Enlightenment thought leader

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The Truth Revealed in the Circle of Arts and Sciences. Illustration in the encyclopedia of 1772

As a pioneer of the Enlightenment ( French (les) philosophes of the Lumières , English Enlightenment figures , Dutch Verlichtingsdenkers ), even for brief reconnaissance , persons of European and North American intellectual history in the Age of Enlightenment refers to the thinking with the tools of reason of prejudice and superstition sought to liberate. They endeavored to develop science and education as the basis of technical, cultural and political progressand justified their view that the free citizen, thinking for himself, only bound by constitution and law, could determine his own life. Not all enlightenment thinkers shared this widespread cultural and historical optimism.

The epochal main work of the Enlightenment is the encyclopedia , edited by Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert . The basic idea of ​​many enlighteners - including most of the encyclopedists - was that reason is capable of bringing truth to light and promoting virtues .

In a pre- or early phase of the Enlightenment , political power was separated from religion ( secularization ) and a strong centralization around individual rulers ( absolutism ). In the further development the subjects tried to emancipate themselves from this power. This resulted in a movement towards either a more democratic conception of the state in a republic or in a constitutional monarchy . A constitution should guarantee civil and human rights. The rulers of enlightened absolutism , who themselves sympathized with some of the ideas of the Enlightenment, granted numerous persecuted persons temporarily asylum and offered them the opportunity to publish.

Most of the Enlightenment's ideas are rooted in the philosophy of antiquity and the thinking and research of the Renaissance , while the Middle Ages as a whole were viewed critically. The positions of the Enlightenment in the natural sciences and humanities were by no means uniform and are still effective today. The foundations of modern science are largely based on preparatory work by the Enlightenment.

While in France Voltaire is often seen as the most important enlightener - one speaks of Voltaire's century - in the Anglo-Saxon world David Hume is often seen as the greatest enlightener. In the German-speaking area, reference is made to the prominent role of Immanuel Kant . The protagonists of the Enlightenment did not see this movement as a limited period of time, but as the beginning of a limitless era that focuses on people and their responsibilities. From the beginning there was sharp criticism of the concepts of the Enlightenment.


Enlightened thinking was shaped by two currents of modern philosophy : rationalism , particularly represented by René Descartes , and English empiricism ; Worth mentioning here is John Locke , under whose influence the American constitutional principles emerged. On the one hand, the empiricists' conviction that knowledge stems from sensory perception ( sensualism ), on the other hand, the appreciation of the ability to think and judge based on the intellect grew.

Numerous changes determined the epoch: freedom instead of absolutism, legal equality instead of a class structure , scientific knowledge and tolerance should overcome prejudices and take the place of conventional dogmas . The majority, especially the French enlightenment, were convinced that man is naturally good and only needs education in order to live virtuously , peacefully and happily. Enlightenment thinkers also viewed the development of mankind with an optimistic view of culture and history.

The logical and independent thinking of the rationalists was initially aimed at strengthening the state and had features critical of religion , which for the time being were aimed at strengthening the secular as opposed to the spiritual rulers. Soon, however, the critical judgment also applied to the secular rulers. Doubts about religion and absolutism quickly spread. The German writer and mathematician Georg Christoph Lichtenberg even demanded in his aphorisms : "Doubt anything at least once, even if it were the sentence two times two is four ".

Sections of the aristocracy and the lower clergy like the Abbés in France welcomed the weakening of their rightful masters , as did an elite of the Third Estate . Rivalries within the European nobility and clergy prevented a suppression of these efforts. Due to economic changes such as the development of manufacturing , which made the bourgeoisie the economically most important class, this class gained a new self-confidence and self-esteem.

Work of art: Academy of Sciences based on an ancient model, 1698

Compared to the Baroque era , there was a fundamental rethinking of vanitas and the otherworldly. The focus on the afterlife turned into a strong focus on this world. Ethics, too, were no longer necessarily based on theological or other preconditions. Education became more important, and the accessibility of information, which was traditionally tied to social privileges, became a bone of contention, which culminated in the project of an encyclopedia of all knowledge , which had been banned several times since the middle of the 18th century . The Enlightenment was accompanied by an immense advance in scientific and technical knowledge and, moreover, a rapid development of literature , art and music as well as philosophy and political theory .

