Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831)

It has been said that all philosophy is simply a series of footnotes on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. It can also be said that all modern philosophy is a series of footnotes no the work of Emmanuel Kant. Writing in the early Nineteen Century, G. W. F. Hegel inherited the philosophy of Kant and accepted the (Copernican) notion that the mind constructed the world but then proceeded to modify much that was Kantian in his own philosophical system. In The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel assumed the universe was rational and that through a progress of deduction, human beings would eventually find and agree upon the truth.

The question was the starting point for the process of deducing the truth. Kant had introduced the notion of the Thing-in-Itself, a concept that Hegel found difficult to accept. Like Plato, Kant assumed there were what Plato called “Forms” that were beyond the reach of human consciousness. The forms are unseeable and unknowable and exist only as ideas. Ideas are “beings” that produce the world. All existence is Appearance and all appearance is dependent upon the world. According to Plato, Things of the world are mere “copies” of Universals or Ideas. Copies of the form/idea are made by and/or through Images of Ideas being stamped upon Matter by God(s). Matter, for Plato was formless; matter was emptiness. Matter is “not-being”, something that has not yet arisen from Idea. Matter is primordial and independent. The Thing comes into being only when matter is acted upon.

According to Aristotle, the Form, the Universal of a Thing, is also its End or Purpose. The final cause (end) (thing) is identical with the formal cause (form). A purpose must logically exist prior to the execution of the form. This conclusion leads Aristotle to the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Matter in itself is absolutely formless, the substrate of things. In other words, matter is actually nothing but it is also potentially all things. Matter gains actuality—becomes a “thing”—by acquiring Form. Form is actuality, for Aristotle. With the Greeks, the world process is crucial: there is the end, the form, and the universal. A “thing” is a combination of matter and form. Without form, which must always be Universal, the thing cannot exist. Compared to the universality of form, the object/matter must be particular.

All things strive towards their own ends. Form molds matter and impels it to a higher state of existence. The end must be present at the beginning; otherwise the end could not exert propelling force. There is no new element, in other words, for the new must be present as a potentiality of the old. The ancients considered development to be the process by which that which was latent or hidden came to light. For the ancients, and for Plato and Aristotle, the world was driven by this dualism between idea and actuality, by these contradictions, which drive development. These ancient ideas will be Hegel’s starting point and the source of his famous Dialectical Method, an invention that allowed him to ground truth and reality in the process of deductive Logic.

An idealist, who learned from Kant, Hegel accepted Kant’s Copernican Revolution or Kant’s concept of the self or Self as an enduring entity, that is independent of events and stands alone in a condition of self-awareness. This “awareness” is the awareness of the object. This recognition of the object results in the realization of the difference between the self and the “other”. This moment is the origin of consciousness or being, an awareness of object as “other-than-me”. Things are content, and Hegel distinguished between the object, as it is “in itself,” and the object as it is for an observer. Although the concept of duality originated in ancient philosophy, modern philosophy credits René Descartes with the “Cartesian split.” Since Descartes, Western thought assumed a split between mind and matter.

It was David Hume who questioned Greek idealism, exposing the inherent weakness of the dualism between mind and matter by returning to the question of how do we know reality? Or what is knowledge? Hume explored the most basic concept upon which all knowledge depends: cause and effect, both of which must be both universal and necessary. True, we experience what we name “cause” and then we experience what we call “effect.” But we have done nothing more than placed a convenient label upon the events that transpired. We have not established knowledge. Experience in itself is never universal nor is experience in itself ever necessary. The connection between cause and effect is an assumption and any “knowledge” is therefore illusionary. Hume determined that knowledge could never arise out of experience and thus exposed the metaphysical base of philosophy. Kant immediately understood the implications of Hume’s thought: once the metaphysics of philosophy had been revealed as a “faith based” system, any knowledge of the world was now impossible. We knew nothing but our own beliefs and belief is not knowledge.

In order to correct David Hume and to put philosophy back on track, Kant proposed space and time as conditions that are both universal and necessary. The universal and necessary conditions of Space and Time give us objects. Space and Time are a priori conditions, they preexist thought and make thought possible. Space and Time are perceptions of our own minds and do not exist apart form us and are forms of our own perceptive faculty. Space and time are Forms of sensations and these forms are filled with sense data. The objects perceived by us through space and time are not real objects: they are Appearances. Thought is conceptual and non-sense-based concepts—synthetic a priori judgments—are derived, not from experience, but from constructions made by the mind. These concepts are the result of formal judgments of Logic.

We arrive at these concepts thorough the epistemological operations of the mind, Kant called “categories”, and there were twelve of them. The twelve categories were subjective, and, because they were universal, were necessarily static, and unchanging. However, as Hegel noticed, these categories were not deduced one from another and were therefore arbitrary models made up by Kant in order to show the way the mind worked. If the categories were not Logical, then the Reason-based philosophy of Kant was not on a firm base. And this is the problem Hegel wanted to solve: to build a Logical base for the foundation of the Categories.

Read also “Kant and Reason” and “Friedrich Schiller” and “Hegel and the Dialectical Method” and “Hegel, Art, and the Dialectical Method” and “Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Kant and Reason


The eighteenth century British philosopher, David Hume, suggested that we believe that there is a connection between cause and effect. For example. fire causes flame and results in an effect of smoke. Were it not for this belief system, we would be surprised every time we lit a match, saw fire, and witnessed the fire burn an object. Kant replaced Hume’s charge that cause and effect were mere metaphysical constructs with the idea of the a priori: mental structures possessed by human beings that allowed people to logically order empirical experiences in a rational fashion. We understand that “smoke” means “fire” not because one observes the effect of a lit match upon a dry leaf, but because one carries a preconceived concept of cause and effect in the mind a priori or before the fact. Thus Kant replaced Descartes’s blind faith that God would not delude him with human reason and the powers of rational thinking and removed God from the philosophical equation. In his critique of Western philosophy, Kant realized that much of the writings of his predecessors had rested upon this ultimate appeal to God–metaphysics–placing philosophy in the precarious position of having its efficacy based solely upon a belief in God.

