This essay will be examining the key concepts of the ‘Enlightenment’ also known as “The Age of Reason“ that occurred from the 16th and 17th century, before considering the manner in which it helped to shape the sociological view on societies and how it has linked to the birth of sociology. Before doing so I will give a brief historical context.
All the profound questioning that emerged during the Enlightenment came out of the undermining of the old Catholic authority over all social truth that was produced by the Reformation when Luther (1483 –1546) and others had challenged this over-arching authority with the idea that each of us had our own personal relationship with God. This meant that we had to turn to ourselves and use our own reason to decide what was moral, what was good, right, rational, and so forth. And suddenly some very profound questions about the self and society emerged as if we were looking at these problems for the first time since Ancient Greece. (Scott, 2005 pp. 9–11).The religious discussions were providing opportunities to raise new secular questions: as Porter (1990, p.73) wrote, “The Enlightenment was the era which saw the emergence of a secular intelligentsia large enough and powerful enough for the first time to challenge the clergy”. Mostly, these questions were rational interrogations on ethics, politics, society, knowledge, the self and their natural rights.
The enlightenment was famously the age of reason and the rational foundations for many things were being considered. Descartes asked the sceptical question – how do I know that I exist? After some self-questioning he concluded, famously, “I think therefore I am” (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy - Mediations), while Immanuel Kant considered what constituted an autonomous and enlightened individual, and found that enlightenment was "man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity’, Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another”. (Calhoun and Gerteis 2007, p.39). Both Kant and Descartes, and others of the enlightenment, were seeking to ensure a new rational basis for making judgements about ethics, epistemology and reason, and for these two, that basis was to be found in the autonomous use of reason.
The beginnings of questions about society emerged with new ideas about the social contract and political order (Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes) and initiated the liberal condition. Before such questionings, ‘society’, often called the ‘common-wealth’, was assumed to be either divine or naturally ordered so this is how the idea of ‘society’ as separated from church, the individual became established in the first place. One of the important consequences of this new spirit of reason that really inflamed the enlightenment was the French...