Antecedents to Modernity: The Enlightenment and Reactions to It


Jean Huber, Un dîner des philosophes (1772). Courtesy the Voltaire Foundation/Wikipedia

The foundation was laid for Modernity by the philosophies and theories of the Enlightenment.


Antecedents to Modernity

Media technologies, beginning with the printing press in the Early Modern period in Europe, have been instrumental in forging what we now call the Modern world. Yet as Maruca pointed out in her talk on “cyborg languages,” these technologies must be seen as part of a larger set of shifts in the social fabric, including philosophical, religious, and artistic reformations (which both result from and help to give rise to an expanded print culture). Perhaps most important among these antecedent conditions is the foundation laid for Modernity by the philosophies and theories of the Enlightenment, such as the invention of a secular vision of history, the rise of capitalism, and the increasing dominance of rational empiricism as a means of grasping, predicting, and controlling the natural and social worlds.

What is the Enlightenment?

Defining the “Enlightenment” presents as much of a practical and theoretical challenge as does defining Modernity. In the broadest sense, however, the Enlightenment commonly refers to a period of fundamental (if incremental) social, economic, political, and philosophical change in Western Europe, reaching its zenith in the 18th Century. Buoyed by such influences as the expansion of print, which contributed to vast religious upheavals in Germany and England, and a growing spirit of skepticism, the 18th Century witnessed the rise of an increasingly secular society, deeply suspect of previously accepted hierarchies of dominance. Combined with advances in scientific theory and practice, mathematics, and mechanization, this spirit of skepticism also gave rise to a growing faith in rationalized scientific inquiry predicated on empiricism, which posited that all phenomena and matter in the natural world is somehow observable. Under the assumptions of empiricism, all things can be broken down into their constituent parts, and studied analytically as a means of understanding, predicting, and controlling their overall functions.

Religious Rupture, Secularism, and the Role of Media

One of the most important “consequences” of Enlightenment philosophy was the invention of a secular form of history, one that aspired to be free of superstition and the dogmatic assumptions of what Coutney Raina of UCLA (see below) calls a “Catholic Cosmology,” which brought together under the sole dominion of the church natural philosophy, Aristotelean logic, and supernatural/mystical beliefs around life, the afterlife, and salvation.

Mediated culture played a large role in this increasing secularization of society, beginning with a new focus on original Greek and Hebrew copies of religious scripture being analyzed and translated by the multi-lingual, literate, and educated scholars of the Renaissance and Early Enlightenment. When the glaring inconsistencies between these original texts and the Medieval Latin translations upon which the church had established its authority and infrastructure were revealed, the Catholic Cosmology began to unravel. The enormous spiritual and administrative bureaucracy of the Catholic church was shown to be entirely manufactured, and had little or no basis in the original scriptures. With the introduction of print and later, English translations of the Bible (first completed by English reformer William Tyndale) the reproduction of these more authentic scriptures became much easier, and their often-illegal circulation gradually increased, as did a growing reformation movement, demanding the purging of excess, corruption, and the authority of the clergy from the Church. What followed was a period of radical reformation in religious life wrought by a rupture between the traditional Catholic totality and the splintered, sectarian debates of  the Early Modern period. This rupture was filled by a new constellation of printed material, from biblical translations, to bibles printed in the accessible quarto format, to polemical pamphlets. In the second half of the lecture below, Courtenay Raina of UCLA provides an account of this gradual rupture of religious authority in Early Modern Europe.

In this clip, pay particular attention at approximately 54:00, where Raina astutely observes how the sale of indulgences in the pre-Reformation church is far more than just corruption. It is also symptomatic of a nascent merchant class, and an incipient capitalist sensibility that was taking taking shape at the time. The roots of this early capitalist society will be explained more below.

