Sociology 318

Fall 2002

Notes on the Enlightenment and Liberalism

The Enlightenment refers to an intellectual movement, primarily in France and Britain, that spans approximately one hundred years from the 1680s to 1789. Adams and Sydie state that these "thinkers put society and social relations under intense scrutiny." (p. 11) Preceding and setting the stage for the Enlightenment were writers and scientists who investigated the natural world and systems of thought, writers such as Galileo (Italian), Newton (English), Francis Bacon (1561-1626, English), René Descartes (1596-1650, French). Enlightenment writers include Hobbes, Locke, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Rousseau the French writers were sometimes called the philosophes. The leading representatives were religious skeptics, political reformers, cultural critics, historians and social theorists (Zeitlin, p. 1).

The writings of the Enlightenment profoundly affected politics and the development of sociology. The French Revolution (1789) and the American Revolution (1776) had many causes but many Enlightenment ideas and ways of thinking had a great effect on these political and social changes. The slogans of "liberty, equality, fraternity" and "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" state the political ideals of these revolutions and reflect the ideas of Enlightenment thought.

a. Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679, English) "contribution was the suggestion that the social order was made by human beings and therefore could be changed by human beings" (Adams and Sydie, p. 14). Hobbes looked on the individual as selfish, concerned with self-preservation, searching for power, and (potentially at least) at war with others. For Hobbes, in the state of nature, there was a war of all against all and life is nasty, brutish, and short. Since individuals are rational, they agree to surrender their individual rights to the sovereign in order to create a state whereby they can be protected from other individuals. Locke and Rousseau further developed this idea of a social contract, although in a somewhat different form than Hobbes.

Contributions of Hobbes include the recognition of the existence of the individual and individual rights along with the concepts of rationality, self-interest, competitiveness, and calculation as individual attributes. Adams and Sydie also point out (p. 14) that Hobbes did not consider the ruler or monarch to be ordained by God (as monarchs often claimed in the divine right of kings) or some external force, but by the people themselves since "authority is given by the subjects themselves." This is important in the development of ideas of political democracy in western Europe and North America.

b. Locke

John Locke (1632-1704, English) had a more optimistic view of human nature than did Hobbes, looking on humans as good, rational, social, cooperative and tolerant, at least in a state of nature. He believed in a certain original equality of all individuals, male and female, in the state of nature, where everyone had a right to autonomy and freedom. "The organization of the State evolved as a result of free individuals consenting to be governed by an abstract authority in the interests of protecting private property." (Sydie, p. 1). Locke believed that if each individual rationally pursues happiness and pleasure, this promotes cooperation so that in the long run individual and the general welfare coincide.

In terms of the mind and knowledge, Locke looked on the individual mind as beginning blank and empty, but gaining ideas through experience. Knowledge could be increased by further experience, and the mind collects these impressions.

Locke looked on women as having "natural differences" from men, one that justified domination of women by men. While property rights were an extremely important individual right for Locke, because of what he regarded as the natural differences between men and women, he did not believe property rights should be extended to women thus denying women equality.

c. Rousseau

One of the major influences on western thought, and an important Enlightenment writer was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778, French). Rousseau is best known for the concepts of the social contract and the state of nature. He stated "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." (Zeitlin, p. 23). Rousseau begins with an optimistic view of human nature, that man is perfectible, that men are equal and have sympathy with one another. This creates the possibility of a better society. People are generally isolated in a state of nature, but with the development of cooperation, society begins to develop, and it is society that creates inequality and war.

Rousseau was critical of existing society, claiming that "private property brought about war, conflict, and thus the need for a civil state" (Adams and Sydie, 17) but thought that society could be improved "if all individuals shared equally in the construction of laws for their common general happiness." (Adams and Sydie, 18). Rousseau was looking for "a social order whose laws were in greatest harmony with the fundamental laws of nature." (Zeitlin, p. 17) This is the social contract, whereby the individual is

absorbed into the common, general will, without losing his own will ... He loses nothing and gains in return the assurance that he will be protected by the full force of society against the encroachment of individuals and groups. He is now a member of a society of equals and has regained an equality not unlike the one he enjoyed in nature but in a new form and on a higher level. (Zeitlin, p. 25).

Zeitlin views Rousseau as a forerunner of sociology because he understands the notion of culture what people acquire from society. He was one of the first to discuss inequality in society and he argued that change could occur in a way that would overcome some of the inequalities. Many earlier writers had viewed these forms of inequality as natural and good.

d. Wollstonecraft (1759-1799)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1799) was an English author and feminist, who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), one of the first great feminist documents. She lived in France during much of the French Revolution and was mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft adopts the "liberal model of the rational, self-determining individual" (Eisenstein, pp. 89-90) from Locke. She did not view women as different than men by nature, attributing the observed differences to "socially constructed gender roles." She placed strong emphasis on reason and argues that women are rational beings, and just like men, should be allowed an equal opportunity to develop their rational and moral capacities. Women should be educated in much the same manner as men, in order to develop "virtues such as courage, temperance, justice, and fortitude," the characteristics that men should develop. (Tong, p. 14). If women develop these characteristics, they will be able to develop into better wives and mothers, and this will also allow them to develop economic independence from men. In arguing in this manner, she takes the liberal vision of the rational and autonomous man and extends this to women. That is, she takes the liberal ideas of freedom and individuality and extends them to all people. Just as Locke criticized the divine right of kings, so Wollstonecraft contests the divine right of husbands.