The noble chambers of curiosities began to become museums in the modern sense. The distrust of luxury and the thirst for sensation gave way with their increasing availability. Occupation with literature, art and science should be made possible for a (initially wealthy) middle class and was declared a virtue. Philosophy , which became more and more differentiated, mathematics, natural history and technology experienced a heyday, on the results of which many of today's individual sciences are based. Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert called his time the “century of science”. The last of the polymaths lived in the early Enlightenment period.

Another demand was tolerance . The Christian educated Europeans only got to know other world religions and high cultures during the Enlightenment. This newly acquired knowledge broadened the horizon, contributed to the acceptance of other models of thought or even let the “ noble savages ” become a role model, as is reflected in numerous comments on travelogues , written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise on the origin and foundations of the Inequality Among Men (1755) were inspired. At the same time, the enlighteners dedicated themselves to the fight against superstition and mysticism . Religiousness contradicting reason was taken to the field with sharp polemics .

Roots and expression

The modern European Enlightenment , understood as a departure from a Christian-medieval way of life, began in the Renaissance , when elements of antiquity were made from counter-models to models. The Renaissance and Reformation ushered in the Age of Enlightenment . Fundamental for this was on the one hand the republican reign of Oliver Cromwell in the middle of the 17th century and the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688/89 , which put an end to absolutism there, on the other hand the consolidation of French state power in the 17th century with the climax of absolutist power under Louis XIV .

Leibniz , rationalist polymath of the early Enlightenment

Enlightenment in the sense of a postulate of the rule of reason has existed since the great universal scholars of the 17th century with their pioneering scientific research: Descartes in France, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Germany and Isaac Newton in England.

The spiritual enlightenment initially came mainly from England and Holland , influenced by them and more radically pronounced by France . A little later it also reached the Germans and other peoples in Europe.

The most important prerequisites for the Enlightenment were the previous humanism , the discovery of America and the worldview of the early modern period. Book printing gradually made buying books affordable for the bourgeois public, which led to the emergence of a publishing industry with newspaper production and a book market. In addition, so-called reading societies developed , through which citizens who were not able to read were introduced to literature .

Travel literature became fashionable towards the end of the 17th century . If the Europeans (and Christians) had previously been considered to be superior, one now read that some non-believers or non-believers could very well have ethical principles and their own high culture . The travel literature of those days criticized European society more or less clearly . In fictional travel reports, e.g. B. Montesquieu's Persian letters , in which two Persians visit Europe, see their world through the eyes of strangers - rich in satirical elements, Voltaire lets an Indian explore French absolutism.

Madame Geoffrin's drawing room

In France, literary salons were set up in the 18th century and in isolated cases as early as the 17th century , which were mostly run by educated women, such as the salons of Madame de Deffand , her successor Julie de Lespinasse and Madame Necker . The innovators of culture, science and politics frequented here. The Salon der philosophes , also called cercle d'Auteuil (Auteuil circle), was chaired by Madame Helvétius . Due to the strict censorship in their own country, some French printing works worked in Amsterdam, where famous Enlightenmentists also found refuge. Writings were smuggled into France from there. The same pattern was seen in Austria; many printed works appeared in Germany. In the London Debating Societies , educated men first exchanged views on public affairs in 1780.

The age of the Enlightenment was marked by a movement of secularization and a turning away from the absolutist to a democratic conception of the state. The English enlighteners called themselves "Free-Thinker", a term that was also used in France (Libre Penseur) and Germany ( Freethinker ). The liberal concept of human and civil rights emerged. It went back to John Locke , who postulated the natural rights to life, liberty, happiness and property as well as a right of resistance against a despotic authority. The movement advocated rational, independent thinking, rejected prejudices, fanaticism and “religious superstitions” and developed a “ religion of reason ” with a belief in a god, the so-called deism , which was promoted by some enlighteners such as David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was traced back not to the mind but to the feelings.

Supporters of the Enlightenment were tolerant Christians or Jews, Deists, pantheists , agnostics or derived their atheism from a consistent materialism . There was agreement that science and education should be promoted and disseminated.

The wealthy and educated, primarily the economically successful bourgeoisie, were the bearers of the Enlightenment. But there were also numerous aristocrats as forerunners or representatives of the Enlightenment idea. Some sympathized with the movement and supported educators who got into legal or financial distress. Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet went so far as to give up his title of nobility Margrave and henceforth to be called Nicolas de Condorcet.