The preconceived concept or preexisting idea is the a priori, or a structure in the mind that organizes the perceptions of experiences into an order that allows us to make sense of the world. The procedure of critique is nothing less than a Copernican Revolution, a call to reason rather than to faith, a demand for self-knowledge rather than for dogma, an ability to deduce according to the laws of logic, rather than upon the grounds of experience alone. As discussed in the preceding post, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) was concerned with epistemology, establishing the grounds of knowledge, and with refuting untenable metaphysics. God does not give us the world that we see and experience. We understand and organize the world through reason. Knowledge is a cooperative affair—the mind organizes sense data actively and imposes reality upon the world, this inversion is Kant’s Copernican Revolution: the mind precedes the data it perceives. We, as humans, blinded by our necessary and a priori cognitive operations, can never hope to “see” “reality” or the “thing-in-itself.” We construct reality with our minds, which are organized at the most basic and abstract level to structure the most basic experiences, our perceptions of time and space.

There are two kinds of judgment: a priori and a posteriori. The a priori judgment is pure and transcendent and self-evident. The judgment is absolutely valid and strictly necessary. This judgment is independent of experience and is expressed in a statement in which the subject is defined by its predicate: ”The rose is a flower,” which is an analytic statement. For Kant, the real problem for philosophy is a posteriori statements that were synthetic, that is, statements in which the predicate is not contained in the subject. Cause and effect would come under the concept of a synthetic statement: there was no necessary connection between cause and effect. Kant had to make an argument for cause and effect being a synthetic a priori judgment, that is a judgment that is absolute and necessary without being self-evident. Kant argued that the mind imposes patterns and that the patterns themselves are necessary for judgment. Because the patterns are necessary, they are also transcendental. This Aesthetic is immediate and non-discursive and sensuous, but it can be ordered and constructed by the mind. For example, the mind has an intuition, immediate and sensuous, an apprehension of space that is sensuous or aesthetic.

This intuition must be, must exist, a priori to account for our knowledge of objects. Thus Space is an a priori representation that underlies all outer intuitions and validates all claims of geometry, which is a science of space. “Space” is the way the mind organizes experience. “Space does not represent any property of things in themselves; it is, therefore, solely from the human standpoint…” and is inner and outer. Time, like space, is another “pure form of intuition” and is the temporal ordering of experience into before and after and simultaneous. But time is only “inner space” and is part of a spatiotemporal ordering of contents: a synthetic ordering due to the active mind’s cognition of physical objects. This is what Kant called transcendental logic, the “putting together” (synthetic) of perceptions. This synthetic operation makes experiences of objects possible.

In a typically Enlightenment fashion, Kant conceptually “built” an architectonic structure that would contain philosophy within a model. Based upon reason, knowledge comes from thinking, which comes from judging. All effective knowledge is the result of experiences of concrete sense data ordered by conceptual thinking. According to Kant, “…thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind…” Kant was the first philosopher to distinguish between precepts and concepts, after the Cartesian duality of mind and body had proved to be untenable. Kant then set out to establish categories of judgments, based upon Aristotelian logic. Each form of judgment is an a priori conceptual category and the categories correspond to types of judgments. Kant calls his arrangements the metaphysical deduction of the categories: each judgment presupposes one or another twelve synthetical (putting things together) categories or operations (such as cause and effect). There are three sets of four, the headings of quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Relation as a concept, for example, makes it possible for us to understand that every effect experienced has a cause, that cause and effect are “related.” As discussed in a previous post, cause and effect or relation exist a priori.

Andrew Stephenson’s Diagram of the Critique of Pure Reason

The categories are transcendental because they are rules. These “rules” are not empirically observable but are necessary, because they make synthesis possible. In other words, successive messages of data must be organized or held together into an experience or a unity of consciousness, which is the unity of self. Experience is a combination of the self that experiences objects as a result of a priori acts of synthesis. The human experience of objects consists of unified representations, producing objects of representation. All knowledge demands a concept and the form of the concept must be universal and must serve as a rule. Self and object are reciprocal. Kant asked, “What conditions make experiences possible?” and stated that experience is a combination of a priori concepts and empirical concepts. The necessary conditions for “experience” is the object—sense experiences, put together into unity—and self—a collection of desires, memories, expectations, feelings, attitudes that unifies the data. The self is also an object. The putting together is a transcendental synthesis: objects-for-a-self. The object is a synthesis of data of outer sense/space and the self is the synthesis of inner sense/space. But how do we apprehend and organize? The key is the human imagination. The imagination is the active component for judgment–we perceive and then we organize and then we conclude and act, based upon the powers of the imaginative faculties. The imagination gathers the diversity of information and presents it or displays it so that it matches a concept. The concept is that which has been abstracted or has become abstract like a category. The concept is made possible by a corresponding a priori intuition and we can now reach an a priori synthetic judgment by combining a concept, the abstract with an intuition or the particulars from which the concept was abstracted.

Thus, for Kant, empiricism is rehabilitated, cause and effect becomes a rule, and the function of concepts is to order the manifold of sense into meaningful and stable patterns. The organization principle must be time: the effect follows the cause in time. The key to knowledge is order and rule that makes experience possible. Order, in other words, must be presupposed (a priori) to make experience possible. The world as experienced reflects patterns or categories. Two important categories are substance and causality for human experience would not be human experience without an order that is indifferent. We never experience these substances or the necessary connections; we experience only succession (synthesis). Kant attributed our understanding of objects to a priori concepts through which our minds order experience with a notion of permanence and regular sequence. His conclusions are an advance on the fallback position of Descartes that is that God “implanted” helpful innate ideas that give us reality.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Kant and the Critique of Philosophy


