The Hamilton readings portray the Enlightenment as both a path breaking and somewhat contradictory era. This was a period of intellectual development and philosophy in the eighteenth century. They believed in rationalism, reasoning and use of science in bringing about change and progress in society. The theory was influential in the three areas:
Society and moral science: They saw the study of man as the key to understanding society. A man’s emotions and knowledge was as a result of his experience, or empiricism. Men had been corrupted by wrong morals, models and laws and this knowledge needed to be changed in order to influence man to be a better person. Man needed new scientific knowledge to be a better person (Hall Stuart, David Held, Hubert Don & Thompson Kenneth, 13). Saint- Simon (1780-1825) perceived himself to be taking the enlightenment ideas into a new level. He advocated for social re-organization with scientists as the new spiritual leaders since people were now enlightened and the church could not maintain its authority.
The ideas on social sciences were however contradictory. The philosophers wished to separate moral philosophy from religious theology which they viewed as repressive. They wanted moral philosophy to be put on a scientific and rational base and knowledge. Unfortunately separating facts and values would be difficult. If science was neutral how its results would be expected to affect the social and cultural values of a society. This contradiction however helped in the development of social sciences. It created the study of two areas that is naturalism and control of prejudice. Naturalism is the cause and effect principle in the natural world and not relying on spiritual explanations while control of prejudice means a scientist cannot allow his prejudices to influence his research and experiments and there was also the issue of cultural relativism.
Progress and Modernity: The enlightenment theory sought to demolish the traditional views of existence of the world and replace them with scientific knowledge. The traditional views spread by the church on creation, man’s purpose and destiny and nature and society were based on the Christian theology. The philosophies, people who advocated for enlightenment sought to remove the existing knowledge at that time. Galileo’s theory of the planets and Newton’s discovery of gravity was used to tell society on the importance of science to explain nature and society. They saw the Christian views as increasing ignorance and superstition (Hall et al, 24). On the other hand the use of science would help man progress and attain modernity. This brought a lot of conflict and misunderstandings. The political authorities who were Christian saw the enlightenment as a way of the people to rebel and overthrow governments. Conte in 1798-1857 was the first person to refer to scientific study of society as sociology. He put forward that society has progressed through a series of stages that occurred in the human mind and affected society in terms of social organization, social units and forms of social order. (Hall et al, 33). These contradictions on the religion influenced Conte to search for the role of religion. He believed Religion helped in bringing people together and reducing violence. Later Emile Durkheim provided theories and methodology on the study of society that led to Sociology being studied in the universities.
Intellectualism and literature: Enlightenment brought a great cultural change in communication as secular and cross-cultural ways leading to different scientific institutions such as the scientific journal, conference and scientific academy. Discussions were held by writers discussing their work. The philosophers saw their writings reducing political, social and religious intolerance. This was however debatable.
The aspects of equality and freedom enlightenment advocated for were not being observed fully. The philosophers were mainly people of influence and wealthy people. They did not make an effort to incorporate the greater mass population who were poor and not well off. The philosophers did not see the women as equals either. They produced literature that either ignored women totally or propagated women as inferior beings. The views spread of women still continued to be traditional views. It seemed there was no enlightenment for women. The American Revolution and the war of independence in the late eighteenth century showed that a new republic could be created free from monarchial rule. The republic could embrace enlightenment ideas that advocated for equality. Unfortunately though enlightenment advocated for equality America practiced slavery. This view was further highlighted by Garth Massey in his sociological readings when he asserted that although enlightenment was meant to bridge the gaps of social inequalities, this has far not been the case with witnessed increase in slavery and racism and economic inequality. He posits that enlightenment ushered in a new era where the traditional limits of men were put to question and instead led to the championing of the rights of the common people, slaves and the minority tribes.
The enlightenment ideas were a paradigm shift that had positive and negative aspects but both aspects led to the emergence of social sciences.
Hall Stuart, David Held, Hubert Don & Thompson Kenneth. Modernity An introduction to modern societies. (Edited). Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996