Freemasonry - originating in the 18th century - gained great importance with its basic pillars: freedom, equality , brotherhood , tolerance and humanity. In 1770, the well-known philosopher Moses Mendelssohn founded the Haskala in Berlin's educated Jewish bourgeoisie , an association which, within the Enlightenment , had set itself the goal of Jewish emancipation and equality.

The United States Bill of Rights: Inalienable Fundamental Rights

One of the most important practical achievements of the Enlightenment is the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which laid down the rights of Parliament vis-à-vis the monarch, and about a hundred years later the adoption of the first modern democratic constitutions. With this, the spiritual enlightenment was transferred to states and societies. First and foremost, Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau formulated the theoretical foundations. The first of these constitutions was the Declaration of Independence ( Declaration of Independence ) of the 13 founding colonies of the United States on July 4, 1776 - by Thomas Jefferson written by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams added. In its preamble, the natural inalienable rights to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness given by creation were included. A little later, the United States Constitution followed in 1787, including the Bill of Rights , whose father is James Madison . Shortly after the start of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the first French National Assembly passed the Declaration of Human and Civil Rights on August 26, 1789 , which became the preamble to the 1791 Constitution . A modern constitution was also passed in Poland-Lithuania on May 3 of the same year . The declaration of the rights of women and citizens , also written by Olympe de Gouges in 1791 as a template for the National Assembly, remained - as expected - without consequences. While the British and North American Enlightenmentists were more liberal in their aspirations, most French were heavily involved in general economic and social welfare, a trend that is still relevant today.

Although the Enlightenment was not the only cause of the French Revolution , it shaped it in many respects: its leaders, radical supporters of the Enlightenment - in the meantime have become partially intolerant - abolished the influence of the Catholic Church and ordered the calendar, clock, measurements, New monetary system and laws based on purely rational criteria. The French Revolution generally marks the end of the Enlightenment in the sense of an epoch.

As a countercurrent to the rationalism of the late 17th century, sensitivity as a variant of the Enlightenment had existed since 1720, in England and France 20 years earlier , promoted by Jean-Baptiste Dubos , for example . It was based in part on the same ideals as the rational Enlightenment, but the difference was that virtue was not only sought through the intellect, but also through feeling. Human emotions were an important way of ethical thinking and acting. The idea that pure feeling crosses the boundaries of class was influential .

Protagonists of the Enlightenment Thoughts

Locke (1632-1704)

In his theological-political treatise of 1670, the Dutch rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza advocated the thesis that Judaism and Christianity were merely transitory phenomena without absolute validity. Samuel Pufendorf , political philosopher and former German international lawyer, introduced the concept of natural secular human dignity , which was later incorporated into modern constitutions. The demand for freedom of thought and belief could inter alia. based on John Locke's letters on tolerance (1689–1692). These letters referred to (limited) religious tolerance. Since then, the idea of ​​tolerance has been spread by various scholars and writers. About 70 years later, in 1763, Voltaire finally spoke out in favor of unrestricted freedom of belief and conscience in his “Treatise on the Thought of Tolerance” ( Traité sur la tolérance ). More than a decade later, the German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote : "Conviction must take the place of religion."

John Toland published his first work Christianity not Mysterious in 1696 , in which he tried to reconcile Christianity with reason. He argued that the Bible does not describe real miracles outside the laws of nature, that almost all Christian beliefs can be explained rationally. In 1709 he first used the term pantheism - a worldview whose representatives referred to Spinoza. He saw God as the sum of all matter. At home in the literary salons was the first philosopher - a versatile educated author with literary, philosophical and entertaining scientific publications - Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle . Another outstanding French early enlightenment expert, Pierre Bayle, attacked the superstition that comets herald calamity and other prejudices, advocated the separation of church and state, and demanded complete religious freedom. In his two-volume main work Dictionnaire historique et critique (Critical-Historical Lexicon), published 1695-97 , he occupied short lexical articles with various detailed sources, which were often based on contradicting assumptions, and thus developed modern historical source criticism . Jean Meslier , who was a practicing Catholic priest until his death in 1729, set out his materialistic-atheist convictions in his religious and church-critical notes, which were only disseminated in secret because of the censorship and his position and were only fully published long after his death.