Kant’s Copernican Revolution

This concept of critique was central to Enlightenment philosophy, coming from the Greek word “krinein”, meaning to “separate” or to “discern”, which is the origin of the word “crisis.” Whereas the Greeks took the concept of critique and applied it to texts, Emmanuel Kant (1724-1824) used “critique” to re-conceptualize Western philosophy at a time of crisis. The Enlightenment had been caught between the demystification or disenchantment of a once sacred world and the secularizing of a thoroughly modern and material world, based upon scientific analysis. For the Enlightenment philosophers, “critique” and “reason” were indivisible, and Kant began a search for the conditions, which governed reasoned criticism. A form of analysis and deduction, critique, a concept central to Kantian thought, is an internal analysis of a concept in its own terms. A critique, by definition, cannot be conducted from the outside, looking in; an exercise, which would be more precisely called “criticism.” A proper critique, in contrast, must always examine given concepts from the interior and not impose ideas, alien to the argument, from the outside. The examination or interrogation of an idea–a critique–is rational and based upon the process of logical deduction. The result is the creation of an architectonic structure, an argument that is “built” systematically. Contemporary audiences are probably more familiar with the use of “critique” by the American art critic, Clement Greenberg who “interrogated” or critiqued painting, seeking its intrinsic qualities. Through a logical analysis of what was “irreducible” to painting, that which was absolutely necessary to painting, Greenberg deduced that for painting to be pure it must be purged of alien or outside elements. Painting, stripped of extrinsic elements, could be revealed in its basic structure, or definition, as a flat surface covered with pigment arranged in a design. As the nineteenth century progressed, the question shifted from how to use critique to question the nature of art to a new investigation into which art is worthy of critique. A critique of philosophy is nothing less than a search for the fundamentals of how humans create knowledge.

Immanuel Kant

Living a quiet and retiring life of a college professor in Königsberg, Kant was, by his own account, awakened from his academic “slumber” by a challenge to Reason from an unexpected quarter. An English philosopher, the ultimate empiricist, David Hume, who in his Treatise of Human Reason and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1738) pointed out that reason, like religion, is only another instrument for establishing relations among ideas, based upon experience. Reason, as an independent mental entity, therefore, can tell us nothing about the world. To prove his point, Hume began with an account of the behavior or billiard balls. In privileging particular events consisting of the operations of cause and effect–a billiard game–Hume observed that, given the myriad outcomes, “Why then should we give the preference to one, which is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us any foundation for this preference. In a word, then, even effect is a distinct event from its cause.” There is no evidence that the “order” of reason is necessary and this order and “pattern” actually has no rationale in nature, which is only an object upon which we have imposed our needs. “Cause and effect” were a belief system that we lived by but could not prove. If reason is only a concept and not an intrinsic quality of human thinking, if cause and effect are unexamined assumptions then we are back to metaphysics. As Hume wrote, not foreseeing that he would challenge Kant: “Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is relational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe.”

As Roy Strong in The Creation of the Modern World. The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (2000) expressed it,

The concept of causation was doubtless the basis of all knowledge, but causality was not itself a demonstrable fact. Experience showed the succession of events, but did not reveal any necessity in that succession—it was habit, which created the expectation that one event would invariably follow another. Custom was not knowledge, however, and did not strictly justify projections from the past to the future, from the known to the unknown. Causality was thus not a principle definitively derived from the order of things but a mental postulate.

Hume’s arguments were immediately recognized by Kant as a destructive attack on reason. When Hume attacked the concept of cause and effect by pointing out that “cause and effect” were only a concept, not a reality, the Enlightenment was effectively over. Rational thinking alone could not make it so. As a believer in the powers of reason, Kant realized that he had to restore reason to its rightful place. To refute Hume, he had to create a system for reason that was universal, useful for experience, but not, as with Hume, bound by and to experience. Kant shifted the grounds of the argument away from the empirical to cognition, the actual judgmental structures of the human mind–that which makes reason possible. What were the epistemological grounds for reason? First, reason cannot be part of idealism–an unprovable belief system. We can use reason–logic–to reach irrational and unreasonable conclusions, but Kant proposed limits to reason. We should limit ourself to that which we can know and simply eliminate that which we cannot know. For example, we can use our imagination to create a God out of our ability to reason, but this is an illegitimate mode of thinking. Reason should be deployed within the limits of the empirical real world and is the mainspring of scientific thought. Hume’s emphasis of the actions of the billiard balls as a series of multiple instances of cause and effect–I strike the ball with a cue stick and it rolls–is limited to a particular instance. For Kant, reason had to be universal, in other words, reason must always function and the cause of this universality or transcendence could not be unprovable “idealism.” In order to explain his “critique” of reason, Kant turned to science. Interestingly, he did not discuss Galileo, who scientific conclusions were based on observations or experiences. Galileo’s findings were rejected by the Church, not because he did not see what he saw through his telescope but because his discoveries contradicted Church doctrines. Kant, however, was interested in a scientific analysis of what could not be seen but in what had to be deduced.


West German Stamp commemorating the 250 Anniversary of Kant’s date of birth

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1789), Kant discussed what he called “The Copernican Revolution” in which critique was shifted from an external focus on dogmas to a focus on the inner workings of understanding. The scientist, Nicolas Copernicus, questioned the assumption, which was the received wisdom, that the sun revolved around the earth. One could see this “truth” with one’s own eyes: the sun rises in the morning and then journeys around the earth, bringing the afternoon and then the evening, and finally night. There was no discernable reason to disbelieve what seemed plain to all who saw the sun rise and set and rise again in relation to the earth. The very reasonable conclusion, reached by the actions of reason itself, was based on empirical experience. In 1530, in De Revolutionibus, Copernicus revolutionized scientific (and philosophical) thinking by putting forward the revolutionary hypothesis that the earth revolved around the sun. This extraordinary theory, inverting general knowledge, was based upon pure abstract reasoning or deductive thinking, based upon a hypothesis that was tested and provided proof of accuracy. The mathematics of planetary movements made sense only if one threw out the belief that the sun revolved around the earth and substituted another theory that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. Seeing may be believing, but any belief has to be tested and proven. Scientific reasoning is based upon theory: one formulates a hypothesis that functions as a theory that is never proved and is always provisional. Any theory will stand until it is disproved.

