The term ‘Enlightenment’ is used to refer to a period of history (from the 16th to the 18th century) in Europe, but it is also used to describe a state of mind that is linked with the idea of criticism, intellectual development and a change in philosophical thought. “The creation of a new framework of ideas about man, society, and nature” (Hamilton, 1992, p23) this challenged the traditional and existing ideas within a society dominated by Christianity and the religious institutions. In fact the enlightenment is associated with some key European countries, such as France in particular Paris, Germany..etc., and this enlightenment period encapsulates the Intellectual, Political and Scientific enlightenment, which formed the basis of the movement that reached for this new framework of society.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the enlightenment was taking place alongside rapid social change, as the Church’s claim to absolute knowledge was being challenged so was the legitimacy of the monarchies within Europe and the teaching of God given hierarchies. The enlightenment brought about ideas such as empiricism – where the only valid knowledge is the knowledge that is gained through experience, this then led to the criticism of the church and other spiritual ideas that are formed and are reliant on belief rather than experience. Some sociologists such as Immanuel Kant argue that the enlightenment was brought about by “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant,1991), the idea that some individuals gained the courage to break free from this childlike state of mind, where they were just simply accepting the word of the ‘parent’ institutions in society e.g. The Church.
When thinking about the significance this period of enlightenment had to the discipline of sociology, Kilminster (2013) argues that sociology emerged from the developments and institutions in society that it was trying to understand and explain. Through reflecting on the new institutions in society and looking at the structures formed within them, as well as the negative aspects of such institutions the discipline grew. Sociology and sociologists aimed to intervene in the world and make human life better – identifying issues within institutions e.g. Marx was interested in the labouring of workers and their alienation within society. Touraine (1989) developed that sociology defined society through the changes happening, e.g. the changes in the way communities were established and social bonds formed.
The enlightenment and the collection of approaches and thoughts combined numerous ideas, some of which could be said to be inconsistent however as Hamilton (1992) argues there are 10 main ideas forming the paradigm of the enlightenment that all the key thinkers would have agreed on. These include but are not limited to, reason, empiricism, universalism, progress, individualism, toleration, freedom, uniformity of human nature and secularism. Each of these aiming to help with human improvement, allowing people to be independent with their thoughts and reasons, through observance of the world, scientific intelligence and technological developments– rather than continuing the blind acceptance of the church teaching. This could also be referred to as the spirit of the enlightenment, the set of concepts and ideas in a way to understand the world and the people within it. As well as this the objective of acquiring knowledge to reflect on the self, and progressing within society, a place where human kind is not static but to free ourselves from intellectual confinement.
However, these ideas and values of the Enlightenment have often been said to be “Eurocentric” a concept that implies what happens in Europe or the West is universally significant. These ideas of the enlightenment developed in ‘Western’ societies with western norms and cultures surrounding it, the ideas and values that then formed and therefore cannot speak to, or help understand the rest of the world. This concept of ‘the west’ as Stuart Hall (1992) argues, refers to a type of developed society, this is not based on geography or location as one would first assume. Instead it is based on the development of a society, whether it is has gone through processes of industrialisation and urbanisation, Africa, for example, is seen outside of this period of relevant history e.g. outside of the Western culture and way of thinking, this was solidified due to the discourse of the West and the Rest and the actions taken as a result, how the West acted towards the ‘rest’ as Foucault (1972) argued. Using the ideas of the enlightenment and trying to fit the world into the European and therefore ‘Western’ pre-conceived categories and frameworks of social life. This resulted in further exclusion of other countries i.e. ‘the rest’, through the relationships the two parts have with each other.
Yet as Alan Touraine (1989) argues that the interdependence of the West and East are now more generally recognised within the discipline of sociology,
When looking at one of the key ideas of the Enlightenment – rationalisation and applying Beck’s (1999) theory of risk society, it could be said that the way society used to rationalise decisions has turned into the weighing up of choices within daily life. The challenges that these ideas and values of the enlightenment face in modern society is the way society has change the social bonds and answers, e.g. collective solutions are no longer provided for a social problem instead it is seen and understood to be an individual effort to improve one’s life. Therefore, are these ideas of the Enlightenment that only seemed relevant to the ‘west’ relevant anywhere in modern societies, when things such as increased technological developments provide more assumed risks for individuals.
Through looking and understanding the ways that the ideas and values of the Enlightenment impacted sociology as well as whether these were limited to ‘the West’ – limiting its ability to be a universalistic understanding of society, it can be seen that