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The Enlightenment Legacy of David Hume

Description: Although many historians assert the unity of the Enlightenment, their histories essentially belie this notion. Consequently, Enlightenment history is confused and meaningless, urging the reader to believe that diversity is similarity and faction is unity. Fundamental among the common denominators of these various interpretations, however, are the scientific method and empirical observation, as introduced by Newton. These, historians acclaim as the turning point when mankind escaped the ignorance of superstition and the oppression of the church, and embarked upon the modern secular age. The Enlightenment, however, founders immediately upon its own standards of empiricism and demonstrable philosophical tenets, with the exception of David Hume. As the most consistent and fearless empiricist of the era, Hume's is by far the most "legitimate" philosophy of the Enlightenment, but it starkly contrasts the rhetoric and ideology of the philosophe community, and, therefore, defies attempts by historians to incorporate it into the traditional Enlightenment picture. Hume, then, exposes the Enlightenment dilemma: either the Enlightenment is not empirical, but rather the new Age of Faith Carl Becker proclaimed it, or Enlightenment philosophy is that of Hume. This study presents the historical characterization of major Enlightenment themes, such as method, reason, religion, morality, and politics, then juxtaposes this picture with the particulars (data) that contradict or seriously qualify it. As a result, much superficial analysis, wishful thinking, even proselytizing is demonstrated in the traditional Enlightenment characterization, especially with regard to the widely heralded liberal and progressive legacy of the era. In contrast, Hume's conclusions, based on the method of Newton-the essence of "enlightened" philosophy, are presented, revealing the authoritarian character (and legacy) of the Enlightenment as well as the utility and relevance of its method when honestly and rigorously applied. Through David Hume, the twentieth century can truly acquire what the Enlightenment promised—an understanding of human ...
Date: December 1989
Creator: Jenkins, Joan (Joan Elizabeth)
Partner: UNT Libraries