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Enlightenment Ideologies

Enlightenment Ideologies

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At its core, the Enlightenment was the fusion of a philosophical and scientific movement. Applying newfound scientific methods and knowledge to human behavior and society, philosophers attempted to explain the world better and propose ideas for how it could be better. For many of those philosophers, this included political ideas. In fact, we must remember the Enlightenment today for its contribution to political theory and our notions of Western Democracy. Learn more about the most important Enlightenment Ideologies and how they came about in this article.

Enlightenment Ideology Definition

There were numerous Enlightenment thinkers and authors, and each proposed their own Enlightenment ideologies. In some cases, they held much in common, but in others, they did not. That means it's hard to create a straightforward definition of Enlightenment ideology.

Probably the best Enlightenment ideology definition, therefore, is one that emphasizes their common goal. This way, Enlightenment ideology can best be defined as thinking that attempts to explain and understand all aspects of the world through logic and reason. In a well-known quote from Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, he essentially defined Enlightenment as the ability to think for oneself.

Dare to know! Hav[ing] the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment." 1

Enlightenment Ideologies secular ideologies enlightenment StudySmarterFig 1 - Painting of a French salon meeting with people debating Enlightenment ideologies.

5 Main Ideas of the Enlightenment

There were many different important ideas and ideologies of the Enlightenment. However, the five main ideas of the Enlightenment were:

  1. A strong conviction in reason
  2. Emphasis on human learning and its potential
  3. Religious toleration and priority on secular learning
  4. The belief that the government had a duty or social contract with its citizens
  5. The premise that humanity had certain natural rights

Learn more about these five main ideas of the Enlightenment and other Enlightenment ideologies and ideas in the following sections.

Significant Enlightenment Ideologies

Enlightenment ideologies were closely linked to the Scientific Revolution that came before it. Enlightenment thinkers developed several ideas on philosophy, science, and human nature.

Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution is the name given to many new findings and advances in science in the 16th and 17th centuries. The ideas developed in this period challenged classical science that dated back to the Ancient Greeks. Some of the most important discoveries were made by Issac Newton.

This period also saw the development of the Scientific Method as a way to test hypotheses and attempt to explain natural phenomena through science. Many Enlightenment thinkers applied these methods to attempt to explain human behavior.

Enlightenment Ideologies on Philosophy and Science

Newton and Francis Bacon's ideas on science and experimentation were important forerunners to the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers applied their ideas to their philosophies on human nature and society.

This notion gave rise to the concepts of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism. Learn a bit more about these Enlightenment ideologies and the authors and thinkers associated with them below.

IdeologyDefinitionAuthor(s)/ThinkersMost Important Work(s)
RationalismThe belief that reason is the source of all knowledge and actions should be based on reason and logic rather than religion or emotion.René Descartes
  • Discourse on the Method
  • Meditations on First Philosophy
Baruch Spinoza
  • Ethics
Gottfried Leibniz
  • Discourse on Metaphysics
  • Meditations on Knowledge, Truth, and Ideas
EmpiricismThe idea that knowledge is acquired only through experience and the human senses.Thomas Hobbes
  • Elements of Law
  • Elements of Philosophy
  • Leviathan
John Locke
  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Two Treatises of Government
SkepticismA philosophy that encourages doubt and the questioning of absolute truths, like those expressed by religion.David Hume
  • A Treatise of Human Nature
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

It's worth pointing out that these ideas and their main thinkers should not be seen as silos. There was often dialogue and debate among them. For example, rationalists and empiricists debated whether knowledge could be attained only through experience or also by logic.

Immanuel Kant reconciled this debate by synthesizing rationalism and empiricism. He argued that experience was fundamental to human knowledge, but reason allows humans to process and understand that experience.

Secular Ideologies in the Enlightenment

With their emphasis on reason and science, Enlightenment philosophers rejected the idea of supernatural forces and superstition. This meant they often criticized religion and the institutional church. Thus, secular ideologies and the Enlightenment are closely associated.

However, it is a common misconception that the Enlightenment promoted atheism or was anti-religion. While some Enlightenment thinkers, such as Denis Diderot, did embrace atheism, most did believe in a god and Christianity. Most adopted a religious philosophy of Deism.


A religious belief that there is a creator, a god, who made the world according to scientific principles and natural laws, leaving it to run on its own and not intervening supernaturally. The god of Deism is often called a "clockmaker" god.

While many remained Christian, most Enlightenment thinkers were highly critical of the organized church. The period leading up to the Enlightenment saw the religious conflict of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War. This, along with Enlightenment ideologies like skepticism, led most to adopt a philosophy of religious toleration.

Voltaire stands out as highly critical, while others like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were more conciliatory towards religion itself–they did believe religion pertains to the individual and argued for the separation of church and state.

This is why secular ideologies and the Enlightenment are so closely linked.

Enlightenment Ideologies enlightenment ideology on self-interest StudySmarterFig 2 - A German painting paying homage to Enlightenment poets Goethe, Wieland, Herder, and Schiller.

Individualism and Enlightenment Ideology on Self-Interest

This emphasis on religion as an individual affair is tied to Enlightenment ideology's emphasis on individualism.


An Enlightenment ideology that favored the liberty of individuals to act free from state control.

The ideas of Enlightenment ideology on self-interest are closely associated with French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote an influential book on his observations of the newly independent United States, where he noted that many people voluntarily helped others because they saw it in their own self-interest. He observed that many worked for the greater good of the group as a way also to improve themselves.