As for Copernicus, his new theory was far too dangerous to publicize—he would be under instant interdiction from religious authorities, and he was the kind of person who sought perfection and could never release his theory. Although in the time of Kant, two centuries later, De Revolutionibus was still on the list of books forbidden by the Catholic Church, the ideas of Copernicus were not only accepted but were “proved.” The “revolution” in thinking about the sun and the earth was the disregard of Copernicus of empirical evidence, which suggested that the sun revolved around the earth, and his faith in a hypothesis was based upon reasoned considerations. Like Copernicus, Kant proposed that raw observation of raw experience was insufficient as an explanation of the world and argued that the human mind was capable of ordering perception through a priori conceptions. The rejection of the notion of the passive receptive mind was Kant’s version of the Copernican Revolution: the mind ordered the world, not vice versa. In other words, it was the mind that understood the principle of cause and effect, a priori, and without this cognitive ability, experience in and of itself would never come to the conclusion that each effect had a cause. For example, if one puts a flaming match to a piece of paper, the cause, the paper will burst in to flame, the effect. It is understood that cause and effect is at work, and the judgment could not take place without the a priori in place. Without the cognitive ability to conceive of cause and effect, each time a flaming match touched paper, you would be surprised and shocked, unable to comprehend the relationship between the lit match and the burning paper. Empirical experience, in other words, would never be enough to order experience into what we call knowledge. This discussion continues in the next post.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Political Revolution in America


Social and Political Change

Supported by the revolution in industrialized production, which enriched a new class of entrepreneurs, several important political revolutions cemented the middle class into power. Made by “new men,” new money created new forms of power for the newly educated and newly educated professionals and businessmen who began to chafe under the old-fashioned notion of “the divine right of kings.” Looking back, it is clear that the aristocratic class—an anachronistic class that produced nothing—was doomed to extinction in a new age in which production had become a new value. In some nations, the dinosaur elite faded gently into the good night, but, in other countries, a revolution was necessary to dislodge the ancien régime. The economic revolution of the rise of industrial manufacturing gave impetus to a social revolution which would inevitably be followed by political revolutions, first in America and then in France, and finally in England. While the idea of political revolution differed from nation to nation, the idea of social freedom and political change spread from America to the Old World, the European continent. The purging of the ruling classes continued for over one hundred years, culminating, perhaps, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. All of these revolutions were products of the promise of the Enlightenment.

It is worth noting, however, that these so-called “revolutions” did not include women, people of color, or the poor. Only white men with a certain amount of property and income were eligible for the enormous cultural changes that marked the beginning of the nineteenth century. One of the more profound questions of history is how to judge the founders of America who excluded women and “counted” slaves, for political purposes, as three-fifths of a human being. On one hand these Forefathers were men of their own time, on the other hand they were supposedly “enlightened,” but they failed the nation and refused to face up the meaning and promise of the word “equality.” Allowing women full citizenship could be easily avoided but for the founders of America, slavery was an unsolvable problem. Many of the signers of the Constitution were slave owners who assumed (incorrectly) in an astonishing display of dissembling, that slavery would wither away on its own. That said, those pioneering revolutionaries in Philadelphia set up an “experiment” in democracy, an experiment that is still being tested. As audacious as it was, the first of these political revolutions–power to the people–was in America and had a limited effect at first, perhaps because America was such a great distance from Europe. At first, the American Revolution was an improbable escape from the clutches of the British Empire in its early days of understanding how to manage far away colonial possessions. Later, the revolution of middle class people throwing off the yoke of inherited power was seen as a beacon for other rebellious peoples seeking to determine their own independent fates. The French Revolution of 1789, which was inspired by the War of Independence in America, was far more impactful upon European politics and society. Inspired, by the actuality of the French events–a climate shift that produced bad harvests and starvation for the lower classes and by ideas of natural rights and equality, the French Revolution upended the divine right of kings in a continent full of kings, queens and emperors.

In 1776, the American colonies presented a “Declaration of Independence” from the Mother Country, England, and followed the demand for more autonomy with a successful Revolutionary War. With financial and military help from England’s greatest rival, France, the American Colonies freed themselves from the hereditary monarchy and established an experiment in self-governance called “democracy.” Inspired byEnlightenment ideas of “natural rights” and “the social contract,” the American politicians, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Hamilton, were well born, well educated, and well bred. However, even wealthy planters such as George Washington, were not European aristocrats and were inherently subservient to their English rulers. As “colonists,” they, like all Americans, were subjects of a King and, as such, could never be the nobility. Because the colonists could be only two classes, middle or lower, regardless of social prominence or income, a certain rough social equality (with the exception of slaves) was established among them. Like the philosophers of England and France, American leaders were socially ambitious middle class (white) men who were sensitive to the winds of change. Influenced by the British Philosopher, John Locke, and the French philosophers, (François-Marie Arouet) Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Americans began to question their subservient roles and to challenge the British right to rule them. Britain was the strongest maritime power in the world, well on its way to becoming a huge colonial empire, but England was far away, the lines of command were impossibly long, and the Americans had become accustomed to taking care of themselves and running their own affairs. The resulting revolution was predictable and inevitable, even if the end, America victorious, was remarkable.

In comparison to the later horrors of the French Revolution, the American Revolution was a civilized affair. Based upon philosophical ideals that, by the end of the eighteenth century, were widely accepted, the Americans fought for their “natural right” to freely determine their own “social contract.” The role of the state was to ensure the happiness of the inhabitants, and, according to Rousseau, had a rather limited role as protector of the people’s rights. The concept of “natural rights,” put forward since the seventeenth century, clashed with the imperial and mercantile desires of the British Empire and this clash between the inalienable and economic imperatives was a bellwether of things to come. Writing in 1776, while Thomas Jefferson was penning the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and saw capitalism as a juggernaut that cared much for economic imperatives and little for “natural law.” Writing words that could be written today, Smith remarked,

Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

The British, naturally, felt that the American colonies must play their proscribed role as captive consumers in the mechanism of imperialism. The Americans had other ideas: freedom, independence and the pursuit of happiness through self-governance. The conflict was between philosopphy–Rousseau and the inevitable economic imperatives—Smith. Inspired less by the noble ideas put forward by the beleaguered colonists and more by the opportunity to avenge their failure in the Seven Year’s War, the French lept to the defense of their American ally. Baffled by the unreasonable demands of their restive subjects, the British found themselves in a new kind of war, an unequal war, that any occupying power must confront: insurgency and guerilla (“little war”), complicated by long supply lines across the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the colonial adoptions of Native American style fighting, the Revolutionary War itself was fought according to the traditional rules of warfare and the British were outflanked and outsmarted by the combination of a stubborn native army and its determined French partner. The defeated British withdrew to establish their Empire elsewhere but invaded once more in 1812, attacking America, now an ally of Napoléon, but the young nation held firm against the former masters, even when the new home of the President, the White House burned.

