Jacques Derrida and Logos


The Problem with Origins

Following his tour de force presentation of “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in 1967, Jacques Derrida astonishingly published three books: De la Grammatologie. Collection Critique (1967), L’écriture et la différence (1967), and La Voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (1967). These books were a remarkable outburst of philosophical re-thinking of modern philosophy through a re-reading of foundational texts. Sadly for Americans who did not speak French there was nearly a decade before translation: Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs was translated by David B. Allison in 1973. Of Grammatology was translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in 1976 and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, the site where Derrida had made his American debut. Two years later, Writing and Difference was translated by Alan Bass. Perhaps because of the lags in translations and publications, American explicators tend to discuss these seminal reputation-making books in toto, generalizing the content into a discussion of Derrida’s intellectual project. But, that said, this trio of books, consisting a collections of essays, all attack the presence of metaphysics laced through modern philosophy. The relationships among these books posed a problem of even the early readers as translator Alan Bass pointed out,

Derrida first says that De la grammatologie can be considered a bipartite work in the middle of which one could insert L’écriture et la différence. By implication, this would make the first half of De la grammatologie —in which Derrida demonstrates the system of ideas which from ancient to modern times has regulated the notion of the sign—the preface to L’écriture et la différence..The last five essays of L’écriture et la différence, Derrida states, are situated or engaged in “l’ouverture grammatologique,” the grammatological opening. According to Derrida’s statements a bit later in the interview, this “grammatological opening,” whose theoretical matrix is elaborated in the first half of De la grammatologie —which, to restate, systematizes the ideas about the sign, writing and metaphysics which are scattered throughout L’écriture et la différence —can be defined as the “deconstruction” of philosophy by examining in the most faithful, rigorous way the “structured genealogy” of all of philosophy’s concepts; and to do so in order to determine what issues the history of philosophy has hidden, forbidden, or repressed. The first step of this deconstruction of philosophy, which attempts to locate that which is present nowhere in philosophy. i.e., that which philosophy must hide in order to remain philosophy, is precisely the examination of the notion of presence as undertaken by Heidegger.

“Presence,” therefore, precedes everything and permeates philosophy which, as Derrida pointed out, attempts to expel it but, like philosopher Edmund Husserl, always return to lean upon what is essentially a belief system. From a Derridan perspective, this metaphysical system of thought is dependent upon “logos,” language, the word, expressed as the sign. The sign, in turn, was based upon the assumption of the existence of equally metaphysical concepts such as “essence, truth and the foundation of belief” but most importantly a “presence.” The speaker whose immediacy gave authenticity to the word/sign and weight to the signifier. In Of Grammatology, Derrida noted that the idea of “presence” is the desire for something beyond language itself or a transcendental signifier of Logos. Logos implies something beyond any mere speaker; logos implies something far grander that guarantees word: idea, world spirit, God, some point of origin from which speech emerged. The problem for philosophy is that the discipline attempts to erase or eradicate writing, conceived of as “secondary” to speech and gives itself over the the presumption that philosophy is not mere writing but transcends marks on a page. But, Derrida warned, “..the wandering outcast of linguistics has indeed never ceased to haunt language..”

This “haunting” of philosophy by logos needs to be recognized and Derrida’s philosophical project is to re-read and to undermine philosophical texts with the plan of finding internal contradictions embedded in the supposedly perfectly transparent revelation of pure thought (speech). According to Derrida, phonocentricism, or the centering and privileging of the voice (primary, present) over writing (secondary, absent) controls structural linguistics and orders the field of study without being acknowledge. In returning to his duel with Claude Lévi-Strauss, he insisted that the “logocentric epoch” or the “structuralist turn,” is founded upon the concept of a structure which, in turn, depends upon the center or the concept of a center. Furthermore, this Center is (Heidegger) Being or Presence, the ontological ground, the source of origin making certain, reassuming the value of speech. Indeed Logocentrism relates to centrism, or the assumption that the structure has a center. The ultimate center, then, is an authorizing presence, made manifest by the human desire to posit a central presence, logos, in the heart of language and this desire is a longing for a center. Reason, in this case, coils back upon itself. The desire for the center predates the center and once centrality is willed into the structure, the center is outside itself.

With the mind-numbing assertion that the center is not the center, the history of contemporary (or postmodern) deconstruction begins with Jacques Derrida and these three books, De la Grammatologie, l’écriture et la différence, la voix et le phéomène, which in 1967, began with a challenge to both Saussure and Husserl over this fundamental question of presence. Derrida criticized Ferdinand de Saussure for studying only speech rather than that also looking the connection between speech and writing, and in “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” he criticized Lévi-Strauss who also considered the verbal as being primary and originally and presented writing as dependent, implying that writing was a mere technique, a symptom of civilization and the loss of innocence. According to Derrida, these philosophical rejections of writing were signals embedded in the texts of the broader tendency of logocentricism or the nostalgic longing for the divine mind (God), the impossible self-presence of the full self-consciousness of the subject. This self-consciousness is also a fantasy of being able to say what one means, of controlling words and their intent through the fullness of presence or the totality of existence.

