Faces of the Enlightenment

Philosophical sketches

by Zbigniew Drozdowicz (Author)
Monographs 200 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • From the Author
  • The Multitude of Approaches to Enlightenment and its Appraisals
  • The Enlightenment’s Revision of Cartesianism
  • Revision by Leibniz
  • Revision by Locke
  • Revision by Vico
  • Naturalism of the Enlightenment
  • Mechanistic Naturalism
  • Eclectic Naturalism
  • Enlightenment Rationalism
  • Common-Sense Rationalism
  • Intellectualist Rationalism
  • Historical Rationalism
  • Religious Enlightenment
  • Weberian Disenchantment of the Perception of the Religious World
  • Puritanism and the Puritans
  • Pietism and Pietists
  • Some General Remarks
  • Voltairean Radicalism
  • Biographical Sketch
  • Voltaire’s Style
  • Voltaire’s Letters
  • Philosophical Tales
  • A Few More General Remarks
  • The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
  • The Bright and Dark Sides of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789
  • The Jacobins’ Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1793
  • Opponents of Revolutionary Radicalism
  • Edmund Burke’s Critique
  • Joseph de Maistre’s Critique
  • Some General Remarks
  • Annexes
  • 1. Radicalism and Moderation of the Enlightenment
  • Alasdair MacIntyre’s Portrayal
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Portrayal
  • Paul Hazard’s Portrayal
  • A Few More General Remarks
  • 2. Influence of the French Enlightenment
  • Influence of the French Enlightenment in Italy
  • Influence of the French Enlightenment in Poland
  • Bibliography
  • Index

From the Author

I am inclined to speak out once again in regard to the Enlightenment not only by new observations occasione by own studies, but also by the recently read material, opinions and appraisals of the era articulated lately at academic conferences. Although they have not actually led me to perform a fundamental revision of my views in regard to the nature of Enlightenment and its crucial contributions to Western culture, they did afford a better understanding of its complexity, while also making me realise more strongly that its interpretation and presentation depend considerably on what its prominent representatives had to say, as well as on the worldview-based assumptions and methods of appraisal adopted by its later observers and interpreters. The first section of my deliberations focuses on this issue.

In the second part, I discuss the issue of parting with the philosophical past and the transition to the kind of reality that Enlightenment philosophy constituted in the 18th century. I present this on the example of the philosophers’ correction of the philosophy of Descartes, one of the more prominent modern-day philosophers. However, in the Age of Enlightenment he belonged among those who, more often, were disparaged. In the third and fourth sections, I make an attempt at carrying out a certain decluttering of Enlightenment naturalism and rationalism. I consider one and the other the main philosophical approaches of that era. However, they were so highly varied that it is frequently difficult not only to give a reasonably explicit answer to the question regarding how they compared to one another, but also whether we are dealing with one of them or one of their opponents. This applies, in particular, to those opponents who harked from the various religious circles, and who treated the defence of their faith and everything that could reinforce it as paramount. It was this, among other things, that led me to address the issue of religious enlightenment in the next section. Although the emergence of such an enlightenment was already indicated over one hundred years ago by Max Weber, one cannot agree with all of his opinions today—not only because now we know more about the Age of Enlightenment, but also because we better understand both the strengths and the limitations of his proposed understanding of religious enlightenment. In the subsequent two sections, I examine the issue of Enlightenment radicalism—initially in the specific version as appears with Voltaire, then in the versions occurring in two significantly different French Declarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that of 1789 and that of 1793. Both are connected to the French Revolution—except ←7 | 8→that the first of them with its less, and the second with its more radical form. The part of my deliberations in which I present the opponents of revolutionary radicalism brings this matter to completion.

The first of the annexes attached at the end of these contemplations focuses not only on the problem of Enlightenment radicalism, but also its counterbalance, Enlightenment moderation. The views and appraisals not of immediate observers of those events, but of modern-day philosophers, are referred to in their perception and presentation. If I were to say that one’s point of view depends on where one happens to be sitting, that would be pretty close to the truth; however, it would be a definite oversimplification, and would be making this complex issue much shallower than it actually is. I do not reduce my general remarks and conclusions to the above observation.

The second point covered by this annexe concerns the issue of the influence of the French Enlightenment on the Enlightenment in such countries as Italy and Poland. However, this constitutes but a small part of the much more complex issue of the era’s impact on modern-era and contemporary Western culture—because the fact that it had such impact, and even that this impact was significant, tends not to generate any major doubts among its experts. Perhaps I shall attempt to expound further upon this topic in the future.

