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Enlightenment Roots

This article will focus on the Enlightenment roots of sociology. This article will provide a description of key Enlightenment philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham. The connections between these philosophers and contemporary social thought will be highlighted. Enlightenment theories of naturalism, utilitarianism, social contract, and categorical imperative will be described. A discussion of the ways in which sociological thought has borrowed from and built on Enlightenment-era ideas and philosophy will be included. Descriptions of the European Enlightenment, including its connections to the Scientific Revolution and its adherence to rationality and logic, will be included throughout the article.

Keywords Categorical Imperative; Enlightenment; Naturalism; Rationality; Scientific Method; Scientific Revolution; Social Contract; Society; Sociology; Structure; Utilitarianism

Enlightenment Roots


The field of sociology has its roots in the age of the Enlightenment. The age of the Enlightenment refers to the seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical and intellectual movement in Europe founded on the belief that reason would lead to objective and universal truths. The European Enlightenment ended with the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Enlightenment-era philosophers challenged the power and legitimacy of the institutions of their day, despite the threat of persecution (Green, 1990).

The European Enlightenment was precipitated by a period of extreme growth in scientific knowledge called the Scientific Revolution, which occurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Modern scientific thought emerged during the Scientific Revolution. For example, Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) developed his theories about gravity and motion and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) studied the solar system and discovered that the Earth was not at the center of the universe. The Scientific Revolution nurtured the invention of new methods and tools including the scientific method and the telescope, microscope, air pump, and thermometer.

The Scientific Revolution changed how scientists and thinkers in other fields approached the world. As a result of the Scientific Revolution, intellectuals looked for rules of regularity and balance, first in the physical and then the social and political world. The methods for scientific discovery and inquiry developed during the Scientific Revolution to study the physical world were used in the Enlightenment to gather information and knowledge about all areas of life. Enlightenment thinkers believed that knowledge gained through scientific means would be more accurate than knowledge gained through non-scientific observation and assumption. The Scientific Revolution and the European Enlightenment influenced the understanding and study of political, economic, and social behavior and thought.

Enlightenment thinkers desired to reform society and government for the betterment of all humanity. They believed that natural laws rather than arbitrary rules should govern behavior. Ultimately, Enlightenment thought was based on three principles:

• That the universe is governed by natural rather than supernatural law;

• That the scientific method can answer fundamental questions in all areas of inquiry; and

• That the human race can be taught to achieve infinite improvement (Mills & Woods, 1996).

Enlightenment philosophy was characterized by a faith in order, rigor, logic, and human rationality. Rationality refers to the idea that all beliefs and phenomena can be explained in accordance with logical principles. Believing that reason would eventually triumph over humanity's uncivilized and animalistic tendencies, the Enlightenment thinkers sought objective and scientific facts of human nature, marginalizing discussion of subjective experience, tradition, habits, history, or culture. These subjects were considered to be irrational forces that could not contribute to the era's larger projects of expanding human knowledge and truth. Enlightenment thought implied that humans, society, and history would reach fulfillment when humans learned to control their passions and drives (Verheggen, 1996).

Enlightenment narratives provided a foundation for the development of nineteenth and twentieth century sociological thought and practice. Enlightenment ideas, including the concern for just rule; the belief in scientific inquiry and empirical knowledge; the role of structure in predicting and controlling human behavior; and the connection between private property, oppression, and inequality, were particularly influential on fin de siècle intellectuals like Herbert Spencer, Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Karl Marx. The enduring and influential sociopolitical theories of utilitarianism, Marxism, and social contract are all products of Enlightenment thought (Chatterjee, 2004).

Understanding the Enlightenment roots of sociology is vital background for all those interested in sociology as well as the history of social theory as a whole. This article explains the Enlightenment roots of sociology in two parts:

• A description of key Enlightenment philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham.

• A discussion of the ways in which sociological thought has borrowed from and built on Enlightenment-era ideas and philosophy.

Further Insights

Enlightenment Philosophers

Enlightenment thinkers, particularly those who lived through the pre-revolution years in France, were concerned with the problems of reality, knowledge, liberty, consensus, structure, agency, and order. "How is society held together?" they asked. Enlightenment philosophers worked to make sense of human behavior and society during the years of the Enlightenment and through the French Revolution.

Enlightenment theorists developed solutions to the problem of order. For example, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau developed social contract theory as a means of explaining the mechanism of social order. The social contract, a philosophical exploration of structure and agency, refers to the hypothesis that people in a state of nature would consent to be governed. The classic social contract, an amalgamation of the theories developed by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, is the belief that the legitimacy of government is derived from an agreement between individual human beings to surrender their private rights in order to secure the protection of a powerful society or government.

Enlightenment thinkers also theorized about how people lived before or outside of society or government rule. They developed the concept of the state of nature (the hypothetical condition in which people lived before forming societies and governments) to explain people in their most natural, non-ruled state of being, as well as the concept of the state of society (the condition in which people live within societies and under governments) to explain how and why people give up part of their freedom to live under the protection of a society or government (Jackson, 2006).

The Enlightenment-era philosophers described below, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham, illustrate the Enlightenment's concern for just rule, scientific inquiry, and empirical knowledge (as seen in the use of the scientific method); the role of structure in predicting and controlling human behavior; and the connection between private property, oppression, and inequality.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), was a philosopher who explored authoritarianism, rule, indoctrination, coercion, and obedience. His work continues to influence contemporary political sociology and political thought in general. Hobbes developed his theory of the social contract, as described in The Leviathan, as a way of justifying the existence of government rules and laws. Hobbes had great respect for individual reason and believed true political allegiance comes only after individuals understand the basis of a sovereign's claim to leadership. He believed that the government's role in society is justified by a social contract between people and their leaders. In Hobbes' view, the social contract is an agreement between individuals to live peacefully and to be unified under a government that facilitates peace. For the social contract to provide a stable government, individuals must submit themselves to enforcement mechanisms that Hobbes referred to as "the sword of the sovereignty." According to Hobbes, for government to work, leaders must display transparency in all of their social and political actions (Waldron, 2001).

John Locke

John Locke (1632–1704) believed in the inalienable rights of human beings. Natural law, according to him, guarantees that all men are created equal. Locke felt that all people have innate natural goodness...

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