Sociology and the Age of Enlightenment
The origins of sociological thinking as we know it today can he traced to the scientific revolution in the late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries and to the Age of Enlightenment In this period of European thought, emphasis was placed on the individual's possession of critical reasoning and experience. There was also widespread skepticism regarding the primacy of religion as a source of knowledge and heartfelt opposition to traditional authority. A basic assumption of the Enlightenment was that scientific laws had been designed with a view to human happiness and that the "invisible hand" of either Providence or the emerging economic system of capitalism would ensure that the individual's pursuit of enlightened self-interest would always be conducive to the welfare of society as a whole. In France, the Enlightenment (also referred to as the Age of Reason) was dominated by a group of thinkers referred to collectively as the philosophes. The philosophes included such well-known intellectuals as Charles Montesquieu (1689- I 755), [ean- Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Jacques 'Iurgot (1727- 178]). They defined a philosopher as one who, trampling on prejudice. tradition. universal consent, and authority-in a word. all that enslaves most minds dares to think for himself, to go back and search for the clearest general principles, and to admit nothing except on the testimony of his experience and reason (Kramnick, 1995). For the most part, these men were optimistic about the future, believing that human society could be improved through scientific discoveries. In this view, if people were free from the ignorance and superstition of the past. they could create new forms of political and economic organization such as democracy and capitalism, which would eventually produce wealth and destroy aristocracy and other oppressive forms of political leadership. Although women were categorically excluded from much of public life in France because of the sexism of the day. some women strongly influenced the philosophes
and their thinking through their participation the sa lOll-an open house held to stimulate discussion and intellectual debate. Salons provided a place [(,r intellectuals and authors to discuss ideas and opinions and for women and men to engage in witty re part regarding the issues of the day. but the "brotherhood" of philosophers typically viewed the w: nen primarily as good listeners or mistresses more than as intellectual equals, even though the men sometimes later adopted the women's ideas as if they were their own. However. the writings of WoLlstonecraft (1759-1797) reflect the Enlightenment spirit. and her works have recently received recognition for influencing people's thoughts on the idea of human equality. particularly as it relates to social equality and women's right to education. For women and men alike. the idea of observing how people lived in order Lo find out what they thought. and doing so in a systematic manner that could be verified. did not take hold until sweeping political and economic changes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries caused many people to realize that several of the answers provided by philosophers and theologians to some very pressing questions no longer seemed relevant. Many of these questions concerned the social upheaval brought about by the age of revolution. particularly the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and the rapid industrialization and urbanization that occurred first in Britain. then in Western Europe. and later in the United States.