Just as Derrida was unwilling to accept existentialism, the romantic philosophy of self par excellence, he also noted that when constructing his philosophy of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl assumed a principle of the voice or the inner soliloquy–the ability to think and speak simultaneously. Most of us expect that when we speak our speech comes from our own personal “psychic interiority” or the depths of the mind cloaked by the speech act. We think that we speak directly and “naturally,” meaning that we assume that speech is spontaneous, compared to writing. When we write we are at a distance, a remove from the fullness of speaking, reproducing mechanically our second-hand unspoken thoughts. Writing, we assume, is a mere transcript of speech, artificial, not authentic, and alienated, rather than connected. But these assumptions and beliefs, which permeate philosophy, are naïve and rest precariously upon an unsustainable belief system. Derrida explained that, contrary to the assumption that logos pre-exists communication and can be traced back to some kind of primordial paradise, language is no pure and has never been pure. Writing has always preceded speech, not the other way around.

The distinction between speech and writing depends upon difference–speech is different from writing and vice versa, just as presence is the opposite of absence. Opposition is fundamental to Structuralism but, as Derrida said, “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of a retentional trace. It is already a trace.” Writing invades the assumed ontology of language/linguistics as difference or “trace,” or distinguishing mark. This “living present,” or the trace, which is always present, is the effect of difference, of spacing between terms. Because of the ineradicable trace, according to Derrida, transcendental meaning through speech is a fiction necessary for philosophy. Modern philosophy depended upon such thinking in that the “metaphysical” is a thought system that allows us to think and depends upon the figure or metaphor of a foundation, a ground, a place to put the thoughts to follow. This first principle or starting point is defined by what is excluded by binary opposition.


Photograph of Japanese woman writing by Kusakabe Kimbei

As Derrida pointed out in “Structure Sign and Play,” it is necessary to structure these neat oppositions in order to control surplus meaning and indeed Structuralism and its entire edifice was “built” on binaries: signifier/signified, sensible/intelligible, speech/writing, diachrony/synchrony, space/time, passivity/activity–these oppositions are axiomatic but the ultimate point of reference, the prime assumption, is the “presence of a presence.” The idea that the present can be frozen is, of course, a convenient fiction. In addition, Derrida revealed, these binaries, far from being mere organizing principles, are actual ideologies, ways of seeing that give preference toward one term over the other. Logos spawns hierarchized oppositions in terms of a superior term, denoting presence and an inferior term, which is fallen. There is something Biblical about binary oppositions: one term is “innocent” and the other is “fallen.”

Derrida’s insight is indicative of his “origins” as a colonial from Algeria, an colonized person in the heart of French intellectual territory, a Jewish man in a Gentile nation. At the heart of his critique of Lévi-Strauss was his ethnocentrism and imposition of cultural superiority over the “natives” of Brazil. But Lévi-Strauss was hardly along in his flawed thinking: previous philosophers had, since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, used a nature/culture opposition, implying an unfortunate evolution of human beings out of an originary Arcadia after living in an innocent state of nature as speakers. The culture of writing becomes a supplement or an excessive appendage, that both adds and substitutes, that is both detrimental and beneficial. However “beneficial” civilization might be, the first term of the pair, “nature,” is still longed for as a kind of lost innocence, and becomes the privileged entity. For Rousseau, nature is self-sufficient but human beings need culture, the supplement, the impure interloper. But for Derrida, there is no original and an un-supplemented or pure nature is impossible, because humans are present.

We can never know nature and because we are culture our concept of “Nature” is already a supplement because it is we who have “written” or fabricated it. Like Being, Nature escapes our comprehension and yet the concept of necessary in order to speak of culture. Nature must be sous rature, put “under erasure”–we cannot understand nature but we must have it, erased but nevertheless present. In other words, there can be no concept of “nature” without “culture,” and the “nature” is assumed to pre-exist “culture” has no meaning without the existence of “culture.” In realizing that the terms are weighted in preference, in understanding that these weights are ideological, Derrida pushes philosophy out of the Garden of Logos.

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

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Schiller: Naive and Sentimental Poetry

Art and Nature

Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”

On the Aesthetic Education of Man was written as a series of letters to the Duke of Augustenburg and was published in 1795 and 1801, and published just before “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” also written in 1795. Called “one of the greatest essays in the German language” by writer Thomas Mann, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, a highly influential essay was a response to his friendship with Germany’s most celebrated Romantic poet, Göethe, comparing himself as a poet to his friend as a poet. Johann Wolfgang von Göethe had written the quintessential work of German Romanticism, the rather overwrought, Sorrows of Young Werther, the fictional version of his many youthful love affairs. However, as he matured, Göethe assumed a mantle of dignity, of near-Olympian calm, and repudiated Romanticism as “sick” and extolled (neo) Classicism as “healthy.” The famous friendship got off to a rocky start. Göethe spurned the advances of the younger poet whose dramatic plays were associated with Romanticism. And Schiller, for his part, viewed Göethe with antipathy, distrusting the apparent ease with which poetry apparently flowed from this distinguished inhabitant of Olympia. Nevertheless, the younger poet who experienced creative agonies and self-doubts was driven by a need to understand Göethe and pursued the poet. The two men eventually succeeded in achieving a meeting of the minds and their consequent correspondence and collaboration is of great importance to German literature. “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” published in the journal, Die Horen, seems to pit Göethe, the naïve poet, against Schiller, the sentimental poet. The essay is an early and influential effort to sort out types of artists, as makers and as psychologies. The words “Naïve and Sentimental” refer to both poets and to poetry, not to themes, subject matter, or content. These types of artists are seen by Schiller as opposites, somewhat like Kant’s antinomies—a way of organizing the world in terms of contrasts–as personifying two different modes of creativity.