The Americans... are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state." 2

Interestingly, de Tocqueville was writing a critique of his native France, where many Enlightenment ideologies had emerged and led to the French Revolution. He felt that individualism had gone too far and believed this concept of Enlightened self-interest and association and working together for the good of all, and, by extension, the good of the individual was better for society.

Another influential thinker that expressed an Enlightenment ideology on self-interest was Adam Smith. Writing about the economy, he imagined the idea of an "invisible hand" that guided people to pursue their own economic interests, which, in his view, would produce the best outcome for everyone.

This view of acting on one's self-interest as a good thing was a significant shift as it, similar to de Tocqueville, contended that acting on one's self-interest was not counter to the good of society as a whole.

Philosophically, this is a tectonic shift in moral prescription. Dominant Christian beliefs had assumed that any self-interested action was sinful and shameful; the ideal person was entirely focused on the needs of others. Smith's commercial society assumes something different. It accepts that the person who focuses on his or her own needs actually contributes to the public good and that, as a result, such self-interest should be cultivated." 3

Enlightenment Ideologies and the Social Contract

Enlightenment Ideologies' emphasis on individualism and liberty did not mean they believed people should have unlimited freedoms and no duty to society. Key to most Enlightenment ideologies was the idea of the social contract.

Social Contract:

The concept that there is an unwritten but implicit agreement between all people in society to give up some freedoms in exchange for security and the greater good. For most Enlightenment ideologies, the social contract required the government to uphold justice and protect the rights and security of its citizens.

Enlightenment Ideologies Rousseau StudySmarterFig 3 - Rousseau.

Natural Rights

The concept of the social contract is closely linked to the Enlightenment ideology of natural rights. John Locke was the thinker who first expressed this concept. For Locke, god's natural laws gave everyone certain rights of life, liberty, and property. He believed the government's main job under the social contract was to uphold these natural rights.

Natural Rights:

Rights that are believed to be given to everyone naturally cannot be taken away, do not have to be earned, and are not dependent on laws, customs, or government.

This idea of natural rights and the duty of the government to protect them became crucial to developing democratic-republican governments based on Enlightenment ideologies.

Impact of Enlightenment Ideologies

The impact of Enlightenment ideologies was enormous. It inspired significant political developments and several revolutions, among them:

  • The Glorious Revolution in Britain
  • United States Independence
  • The French Revolution
  • The Haitian Revolution and Haitian Independence
  • The independence of the Spanish colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean

Exam Tip!

Pick one of the revolutions above and construct a historical argument with at least three examples of how Enlightenment ideologies influenced it.

Enlightenment Ideologies US Declaration of Independence StudySmarterFig 4 - "Signing of the United States Declaration of Independence," a document inspired by Enlightenment ideologies.

Many of these revolutions and their new political systems drew on the Enlightenment ideologies of the separation of church and state, the social contract, and natural rights. They also created the type of democratic representative government that is dominant in Western Europe today.

Criticism of Enlightenment Ideas

Enlightenment ideologies were not totally accepted by everyone in their time or in more recent times.

A Counter-Enlightenment occurred among some European thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries. While not necessarily a unified movement, some criticized the Enlightenment ideologies' lack of regard for emotion and the arts. Romanticism arose in many ways as a reaction against the cold, hard logic of the Enlightenment.

In the 20th century, there were also philosophers who critiqued some of the ideas of the Enlightenment. For example, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's work Dialectics of Enlightenment argue that philosophy has become over-rationalized and trust in reason helped lead to the totalitarianism of fascism and Soviet communism. Michel Foucault made a similar critique that Enlightenment ideologies' elevation of reason promoted monism instead of pluralism.

Enlightenment Ideologies - Key takeaways

  • Enlightenment ideologies promoted the application of reason to human institutions, including government.
  • The secular ideologies of the Enlightenment promoted religious toleration.
  • The Enlightenment ideology on self-interest encouraged people to act for the good of themselves and the good of society as a whole.
  • The Enlightenment's ideologies inspired some revolutions and profound political change toward representative democracy.


  1. Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment, 1784
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.
  3. Jack Russell Weinstein, Adam Smith (1723—1790), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frequently Asked Questions about Enlightenment Ideologies

Some of the main ideologies of the Enlightenment were rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism.

Philosophers focused on different aspects of Enlightenment ideologies, but many focused on explaining human behavior, society, and institutions.

Enlightenment ideologies influenced thinking on a variety of topics and led to support for religious toleration, the social contract and representative government, and the development of human knowledge and potential.

The Scientific Revolution helped lead to Enlightenment ideologies.

The most important effects of Enlightenment ideologies were revolutions and the growth of representative democratic republics as the dominant form of government in Western Europe.

Final Enlightenment Ideologies Quiz

Enlightenment Ideologies Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What helped lead to the Enlightenment?

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The Scientific Revolution

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What did many Enlightenment thinkers believe about human society?

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That it could be explained and perfected through the application of science.

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What is rationalism?

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The belief things can be explained through reason and logic and that it should guide behavior.

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What is empiricism?

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The idea that knowledge is gained through the senses and experiences.

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What is Deism?

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Belief in a creator god that lets the world function autonomously without supernatural intervention.

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What was Enlightened self-interest according to de Tocqueville?

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That people worked together in a group for the good of the group and their own self-interest.

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What was Adam Smith's idea of how self-interest guided the best economic outcomes for everyone?

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The Invisible Hand

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What is the social contract?

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An unwritten agreement where people give up some freedom to a government for security and social development.

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What are natural rights?

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Rights that citizens had by nature, and are inherent to all humans.

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Name at least three revolutions that Enlightenment ideologies influenced.

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Answers can include the Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution, US independence, the Haitian Revolution, and Latin American independence.

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