large number of Christians were drawn to aspects of the Enlightenment, and of course they did hold the traditional notions of God as spirit and of creation ex nihilo. If we turn to Deism, however, the most widely shared Enlightenment belief was that there could be no answer to any philosophical question about the essence of God.

Enlightenment Deists believed that the world had been intelligently disposed by Mind. However, such questions as "What was the nature of that mind?" "How did it compare to a human mind?" and "How might one speak of the Divine essence?" — the Enlightenment found to be useless, because they were beyond experience.

Indeed, if you pushed Enlightenment Deists on ultimate questions, many of them would have agreed with what they took to be the consensus of classical thought: that matter was eternal. They would then have added, however, that the world we observe has been intelligently disposed. The nature of the being that intelligently disposed it was something about which we never could have evidence. For most Enlightenment thinkers, the existence of design in the universe was an unavoidable inference.
TAS: What was the status of atheism in the Enlightenment?

Kors: It is very difficult, if one does not read extensively in seventeenth and eighteenth century thought, to understand quite how speculative atheism was as a philosophical position before Darwin. Before Darwin, thinkers looked at a world in which every living thing seems precisely suited to its niche in nature. And the world seems so designed toward the end of survival and reproduction that when an atheist said it was the product of chance, one naturally replied — whether from a Deistic position or a Christian position — "How could chance dispose the world that way?"

It was so very speculative for the atheist to answer: "Perhaps nature generated an almost infinite variety of living entities and we are seeing only the survivors." The rejoinder was: "What evidence do you have for that?" The atheist, before Darwin, had none — it was pure speculation. The atheist might say: "Given an eternity of matter in motion, you will get every possible result — however improbable, and however likely to seem beyond the capacity of chance, and however likely to strike the observer as having been designed." Again, that was a purely speculative position.

TAS:  So, where did Enlightenment atheism come from?

Kors: A lot of Enlightenment atheism, which is a minor current but an important one, started from such issues as the incoherence of the God hypothesis, or from the fact that the God hypothesis did not explain anything, or did not explain anything in a way that led to further research. Sometimes, too, Enlightenment atheism started from a moral premise: that the world we observe had too much pain and suffering to be attributed to an omnipotent, beneficent mind. Then, once one had considered atheism, one asked: "If there is no God, what might explain the seeming order of the world?" Then one reached such hypotheses as "Well, perhaps we're only seeing the survivors." Or: "An infinite number of rolls of the dice will produce any sequence, even those that will strike one as extremely improbable." Before Darwin, though, atheism was a wholly speculative position.

TAS:  In your tape series, you point out that Enlightenment materialists did not deny the existence of consciousness but considered it to be a natural phenomenon. Did they go further and say: "Nature can not only produce consciousness, it can also produce volitional consciousness"?

Kors: Enlightenment materialists and atheists tended to be strict determinists, because they framed the issue of free will in terms of the possibility or the impossibility of an uncaused event. Because they saw thought and will as behaviors of the human organism, to speak of "free will" for them would mean to posit uncaused events. It was a position they were uneasy with, however, given their experience of their own minds and their experience of human psychology.

Perhaps the most striking work on the subject is Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, by Diderot, in which Jacques, who is a deep and whimsical determinist, discovers that he cannot act consistently with his determinism. In any moral dilemma, he finds himself aware of the necessity of making a choice. So, he concludes that it is impossible to live consistently with a deterministic philosophy, but that it is equally impossible not to think of a world of physical cause and effect, of which volitional phenomena are one set of effects.

The deciding issue, for Enlightenment materialists, was that free will was linked to what they see as a mystical theology. Free will, for them, posited a supernatural dimension, beyond the world of natural phenomena. For people who wanted to talk about the whole human organism as a part of nature, the abandonment of determinism seemed a concession to the metaphysics of supernaturalism, and they resisted it.
TAS:  In the field of epistemology, Enlightenment thinkers came to a reasonable conclusion. They said, "People may perceive things differently, but through science they can all come to the same objective knowledge." Did any Enlightenment thinker of significance conclude: "Given perceptual relativism, what's true for you is not true for me"?

Kors: No. Although so much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will try to find that sort of relativism there, the Enlightenment commitment to the view that there is a nature that proceeds independent of our wishes makes that ultimate relativism an incoherent philosophical perspective for them. There is a reality principle, and it has to do with such things as whether we prosper or fail, eat or starve, survive or perish.

