Jul 1, 2020 in Analysis

Enlightenment and Counter Enlightenment (Question 1)

The Enlightenment period is commonly described as the intellectual movement that was experienced in Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries. Accordingly, it tended to shift the thinking of individuals from mere tradition to reason and logic. On the other hand, Counter-Enlightenment emerged in the 20th century and was basically founded on the desire to oppose the Enlightenment. Some of the fundamental figures that relate to both movements include Augustine Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Max. The most interesting thing about Enlightenment is that it offered room for increased knowledge acquisition among individuals, hence leading to both scientific and philosophical revolutions. The Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment were two significant movements that played an instrumental role in shaping views on reasoning and tradition as well as modifying human understanding of the world.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment period also referred to as the age of reason that witnessed the reorientation of European politics, systems of communication, philosophy, and science. The Enlightenment thinkers in the European nations such as Britain and France questioned the authority that was traditional and, therefore, adopted the notion that there could be the possibility of improving the humanity by using rational change. The period of Enlightenment involved the production of books and essays, prevalence of revolutions and wars as well as the spread of inventions and scientific discoveries. The early period of enlightenment (1685-1730) witnessed the publication of Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton and “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” by John Locke. These two works served as a tool for the major advances in science, mathematics, and philosophy during the Enlightenment.

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On the other hand, the middle period of Enlightenment (1730-1780) was centered on the dialogues and publications that involved French philosophers such as Jean Jacque Rousseau, Voltaire, and Bouffon. This period is also referred to as High Enlightenment. A famous historian, Voltaire, called this period a “chaos of clear ideas” in his philosophical dictionary. It was the time of religious as well as antireligious innovations. It happened because Christians sought to have their faith repositioned along the lines that could be termed as rational. During this period, there also was the association of various authors, whose cooperation resulted in the compilation of human knowledge and the publication of Encyclopedie by Diderot. The late period of Enlightenment (1780-1815) culminated with the advent of the French Revolution in 1789. It occurred because of the need to eliminate the old authority with a view of remaking society according to rational lines. However, the French Revolution led to a bloody terror, which resulted in the rise of Napoleon. 

The Counter Enlightenment

The Counter-Enlightenment is the movement that was conservative in nature and aimed at reversing the social, political, and, particularly, religious and philosophical changes that were associated with the period of Enlightenment and French Revolution. This movement arose during the 18th century. Basically, the French Revolution fueled the reaction against the age of reason or Enlightenment. Its aftermaths led to the Counter-Enlightenment as the French Revolution was characterized with the shedding of blood. The period of Counter-Enlightenment also involved the opposition to liberalism and collectivism along with the rejection of the idea of rationalism as the basic source of understanding knowledge. It is important to note that Counter-Enlightenment was expressed in not only philosophy but religion, too. There was a large number of religious thinkers in the 18th century as compared to the deists and freethinkers. Therefore, Counter-Enlightenment witnessed the formation of various philosophies such as classical conservatism and socialism. 

The founding father of Counter-Enlightenment was Jean Jacque Rousseau, whose philosophy emphasized passion rather than reason, collectivism rather than individualism, as well as the abolition of government rather than legitimizing it. Another contributor to the rise of the movement was Joseph de Maistre, a conservative, who focused on the view that the church and the monarchy underpinned the society. Moreover, Counter-Enlightenment rejected the various principles of Enlightenment that were universalistic. For example, Maistre denied the universal humanity notion by insisting that “he had never met a man” among all human beings. The period of Counter-Enlightenment was significant as it highly contributed to the modernity being as it is now and the revival of traditionalist religion. 

Founding Fathers Of Sociology And The Movements 

The works of various sociological theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Augustine Comte, and Karl Marx, who are considered the founding fathers of sociology, were highly influenced by the movements of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. As the initiators of the movements, they understood the need to take a logical position regarding the way the individuals functioned within the society while dealing with the emerging educational perspectives amidst the strong traditional views, which were existent at this time. 

Augustine Comte

To begin with, the works of Augustine Comte, one of the fathers of sociology, were the products of the Enlightenment as he preserved the traditions of the 18th-century philosophers. He continued with the thinking tradition of philosophers such as Maistre. This tradition involved a rejection of the approach to human society that was individualistic and common during the 18th century. Because of the breakdown of social order during the days of Augustine Comte, he advocated for moral community reconstruction. As he lived in the aftermaths of the French Revolution, he was distressed with the disorder and poverty prevailing in the culture. Therefore, his works strongly emphasized the moral and political philosophy in addition to history, epistemology and particular scientific methods. 

