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The Enlightenment (1650–1800)

History SparkNotes

Skepticism and Romanticism

The French Enlightenment

The German Enlightenment

1748 Hume publishes An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
1762 Rousseau publishes The Social Contract
1770 Rousseau finishes Confessions
Key People
David Hume -  Scottish thinker and pioneer in skepticism who questioned the human ability to know anything with certainty
Jean-Jacques Rousseau -  Swiss-French writer and philosopher who espoused democracy in The Social Contract and inspired the Romantic movement with Confessions and other works

New Movements

As the Enlightenment progressed into the mid-1700s, a noticeable shift occurred away from the empirical, reason-based philosophies of most of the leading French and English thinkers. The new philosophies that developed tended to take one of two major directions. Romanticism, a philosophy strongly attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stressed emotion and a return to the natural state of man instead of the confines and constructs of society. Skepticism, which gained prominence under Scottish philosopher David Hume and was later elevated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (see Kant, p. 33), questioned whether we as human beings are truly able to perceive the world around us with any degree of accuracy. These two movements, along with Church anti-Enlightenment propaganda and increasing unrest as the French Revolution neared, marked a departure from those thoughts that dominated the peak of the Enlightenment.


David Hume (17111776) was a Scottish writer and philosopher who paved the way for the future of the skeptical school of thought. A dogmatic skeptic, he devoted a substantial portion of his work to investigating the limits of human reasoning. Hume began his career in law but soon decided to devote himself to writing and philosophy. His first major work was A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), a book that, though now highly regarded, went widely ignored because of its complicated prose. Hume made up for this oversight in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), in which he rearticulated much of the same material in a more approachable manner.

Hume’s studies, which have since become fundamental in modern Western philosophy, focus on reason, perception, and especially morals. Hume questioned whether the senses, and thus perception, could be trusted for a consistent view of the world around us. In considering morality, Hume felt that if a person found a particular action reasonable, then that action was a morally appropriate thing to do. By adding this introspective, individual layer to the issues of perception and morality, Hume stripped the philosophical world of its generalizations.

Indeed, the unrelentingly skeptical Hume believed that everything was subject to some degree of uncertainty—an idea that turned the intellectual world on end. Regardless of how he himself felt about Enlightenment ideas, he kept returning to one thought: because we will never know anything beyond a doubt, why bother? Hume also applied his skeptical approach to science and religion, saying that even though neither was capable of fully explaining anything, science was stronger because it could admit that it would never be absolutely correct.


Orphaned in Geneva at an early age, the nomadic and self-taught Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) drifted about for most of his youth, contributing intellectually however he could. He devised a new system for musical composition (since rejected), submitted articles to Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and composed essays on various topics. It was one of these essays, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1750, which first earned him renown. He followed it up with Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), which solidified his reputation as a bold philosopher. This work charted man’s progression from a peaceful, noble state in nature to an imbalanced state in society, blaming the advent of various professions and private property for the inequality and moral degradation. Rousseau moved around quite a bit during the next few years but still found time to write two more pivotal works. The novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) told the story of a forbidden love, while Émile (1762) provided a revolutionary dissertation on the proper way to rear and educate a child.

Émile set the stage for Rousseau’s best-known and arguably most influential work, The Social Contract (1762). In it, Rousseau describes what he sees as the perfect political system: one in which everyone articulates their wants but ultimately compromises for the betterment of the general public. This “general will” would thus contain traces of every citizen’s individual will and thus would in some way serve everyone. Rousseau ended his career in solitude, though not before releasing the deeply intimate Confessions (17651770), an autobiographical piece that chronicled his struggle to stick to his principles in the face of mounting fame and wealth.

As with many of the other philosophes, Rousseau admitted that his idea of the perfect system as outlined in The Social Contract was just that—an idea. It wasn’t actually in practice anywhere, nor was it likely that it ever would be. In fact, when asked to provide concrete advice to other countries’ governments, Rousseau would often give advice that was far more moderate than the suggestions of The Social Contract, simply because he knew his ideas would likely not work in practice. In this sense, Rousseau was an idealist, heavily influenced by the “utopian” republics of ancient Greece and Rome, in which each citizen had a vote and a say in the government. In his vision of a perfect world, Rousseau wanted people to be at their most natural state; he hated the idea of “civilized” society and its encroachment on the natural state of man but knew that it was necessary. His frequent denouncements of inequality and the ownership of private property even bore an early suggestion of communism.


Rousseau’s emphasis on natural order and the natural state of man, along with his unprecedented autobiographical candor in Confessions, ushered in a whole new era of thinking that eventually developed into Romanticism. Romanticism stressed a return to life as it can be seen, felt, and experienced and thus encouraged a reliance on emotion, intuition, and instinct as opposed to reason in guiding human behavior. Shakespeare’s romantic tragedies were received with a new appreciation during the Romantic era, as were the works of countless other authors and poets that would come to prominence during the next century of Romantic writing.

The innate, approachable philosophies of Romanticism also appealed to the public more so than the pure rationalism and reason of the Enlightenment, which often came across as cold. Although Rousseau certainly was not the only notable Romantic author, he was one of the first, and two of his works resonated greatly with the public. Though certainly not breaking new ground, La Nouvelle Héloïse told a story of forbidden love in a relatable manner that struck a chord with readers. Likewise, Rousseau’s Confessions opened up a whole new world of personal revelation in the genre of autobiography. No previous memoirist had ever discussed his anxiety over the struggle for integrity—nor elucidated his own flaws—so openly. By being so frank and personal, Rousseau not only questioned the developments taking place in the world but also provided a contrast to the cold, sarcastic musings of Voltaire and Hume. People of all classes loved it, and it spawned countless imitators in the decades and centuries that followed.

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