Science, Empiricism, and Rationalism from the Renaissance to the 17th Century: Opening Modernity

With the rise of a more rationalized, scientific society in the wake of the Enlightenment, which demands empirical proof of all claims, the Catholic Cosmology begins to fall apart. Where authority figures in the premodern period, ahead of the advent of empiricism, could simply defer to the word of God as absolute, in an era where someone can say “show me,” or “prove it,” that authority is subsumbed by the authority of rational proof. For an in-depth exploration of the pressure placed upon this cosmology by early scientific thought and Enlightenment philosophers such as Newton and Descartes, review these two lectures, also by Courtenay Raina of UCLA.

Fundamental Astronomy and Skepticism
Enlightenment Science, Rationalism, Empiricism

Extending Rationalism to Economics: Incipient Capitalism

As mentioned earlier, the development of the public sphere addressed by Merriman and the sale of indulgences noted by Raina are also deeply linked to the codification of marketized systems of exchange, which applied the same rational logic of Enlightenment scientific practices to the acts of trade and purchasing that were growing with the proliferation of printed materials. The logic of what is now known as capitalism is one based on dissociation, and upon the relentless atomization of tasks, labour, parts, and production as a means of managing and streamlining even the most minute portions of the manufacturing and distribution process. The rise of capitalism and its eventual naturalization in the Modern period has been looked upon by some as a triumph, and others as a tragic loss. It gave rise to the trade in wealth and material goods that we take as natural today, but also wrought a symbolic and figurative violence upon the family unit, turned millions into what Ewen has called “wage slaves,” and as Marx argued, inflicted irreparable damage upon the modern soul itself, and systematically disenfranchised the majority Proletarians for the benefit of the ruling elite. Later thinkers, heavily influenced by Marx, such as the Frankfurt School critics, would posit that the logic of capitalism, by the late 1930s had effectively dismembered the revolutionary working class, and liquidated the spiritually transformative parts of our culture and our minds of all critical capacity.

Paul Heyer, in Communications and History provides an excellent summary of the Enlightenment period and the transformations implicated therein, worth quoting at length:

No matter now it is demarcated there is no shortage of portraits of the era; most depict it as a major break with what went before. For the first time in an extensive way, the elements of human nature, society, and history became subject to examination informed by science and guided by reason. This vision constantly endeavored to separate itself from the theological and abstract metaphysical systems of previous centuries, often daring to question traditional systems of authority in the process.

The social response to the rise of a deeply empiricist culture was varied and debated hotly between a number of ideologies. In the next post, some of the celebratory and critical perspectives on the Enlightenment, capitalism, empiricism, and marketization will be explored, including Socialist reactions from the left, Patrician Conservative reactions from the Right, and classical Liberal/Individualist reactions from more moderate perspectives. Further, we will address the role that communication technologies played in nurturing modern discourses of democracy, freedom, manipulation, and propaganda.

Reacting to the Enlightenment: The French Revolution, Liberalism, and Media

While active in overlapping and colliding waves across Europe, France served as the Enlightenment’s epicentre. Paris, the most heavily urbanized, populous, and wealthiest city of the period became a haven for the philosophes and a growing educated class. Writers such as Voltaire, Comte, Condillac, Diderot, and d’Alembert formed a loose-knit and often internally contradictory “family of philosophes,” who despite theoretical differences, approached the task of analyzing and understanding the epoch in similar ways. The philosophes of the Enlightement sought to do for the social sciences, the humanities, and cultural analysis what Newton had done for physics: unite disparate, complex and seemingly idiosyncratic historical events under universal models and formulae. As a result, France became a kind of test case for the tensions of Modernity, a living experiment in which the metaphysics and theology of the premodern were forced into a direct confrontation with sometimes aggressively secular theories and critiques. Even today, any tourist can observe history in progress in the city’s architectural and aesthetic diversity.