As can be seen in The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller was a student of human psychology and feelings and was an astute observer of states of mind long before the profession of psychology was established. Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, published just after Aesthetic Education in Die Horen, is a companion piece, expounding on some of the same themes. Once again, Schiller returned to the ideal period of ancient Greece when humans lived in harmony with nature. The poet was writing at the end of the eighteenth century, at the end of an era, the last years of a time when untouched “nature” still existed in modern Europe. Already in England, the Enclosure Movement was well underway, fencing in fields, walling in pastures, blocking the population from “trespasssing” on private property. The Commons were closing in the name of profit. The Industrial Revolution was also spreading across England, with factories springing up in the countryside, already belching smoke and cinders. The German territories were, as yet, undisturbed; but Schiller seemed to have sensed something coming, for, like his counterpart, Caspar David Friedrich, began to contemplate nature as if it were a quality with psychological implications. He begins his essay on this theme of “interest in nature:”

This kind of interest in nature takes place, however, only under two conditions. First, it is entirely necessary, that the object which infuses us with the same, be nature or certainly be held by us therefor; second, that it (in the broadest meaning of the word) be naïve, i.e., that nature stand in contrast with art and shame her. So soon as the last is added to the first, and not before, nature is changed into the naive.

It is here that the famous “compare and contrast” methodology of art historical discourse begins, for Schiller’s comparative pairing of nature and art and of contrasting poets will be copied by the early twentieth-century art historian, Aby Warburg, who was also fascinated by psychological themes. That being said, Schiller’s ultimate purpose went beyond his purpose of understanding two kinds of genius and two means of artistic creation. He analyzed modes of perception, ways of being, and ways of living in the world, ways of relating and responding, not only to nature itself but also to one’s own inner nature, to the structure of one’s own mind. In establishing between psychological types, Schiller paved the way for later thinkers, such as Freud and Jung, Nietzsche and Dilthey, and James. But Schiller’s aesthetic is also a moral philosophy. The essay was an examination of the human being and the human condition in a world that is so modern it had yet to be defined, discussed or understood. Schiller’s predecessor in grappling with the new place of nature in the newly industrialized society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who advocated a turning away from the artificiality of French society to the simplicity of nature to rediscover the “natural” human being, free of civilization and its “discontents,” as Freud would express it later. Rousseau, a precursor of Kant on the subject of ethics and of Schiller on the subject of nature, published the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, or the “Second Discourse,” in 1755, where he explored not so much inequality itself but human nature and how social orders allow inequality to exist. Like Schiller after him, Rousseau returned to “natural man.” He imagined that, in a state of nature, “primitive man,” as the philosopher termed him, there was no inequality. However, in the “Second Part,” as Rousseau continued to speculate,

But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops. Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts which produced this great revolution. The poets tell us it was gold and silver, but, for the philosophers, it was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.

Like Engels would posit a hundred years later, classes emerge when the establishment of agriculture, which, in turn, evolves into private property. Both Rousseau and Engels searched for and located an original sin which precipitated the Fall. Rousseau wrote with bitter words,

Such was, or may well have been, the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.

As one of the originators of the notion of psychological types, Schiller led the way to the nineteenth century and to Modernism, for his world is far more “civilized” than that of R. Both philosophers (who would influence Freud on this point) understood civilization to be necessary and inevitable and unavoidable, the result of Rousseau’s “Social Contract,” but the social system has built a wall of rules, regulations, and conventions that were entirely artificial. Trapped in the social system, blindly following its customs and mores, we are alienated from nature and the natural. We have lost our sense of oneness, our feelings of harmony with our world. Worse yet, we are alienated from ourselves, divided within our own minds, disconnected from the totality of our own being. Responding to a system that purports to be “rational,” we struggle with our irrational side, repressing it until we are alienated not only from the “natural” but also from a part of our own selves. Thus we, as humans in the modern world, are alienated from nature itself, which is neither rational nor irrational; it simply exists, as Schiller wrote, as “subsistence of things through themselves, existence according to its own unalterable laws.” Nature is its own being in a state of purity, which we, in our divided state, can no longer comprehend or connect with. In our alienated condition—alienated from ourselves and from our fellow human beings—we can only respond to nature through the distorting filters of civilization. Our varying modes of perception—“Naïve“ or “Sentimental”—can never encounter nature, the pure state of being. Such unity with us and nature must wait until we reach our own natural state of harmony within ourselves and our natural environment.

Unlike Rousseau, Schiller does not present “Natural Man” as a lost state but a goal we must aim for. This goal cannot be reached in an individual’s lifetime but can be achieved only through successive generations, which must struggle to regain wholeness, harmony, and unity, both internally, within the individual, and externally, with nature. This modern concept of the alienated human being seeking a lost unity would be of great consequence to nineteenth and twentieth Century thought. The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, writing somewhat later than Schiller, also warned that we have become estranged and alienated from ourselves and from nature. As the allegory of the creation of Frankenstein’s monster shows, we have become deluded into playing God through the misuse of technology. G. W. F. Hegel will write of “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis,” the ultimate Absolute unity. Karl Marx will write of “alienation” of the working class from industrial products and will warn that humans have become so alienated that we are no longer aware of it and exist in a state of “false consciousness.” Marx’s “alienation” was sociological due to economic causes. Jacques Lacan will write of Lack, resulting from the human’s entry into society and the severing of the child from its mother (loss of unity and wholeness). Alienation will become a major theme and perhaps the definition of the condition of Modernity itself.