Wollstonecraft does not view women as inferior to men in any way, and argues that "when women are ruled by reason ... they will be able to share in the equality of opportunities in society." (Eisenstein, p. 92). Because of this, it is important for women to cultivate reason, acquire strength of body and mind, see through the language of femininity, and obtain educational equality with men. Through this, women would become, and be treated as, autonomous decision makers and as persons.

Note that in Canada, women were not given the right to vote until 1918 in federal elections, and two years earlier in the Prairie provinces. Quebec women did not receive the vote in provincial elections until 1940. In terms of property ownership, this also rested with men through most of the nineteenth century, with changes that allowed property purchasers to become owner, regardless off sex, coming between 1872 and 1940. "By 1897 in English Canada and 1931 in Quebec, a wife employed outside the home was allowed to retain her wages." (Burt, p. 214). Also note that in Canada it was not until the 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code that sales of contraceptives became legal, or that abortions became legal.

e. Summary of enlightenment thought

Enlightenment writings demonstrate a shift away from the view that society and estates (ranks of nobility and the common people) are the basic unit of social analysis and toward the view that the individual is the basis. In this approach, individuals have inherent qualities, abilities, and rights and society emerged and developed as the result of a social contract among these individuals. Those writers who supported an earlier social order would have viewed Locke's notion that the state is the result of "individuals consenting to be governed" to be unacceptable supporters of an earlier order viewed society as the basic unit, with people having to fill their place in this structure.

In contrast to systems of thought where the sacred had dominated and where questioning was discouraged, Enlightenment thinkers viewed human reason as dominant. No subjects of study were to be forbidden, there were no unaskable questions, with all aspects of human life appropriate for examination and study. In doing this, Enlightenment thinkers combined the philosophic tradition of abstract rational thought (Descartes and other philosophers) with the tradition of experimentation or empirical philosophy (from Galileo, Newton, Bacon and others). The result was a new system of human inquiry that attacked the old order and privileges, put emphasis and faith on science, the scientific method and education, and

acquired the practical function of asking critical questions about existing institutions and demanding that the unreasonable ones, those contrary to human nature, be changed. All social obstacles to human perfectibility were to be progressively eliminated. (Zeitlin, p.2).

The new approach was an empirical and scientific one at the same time that it was philosophical. The world was an object of study, and the Enlightenment thinkers thought that people could understand and control the world by means of reason and empirical research. Social laws could be discovered, and society could be improved by means of rational and empirical inquiry. This form of thought was reformist, and one that challenged the old order. Enlightenment thinkers were generally optimistic in outlook, looking on their system of thought as a way of improving the social world.

Ritzer (pp. 10-11) summarizes the effect of the Enlightenment as follows:

· People can comprehend, change and perhaps control universe.

· Philosophy and science combination of reason and empirical research.

· Abstract systems of ideas that made rational sense, but with study of the real social world.

· Application of scientific method to social issues discover social laws.

· Social analysis and social scientists should be useful to the world create better world.

· Criticism of traditional authority, institutions and beliefs irrationality of these.

· Human growth and development of society occur if tradition gives way to reason.

· Emphasis on the individual rather than society.

Early sociology developed as a result of the new features of thought that emerged out of the enlightenment, and out of the conservative reaction to this. Sociology was first used as a term by Auguste Comte (French, 1798 - 1857) in 1822. He looked on sociology as a science, first calling it social physics. The idea of sociology as the science of society has been adopted by some later sociologists.

These new developments and ideas were important for the development of sociology in several ways.

If Comte represents the first systematic social theory inspired by the reaction to the Enlightenment, it is Marx who was the first theorist to fully work out the implications of the Enlightenment ideas. While Marx grew up and wrote in Germany, where the Enlightenment did not have such strong effects as early as in France, Britain or North America, Marxian thought can be seen as resulting partly from Enlightenment thought.


Burt, S., L. Code and L. Dorney, Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, second edition (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1993). HQ1453 C48 1993

Columbia Encyclopedia, third edition, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963. AG5 C725 1963.

Eisenstein, Zillah, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism (Boston, Notheastern University Press, 1986). HQ1154 E44 1986

Hunt, E. K., Property and Prophets: the Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies, sixth edition, New York, Harper and Row, 1990.

Ritzer, G., Sociological, Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938

Sydie, R. A., Natural Women Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory, Toronto, Methuen, 1987. HM51 S97 1987.

Tong, Rosemarie, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, Westview Press, 1989). HQ1206 T65 1989

Zeitlin, Irving M., Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1990. HM19 Z4

Last edited September 22, 2002

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