In many ways, John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding was the central text of the Enlightenment, and so was immensely influential upon the French philosophes and the spirit of the nation at the time. Locke, in the Essay, asserted that all knowledge is gained through our engagement with our sensual world. We gather understanding, categories, and analytical distance only through experiencing the world first-hand. This radical idea broke with a long-standing assumption of inherent or innate knowledge, derived from the notion of the human mind as divinely inspired. Further, it placed the individual social agent at the centre of his or her own destiny. If humans are born with no innate predispositions, then we are forced to become masters of our own fate. Unbounded from divine predestination or some essential, universal, absolute morality, we engage with and come to understand the world through choice and the senses, radically breaking with a Platonic rejection of the physical that characterized Premodern metaphysics. Locke’s Essay, then, lays the foundation for a growing sense of individualism, or the belief that through experience, reason, and analysis, man can self-fashion, and as such, should be able to express and articulate himself as he sees fit. For an in-depth look at Locke’s epistemology, and its relation to the rationality and universalism of Newton, take a look at this lecture by Countenay Raina, speaking on Religion, Regicide, and Revolution:

Due to the rise of this individualistic spirit, tensions in France began to shake the autocratic rule of the monarchy, who still clung to authority through the now scathingly critiqued “divine right of kings,” which posited that God himself had vested power within the king to rule the nation. Eventually, these conflicts erupted into scattered urban and rural skirmishes, led largely by citizens demanding a voice in their own governance, and representation within the commanding heights of the national bureaucracy. This fighting slowly escalated, aggravated by the overwhelming power of the clergy and the monarchy, finally breaking into a full-scale civil war, The French Revolution, in 1789, a battle fought in the name of individual rights to expression, determination, and opportunity; it was a battle fought under the banner of Enlightenment ideals.

The impact of the French Revolution upon Modernization is easy to overstate, but certainly cannot be diminished. The conflicting ideologies of Liberalism, Socialism, and Conservatism emerge in force following the collapse of autocratic governance in France, and the negotiations between these ideologies deeply inform the keynote texts of the modern world, addressing everything from morality to economics. For a more in-depth history of the Revolution, and an excellent introduction to how new trajectories of language and ideology emerged from it, watch the lecture below, delivered by Lynn Hunt of UCLA History.

Important to note in Hunt’s talk is her mention of the notion of “public opinion” and accountability as symptomatic of a new social consciousness. No longer could a single authority figure claim, without challenge, sole decision making power. The French monarchy was forced, due to the influence of Enlightenment philosophy and its popularization through print, the news trade, and the incipient public sphere that developed alongside them both, into a confrontation with the people it administered. Governance by consent, in the interest of the people, becomes enshrined within Western political and social thought at this juncture.

The social reaction to the French Revolution, however, revealed deep divisions within European society. Those who championed its gains and adhered emphatically to the principles of free assembly and expression came to form the core of a new Liberal ideology. Others would look upon the revolution with disdain and decry it for its bloody destruction, forming a Conservative (and also a Romantic) critique of reason and Enlightenment theory, and others would attempt to radically rethink this binary by establishing an alternative union of structure and egalitarianism, combining the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy, a belief in the equality of all men, a sympathy for the working classes, and a critique of the violence of market fundamentalism and industrial life to create a new Socialist ideology, articulated most clearly by Marx, whose ideas will be addressed in a later post.

The Liberal Reaction, Press Freedom, and Democratic Discourse:

The French Revolution and its ideals of republicanism, government accountability, and citizen empowerment (and in many ways the invention of the ‘citizen’ proper) agitated similar tensions elsewhere, including Britain. One thinker who championed the ideals of the Revolution in the United Kingdom (and later the United States), and also ideally demonstrates the important links between new discourses of Modern liberalism and the influence of the media, was Thomas Paine. In 1791, Paine famously published Rights of Man, in which he eloquently defended the French Revolution by asserting that all men, regardless of class-based, racial, or theological distinctions, were empowered by the same inalienable, universal rights, and when any government attempts to deny its citizens these inalienable rights, revolution against that government is justified. This text was enormously controversial and drew the ire of a number of Conservative critics (who we will explore in the next post), and continues to cause conflict between contemporary political ideologies, as Paine’s words are still variably appropriated by reactionaries, libertarians, progressives, and socialists alike. For publishing the follow-up to this text, Rights of Man, Part the Second, Paine was tried and found guilty of seditious libel by a deeply partial jury. At this trial, Paine was defended by Thomas Erskine, who, as Keane writes, delivered a now mythical four hour address justifying Paine’s work by asserting that the cornerstone of a just, accountable, and empowering society was a free press, and the ability to articulate and circulate one’s own ideas without repression. Erskine’s claim codified within the discourse of Liberalism and Western political thought the now seemingly natural link between democracy and an open media system.