Thus aesthetic philosophy becomes a moral philosophy and art becomes an arena for self-actualization, a way of thought to counter the evils of artificiality and civilization. For Schiller, in “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” all art is inferior to nature but all art must begin with nature. Art becomes a way of reacting to ourselves and a means of responding to nature. Nature takes on a dual meaning: nature is the world surrounding us and our own individual personalities. Art also seems to assume duality, being equated at times with that which is artificial, in other words with a wide range of artifacts, works, and activities, while, at other times, art is the natural product of a creative process. Art was a means of restoring a natural balance in personality. Art was a journey towards a purer morality and an exposition of the nature of artistic genius that rises above artificial rules and ideas on morality. The role of free play of imagination in art and the artist as a genius is indebted to Kant. Six decades later, perhaps thinking of Schiller, Emil Zola famously wrote of “nature seen through a corner of a temperament” to define art, which is, in those terms, a response to nature shaped by the personality of the artist.

Schiller began his analysis of artistic temperaments with a discussion on the innocence of children, writing “…the child is to us a vivid representation of the ideal, not indeed of the fulfilled, but of the commissioned, and it is therefore by no means the conception of its poverty and limits, it is quite to the contrary the conception of its pure and free force, its integrity, its infinity, which moves us. To the men of morality and feeling, a child will for that reason be a sacred object, an object namely, which through the greatness of an idea annihilates every greatness of experience; and which, whatever it may lose in the judgment of the understanding, gains again in the judgment of reason in ample measure…” Once again Schiller was prescient in writing of “childhood,” a new concept which would be fully developed in the nineteenth century. But the philosopher was writing of adults and he carefully distinguished between “childish” and “childlike.” Schiller wrote that “…the naive way of thinking excites in us. It combines the childlike simplicity with the childish; through the latter it exposes a vulnerable point to the understanding and calls forth that smile, whereby we make known our (theoretical) superiority. So soon, however, as we have reason to believe, that the childish simplicity be simultaneously a childlike one…” He used the directness of a child’s open heart and mind to define the naïve artist: “The naïve is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected, and precisely for that reason, can not be attributed to real childhood in the strictest sense.”

For Schiller both the child and the “childlike” naïve artist are part of nature, suggesting that the adult is a rare being, surviving modern life without corruption and retaining a harmony with the natural world. He stated,

It is therefore required, that nature triumph over art, not through its blind violence as dynamical, but rather through its form as moral greatness, in short, not as need, but rather as inner necessity. Not the insufficiency, but rather the inadmissibility of the latter must procure the victory of the form; for the former is want, and nothing which originates from want can produce respect. Indeed, it is with regard to the naive of surprise, always the superiority of emotion and a want of reflection, which makes nature recognizable; but this want and that superiority still do not entirely constitute the naive, but rather merely provide the occasion, so that nature follows unhindered its moral nature, i.e., the law of harmony.

The naïve man (Schiller does not take women into consideration) is one who “overlooks their artificial and affected relations and keeps merely to simple nature.” In following Kant who popularized “genius,” Schiller sought to account for that state of creativity and determined that the ability to create is not only a natural or inborn inclination but is also rooted in nature itself:

Every true genius must be naive or it is not genius. Its naivetè alone makes it genius, and what it is in the intellectual and the aesthetical, it can not deny in the moral. Unaware of the rules, the crutches of weakness, the taskmaster of perversity, guided only by nature or instinct, its protecting angel, it walks calmly and safely through all the snares of false taste, in which, if it be not so prudent as to avoid it already from the distance, the non-genius will be unfailingly ensnared. It is only given to the genius, to be always at home outside the known and to enlarge nature, without going beyond it. Indeed, the latter sometimes happens to the great geniuses, but only because these have their fanciful moments, when protecting nature abandons them, because the power of example overpowers them, or the corrupted taste of their time leads them astray.

The genius has a “childlike character,” which is bashful and intelligent and modest, but there is another type of artist, the “sentimental” artist who experiences the “distress of culture and hear in the foreign country of art, the moving voice of the mother. So long as we were merely children of nature, we were happy and perfect; we have become free and have lost both. Therefrom originates a twofold and very unequal longing for nature, a longing for its happiness, a longing for its perfection. The sensuous man laments only the loss of the first; the moral one can mourn only for the loss of the other.” Schiller, once again, wrote expansively upon the perfection of Greece, based upon the fact that they “felt naturally,” and the consequent decline, resulting from our separation from nature: “Just as nature gradually begins to vanish from human life as experience and as the (acting and feeling) subject, so do we see it rise in the poetical world as idea and as object.” It is here that he made a profound statement that explains not just two different kinds of poets but also the modern relationship with nature and to ourselves. Schiller wrote,

The poets are everywhere, according to their concept, the guardian of nature. Where they can no longer entirely be the latter and already experience in themselves the destructive influence of capricious and artificial forms, or indeed have had to struggle with the same, then will they appear as the witnesses and the avengers of nature. They will either be nature, or they will seek the lost nature. Therefrom arise two entirely different kinds of poetry, through which the entire province of poetry is exhausted and measured out. All poets, who are really such, will, according to the time in which they flourish, or as accidental circumstances have influence upon their general education and upon their passing dispositions of mind, belong either to the naive or to the sentimental.

