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Origins of Enlightenment

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Origins of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, is responsible for many of our ideas of democracy and representative government today. The idea that power and authority came from the people and that governments had to protect citizens' inalienable rights came from this era. But just where did the concepts of the Enlightenment come from? The Enlightenment's origins were applying scientific principles to human society. Learn about the Enlightenment's historical context in this summary of the origins of the Enlightenment.

Origins of the Enlightenment: Summary

Any origins of the Enlightenment summary has to begin with two previous historical movements that came before it: the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Both led to a resurgence of science and to explaining the world through observation, experimentation, and rational thinking.

The origins of the Enlightenment came from philosophers applying these ideas to explain and improve human society. A broad intellectual trend that included thinkers in different countries proposing different ideas, it's hard to pin exact dates on the Enlightenment. Still, it can be roughly defined as taking place from about 1680 to 1820, in a period sometimes referred to as "the long 18th century."

The origins of the Enlightenment grew from several thinkers applying reason to their thinking of politics and society. They often challenged existing political and social institutions, especially the church and absolute monarchies. Their ideas helped inspire a wave of political change from the Glorious Revolution to U.S. Independence to the French Revolution.

In the following sections, learn more about the origins of the Enlightenment, its historical context, and some of its thinkers.

Origins of the Enlightenment Summary Voltaire and Rousseau StudySmarter

Painting depicting Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire and Rousseau. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Origins of the Enlightenment Historical Context

The origins of the Enlightenment are intricately connected to intellectual trends that began a few hundred years before, as well as to events in Europe.

Origins of the Enlightenment Causes

The Enlightenment's causes can be traced to the following factors:

  • The Renaissance
  • The Scientific Revolution
  • The Reformation and Religious Strife in Europe

The Renaissance

The Renaissance was an intellectual current that ran roughly from the 14th to the 17th century. By encouraging a return to the classical knowledge and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance helped provoke a focus on man and not the supernatural and religious. The philosophy of humanism arising out of the Renaissance would help contribute to the origins of the Enlightenment.


Humanism emphasizes human actions and human nature over the divine or supernatural and strives to develop the goodness and potential of humans and their common interests.

The Scientific Revolution

This rediscovery of learning and philosophy led to new scientific ideas and theories. Over the 16th and 17th centuries, the Scientific Revolution emerged. New scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton challenged prevailing scientific beliefs. They proposed new ones based on their experiments and findings, sometimes bringing them into conflict with the church and other established institutions.

Meanwhile, men such as Descartes and Bacon blended the ideas of science and philosophy, defining inductive and deductive reasoning and creating the Scientific Method. Above all, the Scientific Revolution held that the world could be explained through reason.

Inductive vs. Deductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is the scientific method of drawing general conclusions based on observing specific evidence, while deductive reasoning starts with the general and makes conclusions about the specific.

“I think, therefore I am."1

Origins of the Enlightenment Thinkers Descartes StudySmarter

Portrait of René Descartes, one of the origins of the Enlightenment thinkers. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Religious Strife and the Weakening of Institutions

The Reformation had set off more than a century of conflict and religious strife in Europe. In particular, the Thirty Years' War had brought suffering to many in the Holy Roman Empire.

This war and the other religious conflicts around Europe led to many criticizing the questioning the church as an institution. Skepticism of religion and calls for toleration and the separation of church and state became critical elements of the Enlightenment. These ideas can be seen as a reaction to the religious strife in the years preceding it.

Exam Tip

Exam questions can ask you about the concepts of change and continuity. Consider how the changes of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Wars of Religion helped provoke the emergence of the Enlightenment. Construct one historical argument for how each caused the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment Applies Reason to Human Society and Institutions

The new emphasis on learning, questioning, and applying logic and reason was soon extended beyond explaining strictly scientific phenomena to explaining human behavior, society, and institutions. This application of reasoning to improve human society characterized the Enlightenment's ideas.

Some of the scientific ideas that the Enlightenment applied include:

  • Empiricism: the notion that knowledge comes from experience and the senses
  • Skepticism: being doubtful and questioning assumed truths
  • Rationalism: the theory that opinions and beliefs should be based on reason and knowledge rather than religion or emotion

These ideas encouraged the challenge of traditional forms of power and the organization of society. Many Enlightenment thinkers, in particular, criticized absolute monarchy and the institutionalized church. Religion became increasingly seen as a private rather than a public matter, and the idea of a social contract where the government was meant to serve the citizens became more widely held.