At the turn of the century, the English moral philosopher and philanthropist Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, developed a modern psychological conception of man, according to which the individual, through upbringing, tries to balance drives, passions and feelings, which are essential, between egoism and altruism . If this succeeds harmoniously, the person acts virtuously as part and for the benefit of a social community. Even before Francis Hutcheson , Shaftesbury spoke of the "moral sense," by which he understands the ability of people to recognize the moral value of their actions.

Politically speaking, Gerhard Noodt , Rector of the University of Leiden . In a rectorate speech in 1699 he proclaimed that the prince's power could be taken from the people. In 1707 he advocated in a further speech the absolute freedom of the subjects in questions of religion. Fundamental works on political philosophy and international law were written by the Dutchman Hugo Grotius - pioneer of the idea of ​​sovereignty - and his English friend, the poet and republican philosopher of the state, John Milton , who also campaigned for freedom of the press . His political pamphlets for a free republic were publicly burned in both France and England . The German lawyer and philosopher Christian Thomasius not only turned against the witch trials - like the Dutch Balthasar Bekker before him - but also rejected torture in general and called for the humanization of all criminal law. Starting from natural law , the rationalist philosopher and scholar Christian Wolff developed a theoretical concept for judicial reforms and created the categories of philosophy that are still in use today. In doing so, he referred to the Leibnizian thinking. While most enlightened people rejected religious traditions of divine revelation , he wanted to reconcile reason with revelation.

Many people in the Age of Enlightenment were inspired by the belief that reason, freedom and education would redeem humanity from oppression, war and poverty in the foreseeable future. They put their trust in Francis Bacon's dictum “knowledge is power” . The famous Encyclopédie was created in France . It was edited by the writer Denis Diderot and the mathematician and physicist Jean d'Alembert . When the latter withdrew, he was replaced by the small country nobleman Louis de Jaucourt , who with the help of secretaries hired himself made more than 15,000 of the approx. 60,000 contributions. Famous French poets and scholars ("philosophes") such as Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau wrote articles for the monumental work of the Enlightenment. The encyclopedia should make the entire knowledge and ability of mankind publicly available against the opposition of secular and spiritual rulers. It had a total of more than 150 authors, the so-called encyclopedists . Unlike Bayle in his historical-critical lexicon, which was expanded in 1702, the encyclopedists were bound by a worldview, albeit a diverse one, and did not take up opposing viewpoints. They only adopted the article 'Pyrronienne' ( skepticism ) from Bayle's well-known work.

In the British Kingdom, the Enlightenment had been writing the Encyclopædia Britannica since 1768 , which is continuously updated and expanded to this day. Johann Georg Sulzer's General Theory of Fine Arts was the first German-language work that was structured like the French encyclopedia. With around 900 articles on literature, rhetoric, visual arts, architecture, dance, music and acting, it should offer a systematization of all knowledge regarding aesthetics . In 1774, the German pedagogue Johann Bernhard Basedow published his nine-volume illustrated elementary work , a modern real-world book on the basics of education, logic, the structure and social structure of society, ethics, history and natural history from a deistic-philanthropic-rationalistic point of view. In 1781 Ignacy Krasicki , archbishop and writer, published the first Polish encyclopedia in two volumes.

Paul Thiry d'Holbach around 1785, oil painting by Alexander Roslin

Diderot himself and many other French enlighteners were representatives of materialism , such as Julien Offray de La Mettrie , Claude Adrien Helvétius and especially the radical enlightener Paul Thiry d'Holbach . The representation of a mechanistic view of the world appeared in his font Système de la nature ( System der Natur (1770) ), published under a pseudonym for security reasons in 1770 . Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud had already anonymously disseminated materialistic ideas earlier and at the same time, as did Denis Diderot in his works Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature (1754) and Le rêve de D'Alembert (1769) .

Based on John Locke, the French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac developed a sensualistic epistemology with the claim to be able to make more than just probable statements through logic . Based on his thesis about the unity of thought and language, he founded an action-oriented theory of language . He explained the soul - without referring back to metaphysical assumptions - solely through the sensory impressions on which the will and the feelings are based.

The philosophical antipode of the French materialists was the Irishman George Berkeley , a main exponent of subjective idealism . For Berkeley there is no outside world, only individuals and their perceptions.