To the astonishment of Europeans, many of whom shuddered at the though of “democracy,”seen as mob rule, the upstart American colonies had not only won their freedom but had also written a very serviceable Constitution by 1789. To the amazement of Europeans who dreamed of equality but seemed unable to achieve it, the “American Experiment” worked. Because the American Revolution was so unique, it was difficult to appreciate how extraordinary the victory of the Thirteen Colonies was. The Thirteen Colonies were fortunate in their leaders and their philosophy. Despite their major faults and moral and ethical failures, their inability to transcend their own narrow interests, the leader so the American Revolution were intellectuals who wrote a thoughtful set of rules based in universal values for the new and fragile nation. The men who composed the Declaration of Independence (re-writing Thomas Jefferson’s original draft) and the Constitution wanted to create an entirely new Social Contract, based upon principles of equality, democracy, and a balance of powers within the government.


John Trumbull. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (1811)

In contrast to the democratic system devised by the Americans to distribute power as evenly as possible among the inhabitants, most revolutions are fought to replace one power source with another, for a revolution is essentially a “revolving” of power, not a change in the way in which power is distributed. Americans accepted self-governance with equanimity. Although about one third of the population did not care who ruled America and one third were loyal to the English, there was no civil war and no social disorder, only a need to establish a firm legal foundation for the new nation, where all factions, different and indifferent, came together as “Americans.” Using the rational thinking of the Enlightenment, wise and articulate men like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin guided the nation to the concept of a government by consensus and based that agreement upon enduring documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to the Bill of Rights. Only when the American Revolution is contrasted to other upheavals in power can one appreciate the value of a George Washington, who refused to be King and agreed to be President reluctantly and only temporarily. Power was to be handed off after an election of a legitimately elected successor, a custom that has been followed faithfully to this day.

Rarely in history does a group of good people come together with good intentions and create a good thing. A far-flung colony somehow managed to produce a large number of astute political thinkers guided by Enlightenment philosophy, Christian religion, and something the expatriate Englishman and revolutionary upstart, Thomas Paine, called “Common Sense.” As Paine wrote in December 23, 1776 for his series The American Crisis,

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

The American democracy was far from perfect and was, indeed, incomplete. The rights of democracy—government by the people and for the people—were extended in a limited fashion. The contradictions of eighteenth century America are obvious today, but the conflict between demanding democracy for the few while limiting democracy for the many were not unknown to the Founders. The rights of women and slaves were debated in Europe and America, and yet, despite the existence of the discourse on human rights, the writers of the Constitution decided, deliberately, to leave women out and to postpone the problem of slavery for the next generation to solve. The result was a delayed democracy for women and people of color. But even this limited democracy was a source of wonder for all outsiders who observed the United States with amazement. A social revolution had become a political revolution.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The Enlightenment and the Art Public


The Birth of Modern Patronage

Spanning the seventeenth and eighteenth Centuries, the Enlightenment produced greater philosophical thinking than it did great works in the fine arts. In other words, new ideas and “progress” did not prevail in an art world dominated by aristocratic patronage and clientele. That said, the Enlightenment was crucial for a new way of thinking about art and art making. For Europe and the fledgling nation of America, “art” was a practice established in France. All other nations follow suit and followed French styles. In the beginning of this period of change and development of new kinds of individuals, newly free and newly equal, the production of visual art was under the protection and sponsorship of the State, under the censorious auspices of the Royal Academy, established in 1648 by the French King Louis XIV. This Academy of arts and letters was a model of central control followed by other major nations, all of which were aware of the need to monopolize the arts and to harness them to the needs of the government. Because the people of France paid for the education of artists, the French government, the major sponsor of art, held Salons, or public exhibitions of state-sponsored art from the eighteenth century. Set up outside on the grounds of the Palais Royale the new home of the Duc d’Orleans, who had an appetite for beauty and pleasure and the visual arts, the Academy showed off the achievements of the leading artists. But after the first show in 1704, this site of balls and fêtes proved unsuitable for large public exhibitions and the later salons were held at the Palace of the Louvre.

Here in the Palace the works of art could be protected from the weather and were displayed to their best advantage, albeit hung from floor to ceiling and packed chock a block on tables crowded in limited floor space. The Salons were held every year or every other year after 1737 on August 25th in the Salon carré of the Louvre. These highly popular events ran ten days to four weeks, attracting the art public and the art critic, both new social entities, which according to Thomas Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris (1987), where feared and hated by the artists. The Salons were Parisian events that were considered public entertainment on one hand and a display of the will of the state on the other, demonstrating, through works of art, lessons that every good subject should be taught. These exhibitions, which preceded the establishment of museums, were forms of disciplining the people and shaped their behavior in public places, establishing modes of “civilized” behavior. What was less anticipated by the government or the artists, much less by the Academy itself, was the enthusiasm with which the public embraced these events. Suddenly otherwise uneducated people developed opinions and some were bold enough to state their reactions to the art in what rapidly became a two-way conversation between the servants of the State and the public.


The concept of a “public” for art was new as was the idea of publicaly exhibiting art, and inevitably, someone from the undifferentiated “public” would emerge with a desire to preserve and publish his or her opinion about art. This opinionated member of the public who dared to speak and write an to publish views about selected works, much to the dismay of the artists, was the “art critic.” By exposing the artists to the public, these annual Salons opened the artists to public scrutiny and public criticism and made the artists vulnerable to this new species, the art critic, who, astonishingly, demanded that the artist be accountable to the public. Artists, previously answerable only to elite groups of collectors and fellow artists, now needed public approval to succeed. The public, then as now, encompassed all levels of social and economic classes and all levels of education and constituted a community of interest, breaking social hierarchies down into the new notion of a “public,” as explored by Crow, who remarked that “the ‘public’ is both everywhere and nowhere in particular.” The creation and existence of this public brought with it new problems for the artist: what to represent in terms of subject matter; how to represent in terms of style; and who should be allowed to represent and who was allowed to speak to and for the public?