We feel, in reading Schiller, we are witnessing a tragedy of a society drifting towards complete alienation of human from nature and of human from human. We live, he explains in an “artificial age,” an age which displaced the naïve artist who was at odds with modern life “no longer in their proper place.” The “still pure” man “acts as an undivided sensouus unity and as an harmonizing whole.” The naïve poet merely follows simple nature and feeling” but “it is entirely different with the sentimental poet. The latter reflects upoin the impression…the object is here connected with an idea, and only in this connection does his poetical force rest.” “His representation will therefore be either satirical or it will…be elegiac; every sentimental poet will adhere to one of these two modes of feeling.” Schiller admired Göethe, the ultimate naïve poet, who was able to create “naturally” with “childlike” directness, and understood himself to be a sentimental poet, who was estranged from nature. This poet is in pain, pained by the “distance” from nature, meaning that he is an alienated observer, examining the world from a point of watchfulness rather than of immersion. The sentimental poet then can see nature only as a idea. With his divided consciousness, his self-conscious self-awareness, the poet is thoroughly modern, and, unlike his the naïve poet, was not out of place, but was a product of his own time. Rather than the unreflective naïve poet, who combined reason and feeling, the “sentimentalisch,” a term coined by Schiller, was split in two, with his mind and heart, his reason and feeling, separated.

Once again, we see the dialectical at work in Schiller, with human evolution being divided into two stages: the natural and the artificial, an opposition that must be overcome in a third state or synthesis which restores the original and primal unity of the natural and the ideal. At first glance, it might seem, that in his admiration for Göethe, Schiller thought the naïve artist to be superior but the opposite is true. A child of the Enlightenment, Schiller preferred progress over regression, and, understanding the price that has been paid, considered the sentimental artist to be an advance upon the naïve artist. The question is where would the sentimental artist eventually achieve the synthesis and the answer is distinctly non-Kantian. The sentimental artist would have to work at the level of the culture in the real world, a solution worked out in Aesthetic Education. Schiller’s sentimental artist, as presented in his seminal essay on the naïve and sentimental artist is an early example of a “Romantic “artist who cannot go back in time and who can belong only to his own time, faced with the task of transcending the chasam between nature and civilization. Unlike Rousseau, who, in Schiller’s opinion was regressive, the poet does not yearn for the past, but, like the sentimental artist, struggles to move forward. “…our feeling for nature,” he said, “is like the feeling of an invalid for health.” As H. B. Nisbet pointed out, the terms “naïve” and “sentimental” are not only used in unconventional ways but are also not aesthetic terms. Eventually Schiller suggested more conventional subsitutes, “realist” and “idealist,” or modes of perception (Empfindungsweisen).

Like Kant, Schiller must present a structure or a model, and, while the essay itself proceeds from thesis to antithesis and synthesis. The sentimental artist himself was divided into three parts as well–satire, elegy, and idyll, genres of poetry. Schiller then explained these stages of the sentimental and gave examples of contemporary poets, but it is possible to propose visual artists who would fulfill the “modes of perception.” Not long after Schiller’s early death, John Constable painted elegies of a vanishing England from the safety of his little corner in Dedham Vale in an idyllic and pastoral fashion. And then, for example, Courbet would have been perhaps a good fit for a naïve artist, if one ignores his deliberate and studied performance of a country bumpkin. A decade later, his avant-garde successor, Manet was obviously the satirical sentimental artist. These various positions or approaches on the part of these artists are modern ways to deal with the modern estrangement from nature–the satrical artist looks away from the natural and dives deeply into the artificial, while the elegic artist confronts nature and attempts to inhale its perfumes. The naïve artist is oblivious that time has passed and that the age is modern. When one tries to fit artists into Schiller’s slots, as it were, it immediately becomes apparent that the deep intelligence of the essay is its expression of the modern human condition, which is prelapsian, consumed with loss and longing, but without the desire to return to a state of nature. In his two part essay, Schiller does not sum up his argument, he merely stops writing and one can select a passage in the second part as a suitable last word: Nature has shown favor to the naive poet, to act always as an undivided unity, to be in every moment a self-reliant and perfect whole and to represent men in reality, according to their full value. To the sentimental one it has lent the power, or rather imprinted a living instinct, to reestablish out of himself that unity, which has been annulled in him by abstraction, to complete humanity in himself and to pass from a limited state to an infinite.

Nature has shown favor to the naive poet, to act always as an undivided unity, to be in every moment a self-reliant and perfect whole and to represent men in reality, according to their full value. To the sentimental one it has lent the power, or rather imprinted a living instinct, to reestablish out of himself that unity, which has been annulled in him by abstraction, to complete humanity in himself and to pass from a limited state to an infinite. To give human nature its full expression, is, however, the common task of both, and without that, they would not be able to be called poets at all; but the naive poet has always the advantage of sensuous reality over the sentimental, whilst he achieves that as a real fact, which the other only strives to attain.