These new ideas were discussed and disseminated in salons and meeting rooms of the aristocracy and emerging bourgeoisie upper-middle class.

Origins of the Enlightenment Thinkers John Locke StudySmarter

John Locke, another essential origin of the Enlightenment thinker. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Origins of the Enlightenment Thinkers

It's hard to attribute the origins of the Enlightenment to anyone or one group of thinkers. Different thinkers in different countries came to similar and other conclusions and ideas. Still, they were guided by applying logic and rationalism to explain and better human institutions.

The table below shows a few of the Enlightenment thinkers' origins and contributions.

Origins of the Enlightenment Thinkers
Ideas and Contributions
René Descartes
Descartes is credited with founding the rationalist pillar of the Enlightenment. He encouraged the use of doubt as a way to reach the truth.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
A German mathematician and philosopher whose idea that everything can be explained through reason was another vital contribution to the origins of the Enlightenment.
His Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, applied Bacon's empiricism or idea of learning through observation and experimentation to philosophy and human knowledge. He argued all human knowledge comes from the senses. Locke would go on to make essential contributions to the idea of the social contract as well.
David Hume
Hume expressed a strong current of skepticism. His constant questioning promoted the Enlightenment's challenging of established norms and institutions.
Diderot's work on the Encyclopedia, a massive compilation of explanations written by different Enlightenment scientists, thinkers, and philosophers, helped spread the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Multiple other important Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant participated in this movement. However, the ones above were some of the most important for the foundations of the Enlightenment.

Interesting Origins of the Enlightenment's Facts

See some compelling origins of the Enlightenment facts below:

  • The definition of the Enlightenment is often attributed to German thinker Immanuel Kant in an essay called "What is Enlightenment?" published in 1784. He argued that Enlightenment was man learning and deciding to use their understanding.
  • Liberty, tolerance, and separation of church and state were key ideas common for many Enlightenment thinkers.
  • Locke's work in the 1680s is often considered the start of the Enlightenment.
  • Napoleon's seizing of power, ending the more radical period of the French Revolution, is often considered a signal of the end of the Enlightenment.
  • Diderot's Encyclopedia was the first Encyclopedia widely available to the public.
  • Somewhat ironically, some absolutist monarchs, such as Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great, attempted to apply ideas of the Enlightenment in their governing and are often called Enlightened Despots.
  • Adam Smith's work during the Enlightenment is often credited as the foundation of ideas of market capitalism.

Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding is the motto of the Enlightenment."2

Origins of Enlightenment - Key Takeaways

  • The origins of the Enlightenment grew out of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.
  • Origins of the Enlightenment thinkers applied the ideas of scientific understanding, rationalism, and empiricism to human society and institutions.
  • Enlightenment thinkers challenged established norms and institutions.


  1. René Descartes, Discourse on the Method, 1637.
  2. Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment?," 1784.

Frequently Asked Questions about Origins of Enlightenment

The basis of the Enlightenment grew out of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution with their emphasis on mankind and the ability to explain things using reason.

The Enlightenment was caused by philosophers and thinkers applying the ideas of the Scientific Revolution to try and explain and perfect human society and institutions.

The Enlightenment is often seen as originating in England but it also emerged with its own versions in France and the Germanic states.

It's difficult to pinpoint an exact date for when the Enlightenment in Europe started, but most historians consider that it started in the 1680s with the publication of works from Newton and Locke.

The Thirty Years' War contributed to the Enlightenment's ideas of religious toleration. Many had seen the horrors of religious conflict and wanted a more tolerant and stable society.

Final Origins of Enlightenment Quiz


What is the Enlightenment sometimes called?

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The Age of Reason

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Which philosopher is often credited with defining the meaning of Enlightenment?

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Immanuel Kant

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Roughly what years did the Enlightenment take place?

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1680-1820 or over the course of the 18th century

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What two earlier intellectual trends contributed to the start of the Enlightenment?

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The Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution

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How did the Renaissance contribute to the origins of the Enlightenment?

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It encouraged humanism and focus on humans and the natural over the supernatural.

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How did the Scientific Revolution contribute to the origins of the Enlightenment?

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It led to the belief that everything could be explained by the reason and rational thinking.

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How did the religious wars contribute to the origins of the Enlightenment?

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It helped cause criticism of the institutional church and established authorities.

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What is empiricism?

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The idea that things can be explained through experience and the human senses.

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What is skepticism?

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Applying doubt and questioning

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What is rationalism?

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The idea that beliefs should be based on reason

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