Antecedents to Modernity: The Enlightenment

In our previous post, we discussed how media technologies, beginning with the printing press in the Early Modern period in Europe, have been instrumental in forging what we now call the Modern world. Yet as Maruca pointed out in her talk on “cyborg languages,” these technologies must be seen as part of a larger set of shifts in the social fabric, including philosophical, religious, and artistic reformations (which both result from and help to give rise to an expanded print culture). Perhaps most important among these antecedent conditions is the foundation laid for Modernity by the philosophies and theories of the Enlightenment, such as the invention of a secular vision of history, the rise of capitalism, and the increasing dominance of rational empiricism as a means of grasping, predicting, and controlling the natural and social worlds.

What is the Enlightenment?

Defining the “Enlightenment” presents as much of a practical and theoretical challenge as does defining Modernity. In the broadest sense, however, the Enlightenment commonly refers to a period of fundamental (if incremental) social, economic, political, and philosophical change in Western Europe, reaching its zenith in the 18th Century. Buoyed by such influences as the expansion of print, which contributed to vast religious upheavals in Germany and England, and a growing spirit of skepticism, the 18th Century witnessed the rise of an increasingly secular society, deeply suspect of previously accepted hierarchies of dominance. Combined with advances in scientific theory and practice, mathematics, and mechanization, this spirit of skepticism also gave rise to a growing faith in rationalized scientific inquiry predicated on empiricism, which posited that all phenomena and matter in the natural world is somehow observable. Under the assumptions of empiricism, all things can be broken down into their constituent parts, and studied analytically as a means of understanding, predicting, and controlling their overall functions. For an excellent survey and review of what the Enlightenment “meant” to European society, as well as a thoughtful discussion of its influence upon communication and the development of an incipient public sphere, take a look at this lecture from John Merriman, professor of history at Yale:

Lecture 5 – The Enlightenment and the Public Sphere

Religious Rupture, Secularism, and the Role of Media

One of the most important “consequences” of Enlightenment philosophy was the invention of a secular form of history, one that aspired to be free of superstition and the dogmatic assumptions of what Coutney Raina of UCLA (see below) calls a “Catholic Cosmology,” which brought together under the sole dominion of the church natural philosophy, Aristotelean logic, and supernatural/mystical beliefs around life, the afterlife, and salvation.

Mediated culture played a large role in this increasing secularization of society, beginning with a new focus on original Greek and Hebrew copies of religious scripture being analyzed and translated by the multi-lingual, literate, and educated scholars of the Renaissance and Early Enlightenment. When the glaring inconsistencies between these original texts and the Medieval Latin translations upon which the church had established its authority and infrastructure were revealed, the Catholic Cosmology began to unravel. The enormous spiritual and administrative bureaucracy of the Catholic church was shown to be entirely manufactured, and had little or no basis in the original scriptures. With the introduction of print and later, English translations of the Bible (first completed by English reformer William Tyndale) the reproduction of these more authentic scriptures became much easier, and their often-illegal circulation gradually increased, as did a growing reformation movement, demanding the purging of excess, corruption, and the authority of the clergy from the Church. What followed was a period of radical reformation in religious life wrought by a rupture between the traditional Catholic totality and the splintered, sectarian debates of  the Early Modern period. This rupture was filled by a new constellation of printed material, from biblical translations, to bibles printed in the accessible quarto format, to polemical pamphlets. In the second half of the lecture below, Courtenay Raina of UCLA provides an account of this gradual rupture of religious authority in Early Modern Europe.

In this clip, pay particular attention at approximately 54:00, where Raina astutely observes how the sale of indulgences in the pre-Reformation church is far more than just corruption. It is also symptomatic of a nascent merchant class, and an incipient capitalist sensibility that was taking taking shape at the time. The roots of this early capitalist society will be explained more below.

Science, Empiricism, and Rationalism from the Renaissance to the 17th Century: Opening Modernity

With the rise of a more rationalized, scientific society in the wake of the Enlightenment, which demands empirical proof of all claims, the Catholic Cosmology begins to fall apart. Where authority figures in the premodern period, ahead of the advent of empiricism, could simply defer to the word of God as absolute, in an era where someone can say “show me,” or “prove it,” that authority is subsumbed by the authority of rational proof. For an in-depth exploration of the pressure placed upon this cosmology by early scientific thought and Enlightenment philosophers such as Newton and Descartes, review these two lectures, also by Courtenay Raina of UCLA.

Fundamental Astronomy and Skepticism

Enlightenment Science, Rationalism, Empiricism

Extending Rationalism to Economics: Incipient Capitalism

As mentioned earlier, the development of the public sphere addressed by Merriman and the sale of indulgences noted by Raina are also deeply linked to the codification of marketized systems of exchange, which applied the same rational logic of Enlightenment scientific practices to the acts of trade and purchasing that were growing with the proliferation of printed materials. The logic of what is now known as capitalism is one based on dissociation, and upon the relentless atomization of tasks, labour, parts, and production as a means of managing and streamlining even the most minute portions of the manufacturing and distribution process. The rise of capitalism and its eventual naturalization in the Modern period has been looked upon by some as a triumph, and others as a tragic loss. It gave rise to the trade in wealth and material goods that we take as natural today, but also wrought a symbolic and figurative violence upon the family unit, turned millions into what Ewen has called “wage slaves,” and as Marx argued, inflicted irreparable damage upon the modern soul itself, and systematically disenfranchised the majority Proletarians for the benefit of the ruling elite. Later thinkers, heavily influenced by Marx, such as the Frankfurt School critics, would posit that the logic of capitalism, by the late 1930s had effectively dismembered the revolutionary working class, and liquidated the spiritually transformative parts of our culture and our minds of all critical capacity. Again, John Merriman of Yale History provides some insight into the growth of an industrialized society in the early phases of Modernity, and hints at some of the qualities of a life under capitalism: segregated and waged labour, urbanization, and the like.

Lecture 8 – Industrial Revolutions

Paul Heyer, in Communications and History provides an excellent summary of the Enlightenment period and the transformations implicated therein, worth quoting at length:

No matter now it is demarcated there is no shortage of portraits of the era; most depict it as a major break with what went before. For the first time in an extensive way, the elements of human nature, society, and history became subject to examination informed by science and guided by reason. This vision constantly endeavored to separate itself from the theological and abstract metaphysical systems of previous centuries, often daring to question traditional systems of authority in the process.

The social response to the rise of a deeply empiricist culture was varied and debated hotly between a number of ideologies. In the next post, some of the celebratory and critical perspectives on the Enlightenment, capitalism, empiricism, and marketization will be explored, including Socialist reactions from the left, Patrician Conservative reactions from the Right, and classical Liberal/Individualist reactions from more moderate perspectives. Further, we will address the role that communication technologies played in nurturing modern discourses of democracy, freedom, manipulation, and propaganda.


Creative Commons License Attribution:

All UCLA resources used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported license. All attribution goes to the source, at:

All Yale resources used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 license, and are reproduced in their entirety from:

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