The Enlightenment, however, did want to pose the empirical questions: "What things are malleable by culture?" "What things are different depending upon the circumstances of one's birth and of the culture that educates one?" It had great debates about the extent to which certain ethical and aesthetic ways of thinking fall into that category. Ultimately, however, for the Enlightenment, there is a natural reality, and that natural reality makes a mockery of absolute relativism.

TAS: You mention several times the Enlightenment's opposition to Aristotle and the Aristotelian Scholastics. Objectivists might say: But is it not Aristotle and the Aristotelians who side with the Enlightenment in defending empiricism? Is it not they who insist that there is nothing in the mind that is not first in the senses?

Kors: The answer to the latter part of that question is: Yes. And it is a commonplace of both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to say: "If Aristotle were here, he would not be an Aristotelian."

The main opposition to the Aristotelian theory of knowledge is over the question: When do you know that you know something? When do you know that you have not been deceived? That you have not given in to wish? That you're not believing something merely to fit it in with a system? There, Aristotle is deemed one of the great villains. While Enlightenment thinkers saw that his theory of the origin of ideas was based in sense experience, they found him to have arbitrary logical and metaphysical criteria of when a person knew that he knew. They saw the seventeenth century as the great corrective to Aristotelianism through the notion that we set up experimental tests of our hypothetical inferences from experience.

So, the central fact about Aristotle for most Enlightenment philosophers, and it becomes almost a formulaic observation, is that he put logic and teleology before the study of the natural world in a way that did not permit him to inquire openly about the natural world.

TAS:  Would you personally concur in that assessment of Aristotle?

Kors: I believe, in fact, that the Enlightenment was correct that his a priori commitment to a scheme of causal explanation — final causes, above all — made the modern project of objective inquiry impossible.

Aristotle, from "The School of Athens" by Raphael

TAS:  To what extent was the Enlightenment's low opinion of Aristotle, and of Aristotelian philosophy generally, due to their appropriation by the Christian Scholastics?

Kors: Enlightenment thinkers often read Aristotelianism in light of the way they acquired it, that is to say, in light of its fusion with Christian Scholastic philosophy. This reinforced the sense that there was something about the Aristotelian system that made its study of the natural order subservient to the demands of metaphysics — above all, teleology — and of an a priori scheme of causal explanation. They were aware of the fact that Aristotle himself had called for the inductive study of the natural and that his conclusions came to be taken in the Christian world as the first premises of a purely deductive syllogistic system. But they did believe that his study of the natural order was so secondary, for Aristotle himself, to an attempt to preserve a wholly coherent logical and metaphysical system that it didn't at all surprise them that he was so useful to a Christianity whose intellectual life they viewed in the same way.

TAS: Most Objectivists probably see the Renaissance as being the great fountainhead of reason in the modern era. How did the Enlightenment see the relationship between the two eras?

Kors: What the Enlightenment loved about the Renaissance, above all else, was the recovery of classical texts and classical tradition. Most Enlightenment thinkers described the Renaissance as a brief flowering of curiosity and love of things intellectual that was swept away by the religious passions and enthusiasms of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The explanation, in the Enlightenment's view, for the defeat of the Renaissance by the passions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation was that the Renaissance did not establish method. It had been erudite; it had broken many boundaries; it certainly had reconnected European life to missing aspects of the inherited Greek and Roman intellectual traditions. But it never had laid down a methodological foundation on which the human mind could build.

TAS:  And the Enlightenment did?

Kors: The seventeenth century did. For thinkers of the eighteenth century, the critical turning point — in terms of both the human mind and the human relationship to nature — was the laying down in the seventeenth century of an experimental, inductive, empirical method, with rigorous experimental testing. The Enlightenment believed that such a method was essential to the proper appreciation of the possibilities of the power of human knowledge. So the great rebirth in thinking — not necessarily in learning, where the Enlightenment attributed a great deal to the Renaissance — was the seventeenth century, because it had laid down a foundation of method. And as long as that method endured, there were always the means for human progress.

TAS:  Looking at Enlightenment ethical theory: You describe it as positing a morality based in pleasure, but add that Enlightenment thinkers also posited a conscience. Was conscience merely a shortcut method of calculating one's long-range happiness, or was it a means of perceiving a morality that was beyond the calculations of happiness?

