Enlightenment in Western secular tradition

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Enlightenment broadly means wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perception. However, the English word covers two concepts which can be quite distinct: religious and spiritual enlightenment (German: Erleuchtung) and secular or intellectual enlightenment (German: Aufklärung).

In religious use, enlightenment is most closely associated with South and East Asian religious experience, being used to translate words such as (in Buddhism) bodhi or satori, or (in Hinduism) moksha. The concept has parallels in the Abrahamic religions (in the Kabbalah tradition in Judaism, in Christian mysticism, and in the Sufi tradition of Islam).

In secular use, the concept refers mainly to the European intellectual movement known as the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, referring to philosophical developments related to scientific rationality in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Age of Enlightenment[edit]

Main article: Age of Enlightenment

In the Western philosophical tradition, enlightenment is seen as a phase in cultural history marked by philosophical methodologies which employ knowledge and reason, generally accompanied by the rejection of faith in the institutional religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Kant[edit]

In his famous 1784 essay What Is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant described it as follows:

"Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such tutelage is self-imposed if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another."

Kant reasoned that although a man must obey in his civil duties, he must make public his use of reason. His motto for enlightenment is Sapere aude! or "Dare to know."

Adorno and Horkheimer[edit]

In their controversial analysis of the contemporary western society, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944, revised 1947), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer developed a wider, and more pessimistic concept of enlightenment. In their analysis, enlightenment had its dark side: while trying to abolish superstition and myths by 'foundationalist' philosophy, it ignored its own 'mythical' basis. Its strivings towards totality and certainty led to an increasing instrumentalization of reason.

"The concordance between the mind of man and the nature of things that [Bacon] had in mind is patriarchal: the human mind, which overcomes superstition, is to hold sway over a disenchanted nature. Knowledge, which is power, knows no obstacles: neither in the enslavement of men nor in compliance with the world’s rulers... Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It does not work by concepts and images, by the fortunate insight, but refers to method, the exploitation of others’ work, and capital... What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men. That is the only aim."

In their view, the enlightenment itself should be enlightened and not posed as a 'myth-free' view of the world.

The understanding of good and evil[edit]

In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had this to say about enlightenment and the understanding of good and evil:

"The man who wants to gain wisdom profits greatly from having thought for a time that man is basically evil and degenerate: this idea is wrong, like its opposite, but for whole periods of time it was predominant and its roots have sunk deep into us and into our world. To understand ourselves we must understand it; but to climb higher, we must then climb over and beyond it. We recognize that there are no sins in the metaphysical sense; but, in the same sense, neither are there any virtues; we recognize that this entire realm of moral ideas is in a continual state of fluctuation, that there are higher and deeper concepts of good and evil, moral and immoral. A man who desires no more from things than to understand them easily makes peace with his soul and will err (or "sin," as the world calls it) at the most out of ignorance, but hardly out of desire. He will no longer want to condemn and root out his desires; but his single goal, governing him completely, to understand as well as he can at all times, will cool him down and soften all the wildness in his disposition. In addition, he has rid himself of a number of tormenting ideas; he no longer feels anything at the words "pains of hell," "sinfulness," "incapacity for the good": for him they are only the evanescent silhouettes of erroneous thoughts about life and the world."

See also[edit]

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