Montesquieu : Defense of the separation of powers

The central work of the state theorist Baron de Montesquieu from 1748 De l'esprit des loix / On the Spirit of Laws contains the fundamental considerations for the separation of powers in modern states, which he expanded to three based on John Locke's legislature and executive through the judiciary . He distinguished between moderate forms of government (certain types of republics and monarchies) and terror and fear-based despotism . Following the example of the Kingdom of Britain, he pleaded for a constitutional monarchy with aristocratic and democratic elements, where, limited by laws and institutions to protect public order, tolerance and freedom were most likely to be guaranteed. Montesquieu is considered to be the forerunner of modern milieu theory . The “spirit” of the laws of a state is determined by the “general spirit” (“esprit général”) of a people who develops in the process of history. The esprit général is based on geographical and climatic determinants that influence customs and habits. This process should only be influenced gently. Free trade reduces prejudices, changes morals, promotes tolerance and increases prosperity. “Constitutional rules, criminal laws, civil law, religious regulations, customs and habits are all interwoven and influence and complement each other. Anyone who makes rash changes endangers his government and society. ”The Italian legal philosopher Cesare Beccaria formulated the legal requirement of proportionality and rejected the death penalty.

Frederick II Anti- Machiavelli , 1740

Enlightenment advocates campaigned for a republic or constitutional monarchy based on the British model. Maria Theresa of Austria, her son Joseph II , the Russian Tsarina Katharina II and especially the Prussian King Friedrich II , who wrote philosophical writings himself, were the most important representatives of enlightened absolutism .

The German Enlightenmentists were mainly supporters of a constitutional monarchy . Numerous philosophers who had to leave their homeland temporarily found refuge at the court of the Prussian enlightener.

In the field of economics, the French statesman and enlightener Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de l'Aulne , known as Turgot, wrote the Tableau philosophique des progrés successifs de l'ésprit humain in his early work from 1750 . (dt. About the progress of the human spirit) had established the belief in progress of the time and had undertaken important reform efforts in the sense of enlightened absolutism as the person responsible for state finances from 1761 and especially 1774 to 1776.

With his book The Prosperity of Nations , the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith laid the foundation for classical economics in 1776, in contrast to the prevailing mercantilism . He strove for a state of free, educated citizens with just political and legal institutions. According to Smith, the division of labor leads to increased productivity and a selfish pursuit of property increase, regulated solely by the market , to prosperity in a broad sense.

One of the founding fathers of the United States , Thomas Paine , published the powerful pamphlet Common Sense during the War of Independence against the Kingdom of Great Britain in early 1776 , in which he established the right to independence and the principles of a democracy based on human rights set out. His ideas went a.o. on Thomas Reid , who had turned against all idealistic empiricism with his concept of "common sense", which proceeded from the existence of an outside world - from Locke to Berkeley to Hume.

Only a few enlighteners, like Montesquieu in France, Claude Adrien Helvétius and Condorcet , and Theodor Gottlieb Hippel in Germany , campaigned for women's rights. Condorcet wanted to grant women universal suffrage. Some enlighteners, in German-speaking countries initially Thomasius, later Mendelssohn, Christian Garve and others. spread the philosophy of the Enlightenment in popular, generally understandable writings, which were primarily addressed to educated women of the nobility and bourgeoisie, sometimes referred to as women's philosophy and were critically assessed by so-called school philosophers.

While in England, and even more so in Holland, the representatives of the Enlightenment were able to act relatively openly, in France they were exposed to political persecution. They were imprisoned, often had to leave the country temporarily, proceed clandestinely or express their true thoughts in satires or mockery, fables, etc. dress literary forms. Her works were not only affected by the censorship, but also by the immediate indexing by the Catholic Church and therefore often appeared abroad, e. B. in Geneva and Amsterdam.

Outstanding representatives

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau: Treatise on the Origin and Fundamentals of Inequality among Men , Amsterdam 1755

The history and cultural philosopher, political and social theorist and civilization critic Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most influential authors of the Enlightenment. He developed a system with which he developed the respective topic historically and critically in his works . He did not value knowledge and reason, however. In 1750, for example, in his award-winning answer, he negated the question of the Academy of Dijon as to whether the sciences and arts had contributed to the moral progress of mankind, since he saw a moral decline in cultural history due to wars, misery and oppression. Rousseau formulated his criticism of culture and civilization in particular against the mannerism of the Rococo . In his treatise on the origins and foundations of inequality among men in 1755 , he almost went so far as to describe thought ( la réflexion ) as unnatural. He stated that man had put an end to the happy state of nature by discovering private property .