Also new was the expanding group of private art collectors who became the chief patrons of modern artists. Patronage was split between the aristocrats, such as Madame de Pompadour, and the newly rich middle class which preferred genre painting, that is, scenes of everyday middle class life, over the more prestigious and aristocratic history painting, depicting noble heroes of the distant past. As Rochelle Ziskin pointed out in Sheltering Art: Collecting and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-century Paris (2012), art collecting became a sign of wealth and taste, a site of political and social rivalries and a means of constructing a public image. During this period of art collecting, several important large collections came on the market, such as the works owned by Queen Christina of Sweden, acquired by the French banker and art connoisseur, Pierre Crozet. Through these expanding collections, contemporary French artists were exposed to a historical spectrum of Western art and had a wide range of artistic possibilities to choose from when considering their mode of expression.

Despite the presence in France of the classical Baroque styles, the Baroque was systematically toned down in its dark dramas and was softened into pastel colors for the civilized and essentially domestic style of “Rococo” for an elegant French audience. Although much of Rococo art was produced for the aristocrats and rulers of Europe, the style was paradoxically involved with the concept of the “natural,” a reaction against the formality of aristocratic society and its artificial and unnatural mores and manners. Designed for the interior decoration of the new Parisian hôtels, the pale colors and gentle brushwork of the Rococo artists and the romantic themes made the paintings ideal for the domestic interiors of those who could afford them. But during the same period, the public taste for middle class scenes made genre artists, such as Jean-Baptiste-Simone Chardin (1669-1779) and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1806), famous for their depictions of everyday life within the newly aspirational middle class in France. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, a privilege visitor could peruse private art collections and enter the nascent art shops, selling supplies and pictures, and see, with perfect foresight a painted battleground of class and class aspirations.

Fragonard. The Progress of Love (1771–72)

Now in the Frick Collection, the panels of “Love’s Progress” or “The Progress of Love” executed by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) on behalf of Madame du Barry for her chateau at Louveciennes delightfully demonstrated the non-productive pastimes of the privileged. The privilege of leisure time allowed the upper classes to pursue their erotic desires in elaborate ways. It goes without saying that, for the lower classes, such spare time did not exist, linking the idea of romantic love to the upper classes, and thus attaching love to wealth. Sadly, Madame du Berry chose another artist, Joseph-Marie Vien, to do the same theme in the new Neo-Classical style, and the “Progress” was never installed. Thus we do not know its order but the four paintings are lined up as The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and The Love Letters.

Greuze. Broken Eggs (1756)

The middle class, growing in numbers and in social prominence, did not stress love and courtship, and indeed, there were didactic scenes aimed towards sober industrious people preaching the perils of indiscriminate delights. One of the most theatrical of lecturers was Jean-Baptiste Greuze whose small paintings of domestic tableaux demonstrated the dangers of bad behavior. Less theatrical and more absorbed, to borrow the lagrange of Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1976) the small quiet interior studies of bourgeoisie life by Chardin were beloved by the Salon crowd and acquired by sophisticated collectors. Eschewing Greuze’s heavy handed didacticism, Chardin scarcely intended to convey a morality tale but the contrast between The Prayer Before the Meal (1740) and Fragonard’s provocative The Swing (1767) could hardly have been clearer. The two paintings, one public and one private, foretold the class conflicts to come and the revolution that would unfold in the next decades. One class was frivolous and irresponsible, the other class was moral and rational. Who deserved to be in power?

Fragonard. The Swing (1767) Chardin. Prayer Before the Meal (1740)

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The Enlightenment and Society


The Moral Order, Part Three

The question faced by the Enlightenment was how to create new world without God? What would be the basis of this new life? Spirituality was replaced with technology; religious laws were replaced by rational virtues, ethics, and morality.“Bon sens”, extolled by René Descartes, could be determined by logical deduction, based upon observation of human psychology and conduct. The Enlightenment sought empirical and pragmatic foundations for society for the material era. The expectation was that peace and harmony would come into being through the minimum use of laws, instead of the heavy-handed tyranny of kings. In the past, the law was the will of the sovereign, in an Age of Reason, law was based upon the will of the people who voluntarily came together under the light hand of the state. The Enlightenment was characterized by this strong sense of humanity and by a belief that all humans are basically good and are deserving of basic rights and freedoms. Humans could come together and rule themselves according to rational principles that all can come to know and live by.

These challenges to the authority of religion and of kings and of a sort of “natural” social contract as a new form of governance were directly related to the rise of nationhood. As early as 1534, Henry VII broke the power of the Catholic Church in England by the Act of Supremacy and made himself the head of the Church of England. Without refuting religion, the King asserted the primacy of a nation to order its own affairs, even to found a new religion under the auspices of the State, not a universal (catholic) religion. The rising tide of the Protestant Reformation allowed European princes to likewise breakaway from the interference of the Vatican and to assert themselves as independent principalities, shaking off the power of a single religion. From the time that MartinLuther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517 to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the novel idea that the individual human could act independently in his or her own spiritual matters spread quickly. The established Church has discredited itself and was weakened by its own malpractices and internal weaknesses and indulgences. The Protestant idea that each person has a direct line to God and therefore could worship as s/he pleased led to not only a split between the Catholics and the Protestants but also among the Protestants themselves.

The result was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which ended in 1648. In no small part the long period of warfare about religious doctrines was a worldly power struggle for nationhood. When the exhausted combatants finally laid down their arms and agreed to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Newly independent nations were established, Austria and the Netherlands, and the power of the Roman Catholic Church was broken, no longer universal. After three decades of conflict, it was clear that religious ideology could never be allowed to disrupt the order of society and the power of religion as a dominant force was at an end. It is perhaps no coincidence that René Descartes who died in 1650 decided that the only point of certainty was the self: “I think, therefore I am.” But Descartes was concerned as to the ground of his thinking—how did he know he wasn’t hallucinating or deluded? For a sure and certain answer, he reverted to his faith in God, that God would be the guarantor of the validity of his thinking. In his appeal to God, Decartes would be the last of his kind. Indeed, one hundred years later, Diderot would assert that “…the philosopher teaches the priest what the gods are.”

