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The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment in Britain, to David Hume | The French: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Encyclopedists and Nicholas de Condorcet | Germany, Leibniz and Kant

The Enlightenment in Britain, to David Hume

It was Britain's Whigs who supported constitutional monarchy and government based upon the consent of the governed. They also believed that Britain's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89 was justified in attaining such a government. Among the Whigs were wealthy businessmen and a few progressive aristocrats. In the area of religious faith, some Whigs saw themselves as having a view of God more progressive than that of the established religions, mainly the Church of England, whose Supreme Governor remained Britain's monarch.

Among the Whigs were pantheists, believing that God was everywhere. The pantheists were responding to Newtonian physics, seeing the universe as having spatial dimensions and as mechanized, working without interventions from spiritual forces, with nature not being apart from God or God apart from nature.

Also in Britain were those called Freemasons. They were a society with secrets, but they did not try to keep secret their society's existence. The Freemasons had origins as a craft guild and had grown to a fraternity of progressives that included men of the middle and upper classes. Their meetings and banquets were egalitarian, and they were unconcerned about religious affiliation. Not belonging to or attending a church, their local lodges provided them with a substitute sense of community. They described themselves as men of charity and reason against all that burdened rather than liberated their fellow human beings. And they claimed to be neutral in politics.

Britain's radical intellectuals admired the writings of Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a French philosopher and academician who had been exiled to the United Netherlands. Bayle advocated religious toleration. He questioned Christian traditions and derided superstitions. His writings stimulated an interest in science – one engine of the Enlightenment. Bayle applied science to medicine as had Hippocrates in ancient Greece.

The rise in interest in scientific medicine was accompanied by an inoculation controversy. The wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman capital at Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, learned of the success of inoculations by medical professionals there. In 1718, she returned to Britain and spoke in support of inoculations. Some traditionally-minded people denounced inoculation as unnatural and impious, but inoculations were begun in London.

Bishop Berkeley

In philosophy, John Locke (1632-1704) was followed fifty years later by an Anglican bishop, George Berkeley, pronounced BARKley, (1685-1753). Berkeley, like Locke, believed that knowledge arose from the senses, but his simple empiricism had become complicated. Newton's discoveries, first published in the late 1680s, involved a lot of mathematics. Berkeley addressed the question how it was that signals arising from outside a person's brain were transposed into knowledge. Berkeley took the position that defied common sense. He concluded that we cannot claim that what we see is actually connected to a world outside our mind. With this arose the amusing suggestion that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, the event did not occur. Berkeley assumed that all reality was idea and that idea was God. He believed that whatever existed did so because God perceived it. Then came other interpretations of mind related to matter.

David Hume

David Hume

Painting of David Hume

Following Berkeley in philosophy was a Scot from Edinburgh: David Hume (1711-1776). His kind of potential had often been lost, but times had changed. Advances had been made in education in Europe. Born in a tenement, Hume was another of those youngsters of modern times accepted at a university while still a child: he started attending Edinburgh University at the age of twelve. He was urged to study law, but he preferred broader reading, and he had a nervous breakdown from which it took a few years to recover.

Like many others, Hume was influenced by the science of Newton, and he was influenced by the epistemology of Locke. In his early adulthood Hume wrote essays and a six-volume work titled The History of England, attempting impartiality and more than the deeds of kings and statesmen. Looking at economic issues empirically he predated Adam Smith and wrote of money as a means of exchange rather than wealth itself. Wealth, he said, existed in commodities – things sought and traded. Nations were poor, he claimed, because they did not produce enough that could be traded.

While living in France, Hume wrote his Treatise of Human Nature, the first two volumes of which were published in 1739 and the third in 1740, when he was not yet in his thirties. He had wanted literary fame and had hoped for vehement attacks, but only a few were aware of his work, and he went on to obscurity and simple jobs to make a living. But by 1660 he would be known to those few people in Western Europe who called themselves philosophers.

Hume was to become known as one of the important figures of the Enlightenment. Among his contributions was his recognition of the difference between matters of fact and matters of value. Moral judgments, he held, were matters of value because they were about sentiments and passions.

Hume saw humanity as more inclined to emotion than to reason. In his own effort at reason he worked on the problem of the connection between the senses and knowledge, and rather than attempt to resolve the problem, as Berkeley had attempted, he chose to leave the matter unexplained.

Hume was a skeptic, which separated him from those still trying to create a large, comprehensive system of thought. He was as absolute in his skepticism as the ancient Macedonian skeptic, Pyrrhon, had been. He believed that one either knew or did not know something. In Hume's time, truth as approximation – the accepted method of science into the 21st century – was not commonly recognized among philosophers as a valid point of view.

But he did believe in holding ideas tentatively, in other words being on the alert and ready to give up false ideas for correct ones. The difference between Hume and the writers of metaphysics was that they made claims with absolute certainty – befitting a religious frame of mind – although in opinion they often differed from one another.

A part of Hume's skepticism was not supporting conclusions about the world not known through the senses. He believed in making generalizations from perceived particulars – the way scientists create their hypotheses. He was aware of what became known as the induction fallacy, expressed today by a professor who wrote a book called the Black Swan – that after seeing a hundred white swans it would be false to assume that all swans are white. As a believer in science he saw the purpose of empirical investigation as replacing assumptions with better generalizations.

Hume entertained generalizations built on assumption that made him a man of his time. He wrote:

There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.

He described the accomplishments of a black person he had heard about in Jamaica as "slender" and "like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly."


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