The Age of Enlightenment refers to the 18th century in European philosophy, and is often thought of as part of a larger period which includes the Age of Reason. The term also more specifically refers to a historical intellectual movement, "The Enlightenment." This movement advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as courageous and elite, and regarded their purpose as leading the world toward progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny (which they believed began during a historical period they called the "Dark Ages"). This movement also provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, the Latin American independence movement, and the Polish Constitution of May 3, and also led to the rise of capitalism and the birth of socialism. It is matched by the high baroque and classical eras in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts, and receives contemporary application in the unity of science movement which includes logical positivism. Another important movement in 18th century philosophy, which was closely related to it, was characterized by a focus on belief and piety. Some of its proponents attempted to use rationalism to demonstrate the existence of a supreme being. In this period, piety and belief were integral parts in the exploration of natural philosophy and ethics in addition to political theories of the age. However, prominent Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume questioned and attacked the existing institutions of both Church and State.
The 18th century also saw a continued rise of empirical philosophical ideas, and their application to political economy, government and sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. The boundaries of the Enlightenment cover much of the 17th century as well, though others term the previous era "The Age of Reason." For the present purposes, these two eras are split; however, it is equally acceptable to think of them conjoined as one long period.
Throughout the 1500s and half of the 1600s, Europe was ravaged by religious wars. When the political situation stabilized after the Peace of Westphalia and at the end of the English Civil War, there was an upheaval which overturned the notions of mysticism and faith in individual revelation as the primary source of knowledge and wisdom—perceived to have been a driving force for instability. Instead, (according to those that split the two periods), the Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as the foundations for knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and René Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism, and inquiry into the nature of "knowledge." This goal in the Age of Reason, which was built on self-evident axioms, reached its height with Baruch (Benedictus de) Spinoza's Ethics, which expounded a pantheistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one. This idea became central to the Enlightenment from Newton through to Jefferson. The Enlightenment was, in many ways, influenced by the ideas of Pascal, Leibniz, Galileo and other philosophers of the previous period. For instance, E. Cassirer has asserted that Leibniz’s treatise On Wisdom ". . . identified the central concept of the Enlightenment and sketched its theoretical program" (Cassirer 1979: 121–123). There was a wave of change across European thinking at this time, which is also exemplified by the natural philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton. The ideas of Newton, which combined the mathematics of axiomatic proof with the mechanics of physical observation, resulted in a coherent system of verifiable predictions and set the tone for much of what would follow in the century after the publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. But Newton was...
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