Also read: “Kant and Aesthetic Theory” and “Kant and the Critique of Judgment”

and “Kant’s ‘Art-for-Art’s-Sake” and “Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom”


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 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]

Podcast Episode 3: Jacques-Louis David


Jacques-Louis David, the most prominent Neoclassical painter in France, shifted his artistic allegiances from a king to a revolution against that king to an emperor. Was the artist a man without principles or was he a man of his own time, caught up in the tides of history, taking opportunity as he found it? The major works of art by David will be discussed within the context of his turbulent historical times. David developed a heroic and masculine style of Neoclassicism that proved to be well-suited to an era of war and revolution. Through his sheer talent (or effrontery) David managed to move with adroitness through political waters but with the fall of his final master, Napoléon, the luck of the painter ran out and he died in exile in Belgium.


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

Thank you.
[email protected]

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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 and Reason



The Enlightenment is also referred to as The Age of Reason, a time period that stems from the awakening of European interest in science in the seventeenth century and ends with the unreason of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The importance of individual scientists, such as Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, who sought to explain the heavens, not in terms of God but in terms of mechanics, and the significance of the voyages of world explorers, such as Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook, indicated a cultural shift away from spiritual interests and toward worldly interests and a desire to expand knowledge. The need for worldly answers to cosmic questions overtook the spiritual dogmas, and the desire to search the real world for commercial purposes proved to be more compelling than religious revelations. Certainly it needs to be pointed out that the Enlightenment followed a long period–centuries in fact–of religious wars, from the Crusades to the struggle between Christian sects in Europe. Unlike Asia or the Middle East, Europe had been torn apart by these religious disputes over fairly minor issues of doctrine and the trauma of these struggles cannot be underestimated in the revulsion against spiritual dogma.

Over time, it became impossible for educated persons to accept theological limitations of Church dogma and more difficult to explain the world as “God’s will,” while remaining faithful to the idea of a deity. Somehow, religion and science had to be reconciled. Although it does not acknowledge itself as a substitute belief system, philosophy would take the place of established religion as a way to explain the world, and, by the Eighteenth Century, philosophy was tasked with the problem of establishing a new system of ontology (a theory of being) and epistemology (the ground of knowledge) to replace God’s plan for the world. Faced with the apparently irrefutable findings of scientific discoveries, philosophers developed a contempt for religion and welcomed the new light into a world long shrouded in the darkness of misguided belief in a Deity. As Voltaire (1694-1778) remarked, “Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”

François-Marie Arouet known as “Voltaire”

If God, Voltaire declared, did not exist, we, the people, would have found it necessary to invent a supreme being. Voltaire’s cynical statement comes very close to the Modernist concept that all aspects of culture are constructed. Most of the Enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers were Deists in that they believed in a God but rejected organized religion as superstition. Severing themselves from the comforts of certainty that religion brings caused pain. “I grieve,” Denis Diderot (1713-1784) mourned, “that I can no longer believe in God.” The philosophers were at the beginning of a process that moved Western civilizations away from the received wisdom of religion to the relativism of philosophical systems. Because the Enlightenment was based upon the scientific model, there were earthly answers for everything. One conceived of a hypothesis and then tested the theory by employing empirical methods. Reflecting the coming of machines and modern technology, the eighteenth century universe was conceived of as, not a heavenly realm, but a simple clock, a logical and rational mechanism, neutral but dedicated to its purpose. Human beings were mere cogs in this vast system, and insignificant cogs at that, in this vast impersonal, soulless, uncaring machine without a god to appeal to.

The notion of the universe as a gigantic machine reflected the new concern with the new technologies that were connected to the Industrial Revolution. Human beings, who had invented this revolutionary machines increasing found in factories, not God, were in the center of this new universe. The philosophers were confident that God’s mercy, capricious as it was, could be replaced by human reason and rationality. The Enlightenment, in its own way, was based upon a faith, every bit as powerful as the Christian system that was being phased out. The “faith” of the philosophers was based in human Reason. “Dare to reason…Have the courage to use your own minds…is the motto of the Enlightenment,” Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) declared in 1784 in response to a question asked by a Russian official Johann Friedrich Zöllner. The question was circulated to European philosophers who answered the famous question in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. There were two elements of Reason. First, the Enlightenment proposed a thinking individual self-actualized human being, existing independently of faith and powered, as it were, by his and her own intellectual powers. Second, Reason was the basis of science: one made logical deductions and accepted the inevitable conclusion. If the universe was rational, a machine, then society could also be rational and human beings could come to logical and orderly decisions on their own by reasoning like scientists. So began centuries of assumptions based upon what was really myth–the people could be rational.

Philosophers assumed that there was a rational order of eternal truths and philosophy in the Age of Reason and would seek to ground their deductions in universality and transcendence. They also assumed that human beings were perfectly able of recognizing the validity of these truths and that people would act according to these obvious truths. Reason was a certain kind of thinking based upon a logical progression from hypothesis to conclusion. It was “self-evident,” a favorite term of the philosophers, that humans would not only accept truths derived from the mechanism of Reason but would also act according to these truths in their everyday lives. The idea that people might act irrationally or counter to their best interests or that they might oppose “self-evident” truths was not an option. The Enlightenment philosophers, even those who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, never questioned the powers of Reason, even when (self)aware of the contradictions embedded in their thinking. Kant brushed aside any claims of women and non-white, non-Europeans despite claims of universality in his Critiques. For Jefferson and Kant, for example, rational thinking led inextricably to the humanity of slaves and of women but accepting such conclusions, much less to act upon the “natural rights” of these humans, would lead to an upset of the order to things.” We see the same lacunae in the minds of many of the Enlightenment thinkers. In 1776 Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which, for European nations, was built on the slave trade, with as little discussion of the inhumanity of human trafficking as possible.

