Enlightened History

By Andy Mancha

Often described as the long 18th century, the philosophical movement known as The Enlightenment spanned roughly 1685-1815 and has held a crucial place in the narratives of history and the methods of historiography.

The social and political situations of the past led to the need for new ways of thinking with various innovative and revolutionary methods that broke from the historical traditions of past centuries. Historians of the Enlightenment have made significant contributions to historiography and some of those methods are still used or reflected today, including empiricism (knowledge derived from sensory experience) and secular frameworks (separation of church). Enlightened rationality established and developed a new, increasingly scientific academic writing of history. The period generally serves as a sign of “modernity”, in that it is marked by developments such as questioning or the rejection of tradition, an emphasis upon equality and individualism, and social, scientific, and technological progress and professionalization. Those frameworks influence has continued to play a role in historical methodology, as well as many other disciplines, as can be exhibited through various ideologies and concepts since the 1800s. To fully understand the nature of Historiography today, one must understand preceding notions of methods and ideals, including the origins of and lasting effects of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is considered a product of Europe that spread and became embedded in political, social, philosophical, and scientific traditions. Many associate the period to be one of hegemonic origins, or controlled by a ruling or dominant entity (Europe), from early modernity to the thoughts of Karl Marx. Standard interpretations have viewed the Enlightenment as a perpetuation of Eurocentricity, but its emphasis and value placed on human agency can be an arguement to that conjecture. The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were catalysts that pushed the philosophical and scientific emphasis on intellectual thought. This lead to a period of political, scientific, historical, and philosophical thinking that undermined the traditional, dominant authority of the monarchy and the Church and paved the way for political and social revolutions, a general “freedom of thought,” rational inquiry, critical thinking, and relative religious tolerance. Sociologist and philosopher, Max Weber described the Enlightenment as “mankind’s exit from self-incurred immaturity.” (Conrad, pg. 4) This exit from immaturity resulted in individualistic perspectives, human rights, rationalization, and the “disenchantment of the world”(Conrad, pg. 5). The Enlightenment influenced the entire Western world in various ways.

In France, the movement helped create new conceptions about history and applied new methodological approaches. The Enlightenment writer Voltaire shifted historical focus from diplomatic military events to social history and emphasized achievements in the arts and sciences (Popkin, 225). Voltaire, as well as many others, focused less on large-scale events and more on culture and small groups. During the Renaissance, history was considered an artistic expression, rather than empirical science, as it was during the Enlightenment and after (Leffler, 4). History was previously a branch of moral philosophy and as such many intellectuals viewed good history as focusing on unchanging perceptions or virtue and vice. History was both a function and tool to record the “great” deeds of the past, but their vision was limited to political and military events and chronological organization (Leffler, 5). Previous historians sought to amuse and instruct the audience and to break the tedious chronology with speeches and flamboyant orations (Leffler, 5). That same historical writing was religiously centered, but Enlightened thinkers were more “secular” in orientation than medieval forbearers, who introduced events by reference to omens (Leffler, 6). Often, uncontrollable forces, such as Gods and nature, shaped mans destiny. The Enlightenment can be used both to designate a particular historical period, and refers to a process or pursuit of modernity (Schmidt, 3). The period was chiefly concerned with human society and the physical and moral well-being of individuals (Schmidt, 6). This required the exclusion of other traditional lines of thought.

Enlightened thinkers in Britain, France, and throughout Europe, embraced the notion that humanity could be improved via rational change through a production of books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars, and revolutions. The American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by the Enlightenment and led to similar ideals, marking the peak of the Enlightenment’s influence, as well as, defining the beginning of its decline (Sonenscher, 12). In regards to human progression and intellect, education and history are ongoing processes that never cease to hold significance, because human being place a major emphasis on knowing about and attempting to understand the world around them. Historians have used the Enlightenment as an opportunity to study the transmission of ideas; perpetuating interest in historiography itself. This accummlation of ideas encompasses and includes analysis on how ideas were transmitted (Burnson, 10). The increasingly literate public and the widespread availability of printed material assisted in the spread of ideas. This was due to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1460 which eventually led to a major change in the way texts were circulated and expanded access of historical material to the masses (Popkin, 55). The accessibility and movement of ideas shaped society from this point forward.

Various historical events and evolved notions of human agency and individualism impacted the Age of Enlightenment, which in turn changed historiographical concepts and is still relevant today. Renaissance humanism was the system of thought attached importance the of knowledge to humans, rather than divine or supernatural matters, and became the dominant framework for writing and interpreting historical information during the Early Modern Era (Popkin, 49-50). The Protestant Reformation divided Europeans in a social and educational context (Popkin, 52-53). The critical methods of historical writing and the rejection of authority for the bible during this time, foreshadowed the major intellectual movement of the 18th century (Popkin, 60). The Enlightenment also created a “quarrel of the ancient and the moderns,” in that previous historians thought that antiquity was the pinnacle of human achievement, but Enlightened thinkers felt new and progressive history could produce history that was equally as masterful (Popkin, 60).