The Multitude of Approaches to Enlightenment and its Appraisals

What was the Age of the Enlightenment? This question was already being asked at the time when it had only just unfurled its “standards” and presented on them both its significant achievements and the tasks and challenges that had yet to be faced. However, the problem lies not only in the fact that these were “standards” differing significantly from those that had been presented in earlier ages, but also in that they differed among themselves, so substantially in fact that in certain cases one would have justified reason to doubt whether they came together to form a single ideological formation. This is evident when comparing the Enlightenment in France, in England, and in the German lands. Besides, in each of these countries as well there was neither simply a single nor an ideologically uniform front, which is also not hard to realise when comparing the achievements of such prominent figures of the French Enlightenment as Voltaire and J.J. Rousseau, or in the English Enlightenment the likes of T. Hobbes and J. Locke, and in regard to the German Enlightenment such as G.W. Leibniz, G.E. Lessing, and I. Kant. This is not, of course, an exhaustive list of those who made a distinct mark with their philosophical presence at the time, albeit leaving their marks in different ways. Putting it briefly, the Enlightenment had not only diverse faces, but changing faces as well. This is an assertion that would be rather hard to question. But it actually has such a general and even sweeping character that essentially it is of little use when striving to describe the “standards” mentioned above, and even less so when attempting to indicate the influence they had on human thought and conduct in later periods. What is under no doubt is that this influence was significant. Yet here too, an attempt to answer the question regarding what this influence involved and how it was expressed frequently evokes radical controversy—such as, for example, seen between the liberals and their very numerous and varied opponents. These remarks may be treated as a kind of caution against attempting to take the entire Enlightenment and pack it all into a single bag, or to dress it all in the same costume.

Needless to say, such attempts have been and still are being made. One of the first was made in the 18th century by I. Kant in his sketch entitled: What Is Enlightenment? According to this work, the age should be acknowledged as a period when human emerged from his immaturity, and achieved the kind of ←9 | 10→maturity in which he wants and is capable of applying his own critical reason.1 Enlightenment man was perceived and presented in the same way to some degree by numerous other representatives of the era. An example could be Denis Diderot, the spiritus movens of the great editorial undertaking that the Encyclopaedia, or a Systemic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts (widely called the Great French Encyclopaedia) constituted. He was an eclectic, and his grand achievement in publishing was also eclectic in character. However, he treated this eclecticism and presented it as that which was the best that could happen to all those who wanted and were capable of using their own reason. He strives to convince the reader of the Encyclopaedia of this with his entries both for man and eclectic.2

The picture of this Enlightenment thought about man starts to become complicated at the moment when we start taking a slightly closer look both at these described and valorised forms of criticism and its application in practice by diverse philosophers of the Enlightenment. This is because it turns out that fundamentally different ideological groups functioned beneath an outwardly similar standard; after all, there should be no doubt for anybody reasonably well oriented in the cultural and religious realities of the age that certain philosophers of the day (such as Kant, referred to above) linked their conscience and critical thought to religion and religiosity, while others not only did not make such ←10 | 11→a connection, but were also convinced—and on many occasion expressed this conviction in their writings—that they could not be connected in any way (and these included Diderot, mentioned a moment ago).3

These and numerous other divergences coming to light in the more detailed analyses of that era did not discourage later researchers from attempting, if not to “dress” it in the same or similar “costume”, to at least find a common denominator connecting many of the philosophers of the day. An example of this could, among others, be The Philosophy of the Enlightenment by Ernst Cassirer. In its Preface, the author states that his book “aims to be both more and less than a monograph on the philosophy of the Enlightenment”, as that would require it “to offer the reader a wealth of detail and to trace the genesis and development of all the special problems of this philosophy”, which essentially is unachievable due to the mobility of this philosophy, or—to say practically the same in other words—its diversity and variety. Moreover, in Cassirer’s opinion, the “peculiar charm and real systemic value of the philosophy of this age lie in its development, in the intellectual energy which spurs it on, and in the enthusiasm with which it attacks all its various problems. Looked at in his manner many aspects of the philosophy of the Enlightenment assume a unity which, if they were treated solely from the viewpoint of their results, would appear as irreconcilable contradictions or as a mere eclectic mixture of heterogeneous thought elements”.4

In this Enlightenment mixture of diverse and frequently mismatched or poorly matching motifs, one can however—in his opinion—distinguish “one central position”, and this should be held to when in indicating the “real historical meaning” of that age. There may, however, be many such positions. What interests him in particular, and which he grants special importance to, is the battle waged by many philosophers of that period with early philosophical systems on the one hand, and on the other their defence conducted by a philosophical minority. Those he places within this minority include the French mathematician and philosopher Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, and the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He acknowledges the latter not only as the most significant figure of that era, but also as the one capable of indicating most profoundly and most accurately the strengths of systematic and systemic thought. Naturally, Leibniz was not marginalised by other ←11 | 12→researchers of the Enlightenment either, but there were and are relatively few who recognised his philosophical views as representative for that particular age.

