Sociology 250

Notes from September 14, 1999

C. The Enlightenment and Liberalism

The Enlightenment refers to an intellectual movement that spans about 100 years from the 1680s to 1789. Preceding this were Galileo, Newton, Francis Bacon (1561-1626, English), René Descartes (1596-1650, French) and others who set out some of the foundations for this new system of thought. Some of these ideas were brought together in England by writers such as Hobbes and Locke -- writers that we now identify as having established the tradition of liberalism.

Enlightenment - influenced Europe and America. French Revolution (1789) and American Revolution (1776). The leading representatives were religious skeptics, political reformers, cultural critics, historians and social theorists (Zeitlin, p. 1).

1. Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679, English) looked on the individual as selfish, concerned with self-preservation and (potentially at least) at war with others. The war of all against all. Life is nasty, bruitish and short. Individuals surrender their 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.

2. Locke

John Locke (1632-1704, English) had a more optimistic view of human nature than did Hobbes, looking on humans as good, rational and tolerant. 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.

Sydie notes though that 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. (Paragraph based on Sydie, Zeitlin and Columbia Encyclopedia).

From Hobbes and Locke, it can be seen that there was a considerable shift away from society and estates (ranks of nobility and the common people) as the basic unit of social analysis. For Hobbes and Locke, social analysis began with the individual, and inherent in each individual were certain qualities, abilities and rights. Out of these, society came about because of a social contract. Note that conservatives would have viewed Locke's notion that the state is the result of "individuals consenting to be governed" as unacceptable.

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 are generally considered to be optimistic in overall outlook, looking on their system of thought as a way to work toward improving the world.

3. 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 social contract and the state of nature and his statement "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 thus very critical of existing society but thought that society could be improved so that each individual could unite with others at the same time as remaining free and equal. 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 see inequality in society and in his writings thought 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.

Characteristics of enlightenment thought. (from Ritzer, pp. 10-11).

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. (a) Most discussions of the origins of sociology trace this to the Enlightenment and the conservative reaction against the Enlightenment from those who wished to preserve the old order. (b) Early sociologists such as Comte were part of this conservative reaction, although they did not think that a return to the old order was possible either. They took some of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and thought that social order could be preserved through some social reforms. In doing this though, this created a fairly conservative sociological school. (c) The Enlightenment forms a basis a more progressive sociological tradition. While sociology as a discipline did not first emerge out of this, today these ideas form a central part of sociology. The tradition of critical thought, empirical research, use of reason, urging social reforms, etc. all have become essential aspects of sociology.

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.



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

Ritzer, George, 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.

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


Last edited on September 17, 1999.

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