The French Revolution had largely been fueled by the distribution of polemical pamphlets and propaganda, and the populism of the revolution itself would have been unthinkable without the advent of a thriving European news trade. The freedom from tyranny, noble and clerical privilege, and working-class burden promised by the French Revolution, then (what we might call the foundations of a Liberal ideology that celebrated the inalienable rights of the individual and his equality with all others, tantamount to his ability to self-fashion and determine his own destiny and participate in civil society), was inseparable from the battle for a free press. This Liberal reaction was one of the three main ideological branches that would inform the conflicts of Modernity. Watch this lecture by J. Ward Regan, professor of History and Philosophy at New York University on the legacy of Thomas Paine as an ideal example of what it meant to be a “liberal” in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

Reacting to the Enlightenment: The Conservative Backlash

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich. In the wake of the liberal, rational revolution, spurred on by the Enlightenment, many looked with regret upon a world stripped of its mysticism, a mysticism Freidrich looks to recapture in this seminal piece, completed in 1818.

As the new liberal ideology expanded across the continent, celebrating the empirical, the rational, and the scientific as forces that would liberate humanity from the inequities and superstitions of the past, a growing number of thinkers, poets, philosophers, and conservative moralists began to question its spiritual implications. English conservative elements looked across the Channel to the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, and saw not a dashing of feudal oppression, but reason turned on its head: violence, revolution, hysteria. Others looked with disdain upon the growing world of urban industrial production, factory labor, and environmental destruction, which had been justified by a rhetoric of dominance over the natural world enabled through reason. In a world where all things are empirically knowable, where everything is simply sensation impressed upon a blank, malleable mind, as Locke’s watershed Essay on Human Understanding boldly claimed, there is little impetus to view the human as a subject, or beauty as something transcendent. The human is nothing but an instrument in a larger natural machine that can be modelled, charted, and graphed through universal formulae. Beauty is nothing but a normative evaluation of a particular coalescence of matter and form. The mysticism of the premodern was effectively killed by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and many found this transition abhorrent. These critics would diverge into a number of critical streams, but in totality would form what we now refer to as the Conservative reaction to the Enlightenment.

Edmund Burke and English Conservatism

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the French Revolution was English writer Edmund Burke, who in his tract, Reflections on the Revolution in France lambastes the liberal Enlightenment project. He posits, anticipating the work of the Frankfurt School in the 20th Century, that a blind faith in reason as a universal, normative standard to which we all must aspire, in fact gives rise to unreason; that the wholesale rejection of traditional structures of hierarchy and power leads not to universal liberation and a new utopian reality, but to the violent and bloody destruction of civil society.

Related to Burke’s critique of the Revolution is another strain of conservative thought. Patrician conservatism refers to a rather a-political form of conservatism, based more upon a lamentation for the collapse of social hierarchy and aristocratic privilege than upon political discourses. Weinberg (1995), citing Theodore Lowi, defines patrician conservatism as one based upon the premodern privilege of certain intellectual and power elites. Pre-modern, feudal society was deeply and irrevocably stratified, with serfs committed to their lords, lords to the whims of their kings, and all to the authority of the medieval Catholic Church. This rigid hierarchy was seen as divinely instituted, and offered immense power to those in its upper echelons. However, with the discourse of liberalism, which valorized the natural rights of the individual, the equality of all humans, and the ability to self-fashion through the application of reason in the physical world, the premodern hierarchy was radically unsettled. In a lecture posted below, Courtenay Raina of UCLA references the “Ancien Regime,” a French term given to old guard European, patrician society; the intellectual and power elites whose unquestioned authority over the plebeian masses was swept away by the tide of liberalism. Writers from this strain were quick to criticize not the political consequences of the Enlightenment, but the moral and personal consequences; the collapse of the allegedly transcendent, divine natural order of man that granted the nobility, aristocracy, monarchy, and clergy authority over the general population.

