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The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment occurred due to a wide range of cultural and intellectual transformations by European thinkers, in particular, and societies, in general, that allowed them to find structured approaches to conceptualizing and exploring the natural world. The radical reorientation of political and philosophic worldviews channeled by learned individuals such as Kuhn, Newton, and Locke led to the large-scale accumulation of knowledge and experience aided by rational questioning (Wiesner-Hanks 366-367). This paper aims to discuss the Scientific Revolution and Age of Reason and their implications for the cultural, political, economic, and social lives of Europeans.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe were intellectually tumultuous times during which old approaches to the exploration and explanation of the world were gradually displaced by the succession of independent thinkers (Wiesner-Hanks 366-369). The philosophers of the Enlightenment searched for order in the natural sciences and tried to apply principles and methods discovered in it to social sciences, thereby achieving intellectual liberation (Wiesner-Hanks 367). Writings of a French mathematician Rene Descartes exemplify the application of mathematical rigor to the interpretation of the reality.
The mathematician was firm in his conviction that every phenomenon or piece of information that is regarded as truth should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny that presupposes “long chains of reasoning” (qtd. in Brians et al. 78). Works of a French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau help to understand why the transformation of European thought has initiated far-reaching political changes. The philosopher rejects the violation of natural liberties and writes that “the general will alone may direct the forces of the State to achieve the goal for which it was founded, the common good” (Rousseau 244).
The intellectual movements later dubbed as the Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment resulted in the development of the public sphere in which individuals from different academic and social backgrounds debated new theories and exchanged ideas. The emergence of shared spaces open to scientific debate contributed to the propagation of the inquiring spirit of the era, which helped to shape the cultures of many European states. Public opinion mirrored tastes of intellectual elites; therefore, middle-class households, which were becoming increasingly wealthier in the eighteenth century, purchased pieces of art that were deemed as worthy by connoisseurs sponsored by aristocratic patrons (Wiesner-Hanks 372). In addition to changing the public perception of arts, the Enlightenment also changed people’s views on religion, politics, knowledge, and the natural world, among others.
When analyzing the influence of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment on European life, one cannot help but notice that the era transformed the scientific and cultural arenas in equal measure. Although they are seemingly contrasting areas of human endeavor, the intellectual movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were equally brazen in destroying their lingering tenets and dogmas. Thus, the question might arise whether the scientific and artistic structures of the pre-Enlightenment era were built on the ground that was particularly prone to erosion? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider their basic qualities.
Art in the seventeenth century was preoccupied with the aggrandizement of both religious and secular rulers. Fussy and decorative curved forms of palaces were built to emphasize monarchs’ achievements. Ornate ecclesiastical paintings were produced to elevate the Catholic Church. Instead of looking for new ways of artistic expression, architects, painters, dramaturgs, and composers were utilizing orthodox methods. However, the revolutionary vision of the new era imbued artists of the following centuries with the desire to abandon the beaten path. It means that the artistic structure that had been underpinned by the rigidity of the tradition was not shatterproof. The scientific desire to unearth new patterns overflowed the lecture halls of academia and changed the cultural vocabulary of Europe. The intermingling of inquiring minds from the opposite ends of the creative spectrum produced the biggest change in the world outlook previously known to humanity.
The forceful abandonment of long-standing beliefs and the desire to question everything marked the arrival of the new era in human history. Continental thinkers such as Rousseau and Descartes helped to free the concept of knowledge from its religious overtones that marred it for millennia. Thus, it can be argued that ostensibly contradictory drives towards the accumulation of information in science and the renunciation of knowledge in art, which started in the eighteenth century, both originated from the same place. The two movements stemmed from the desire to disengage from old structures and authorities. A corollary was that people had to build new power structures. Therefore, the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment served simultaneously as ushers and drivers of the new age.
The paper has discussed the transformation of the nature of knowledge that occurred during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. It has been argued that the abandonment of the theological framework as an instrument for analyzing the reality shifted many tectonic plates of the Western Culture, which led to the consequential changes in science, art, politics, and philosophy. The emergence of new ideas resulted in societal metamorphoses that made impossible the existence of old explanations of reality and man.
Brians, Paul, et al. editors. Reading About the World. Vol. 1, 3rd ed., Harcourt Brace Custom Books, 1999.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Contrat Social ou Principes du Droit Politique. Translated by Henry A. Myers, Garnier Freres, 1800.
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Early Modern Europe: 1450-1789. Cambridge University Press, 2006.