The philosophers substituted “natural religion,” called Deism, a kind of watered-down theism and reconstructed religion in line with modern science standing in for the mysticism of traditional “superstition.” The abolition of God was also the abolition of social and political hierarchies, and the social theory of the Enlightenment stressed the discussion of social problems from the standpoint of the individual–the “true person,” not from the perspective of the state, which was only an artificial machine. The philosophes were the intellectual (and spiritual) leaders of Europe. Natural Law was at the center of Enlightenment thinking and would be the instrument that severed morality from religion and would establish new bases for morality and ethics. If God was to be found anywhere, it was in “natural law.” Philosophers thought deductively about the origins of human society. In Two Treatises on Government, 1680-90, John Locke projected his mind back in time and imagined a race of humans who were free and equal, their “natural” state” or State of Nature.” The question that bothered Locke was why people had given up their freedom to come together into society, which so clearly curtailed their natural freedoms. He reasoned that the state was the entity that gave surety to these rights and used the words “social compact” or agreement that people made with their government to come together under “natural law.” What made Locke so attractive to the budding American revolutionaries was his stress on the individual making a free decision to live within a state that, in turn, had the obligation to protect “natural rights.”

In his book, The Social Contract, 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau also went back to nature and considered the question of why humans would give up their natural freedoms enjoyed in their natural state. His philosophical deductions led him to also consider the consequences of their decision to create a “Social Contract.” Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, 1754, asserted that the original human equality had ended due to the creation of private property. The first person, who asserted “this is mine” ended the natural paradise of equality, according to Rousseau, who established the idea that private property was to the root of the Fall of Humanity. The origin of the Fall would be reiterated by Friedrich Engels in 1884, and, indeed, Rousseau made a suggestion that the problem of inequality of wealth could be remedied by the redistribution of wealth. Once again, a logical outcome of an inquiry led to an uncomfortable conclusion and even today the idea of “redistribution” is controversial in some quarters.

But beyond equalizing wealth, there is a general will of the people, which ultimately overrules private interests. In other words, presumably, in some future time, the will of the people will demand equality. On one hand, we can see that this sequence of event has played itself out in the West through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, suggesting, on the other hand, that “redistribution” moves in unexpected ways. Those formally oppressed or locked out of a system push their way in, demanding their inalienable rights. In so doing, they eventually gain access to economic and social opportunities and wealth is, if not redistributed, spread out among more people. Clearly, this process is logical and reasonable. Once the mere idea of being equal is introduced–a major achievement of the Enlightenment–all people want to be equal. It is only natural. Equality is natural law and natural law is based upon reason. Rousseau understood the state as a function of the will of the people who look to the state to preserve and respect their “inalienable rights.” Even as Rousseau was writing, Adam Smith was rethinking the role of government, recasting the activities of society, not in terms of “natural rights,” but in terms of the new economic realities of mercantile society.


An eighteenth century coffee house

In 1776, Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, proposed that the sole purpose of a state was not to protect the rights of citizens but to safeguard the protect economic activities and property. Like Locke and Rousseau, Smith was being perfectly rational. Starting with a founding assumption that wealth was served the greater good, he gave priority to commerce, assuming that the wealthier the population, the wealthier the nation. In separating the state from the economy and giving the economy free rein so that the “invisible hand” could enrich everyone, Smith also released the state from its moral obligation to protect people and gave voice to a new kind of political economy based upon the interest of capitalism. Writing in Glasgow, one of the largest slave ports in Europe, Smith produced ideas that were eminently reasonable and rational, but his writings also give pride of place to impersonal forces—science, technology, and industry—that will change the face of Western society and reorder how people would interact with one another. Smith himself was sympathetic to the plight of the poor and concerned over how the factory system dehumanized people but the logic of the “invisible hand” of capitalism gave rise to a ruthless exploitation of human capital in the name of economic prosperity of the nation. As sad as slavery might be, as exploitive as lower class labor could be, the profits were too sweet to allow for moral judgments to intervene with the joy of making money.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The Enlightenment: Introduction


A Question of Philosophy

Like any great cultural change, the Enlightenment was long in gestation, but its range was short. The Enlightenment, a revolution in philosophy, was strictly a Western phenomenon, linked to Modernism in the sense that certain “modern” social and economic conditions propelled a new form of thinking. When these modern conditions did not exist, the Enlightenment or something like it did not emerge, simply because there was no need for a new epistemology. There was no Enlightenment in Africa, Asia or India, meaning that any discussion of the Enlightenment must acknowledge and deal with its limitations. For example, although the Enlightenment was confined to Europe and America, the philosophical systems it engendered were not extended to either women or people of color. By the eighteenth century, a critical mass of philosophical thinking and social custom had emerged, reflecting a newly capitalistic form of exchange and the consequent rise of a middle class. The Enlightenment can be understood precisely in terms of its entomology–that which sheds light: light into the darkness of religious “superstition,” a word that very precisely targeted religious thinking dependent upon the will of God. The principal conflict of the Enlightenment was the contest between established religious beliefs and a growing body of scientific knowledge that grounded knowledge, not in the mind of God, but in an exercise of empirical evidence. Upon this dialectic between faith and science, struggles for social, political, and economic parity would be launched and would last to this very day. The Enlightenment as a very particular way of thinking in the West resulted in the so-called “death of God” and the rise of science.

Once the social and political links with God were broken, slowly over a century a series of dominoes tumbled. First, the Enlightenment established new philosophical ideas concerning the grounds of knowledge–epistemology—that is the knowledge was based upon empirical observation and provable hypotheses. Second, the new economic system, capitalism was global by the eighteenth century and created new wealth for an emergent class, constructing itself in the space in between the aristocrats who inherited their power and the lower classes who were legally powerless. It was the desire of this new class to encroach upon the powers of kings and courtiers, that new ideals, such as “liberty, equality and fraternity,” “all men are created equal,” and the “inalienable right” of the “pursuit of happiness” would emerge. What were essentially political slogans, designed to delegitimize the ruling class, became, over time, ideals which would not be forgotten, but it would take time for the Enlightenment to become more than the concepts of speculative philosophers and the cant of aspiring politicians to become a gradually unfolding reality that would impact all people, not just white males with property.