The Romantics and the Counter-Enlightenment

Burke’s critique of reason and rationality as instruments of a new liberal ideology was couched in predominantly political language. While he did hint at some spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, such as his faith in a “human heart-” centered government, and a belief in the divine right of kings, rarely did he attempt to explore the realm of the sensual or the spiritual in any significant way. This is curious, as one of the components of daily life that empiricism effectively forces out of the social consciousness is any kind of mysticism, spirituality, or appreciation of the aesthetic.  This gap in the conservative critique, however, was taken up and explored in great detail by the Romantics.

The Romantics looked upon the rationalized vision of the world forged by the Enlightenment with a deep disdain. The universe, modelled by the Deists, had become mechanical, metaphorically rendered as a clock; nothing but an elaborate system of gears and wheels driven by contact physics. The brutal reductionism of such a world view was not lost on people like Goethe, whose romantic Sorrows of a Young Werther chronicled a deep, spiritual, sensual life beyond the reach of reason. Werther tells the story of a young lover, fated to be separate from his beloved due to circumstance. His internal tumult conquers his will to live, and he takes his own life for love. As Courtenay Raina notes in the lecture below, based on the conclusions of the Enlightenment philosophes, such a tale is absurd. In a rational, mechanical universe, the only compulsion a human has is to stay alive as long as possible, to meet his or her material needs. In a purely rational world view, there is little room for passion, sensuality, and the irrationality of emotion. Goethe, however, boldly asserts in Sorrows, that rationality is not absolute, that not everything about man and nature is reducible to “atoms crashing together in a void.”

Authors such as Goethe and Shelley, poets such as Wordsworth and Blake, and composers such as Rossini and von Weber became the heroes of the Romantic movement; the philosophes of the sensual realm. For the Romantics, art and the moment of inspired creation is the closest man can come to the perfection of nature, as nature is constantly in a state of creation, destruction, and reinvention according to a perfect, essential life force, beyond the reductive and dissociative logic of reason.

Black (2002) provides an excellent summary of the romantic valorization of the aesthetic and the sensual:

In the romantic universe, the aesthetic function of communication is the highest human faculty. By this “aesthetic” model of communication, the romantics meant the ability to create words and pictures that represent the mind’s own experience of reality, rather than seek the mere mimetic duplicate of that reality which empiricism prefers. In an empirically unknowable world, words and images assume the condition of art. It was the aesthetic that offered the only hope of reconciling a subject with an objective world town apart by modernity. Art was essential to Bildungor cultural formation, by which the romantics meant the development of a person’s creative and spiritual powers. A community devoted to such actualization through art was restored to the autonomy and human potential it had lost as rationality pervaded life.

For a sample of Romantic-era music, listen to Franz Schubert’s Quartetsatz, performed by the US Army String Orchestra. Note the swells, shifting time signatures, and tumultuous aesthetic structure. This is a music that aligns itself with the vision of the world as beautiful, singular, but also potentially threatening, turgid, and empirically unknowable.

Romanticism took its impetus largely from the rise of rational society, tied up with which was an incipient capitalism, which by the 19th century, bolstered by the rapid expansion of industrialism and mechanization, had drawn many parts of every day life into its dominion. The brutality of factory work, the rigidity of waged labour and time discipline, and the commodification of human creativity proved troubling for a number of thinkers. What they saw was a system carrying out an ideological, symbolic, and literal program of violence, dismemberment, and atomization. Drawing influence from the Romantics and their critique of a new industrial system, but deeply politicizing this argument by combining it with a scathing criticism of the implicit violence of capitalism and the inequality it breeds within a culture, a new group of theorists emerged from the backlash against the Enlightenment- the socialists.

For a discussion of life under the new industrial reality, and its bridge to the new Socialist thinkers, namely Marx and Engels (who will be discussed in detail in the next two posts), watch this lecture on life in 19th-Century Europe by Lynn Hunt of UCLA history.


Originally published by SFU Communication: Curricular Media Supplements, 05.25.2010, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada license.

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