The philosophically blind eyes that were turned away from the plight of the oppressed reveal in the silences or in the intellectual elisions the concealed political texts embedded in supposedly abstract philosophy concerned with universal laws. In fact the function of Reason in the Enlightenment was to critique, to examine existing belief systems and institutions and to analyze them through rational thinking and logic or, in other words, to deconstruct the current loci of power. Indeed as Jean de Rond d’Alembert (17171-1783) noted in 1753 An Essay upon the Alliance betwixt Learned Men, and the Great that the intellectuals, the gens de lettres, of Europe lived and wrote in repressive regimes that were at odds with the very treatises being penned on individual freedom and natural rights. Not only were their ideas at variance with their rulers, these philosophers, presumably autonomous humans, had no power to change their contradictory conditions. Indeed d’Alembert, mathematician and editor of Diderot’s Encyclopédia, challenged his fellow intellectuals who quarreled among themselves and slavishly sought the favor of les grands, the aristocrats. Unfortunately, for many of these philosophes, it was the patronage of those in power that supported the radical writings of the house intellectuals. As Dana Goodman pointed out in The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), the ideal of the “republic” of which the philosophers dreamed was an unbearable contradiction to the monarchies in which they lived. These kinds of unresolvable differences brought to light through critique would result in revolutions.

Secular intellectuals believed that the time of Christianity had come and gone and that religion would be replaced by scientific, social and economic Progress. Progress, social, political, scientific, was the logical outcome of the forces of Reason. Progress, the philosophers and scientists assumed, had been impossible when timeless spiritual values dominated society. The notion of “timeless” surely prevented progressing to new ideas and novel concepts, considered unnecessary if all one needed was spiritual belief in powers beyond this world. From the seventeenth century, progress was the inevitable product of unstoppable technological advances fueled by scientific discoveries and inventions. The Age of Reason was grounded in an optimism that Progress would improve humanity, which now cleansed of superstition, could rise as rational and reasonable human beings elevated by scientific practices. Rational thinking could create a regularized system for living, a system that was logical and produced a new enlightened social order that would be self-regulated. Rather than explained as a sudden strike from an angry God, natural events were understood as having a scientific explanation. A flood was too much rain, not a punishment from God. Order or disorder came from laws that arose from Nature, not God. These laws were inevitable and irrefutable, or “self-evident” because they were a priori and logical, that is pre-existing human contemplation. Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) based his ideas about the human condition upon a Natural Law that could be utilized to resolve social conflicts. Humans could come together as “natural” equals and freely negotiate a Social Contract of mutual benefit. In The Social Contract of 1762 he wrote,

Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains. This man believes that he is the master of others, and still he is more of a slave than they are. How did that transformation take place? I don’t know. How may the restraints on man become legitimate? I do believe I can answer that question..This question might be rephrased: “How is a method of associating to be found which will defend and protect-using the power of all-the person and property of each member and still enable each member of the group to obey only himself and to remain as free as before?” This is the fundamental problem; the social contract offers a solution to it.

The Social Contract is the Age of Reason’s answer to its critique of the existing systems. An intellectual critique of the kind championed by Diderot, the editor of the twelve volume Encyclopédia, has a certain transcendence in that within salons and coffee houses and universities a social and political critique is disembodied from the real world. And yet these Enlightenment critiques that placed reason before religion and the social contract above authoritarianism spread beyond the philosophical confines and became part of the body politic of the Western world, with long-term consequences.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” 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]

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 path..in 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]

What is “Modern?”


“Modern” is essentially a Western concept, based upon cultural forces specific to European countries and transplanted to their colonies. A small and compact continent, Europe was a site of circulation for new ideas and new ways of living in the world. Other continents, such as Asia and Africa, were isolated and self-sufficient and would not be touched by European ideas and values until the age of imperialism. The Middle East, equally self-sufficient, chose, according the Princeton professor, specializing in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, to sidestep, not so much modern life, but the implications of modernism. If one defines “modern” as a European style passage through the philosophical change called The Enlightenment, then much of the globe missed the Modern in terms of a social and cultural change and most of the world was introduced to modernity through modern technology, usually that of warfare.

The characteristics or events usually associated with the “modern” were invented in Europe, developed in Europe, and played out to their logical (and often tragic ends) in Europe. When did “modern life” begin? The answer depends upon one’s historical perspective. Some would argue that modern life, the life we in the West have inherited, can be traced back to the Renaissance period in Europe. For the purposes of this website, it is more efficient to move beyond the nascent beginnings of the middle class and capitalism and international trade to the outcome of these tendencies, the most significant of which, it might be argued, being humanism. For the modern age, the human being is firmly situated at the center of the universe existing and self-actualizing as a unique individual.

Even though modernity is a European invention, aspects of the modern or of modern life developed and evolved differently depending upon the nation. England was “modern” well before Germany. France would be more modern than Russia, but parts of both countries were still centuries behind the urban centers. And then there was the special case of North America. Both as a British colony and as an independent nation, America played a significant role in developing the modern way of life, but the American “modern” would be significantly different from the European “modern.” Although Canada remained a British colony, like America, this huge territory was so far away from the Mother country that it, too, would develop a distinct modern culture that was uniquely “American” in the broad continental sense of the word.