Kors: That's a wonderful question, and it is not amenable to any single answer, because it touches upon some of the deepest debates in Enlightenment thought. Very powerful within certain Deistic circles — and Rousseau is the best example — was a belief that God has given one conscience as a moral sense that brings about a love or hatred of this or that action, and that leads to psychological well-being or suffering, depending on one's consistency with that conscience. For others, the moral sense arose from the sentiments, from sympathy, and it is not clear that such people were talking about conscience at all.

But one thing that mutes these debates is the general belief, in Deistic circles, that God has so coordinated the moral and the physical spheres that what conscience teaches, and what the reasonable pursuit of happiness leads to, are one and the same, under Divine Providence. That is why Jefferson's assertion that we have a right to the pursuit of happiness never offends an essentially Protestant and Christian America, or even its Protestant clergy. The belief is that we have this mechanism — we seek pleasure, flee pain — and that surely God has harmonized the human search for happiness with His own moral order, such that the real causes of happiness, and virtue as taught by conscience, would coincide. And that is why the leading Christian moral theologian of the eighteenth century, Bishop Joseph Butler, can say "Our duty and our self-interest are perfectly coincident."

TAS:  Objectivists hold that Lockean rights are, among other things, moral protections against the claims of social utility. Yet in your discussion of Enlightenment moral philosophy, it seems that the age's thinkers endorsed both rights and utility. How did they manage that?

Kors: Enlightenment authors perceived almost no conflict between rights-language and utility-language, because they see around them a world of arbitrary, inherited, non-meritocratic power — a static world in which people are forced to occupy the station of their birth. And this world where natural rights are denied, they see as so obviously leading to human unhappiness, and misery, and poverty, and an inability for human beings to master the world that there was no perceived conflict between utility-talk and rights-talk.

Another way to see that is to look at eighteenth-century social contract theory. The social contract is derived from rights that no one would give up voluntarily except to achieve something else, and that something else is the creation of an order in which one can pursue individual happiness. Hence, the state has one and only one function: to secure what rights one has not given up and to bring about the happiness that one sacrificed by giving up rights to bring the order of the state into being. That belief is a commonplace in the eighteenth century.

TAS: What relationship do you see between Enlightenment ideas and Enlightenment art? And in particular what relationship do you see between Enlightenment ideas and Enlightenment music.

Kors: Enlightenment art reflects a celebration of the central themes of the Enlightenment-naturalism over supernaturalism, the social and communicable over the private and mystical, a celebration of secular life, and the right to pleasures in that secular life. In that sense, I think there is very much an Enlightenment art.

In terms of music, I certainly think the Enlightenment loves order as part of its scientific world view. It loves melody, in terms of the secular and the pleasurable. But it is very much rent by a great debate over whether the primary function of art is didactic, to teach philosophical lessons, or whether art is to be loved as a pleasure in and of itself. So in the French Enlightenment, you have what are known as the great opera wars, in which some people are partisans of the now-hardly-played Piccinni, whose music is simply there to advance the didactic score, and others are great celebrators of Gluck, whose partisans see the music as an end in itself, and the libretto as serving the music. Bach, I think, is simply too great a religious composer for most Enlightenment thinkers, as perhaps Purcell also is in too much of his music. I think the same is true, to a lesser but real extent, for Handel. Haydn and Mozart are both beloved.

TAS:  How do you imagine the Enlightenment thinkers would react to more emotional music of the Romantics?

Kors: That's interesting. The Enlightenment feared what it called "enthusiasm." It loved what it called "sensibility" or "sensitivity." It was open to pushing the envelope of the intensity of emotions, but what it admired most in art was passion shaped into form by reason. The skill of the artist was precisely to take the raw stuff of human passion and natural phenomena and give it form and order, in which one could appreciate the design of mind and the art of human control and human restraint. So, I suspect that, for Enlightenment authors, some Romantic strains of music would seem a giving in to the pure excess of passion — without the counterbalancing beauties of human order and human form.

At the same time, however, there is a false, artificial order that the Enlightenment rejects and that it associates with the Gothic. If one looks at the Baroque and the Rococo, there is something playful to them. There's a loveliness of line for the sake of the loveliness of line. That forms a great deal of the heart of Enlightenment aesthetics.