We have another type of attempt at “dressing” the Enlightenment in a single “costume” in Michel Foucault’s treatise Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason The work’s author links the titular Age of Reason with the Age of Enlightenment, while recognising that which constituted its vital “tissue” as the titular insanity. In this voluminous monograph, he analyses it in great detail, on the basis of diverse documents from the era, and reaches the general conclusion that in that “Age of Reason”, the said reason was either mad or at least betrayed certain signs of insanity. After all, how else could one explain the fact that those who were mentally ill were practically left untreated, but placed in old, dilapidated and damp buildings, badly provisioned and ill-prepared for the purpose? And this with the exception of only a couple of cells or hovels purposely furnished for them. According to Foucault, in the few asylums where the condemned were held in what were known as wards of violence, the interned insane lived together with prisoners and were subjected to the same regime.5 Some representatives of that era realised that there was something wrong with the said “reason”, that it was not as it should be, and they indicated this problem in various ways. In Foucault’s opinion, a good example of this is Diderot’s story entitled Rameau’s Nephew. In it, Diderot in several places questioned the rationality of the protagonist, treated as a kind of showpiece enlightened man.

According to a modern-day expert on the era, Jonathan Irvine Israel, such a “key” for understanding the Enlightenment is an accurate diagnosis of its philosophical radicalism and the role played by Baruch Spinoza in the appearance and dissemination of this radicalism.6 Jolanta Żelazna, an expert on this Dutchman’s philosophy, emphasises in her analysis and appraisal of Israel’s diagnosis that he “thoroughly investigated archives previously unexplored, while the picture of the 17th- and 18th-century history of the Netherlands and their connections with the countries of Europe that emerged on these grounds does not match the classic interpretations by historians describing the cultural situation of the times called the Enlightenment”. Not only does it not correspond to them, but it also evokes the decisive objection of more than one such historian. Neither is there a shortage of those who, such as J.K. Wright, consider it downright harmful for ←12 | 13→the discipline of the history of modern culture. They consider the most controversial issue the attributing to Spinoza of the role of “creator of modernity”, including his contributing to the promoting and establishing in social awareness of such modern ideas as: “equality, freedom of thought and opinion, the separation of philosophy, science and morality from theology, and acknowledging democracy as the best form of political system”.7 In answering the question as to whether Israel was right in his interpretation, discerning such a powerful substantive contribution to the formation of the issues of the Enlightenment in Spinozism, J. Żelazna joins the position taken by those experts in modern-day philosophical tradition who believe that “among the most enduring and most distinct problems, concepts and tendencies of the 17th- and 18th-century philosophy (…) neither Spinoza’s thought nor the person himself played the role attributed to him”. I share this opinion. All those keen on polemicizing, I refer to—among others—the gallery of intellectual portraits of numerous well-publicised philosophers compiled by W. Weischedel, albeit a work of popular science, but in many cases providing much food for thought. There is a place here for Spinoza as well; not his peculiar spiritus movens of that age, but as a cursed philosopher (called, among other things, a “blaspheming arch-Jew”, a “blinded fool”, a “clown who deserved the madhouse”, “scumbag junk”, and so forth) and in no case admired and imitated by others.8

A totally different strategy and pragmatism in presenting the Enlightenment was adopted by its researchers who decided in advance that “dressing” it in a single or at least reasonably uniform “costume” was a harmful enterprise, one essentially distorting the age’s image. One such researcher was Paul Hazard, author of a characteristic compendium of knowledge on European philosophical thought of the 18th century. This voluminous work (the Polish translation of which has over 550 pages) contains a very numerous and enormously diverse list of the period’s representatives, their index at the back of the book alone taking up over 10 pages. Some have more frequent references, others appear less often. But this is easy to explain, as the work’s author set himself a more ambitious task than just drawing up a catalogue containing the names of those who left behind any evidence at all of their intellectual presence in the age concerned. This task is ←13 | 14→indicated both in the titles of the different sections to this work, and in the titles to the different chapters.


The author of this book speaks out again in regard to the Enlightenment. His inspiration comes not only from new observations occasioned by own studies, but also from the recently read material as well as opinions and appraisals of the era articulated lately at academic conferences. Although they have not led the author to perform a fundamental revision of his views in regard to the nature of Enlightenment and its crucial contributions to the Western culture, they did afford a better understanding of its complexity. They also made him more aware that his interpretation and presentation of that era depends considerably on what its prominent representatives had to say, as well as on the worldview-based assumptions and methods of appraisal adopted by its later observers and interpreters.

Biographical notes

Zbigniew Drozdowicz (Author)

Zbigniew Drozdowicz is a philosopher and researcher of religion. He graduated in history from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Since 1973, he has worked as a scientific and didactic employee at that university. In 1994, he obtained the title of a professor in humanistic sciences. He specialises in contemporary French philosophy and in philosophy of religion.


Title: Faces of the Enlightenment