His work could be viewed as a reaction to and the protest against both the French Revolution and the movement of Enlightenment. Being disturbed by the anarchy that had taken place in the French society, he highly criticized French thinkers that spearheaded the French revolution and the movement of Enlightenment. Thus, he developed “positivism” or rather “positive philosophy”. It is a scientific view of combating the Enlightenment philosophy, which he termed as both negative and destructive. Comte developed his thoughts in sociology whereby he believed that the mind and the activities of an individual as well as the society passed through a series of stages that were successive in regard to historical evolution, leading to a perfect final stage. Comte elaborated three law stages, namely the theological, metaphysical, and positive or rather scientific stages. In respect to the metaphysical stage, people pursue to find both explanations and meanings of the universe in the ultimate reality conceptions. Conclusively, Augustine Comte identified two subdivisions of society that are the theological-military society, which was in the process of elimination, and the industrial society that was emerging.

Herbert Spencer

The work of Herbert Spencer was also influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In his point of view, society moves from a simpler form to compound levels of societal development. He, therefore, distinguished four types of societies. They are the compound, simple, doubly, and trebly society forms. In addition, he had the idea that the society developed basically in the direct response to the social and the natural environment. Just as the elimination of traditional authority was sought throughout the course of the French Revolution during the movement of Enlightenment, Spencer sought to endorse the principle of the fittest survival. In regard to this principle, Spencer asserted that nature was endowed with the tendency of disposing of the unfit with a view of making room for the presumed better. Therefore, the law of nature provides the elimination of the weak for the sake of the stronger ones. The rapid elimination of the weak individuals by using the process of natural selection that consequently leads to the benefits for the poor in the society on, in other words, the individuals who Spencer termed as unfit.

His work can be linked to Enlightenment as he supported individualism. It was explained in his non-interference principle. He did not advocate for the interference of private activity by the state. In his point of view, the state should not interfere in education, poverty elimination, housing conditions regulation, health and sanitation. He, thus, asserted that the money spent on the mentioned activities should instead be invested in supporting laborers in the fields that involve land drainage and machine building. He argued that nature had a higher intelligence as compared to the intelligence of the humanity. 

Karl Marx

Karl Marx was the greatest sociologist in opposition to the philosophies of Counter-Enlightenment with his views expressed in the work of Marxism. In this respect, he highly criticized individualism, capitalism, a liberal state as well as private property, and other conditions that could be considered the heritage of Counter-Enlightenment. Obviously, he was influenced by the trait of rationalism from the Enlightenment period rather than passion and emotion of the Counter-Enlightenment. He is known specifically for vehemently criticizing capitalism. Karl Marx associated the latter concept with negativity and even termed it as “barbaric.” He made an assertion that it became the reason of competition appearance, which is the worst thing in regard to the humanity. Marx considered that it was the competition because of which human beings could not be a collective and cooperate for the common good. People are divided by capitalism, which makes them view one another as potential rivals. In his point of view, capitalism degraded the morality of humans as it fostered competition and rivalry. 

Furthermore, Karl Marx withheld a heritage of Enlightenment as, in his sociological works, he argued that the triumph of socialism over capitalism could be witnessed in technology, economics, as reason. He meant that individuals might reach the state of self-realization that could eventually make them move towards socialism. He also identified religion as the opium of the poor and made an assertion that religion could slow down the process of revolution as the poor are promised to inherit the earth. In this respect, he claimed that religion should be eliminated.


In conclusion, the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment period were significant in terms of transforming the manner in which individuals view the world. The movements reflected the continued differences between the approaches to reasoning, logical thinking and tradition. The founding fathers of sociology, Augustine Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx, elaborated on the expected approaches toward perceiving the society and making fundamental decisions within the society with the established tenets. Whether individuals relied on tradition method or rational thinking, they needed to do it in a manner that adheres to the desirable moral standards even when the Enlightenment movement is concerned. The modernity stems directly from these approaches to living within the society. The nature of life must be anchored on the desirable ethical elements and considerations whether taken from a traditional perspective or a modern approach to reasoning. 


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