[Partly edited October 23, 2013]

18th Century Thinkers Part I
The Philosophes

 I.  Introduction

The great thinkers of the 18th century were proud of their many achievements.  Most would have agreed with Kant in viewing their century as an age of "aufklarung," enlightenment.  But they would also have agreed with Kant's contention that, while is some ways the 18th century was an age of enlightenment, it was not a very enlightened age.  Still, dispite disappointment with the results of "enlightened" changes made by rulers from Frederick the Great to Joseph II to Catherine the Great, the great thinkers of the 18th century were optimistic.  For them, there was one great hope.  Christian revival?  Not at all.  An outbreak of an Age of Aquarius? No, not that either.

The great thinkers of  the 18th century turned to reason for answers to mankind's problems.  They thought reason would end poverty, war, and injustice.  Reason would help them create they ideal political and social system.  Reason would give them the ultimate answers in religion.  They sometimes carried their faith in reason to an irrational extreme. 

Those who thought this way are sometimes grouped together under the generic name "philosophe."  Philosope is just the French word for philosopher, but we use it, not just for any old philosopher, but for a group of (mostly French) thinkers in the 18th century.  Among them, Denis Diderot.

II.  Diderot (Existing knowledge solves problems)

DiderotDiderot is an excellent example of the philosophes faith in human reaons. He believed that many human problems could be solved throught the application of existing knowledge.  We already had the knowledge to solve many human problems.  So why hadn't the problems been solved?  Partly, because too few people had that knowledge and because nobody had it all.  Diderot thought that if existing knowledge could be gathered together and then disseminated as widely as possible, all sorts of things would get better.

But for Diderot, this was going to be something more than a dream.  He gathered together more the 200 experts in various fields.  They worked for more than 20 years to put together the first great French Encyclopedia.  The encyclopedia was published in (ultimately) more than two dozen  beautifullly illustrated volumes, volumes with information on all sorts of subjects.

The Encylopedia included articles on science: useful in helping scientists in one area see what scientists in other areas were working on.  It was a great help in avoiding, the
"reinvention of the wheel" sort of thing that happens when scientific discoveries aren't readily availalble to all those interested.

The Encylopedia included articles on medicine--a good source for getting a "second opinion" on various ailments and their treatment.  It likewise included articles on surgery: articles so good that one could perform state-of-the-art surgery by following the encyclopedia instructions.  Plus, there was information that might save your life, particularly the warning that one shouldn't have surgery if there was an alternative.  In the days before antiseptic surgery, this was a mighty important piece of advice!

The Encyclopedia included lots of information on technology: on mining, rope-making, printing, textile manufacture, etc.  The information was so good that many complained: Diderot was giving away trade secrets, techniques that gave certain manufacturers advantages over their competitors.

The Encylopedia even included information on sports (e.g., tennis) and, once again there was information that might save your life.  The fencing
fencingarticle says, "Never make a thrust without being prepared to parry."

The Encylopedia has articles on everything from marriage to philosophy to law.  And (best of all!), the Encyopedia included some very fine articles dealing with various aspects of history, particularly important (Diderot thought) as a tool for fighting ingnorance and supersition.

[Glancing through some of these translations of Encylopedia articles will give you a great feel for the way the Philosophes approached things. Do take a look!]

III.  Condorcet (Education solves our problems)

Another example of the philosophes' faith in reason, the work of Antoine Nicolas de Condorcet.  Condorcet was an oustanding French mathematician, famous for his essay, "The Progress of the Human Mind."  Condorcet thought that, through education, we would improve our understanding and be able to solve virtually all problems.

Ultimately, the "Progress of the Human Mind" would lead to an end to the following:

1.  An end to social inequality.  Although a nobleman himself, Condorcet thought it absurd for privileges to be allocated simply on the basis of family origins.  Education would make people see this absurdity, and  social inquality would come to an end.

2.  An end of inequality between sexes.  Give women the same education as men, and no doors would be barred to them. 

3.  An end of economic inequality.  People would see the absurdity of distributing wealth is such a way that some had more than they could use in a hundred lifetimes while others went to bed hungry.  And there wouldn't be any reason for economic inequality anyway.  Edcuation would lead to increased economic production, and, once there was more than enough of every good thing for everybody, what reason would there be to try to get more than one's fair share?

4.  An end to war.  Education would let us see the  unnecessary waste of warfare, and, once we saw this,wars would end.

5.  An end of imperialism.  The European countries would see the injustice and inefficiency of their attempts to dominate other peoples and leave them alone.  And, ultimately, the countries of the rest of the world would surpass Europe, because they could learn from European mistakes.

6. An end of disease and (almost) death.  Through education, medical discoveries would eventually solve every human health problem--even old-age-related  problems, and we'd die only as a result of unfortunate accident.

Ultimately, education would give us a perfect society. Men would forget their greed, fear and misery and live in an "Elysium created by reason."

And, of course, Condorcet was absolutlely right--or, maybe not.  Some would argue that education has already done much of what Condorcet had hoped and that, ultimately, it will do still more.  Others would argue that Condorcet has missed something important about human nature: he's more optimistic than he should be.

[In class, I introduce Jean-Jacques Rousseau, telling some stories from his "Confessions."  This is basically background material.  You need only to know that, by his own admission, Rousseau was, in some ways, not a very nice man.  See the next link for Rousseau's political and social ideas: the things I *really* want you to understand.   Reading through Rousseau's Ribbon Story will give you a feeling for Rousseau's character and his writing style.]