Wherever the birth of the modern begins, formation of this new way of life, this unprecedented way of thinking, this experimental mode of governing was slow in growing, taking at least two centuries from the beginnings of empirical science in the seventeenth century to the Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Most discussions of the Modern can be divided into distinct parts, all of which are interlocked: economic, social, political, and cultural. Because of these interconnections, there can no “first,” there is no “beginning,” in absolute terms. Different aspects moved at varying times and at diverse paces. For convenience sake, it can be stated that the Seventeenth Century saw a significant shift away from God and a spiritual perspective on the world and towards scientific discovery and experimentation based upon the real world. The trend to empirical observation and material research not only expanded the discourse of knowledge based upon observable facts but also threatened the role of religion in society. By the Eighteenth Century, the culture was more secular than spiritual and a new breed of people, called “new men” were able to build upon the scientific bases to develop a more rational means of production that evolved into industrialization and mass production.

These “new men” were an ever-growing group of professionals, doctors, lawyers, financiers, and business owners who were middle class and ambitious. They financed, built and serviced the Industrial Revolution, supported on the backs of the lower classes. Women formed a support system, either at home or in the fields or in the factory and were denied the benefits of the modern as were the lower classes. Human labor was needed for industrialized modes of productions, and people, both proletariat and peasant, began to drift away from traditional artisan occupations and rural employments and towards factory work. Mass manufacture and trade encouraged the increase in the size of cities, and by the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, London was the largest city in Europe. The result of what today is understood to be global capitalism, based on monetary investment, where wealth is founded in an abstraction called money instead of land is a new class of individuals, the middle class. Flush with money from manufacturing and business and a seemingly endless supply of capital, the bourgeoisie aspired to political power.


By the beginning of the nineteenth century it was clear that the “modern” was an urban phenomenon in the sense that “modernity” could be lived in the cities of Europe. Urbanism and industrialism and the trend away from an agrarian society, which was ruled by the landed gentry, began in England and America. Modernity brought with it a new way of thinking and old notions of tribe and community began to erode in favor of the rights of the individual. The combination of a concentration of people in urban areas and alternatives to traditional rural and collective life styles brought pressure on the political system to grant “natural rights” to the people. The concept of a “natural” right to freedom and happiness was essentially a middle class and secular concept. Philosophically speaking, all human beings had the “natural” right to be happy, free and self-governing through mutual consent. “Natural rights” for all people was not a popular idea with the ruling classes and, for all the idealistic writings, these “rights” were limited to those who were white, male and owned property.

It is important to understand the need for the middle class and the intellectuals among it, to re-fabricate society along secular lines. The ruling classes had ruled thanks to the will of God and the only way to bring about change was to replace God with philosophy and to establish, through Reason, a new form of government. As opposed to the Divine Right of Kings, as sanctioned by God, people began to think of themselves as the “natural” rulers of their own society. The change in attitude by the moneyed middle class began to shift the attitude of rulers who listened to the needs of their subjects or paid the price. Monarchs should rule with the consent of the governed and had the obligation and responsibility to preside over their subjects wisely and benevolently. By the nineteenth century, the Benevolent Despot of the seventeenth century gave way to the Citizen King or Enlightened Monarch, answerable to the people. Should the ruler ignore the people, the inevitable result was uprising and revolution. Thus it was that in 1776, Thomas Jefferson (and his editors) wrote,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..

And in a single inelegant sentence, written in 1789, the French revolutionaries declared,

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

The emerging “Modern” way of life would have major consequences upon Western culture. The “modern” that was emerging was unprecedented and needed to be articulated. Explaining the social and cultural and economic changes was the task of the philosophers who referred to their period as the “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment philosophy articulated a social reaction to scientific achievements, was the achievement of several societies. French and English and German philosophers all made major contributions to Enlightenment thought, the cornerstone of which was Reason. The center of philosophy was human reason, not God’s ideals. However, Reason was a philosophical, not a political stance, which in turn was not a practical method for pragmatic rule. Advances in standards of living over time had increased the population and these restive and aspiring people needed to be housed and fed and employed and, above all, controlled. Among the more important characteristics of modern life were the ways in which humans would be categorized and organized and, as Michel Foucault pointed out in Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975), “disciplined.” Rendered passive and pliable through the mechanisms of a “panopticon society,” the population would be further controlled through massive campaigns of propaganda which would only grow more sophisticated with the expanding reach of technology.

As with all epochs that bring change, the alterations to European culture that determined the modern, whether industrial, political, social or philosophical, was a mixture of promise and missed opportunities. Human reason was capable of establishing a new kind of society, based upon what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “the Social Contract,” established by the free will of humans who agreed to come together and live in democratic harmony, without Kings and without God dictating the terms. The philosophy of the Enlightenment inspired two political revolutions, one in America and one in France, and was the impetus for political change in other parts of Europe. Thus the “Modern” can be characterized by a number of “revolutions:” 1. A philosophical revolution, 2. A social revolution, 3. A political revolution, and 4. An economic revolution. But on the other hand, there was, for centuries, a refusal on the part of the leaders to extend the benefits of modernity to peoples of color, women, the lower classes–a direct refutation of all the stated goals and ideals.

The task of artists, poets, novelists, musicians, and the visual artists was to give subjective expression of the new age in new languages, which would produce new forms. The artist is the product of all of the “revolutions” of the Modern, which are discussed in other posts.

Also read: “The Enlightenment: Introduction” 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]