TAS:  Who exemplified Enlightenment aesthetics in painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, and poetry?

Kors: I think in painting and in sculpture, one can simply ask whom Enlightenment figures loved. So, you look at the warm but realistic busts of sculptors such as Houdon or Falconet in France, and their work is beloved. In theory, it captures the natural reality — though there is also a certain admiration for a more classical style. In painting, it is hard not to say similar things about Watteau, Fragonard, and Greuze. So, I think that a celebration of the warmly natural is what is striking for eighteenth-century thinkers.

Architecture is a much harder category, because toward the end of the Enlightenment you get to see very rationalistic, functional, utilitarian, city-planning architecture emerging in England and France. And there are great debates about how utilitarian and how beautiful architecture should be.

In drama, what is so interesting in the eighteenth century, on the Continent at least, is the rejection of Shakespeare as wild and uncontrolled. There is a great admiration of more classical drama, and there were great successes that rarely are played today. No one reads Voltaire's theater now, but he was considered the Corneille, the Racine of the eighteenth century. If you had put Voltaire on truth serum, I think he would have told you that it was going to be his theater that would live forever, and almost no one watches that theater. I think that's because in both drama and in poetry the eighteenth century wanted didactic art in which the purely aesthetic aspects very much took a back seat to moral dialogues, debates, and lessons.

TAS:  Did the new art of the novel somehow embody Enlightenment sensibility?

Kors: Very dramatically. In fiction and literature, Enlightenment art is very Lockean. Where pre-Lockean art gives you fixed, static, essential characters — the saint against the sinner, the hero against the weakling-post-Lockean literature is interested in the development of character and how people have learned from education, how they come to be who they are, how they come to think the way they think. So, there's almost a Lockean novel that develops: a movement away from a clash of abstract essential characters and a great interest in character formation, and a great interest in how characters come to face the dilemmas and choices that they face. I think this is true all across the face of Europe, with the beginnings of the Bildungsroman. In some ways, the novel is the quintessential eighteenth-century aesthetic form.

TAS:  Let's look to the end of the Enlightenment. Where did Rousseau come from, philosophically speaking? Or was he a complete original?

Kors: No, he was not a complete original. In the early eighteenth century, in a lot of the central Deistic work, you find literature about the Indians, in America usually, that is a celebration of the primitive, a contrast between the natural beauty of uneducated pre-civilized societies and the falseness, love of appearance, and moral depravity of Western society. Indeed, it is a commonplace even in certain classical traditions that physical and scientific progress in no way correlates to moral progress.

So, if one reads earlier eighteenth century authors such as Lafitau or Lahontan on the American Indians, there is scarcely a theme of Rousseau's primitivism that is not already there. But in the final analysis Rousseau's anti-intellectualism and his contempt for natural knowledge, and especially for applied knowledge, set him very much against the deepest currents of Enlightenment thought. In that sense, he was the precursor of the countercultural movements of the twentieth-century that tell us that if we can only make ourselves dumb and primitive we will be happy and advanced.

TAS:  Although Kant is often classified as an Enlightenment figure, Objectivists see him as the antithesis of the Enlightenment. Do you see Kant as belonging to the Enlightenment, despite his premise that the world conforms to our minds rather than our minds to the world?

Kors: Well, I think that perspective is in its essence antithetical to the Enlightenment project. But the essay "Was ist Aufklärung?" — with its "Dare to know!" — is a side of Kant that reflects a profound Enlightenment influence.

Nevertheless, I think Kant very quickly moves away from that influence and really should be placed at the base of nineteenth century philosophical idealism, and nineteenth century anti-Enlightenment Romanticism. It is no accident that he is not included in my course on the Enlightenment.

TAS:  Would you say that Kant's thought was in any way the death of the Enlightenment?

Kors: I think the side of Kant that is the death of the Enlightenment is there. But insofar as Kant was sincerely exploring the question "What are the limits of human knowledge?" — as an open philosophical question — his project was still part of the Enlightenment philosophical project. The transformation of his project into Fichtean and Hegelian idealism — that for me is the end of the Enlightenment.

This interview was conducted for The Atlas Society by Karen Reedstrom, the editor of Full Context

Click here to view Teaching Company courses that feature Alan Kors.