The history of Western civilization cannot be neatly divided into precise linear sections. Instead, it must be viewed as a series of developing threads that combine, interact, and, at various intervals, take pervasive shifts. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was one of these paradigm historical shifts, challenging the traditional notions of authority by investing reason with the power to change the human condition for the better. This ecumenical emphasis on reason and independent thought led to an explosion of change and development across science, philosophy, religion, and politics. Later ideologies that would shape the socioeconomic landscape of the next two centuries were themselves shaped by the threads of Enlightenment thought. These threads did not abruptly end, as some would suppose, with the French Revolution, but can still be seen in various modes of thought today.
The importance that the Enlightenment placed upon reason was most obvious in the spheres of science and philosophy. Although this time period saw a rapid increase in scientific knowledge, the overarching idea behind the discoveries was that man could realize his full potential and progress towards perfection through the application of reason. Descartes’ epistemological foundationalism encouraged skeptical analysis in order to arrive at indubitable truth, and set the tone for the new metaphysics that emerged along with a vigorous interest in “natural philosophy” and the inductive study of the physical realm. At the same, however, there was intense philosophical discussion about the nature of the material world that was being studied. Some, like David Hume, believed that we had no way of knowing if our perceptions and the external world actually co...
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