Spirit and Science: On the Origins of Historical Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was a general social and cultural movement that sought to re-think the foundations of human knowledge. It stood opposed to scholasticism and saw it as a form of sterile, formalistic hair-splitting. Like Renaissance humanism, it sought a 'return to the ancients'. Yet it rejected the aesthetic focus and naive wonder of Renaissance thought and replaced it with a materialistic form of global understanding that culminates in the work of such thinkers as Gassendi, Descartes, and Spinoza. These thinkers represented different strands of the Englightenment but they all shared a common conference with explaining the world in a physical way. Philosophers such as Leibniz and Vico began the reaction to this thought by pointing out that movement and physicality also requires an unknown force or 'push' that cannot be explained via materialism. This concept was analyzed and understood through the idea of 'conatus'. This unknown force became the groundwork for Vico's New Science. It was the tool that allowed to configure and found a specifically historical or social science. Therefore, historical science seems to begin as a counter-Enlightenment trend. This trend is picked up and continued by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Isaiah Berlin understood the signficance of such an interpretive point of view when he spoke of the main thinkers of Counter-Enlightenment. I shall speak of the usefulness and limitations of Berlin's analysis for our understanding of the origins of historical and social science.
Keywords: Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment, Materialism, Spirit, Historical Science, Social Science
Dr. Paul Brienza
Part-time Faculty, Division of Social Science