The Social basis of the Enlightenment

What does Dorinda Outram mean by the phrase, “the social basis of the Enlightenment”? Try to get at some of the complex meanings indicated by the word “social.”

Outram uses the phrase “social basis of the Enlightenment” to discuss new interests of historians in the 1970s. These historians were becoming more interested in the social basis of the Enlightenment, “in the problem of how ideas were transmitted, used and responded to by society” (4). As a result, instead of focusing on a few select works by great minds, these historians were doing research on the many forgotten professional writers “who wrote for the market anything from pornography to children’s books, two handbooks for the traveler, to textbooks on Roman history” (4). These writers were commercial and were far more widely read than the great writers we know today. Like all social movements, the Enlightenment is based on the relationship between the individual and his society. According to the traditional interpretation, enlightenment is a desire for individuals to be guided by rationality instead of faith and superstitions. Accordingly, the social basis of this interpretation pits the rational individual against traditional society. This individual and this kind of society are hostile to religion, and in constant search for freedom and progress. Thus, the focus on popular writers of the time aims to uncover “the social basis of the Enlightenment” or the everyday ideas/thoughts that people were interacting and dealing with. It is these social ideas, ideas of the public ilsphere, which likely had the biggest impact in changing the ways in which common folks thought about their place in the world.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

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