His terms common will and popular sovereignty are groundbreaking for democratic communities in his main political work On the Social Contract or Principles of State Law , 1762. This is determined by votes of free citizens and is then binding for everyone. A simple deistic state religion should, on the one hand, oblige the individual to the nation, and on the other hand, provide the framework for different religious practice through assured “tolerance”. His political works influenced major representatives of the French Revolution, his educational novel Émile or , also published in 1762, education , but also the education of contemporary children, especially the enlightened aristocracy. Rousseau also wrote “Confessions”, an autobiographical script that encompasses intimate, sexual details but also misconduct, which has served authors as a model to the present day.


Voltaire: Candide, Paris 1759

His rival Voltaire , born as François Marie Arouet, who insists on the principles of reason , is at least as effective. The staunch opponent of the Catholic Church, absolutism and feudalism, was a renewer of historiography, which he did not want to focus on events and rulers, but understood it as a representation of the history of culture and the spirit of the world as a whole. He did not share the unreserved belief of many enlightened people in continuous progress. In his satire Candide or Optimism , which supposedly translated from German, appeared anonymously in Paris in 1759, he turned against Leibniz's idea of ​​the “ best of all possible worlds ”. With his extensive, often sarcastic , literary-philosophical work , he reached a broad, even non-intellectual, public since the middle of the 18th century . With around 750 publications, some of them anonymous at first, he is one of the most influential and important authors of the Enlightenment.

The contes philosophiques , philosophical narratives, contain the main ideas of the Enlightenment, which are presented here in an effective way. The dissemination of Newton's scientific findings in France can also be traced back to Voltaire and his partner, the physicist, mathematician and philosopher Émilie du Châtelet . Voltaire owes a large part of his popularity to his successful fight against serious errors and arbitrary judgments of the judiciary. He was also one of the first to propagate diversity of opinion . His militant and at the same time well-worded political pamphlets paved the way for the French Revolution . “ Écrasez l'infâme ” (destroy wickedness), especially in relation to the Catholic Church, became a widespread slogan.

The German journalist and writer Wilhelm Ludwig Wekhrlin took Voltaire as a model, and he translated extracts of his works into German and published them. He fought with similar means, at times persecuted and imprisoned, for civil rights and freedom of the press .

David Hume

David Hume Monument in Edinburgh

An important British theorist of the Enlightenment and proponent of empiricism was - alongside John Locke and George Berkeley - David Hume . Following on from Locke, he was the author of a groundbreaking epistemology . He was considered an amoral atheist, so that he was denied a university career. Indeed, he defended a sentimental deistic view of religion.

In the mid-18th century he wrote An Inquiry into the Principles of Morality , An Inquiry into the Human Mind, and a Treatise on Politics. For Hume, the roots of morality lie in feeling, since no objective virtues exist. Man rejects a crime out of compassion for the victim, not because there are generally valid criteria of judgment for actual events. According to Hume, the human mind cannot express truth, only a probability. As a moderate skeptic, he polemicized against the belief in miracles. With his great constitutionally oriented work The History of Great Britain (6 volumes, 1754-1762) - German edition as the history of England (four volumes from Caesar to the unification with Scotland in 1707) and the history of Great Britain (two volumes since 1707) - belonged like Voltaire and Rousseau, he became the founders of modern historiography . At the time, the work met with furious rejection from the warring political parties, but it became a bestseller. Hume's assessment of the civilizing achievements of Islam in the early Middle Ages and the different roles that Saladin and Richard the Lionheart played in the First Crusade became famous : Richard was just as brave as Saladin, but in comparison to Saladin an intolerant and cruel barbarian.

In the German-speaking area, it was Johannes Nikolaus Tetens who was one of the first philosophers - on the basis of Wolff's terminology - to spread the thoughts of David Hume. His Philosophical Attempts on Human Nature and its Development , published in 1777, was received by Kant. His British contemporaries regarded him as a “German Locke”; today, in Anglo-American countries, he is seen more as a “German Hume”.

Immanuel Kant

Kant was an important philosopher towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, whose epistemology was influenced by the moderate skeptic Hume. His essay from 1784 answering the question: What is Enlightenment? comes from a definition of 'enlightenment' and the invitation to think for yourself at any time. With this he aims at the external resistance against the Enlightenment, but also at the internal liberation from tutelage by “clergy”.

