Late Enlightenment Influences on Romanticism

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment overlapped in time: with the Scientific Revolution being roughly 1400 to 1800, while the Enlightenment was from 1698 to 1798.(1)  The Scientific Revolution inspired and influenced the Enlightenment throughout.   The primary influence of the Scientific Revolution on the Enlightenment was: “. . . not a fixed set of beliefs but a way of thinking, a critical approach . . . for constructive thought and action.”(2)

The ideals of the Enlightenment are best represented by the writing of the Philosophes. The Philososphes:  “celebrated the Scientific Revolution, accepted its findings, and imitated its methods.”  Further, throughout the Enlightenment many of the Philosophes followed a career pattern, if you will, of establishing a reputation as a scientist, or natural philosopher, to use the Enlightenment term, then would turn their minds and thoughts to social and political issues.  Lichtenberg, Kant, Cordorcet and Franklin, to name just four certainly, followed this pattern, as did others. (3) Other Philosophes, such as Voltaire and Diderot, to name just two, while not scientists themselves, spent much effort in popularizing science and associated with scientists on an equal and regular basis.(4)

Certainly scientific advancement and discoveries did not stop once the Enlightenment came to the front. For example, William Herschel identified Uranus as a planet in 1781.  Also, new sciences were developed by Philosophes, such as Adam Smith, who in 1776 virtually invented economics as a science with his work, The Wealth of Nations.(5)

However, as the 18th Century advanced some philosophes began to see science: “not a servant or ally but an embarrassment.”(6)  Jonathon Swift struck first in 1735. Using his typical dry satire, Swift skewers the vain and esoteric experiments of the Royal Society of his day in Gulliver’s Travels.  In his description of the Laputan scientist spending eight years trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers, Swift was hammering away at science that is sterile, useless and devoid of humanity.(7) Even at this early date, men of letters were becoming disenchanted with men of science.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau struck even harder at science when in 1750, in his Discourse Concerning the Arts and Sciences, he declared science had failed to make men happier and indeed had corrupted them and pulled them away from nature.  In this he prefigured many of the later Romantics thoughts on scientific advancement.(8)

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were inexorably intertwined as both ran their courses; both in positive interaction through positive feedback and negative reaction through disenchantment and rejection.


1 Steve Fuller, New Frontiers in Science and Technology, (Maldon, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 14; Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966),xi.

2 Thomas Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 2.

3 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969), 126.

4 Ibid., 128.

5 Jacob H. Hollander, “Adam Smith, 1776-1926”, The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 35(2) (April 1927): 61-62, (accessed  12 September, 2010)

6 Gay, The Enlightenment, 128.

7 Peter Stanlis, “Jonathon Swift: Satirist as Philosopher.”  In the Ignatius Critical Edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift, (London, 1735) , ed. Dutton Kearney (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2010) , 429;

8 Jonathon Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (London, 1735) (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2010), 199.


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