Relationship Between Enlightenment and Sociology

2174 words (9 pages) Essay in Sociology

01/06/17 Sociology Reference this

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The theory of social development and progress was the key concept of the Enlightenment [Ray,13]. The experience of Renaissance – recovery from the “dark ages”, rediscovery of antique philosophy, the expansion of colonialism and exploration of non-European cultures, violated established order and lead to expansion of new ideas doubting tradition. The Enlightenment recognized that human history changes, that societies experience material and mental, moral, or philosophical progress. That modernity is just another stage of development, that does not lead the end of history, but might be as well a beginning of some better, new society. Eighteen century thinkers considered reason as the leading force of change, believing, that human knowledge and consciousness may develop linearly. Since the Enlightenment was an age of science and reason, philosophers tend to classify and order possessed knowledge. That lead to a few theories of historical stages development of societies that arranged historical periods in progressive order, as Turgot and Condorset did [Ray, 13-15].

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The Enlightenment’s attachment to the idea of progressive development of societies lead to the ideas of future utopia – final, goal stage of social evolution. It was a very optimistic concept of history, leading from dark, oppressive periods in the past, through ambiguous and chaotic modernity, to some “enlighten”, better, just future. Such utopian vision was described by Condorcet, for whom future society would prevail tyranny by changing tradition and superstition into reason [Ray, 15]. Delany wrote of the Enlightenment as “…characterized by a certain utopianism, which was a reflection of the belief in the promises of modernity to bring about freedom. Unlike earlier social thought, it displayed a great belief in the power of human action to shape the future” [Delany, Blackwell, 23]. The same was true for Marx, who saw communism as the perfect and most of all – just social system. For Marx the end stage of human history – communism – represented the most desired and final phase of human development. As Sideman wrote: “Marx never gave up his Enlightenment faith in the coming of a new era” [Sideman, 1998, 36].

But contrary to the Enlightenment philosophers, for Marx the utopia was not to be obtained through evolution and development of reason, but through revolution of working class. The idea of revolution was not present in eighteen century before the experience of French revolution. Though it is sad that the Enlightenment prepared the ground for the revolt in France, works of eighteen century thinkers did not appeal to force or violent change. Marx shared the romantic vision of with socialist thinkers and activists supporting French strife. Moreover, unlike his eighteen century ancestors, Marx sought emancipation in proletariat – the working class of modernity. The Enlightenment was an age of intellectuals, giving special role to philosophers in the process of development of society [Szacki]. In eighteen century thought reason had the emancipatory force. Marx violent vision of revolution did not reserved place for intellectuals, though Marx was one of them. ….

Ideologies and religion

The end of the Middle Ages ended the era of gods laws and theological explanation of social order. The Enlightenment separated religion form politics. Eighteen century brought to life the concept of public – private spheres. Religion became private matter of citizens. God’s rights no longer decided on political questions and social relations. Secular society was based on secular rules. The Enlightenment believed in reason and science, and through them sought emancipation from religion and superstition. “Social change required that cultural traditions be weakened to allow for new ideas and attitudes favoring social progress” [Seidman, 1998, 34]. Religion and tradition constrained social change and overruled the utopian vision of future. It does not mean that the Enlightenment was a truly secular area. Rejection of religion covered only public, political sphere. None of the great philosophers of the period – Becon, Diderot, Locke – postulated atheism [Ray, 13]. The issue was to separate religion from science, theology from logical reasoning. Religion intruded cognition, so had to be abandoned in the sphere of knowledge.

Marx also shared with the Enlightenment the concept of secular society. Though he brought the idea of secularization further. For Marx every ideology and meta-narration of society in every stage of its development was a product of current economic relations, so was the religion. Religion, internalized rules, regulations and prohibitions, served justification of the conditions of production and hence the justification of exploitation. In this sense religion was a mechanism of oppression. That is why, according to Marx, emancipation not only required rejection of theological order of the world, but also complete rejection of religion. Once again this emancipation required revolution – dramatic and sudden change of economic conditions that would change social relations, including execution of religion. In this sense religion was not a private issue, but a political one, that justified bourgeois order. As in the eighteen century – religion obstructed change – this time, though, it was not suppose to be withdraw from public life, but destroyed absolutely. Revolution guaranteed changing social order not only in the sphere of production, but also in the sphere of religion.

The role of science

The Enlightenment was the era of development of sciences. A great expand of sciences such as mathematics, medicine, natural sciences changed the view of modern philosophers on the world and human kind. Science revealed mystery of existence and the order of nature. That is why science become one of the ways to obtain individual freedom. Science lead to discovery of logical, rational order of human and societal relations. For Marx science also had an important role in revealing the rules of organization of society. Marx knew that “in order to change, it is necessary to understand the social forces – institutions, cultural traditions, social groups” [Seidman, 1998, 34]. In Marx’ theory science held the explanatory role by revealing the real nature of social order, gives information about social classes, modes of production and rules of historical development. According to Marx, science should be based on rational assumptions, logical laws, it should reject common sense and superstitions.

Economic perspective

Though Marx’ theory shares materialistic perspective, he was not the one to introduce economic interpretation of social life. Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and others eighteen century thinkers saw the leading role of economy in social life. Those early economists wrote about dehumanization of work and disintegration of society through modern specialization of production and technical development of the production process [Ray, 15]. Capitalist revolution of eighteen century brought new phenomena that were not overlooked by present-day thinkers. Negative effects of industrialization, demographic explosion and urbanization were thoroughly discussed by that time.