“Enlightenment is the way people come out of their self-inflicted immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's mind without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-inflicted if the cause of it is not a lack of understanding, but a lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from someone else. Sapere aude ! Have the courage to use your own understanding!"

Kant on his 250th birthday, 1974

In his three main works, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Critique of Judgment (1790), he devoted himself to the question of the limits of knowledge . The rational ethics of Kant deals with the thinking, acting and feeling of the enlightened person.

"Act in such a way that the maxim of your will can at any time also apply as a principle of general legislation." This famous saying by Kant ( categorical imperative ) clarifies the demand for a law that does not serve the interests of those in power, but of insight and ethics Action of citizens runs out. Until now, those who thought and acted arrogantly without letting themselves be guided by spiritual and secular rulers were considered to be at fault, but he pleaded for human maturity .

Despite its limits, Kant sees reason as the most important quality of man, especially with regard to making practical moral action possible. At the same time, he doubts the possibility of a quick renewal starting only from the third stand . A “reform of thinking” can only be slow. “It is difficult for the individual to overcome immaturity because most people see it as normal.” In addition to restricting the arbitrariness of the nobility, he wanted to limit the influence of the clergy on politics.

In the same writing, Kant speaks of the Age of Enlightenment or the century of Frederick .

As a supporter of a constitutional state, he saw himself as a citizen of the world - his essay, Idea for a general history with cosmopolitan intent , appeared in 1784. In his "philosophical draft" For Eternal Peace (1795) he developed theoretical, freedom-based, antidespotic basic concepts for a contractually secured one Peace between sovereign states.

His student Johann Gottfried Herder , one of the main exponents of the Weimar Classics , sharply distinguished himself from the late Kant, reduced reason to language and postulated a “national character” of the individual peoples, whose diversity and individual value he emphasized.


Web links

Wiktionary: Enlightenment  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Lichtenberg wrote his thoughts from 1764 in booklets (" Sudel books "), published in parts for the first time in 1800.
  2. Discours préliminaire (introduction) to the Encyclopédie
  3. The term "enlightenment of the mind" appears for the first time in 1691. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European Project. Reinbek near Hamburg 2012, p. 9 (Geier 2012)
  4. L 'Ingenu . ( The frank one ). 1748, see list of Voltaire's works
  5. The salon has been located at 59 rue d'Auteuil since 1772
  6. ↑ In 1689 Locke published his work Two Treatises of Government (German: Two treatises on the government ) anonymously. It was only in his will that he revealed the publicly presumed authorship.
  7. In his Persian Letters in 1721 Montesquieu also formulated such a right to resist against absolutist princes who suppressed freedom and hindered the pursuit of happiness.
  8. The French “de” corresponds to the German “von”.
  9. The republican-democratic French constitution of 1793 for the first time provided for unrestricted universal suffrage (for men), but never came into force - despite the Convention's resolution and referendum.
  10. The term welfare state has its origin in Frederick's enlightened absolutism.
  11. ^ Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture , 1719, (Critical considerations on poetry and painting).
  12. The first letter initially appeared anonymously in Latin for security reasons.
  13. In: Nathan der Weise , published in 1779, first performed in 1783. He also advocated religious tolerance in his religious-philosophical work The Education of the Human Gender (1777).
  14. In his work Philosophia rationalis, sive logica (1728) he coined z. B. the term teleology .
  15. written since 1753, published in two volumes in 1771 and 1774
  16. 1754 in his work Traité des sensations
  17. ^ Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge . First edition, Dublin 1710, ( Treatise on the principles of human knowledge ).
  18. Ried, the founder of the Scottish School of Philosophy , saw the origin of "Common Sense" in God's creation
  19. Hume got along epistemologically completely without reference to God.
  20. in his work on bourgeois improvement of women (1792) and in the revised edition of 1793 of his work, which has been changed several times, on marriage .
  21. The works of the Deists could not appear freely until well into the 18th century, the authors were prosecuted. Some religious offenses could result in the death penalty or the book being burned.
  22. Discours sur les sciences et les arts , 1750
  23. "... j'ose presque assurer que l'état de réflexion est un état contre nature, et que l'homme qui médite est un animal dépravé."
  24. In it he describes the upbringing of a boy who, by largely shielding himself from the pernicious civilization, can develop his natural talents with imperceptible support.
  25. Les Confessions ( Confessions ), published posthumously in 1782
  26. David Hume: The History of Great Britain , Volume 1, Chap. 6th