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Overview of Intellectual Developments



16th and 17th Centuries

·        Scientific Revolution- scientific method; mathematics; increased study of the natural world; human reason believed to be adequate to understand the workings of the natural universe; natural laws govern the physical world.


18th century

·        The Enlightenment

·        Belief that scientific/rational analysis could be applied to human society.

·        Natural, rational laws and principles apply to humans and their interaction. (Examples- social contract as basis of government; basic human equality; freedom is the natural condition of the mankind)  Society should conform as closely as possible to these laws.

·        Idea of progress of  human societies.

·        Broadly-based critique of traditional European social, political, economic organization result.

·        First political/social reforms and revolutions based on these ideas before 1800.


19th century to circa 1870

·        Massive expansion of analyses and critiques of society. Revolutionary changes in European society throughout the century.

·        Rise of the “-isms”. (Liberalism, Nationalism, Social Darwinism, Communism, etc.) Enlightenment ideals refined, modified, expanded upon.

·        Basic confidence in use of human reason as tool of human progress retained.

·        Clear reactions against and modifications of Enlightenment thought and the social, economic and political changes based on that thought.

·        Continued development in science. Emphasis that man part of nature, i.e. an animal.



·        Idea of progress recedes. Often replaced with Darwinist concept of change. Emphasis on struggle and survival.

·        Enlightenment view of man as primarily a rational creature seen as inadequate. Man now recognized as being subject to biological imperatives (Darwinism, racism). Others point out, and assert the primacy of the irrational portion of the human psyche. (Freud) While still others suggest that human will is the defining characteristic in human life and development.

·        As science develops, ideas become more complicated and the mathematics beyond the understanding of most people. The increasing lack of understanding of the new science, together with the notion that there may not be absolute laws governing the physical world further eroded confidence in a basically good, rational, understandable, modifiable world.

·        As confidence in absolutes faded, moral relativity increased.