As we can see, the importance of material conditions for human individual and collective life was not the Marx’ invention, though he also observed that technology destroys social relations. Innovations, machines and devices used in the process of production serve the dominant class for exploitation of workers [Ray, 65]. Nevertheless, with his materialistic view on society, Marx went further, with the idea that: “the reproduction of material life precedes the production of culture” [Seidman, 1998, 37]. For Marx material conditions of existence were the basis for all other characteristics of life. According to Marx, living conditions determine social structure, policies, rules and morality. Marx showed that certain social conditions shape certain forms of consciousness. That was a great contribution of Marx’ thought to social sciences. Since Marx, social scientists began research on the role of material conditions on human thoughts, believes and attitudes, giving a start to many disciplines of social sciences, as sociology of thought, sociology of knowledge or sociology of religion [Szacki, 231]. Moreover, since Marx, social scientists consider development process and ownership relations of societies as the most important criteria of social studies analysis.

The concept of state

Enlightenment – to find such origins of social order not to limit freedom. How to reconcile freedom and social order. Enlightenment the idea of individual in society – free form state, church and other collective forms of organizations. Civil society idea – freedom through civil rights. In search of order based on rational assumptions.

The role of philosopher as a leading role in creating social order, morality. Intelectuals [Szacki, 84, Ray, Enlightenment, 11].

All stages of development according to Marx were different social formations. Those formations were direct creations of economic relations within society. The most thorough fully described formation was bourgeois one. It was contemporary, most developed and differentiated mode of production. Capitalism stage of development was characterized by binary class structure, where one class was the group of society that sold their work and did not own other means of productions – the workers, while the other was the group of owners of means of production that benefited from workers work – the capitalists.

Individualism and collective action

In earlier philosophy status of human being in society was constant and determined not by human himself but by external forces – the world order, god’s will, some kind of justice and internal sense of social existence. Enlightenment and especially the French revolution, brought the idea of civil society and civil rights [Szacki, 85]. The Enlightenment claimed that all human beings share some common characteristics that are independent of external, historical or natural conditions. It was a kind of individualism, that claimed that human nature in general have some common characteristics inherited form the state of nature. That is what makes society egalitarian – differences between human status in society are merely secondary. In this sense that all (male) human beings are equal and share the same civic rights. Emancipation in this context was a political emancipation of citizens form feudal, traditional relations.

Marx connected human position in social structure with material conditions and idea of work and ownership. For him the idea of society was not based on the idea of civil rights but on the idea of economic relations between different social groups – classes. It was dichotomous vision of society made of workers and capitalists – the owners of means of production. Emancipation was possible not on the basis of civil rights but on the basis of changing economic relations. This was a revolutionary perspective leading to turnover of social order. Unlike the Enlightenment, Marx’ did not perceived emancipation and concept of freedom in individual actions. He clearly rejected individualism – both in terms of individual social actions and as the method of inference about human conditions. Marx claimed that every individual is rooted in his collective history and society, and his consciousness, as well as beliefs, goals and needs are shaped through that heritage. That is why not only analysis of human conditions, but also the projected change of social relations, has to take into consideration collective baggage and collective effort. That is why Marx shared the belief that “…individuals do not act on ideas primarily because they are true of have been “proven” correct, but on the basis of their self-interest. Ideas may shape our actions, but our social interests determine which ideas we adopt.


Critical theory

Marx’ is perceived as the father of critical theory. As Bryan wrote it “…classical sociology is a critical discipline, because it represents typically an attack on the taken-for-granted assumptions of bourgeois, utilitarian liberalism. This critical tradition is conventionally associated with Marxism [Bryan s. Turner, Blackwell, 9]. But one cannot negate that critical attitude was characteristic for the Enlightenment thought. XVIII century philosophers questioned traditions, religions, authorities, beliefs, metaphysics and everything else that was not perceived rational. Marx’ theory gave basis for future revolutions, but it was the Enlightenment thought that was a mother of French Revolution. In this sense the Enlightenment theories were the first revolutionary theories, revolutionary through their critique, doubt and rejection. Marx only developed further this critical perspective, but he was not the first one to neglect contemporary, well established order.

…our social interests are determined by our social position, in particular our class status” [Seidman, 1998, 34]

“Marx and Engels aimed to shift the focus of social criticism from the analysis of consciousness and the evolution of ideas to that of the development of social institutions and conflicts” [Seidman, 1998, 37]

Historical materialism “class dynamics shape the organization of socioeconomic systems which in turn, determine the structure and direction of the whole society” [S, 38]

Class theory of society, class struggle

Power comes from the ownership of means of production

social theory becomes the “critique of political economy,” [Delany, Blackwell, 25]

New constructs: commodification, class-struggle, profit, surplus value

Marx’s social theory was a critical one. Critique does not try to explain or simply interpret society for its own sake, but is inherently critical of the prevailing social order and seeks to reveal the system of domination. [Delany, Blackwell, 25]

Karl Marx, effectively replaced philosophical analysis with an advanced social theory of modern society. [Delany, Blackwell, 23]


Reason vs. modes of production

Reason vs. false consciousness

Reason vs. ownership

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