Also known as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment developed a unique theory of practice. The practice relied on the inductive method and generally practitioners believed that technological advancement and the advancement of civilization ran parallel to each other. Enlightened historians also redefined the concept of linear time. Sociology formulated models or types and general patterns of social events, whereas history aims at the causal analysis and causal attribution of individual actions, structures, and personalities that have cultural significance. This is a reflection within the Marxist notion of teleological construction of linear narrative about the past leading up to a pre-defined end point or goal(Green and Troup, pg. 37). From the Enlightenment, Marxist theory developed from and evoked more insight into social history, rather than strictly the history of the elite, such as royalty, military leaders, or the clergy. The application of the scientific method to history was crucial during this period. Voltaire believed history was a means to study the mistakes of the past to advance progress and that it was a battle between truth and error(Conrad, pg. 12). History became a guide for human beings to understand, react, and alter paths.

The concepts and frameworks of the Enlightenment led to many other evolved and revolutionary methods and techniques within the historical profession. Scientific empiricism, a concept coined by Francis Bacon, was a method that radically broke from traditional historiographical methods. Leopold von Ranke furthered this concept. He did not focus on the interactivity of society but instead, combined pre-existing historical methods with four main principles of scientific historiography such as objectivity of historical truth, the priority of facts over concepts, the uniqueness of all historical periods, and the centrality of politics within history(Gil, 384-385). Ranke also valued the scientific approach and new methods of historical research, such as firmly establishing the importance of use of original documents and the objective reporting of the information provided (Popkin, pg. 77). The Humanist movement of the 19th century emphasized the value of human agency, individually and collectively, as well as, rationalism and empiricism over superstition or dogma. These non-religious movements aligned with secularism. The concept of human agency continued to develop in the next two centuries, focused on the basis aspects of human existence and foundation for ethics and society is autonomy and moral equality(Coleman, pg. 4). Stemming from the concepts of human agency and empiricism, innovation within the Annales School, sought to obtain a histoire totale, which consisted of many fields of study and overarching connections(Green and Troup, pg. 40). Conceptual and institutional founders Lucien Febvre incorporated a breakdown of human sciences within history and rejected emphasis of history merely upon diplomatic and political topics(Green and Troup, pg 87-109). The concept of progress and the expanded definition of linear time followed in the wake of the scientific method as reflection of the Enlightenment values, rather than a true attempt to attain historical awareness. Failure of these theories is overshadowed by the success of empiricism, which is responsible for rebuking this mindset and laying the foundation for future “advancement” in Historiography. The Enlightenment was more than a movement or designated moment in time, such as a century or an epoch, but a continued emergence and solidification of modern values and a social history of ideas.

The Enlightenment solidified the importance of knowledge within the public sphere, with the development of a new set of institutions such as the coffee house, the salon, Masonic Lodge, and a greater learned society (Taylor, 10). Topics of reason, democracy, racial equality, feminism, religious toleration, sexual emancipation, and freedom of expression were shared in these places of educational discourse(Taylor, pg. 15). Intellectual coherence of the Enlightenment may be found in the commitment to understanding and advancing the causes and conditions of human betterment in this world. The contribution to the modern world and historiography may be judged on the intellectual importance of the societies it observed, on the clarity of its recommendations for the improvement of the human conditions as it found it.

Although Enlightenment ideals still run throughout the veins of historiography, many view some of its core concepts as a failure. Many Enlightened ideas contrast the postmodern movement and our general way of thinking today. Zygmunt Bauman describes postmodernity as ‘modernity coming to terms with its own impossibility,’ in which he implies the acceptance of some sort of failure of the project of modernity or the failure of the Enlightenment project. (Southgate, 1859) The main contrasting belief is that unlike the Enlightenment, postmodernists claim that historical methods cannot obtain certain truth. Secularizing tendencies have removed any pretense of providential ordering, or the development in a particular direction (Southgate, 1879). The modern historians and scholars of today have arguably lost faith in human beings’ ability to make much progress in any direction at all. In our postmodern environment, specifically in academia, there is a loss of order, standards, centers, and foundations, which contrasts Enlightened and modernist thinking and generally reflects an unattainable goal of truth or solidified conclusions. The Enlightenment questioned and altered many traditional methods and concepts within history and historiography and has led to more challenges, transforming existing social institutions, practices, and prevailing forms of identity.

The Age of Enlightenment shifted central topics within history as well as the methods in which to discuss those topics. Although, postmodernism and contemporary historical methods were vastly different from this period, the idea that history should not center solely the members of the elite remains fervent and active. Also, empiricism and objectivity remain a contested, yet staple aspect of historiography.


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Schmidt, James. 2014. “Enlightenment as Concept and Context.” Journal of the History of Ideas, no. 4: 677.

Green, Anna, and Kathleen Troup. 1999. The Houses of History : A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. New York : New York University Press, 1999.

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