A complex phenomenon, the Enlightenment was defined by one central question: how can life be lived and understood without God? If God was “dead,” as Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a century later, then the Deity was certainly an animated corpse, going to its demise, kicking and screaming, and becoming reanimated at unpredictable intervals. The Enlightenment was confronted with Counter-Enlightenments, such as Romanticism and Catholic revivals, but politics, society and economics continued their inexorable march down the secular the West. The twenty-first-century saw the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim communities of the Middle East and Asia as a direct counter response to the invasion of modernity from the West. Over time, Christianity came to occupy a smaller place in Western culture and ceased to be the basis for society’s belief system, while thriving in certain communities in segments of Europe and America. The new century would witness the reemergence of faith-based thought, resistant to science and to empirical testing. The question for the Enlightenment today would be are these vestigial reactions or a genuine pendulum swing against three centuries of being “enlightened?”

Once religious faith had permeated Western life and the answer to all questions was “God’s will.” It was God’s will that the king ruled the realm; it was God’s will that the duke in the castle should be respected. In other words, God’s will held up and reinforced the existing power structure, a truth that did not escape the revolutionaries of both the American and French revolutions.Unquestioning belief in God was challenged by two forces that proved to be critical to Enlightenment thinking. First, was the idea of “natural rights,” that is, the notion that people were created free and equal and had, as human beings, certain rights that could not be violated. The concept of “natural rights” would be articulated by Enlightenment philosophers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Thomas Jefferson but it dated back to the Twelfth Century and was present in a nascent form during the Medieval era. The second crucial element in creating the Enlightenment was the explosion of scientific experimentation and results, such as the revelation of Copernicus that the earth revolved a around the sun, that shattered doctrines supported by the Church, such as the earth was the center of the universe. Although there were certain scientific discoveries that particularly irked the religious authorities, such as the findings of Galileo, the combined weight of empiricism and the scientific method undermined the ability of religion to insist upon unquestioning belief, once these beliefs had been scientifically disproven. Doubt entered into society.

Western culture shifted decisively towards secular questions and secular answers. The result of secularism was a ripple effect that questioned the validity of the “divine right to rule,” creating a question of how could society be governed without God. It was not just a question of government in the sense of whether or not to continue with Kings and Emperors but government in the sense of self-governance. Without religious edicts telling people what to do, what kind of system would take the place of God’s law? Just as scientists rewrote the knowledge of the universe, philosophers sought a new epistemology or ground for social relations. But even more urgent was the problem of knowledge. Without God, what was knowable and how? A new epistemology of knowledge had to be established. The profound secularization that is the Enlightenment has installed suspicion of authority, tradition, and divine right to rule in the West. Using the deductive and logical practices of science, rational thinking, and the powers of human reason, the Enlightenment set out to discover universal laws, to take the place of God. To the extent it was successful, the Enlightenment ended eighteen hundred years of spiritualized thinking. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Philosophers strove to sink the supernatural to the natural.” The concepts of “Nature” and “Natural Law” and “Natural Rights” and “Progress” could be used as powerful weapons against traditional powers that once ruled by “divine right.” The concept of “nature” or the “natural” could be used as powerful weapons to deny participation and power to those declared to be outside the confines of progress, such as women and people of color who were tied to Nature and therefore were beyond the forces of History and thus, the democratic fruits of the new social system.

Emmanuel Kant once stated, “If someone asks are we living in an Enlightened Age today? The answer would be, ‘No,’ but we are living in an age of Enlightenment.” The opening lines to his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment were,

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.

Although the Enlightenment could not guarantee fully enlightened thinking, but the alternative to the Enlightenment, with all of its a prorias was, as David Hume, remarked, “..stupidity, Christianity, and ignorance.” The men who made the new laws were bold, brave and even arrogant, quite capable of using “enlightened” modes of thinking to justify slavery and imperialism, all in the name of European superiority. Indeed in 1784 Moses Mendelsshon remarked in “On the Enlightening Mind,”

Where the enlightening and cultivation of mankind advance with equal pace, they become to each other the best security against corruption, and that civilization of any nation, which, according to the above definitions, consists of cultivation and an enlightened state of the public mind, is therefore the least liable to corruption. A civilized nation has no other internal danger to fear than the excess of its national happiness, which, like the most perfect health of the human body, may be called either in itself a disease, or at least a passage to it. A nation which has through civilization attained the highest pinnacle of national happiness, is for that very reason in danger of falling; whereas it cannot rise higher: but this would lead us too far from the question before us.

In his recent 2010 book, The Enlightenment: A Geneaology, the historian Dan Edelstein, suggested that the modern Enlightenment, apart from its early roots in the writings of English or Dutch philosophers, really began with the French philosophes of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. He credited this century of philosophers as creating not so much an epistemology as a compelling narrative of Enlightenment which explained the ideas of Reason and Natural Rights that would change the culture. It should be noted that there is a reason why the Enlightenment is as Charles W. J. Withers asserted that the philosophical revolution had a particular geographic location: Europe and its tributaries. In his 2007 book Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically About the Age of Reason, Withers stated that the “where” of the Enlightenment was as important as the “what?”


17th century London Coffee House

Although international in scope, the ideas of the Enlightenment circulated among the “spaces,” as Withers pointed out, of the coffee houses and salons and drawing rooms of European cities, where people spoke, read and wrote in a limited number of languages–German, French, English and Dutch, that could be translated and circulated within a relatively limited sphere. The geography of the Enlightenment mirrored the geography of the Industrial Revolution and of Imperialism and of urban centers. This demarcated geography put artists, educated young men drawn to cities to study and to make their mark, in the center of the change. The new philosophical system proposed a new society and a new form of knowledge that would have profound impact upon art and artists, creating new ways of defining both art and artist and developing an entirely new branch of philosophy called “aesthetics.” The idea of “artistic freedom” is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment introduction of the concept of the “individual.” The idea of the defiant artist, challenging the establishment and shocking the conservative public is an Enlightenment concept of rethinking received wisdom.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]