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Enlightenment

The Enlightenment (1685-1815) is the period in the western thought and culture that is characterized by supremacy of Human Reason as the means to search for practical knowledge and truth. This made enlightenment period as the “Age of Reason”. Enlightenment is technically a rejection of the tradition and the pre-established thoughts of the past wherein truth is revealed through faith. During the medieval times, the church serves as the ordering center of everything and the dispenser of truth. And since truth is founded on faith, reason was displaced and imprisoned.

The birth of enlightenment was ushered by the works of two prominent figures within the church. First was the work of Franciscan friar William Ockham. Ockham’s nominalism and his famous Razor deny the real existence of universals due to absence of further evidence and reason. This had a great impact to church since almost all of its teachings are founded on metaphysical universals. Second was Nicolas Cusanos who argued that God can not be known because there is no proportion between finite and infinite. The human mind is limited in the sphere of the transcendent and infinite. In addition, his De docta ignorantia (on learned ignorance) contains criticism of Ptolemaic universe that is propagated and embraced by the church by postulating that universe has no fixed center and that the earth is in movement.

These two prominent figures had somehow created cracks within the church. The insights from their works were picked up by thinkers after them. Nicolaus Copernicus put forward the insights of Cusanos and started to debunk the geocentric model of the universe by strongly proposing heliocentric as a more tenable and acceptable world view. With these events, people started to wander. Consequently, there was a doubt on the integrity and credibility of the ordering center. Doubt became the mechanism to reactivate reason to work in search of truth. Reason started to search for enlightenment.

Enlightenment commenced with the publication of the Novum Organon of Francis Bacon. In this work, Francis Bacon offers a new kind of logic (reason) that will serves as a tool in the search for truth. His doctrine of the idols of the mind suggests doubting our previous and pre established thoughts and knowledge in order to receive enlightenment. But Bacon falls short by just identifying only four idols to be doubted. Rene Descartes picks up his deficiency by proposing the methodic radical doubt (doubt everything including the self). Auspiciously, Descartes’ methodical doubt had championed the Cogito as the bedrock of certitude. Because of this, the ordering center shifts from the church to the Self(subject). This marks the end of the medieval and the rise of modernity which is guided by the triumph of the Self and the liberation of reason.

Enlightenment propelled dramatic changes in the society and world view. Enlightenment thoughts had greatly contributed to revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics. French revolution is the culmination of the enlightenment thoughts. Monarchy was replaced by social order informed by the ideals of enlightenment such as the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Scientific endeavors begun progressively and the results were overwhelming. However, the thought of enlightenment came in only towards its end. It was Kant who had made the initial reflection of this enlightenment period and movement. For Kant, enlightenment is simply the period wherein the human intellectual power-Reason was reawakened. He summed up the enlightenment period in the following terms: Dare to know!

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