Dorinda Outram on the Enlightenment

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in October 2010

1600 words / 8 min.
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In her book The Enlightenment, Dorinda Outram gives a broad introduction to the history and historiography of the Enlightenment.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

In her book The Enlightenment (New Approaches to European History), Dorinda Outram gives a broad introduction to the history and historiography of the Enlightenment. She begins by attempting to define what the term means. She does not, however, ever give us a single, unified meaning, and is instead careful to point out that the “Enlightenment has been defined in many different ways” (1). Thus, she says, the Italians, Germans, and French–to name only three locations–all mean something slightly different in by the related terms as applied to themselves and their works. Despite this potential for complexity, there has been a certain homogeneity in some historical accounts. Peter Gay, for example, sees the “Enlightenment as a unity, and defines its chronology in terms of the lives of the great thinkers” (3). Above all, for Gay and many other “traditional” historians, these great thinkers were primarily (but not exclusively) French philosophes: Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, for example.

Outram, though, takes the more contemporary historical approach, which emphasizes instead that the Enlightenment was an intersection of debates, and not one unified stream of thought. Older historical approaches, like Gay’s, emphasized that the Enlightenment was really a value system based on rationality. In contrast, new historical approaches–to which Outram is clearly most sympathetic–emphasize the social and political contexts of Enlightenment ideas, and include global connections between Europe and the rest of the world: “Enlightenment,” Outram writes, “had many meanings [and] affect[ed] many levels of society and politics, and [was] present not just in Europe, but throughout most other parts of the world touched by European influence” (10).

Social Context

Outram points out that recent historical research has heavily emphasized social context instead of French philosophes. The social setting of the Enlightenment was one of rapid and dramatic change, both in Europe and outside of it. Economic expansion, increasing urbanization and a rapidly growing population all provided key impacts of the development of Enlightenment ideology. Additionally, improving communications and transportation methods linked Europe and the world together much more tightly than in the past.

Along with these shifts came an increase in social integration and a reduction in class distinctions, along with a marked increase in literacy rates. Outram suggests that recent historical research has highlighted the dramatic shifts in the production and accessibility of ideas, most especially in the case of print media. New social institutions were constructed based on the interchange of idea, rather than to mark or display social and political rank. This meant, for example, the growth of public lectures, coffee-house debates, and even lending libraries. The public sphere–here she looks to Habermas–began to develop and expand, and the overall debate and marketplace of ideas grew beyond the elite.


Whether social context led the way or philosophy did, the Enlightenment pushed the borders of who was capable of making decisions in society. If “everyone” (well, a larger subset than before, at least) was rational, then kings could not simply justify their rule through divine right. The economic expansion and growth put spread power and wealth more broadly, while a literary revolution put ideas in the heads of the common people. As a result, the Enlightenment led to reform movements in most European states.

Interestingly, at the same time that royalty lost power, the state gained it. The personal ends and desires of monarchs became disconnected from the needs of the state. Thus, while the Enlightenment may have weakened divine basis of kingly power, it also led to greater intervention in the lives of citizens and subjects: public health, education, and economic regulation. While some of this resulted from new global pressures to succeed in international economic relations, its results radically reshaped domestic policies on many states. Reforms may not have been intended to change social mobility and power relations, but they did. In short, the Enlightenment raised major problems for monarchic states, but was nevertheless of critical importance when states took reform measures to compete effectively with the world.


Along with colonial expansion and domination came greater knowledge of other cultures beyond Europe. Along with this global expansion came contradictions. The ideals of the Enlightenment suggested universal rationality and equality, but the treatment by Europeans of their colonies and of foreign cultures generally did not comport with these ideals:

Enlightenment reactions to exotic worlds and people were thus extraordinarily contradictory. Huron Indians and Pacific islanders were called to do work in solving European political problems. Many descriptions of a common humanity did nothing to end the slave trade. The contradictions and equivocations of European attitudes were also the pattern for the process of globalization in the Enlightenment (59).


Even though slavery and colonialism thrived during the Enlightenment, nonetheless its ideals led to more than isolated attacks on the institution of slavery for the first time. Thinkers at the time recognized the paradox of permitting the existence of slavery, while extolling equality, freedom, and controls on arbitrary power.

To overcome this apparent contradiction, some Enlightenment thinkers countered this by linking race with slavery. Different races, then, could be seen as naturally differing in levels of rationality, justifying differential treatment–including slavery. Despite this, the growing diffusion of Enlightenment ideologies that valorized sentiment, humanity, and benevolence may well have been key in abolition movements, according to Outram (75).


Along with linking race and rationality in order to justify slavery, Enlightenment culture in Europe linked gender and rationality. Thus, But most of European culture still portrayed women as lacking in intellectual capacity, and thus justified their differential treatment and lack of rights. Still, cracks in the distinctions appeared, as with the rise of the French salon culture, which gave some women a role in engaging with Enlightenment ideas.

Enlightenment thinkers seemed to assert, on the one hand, that women, as human beings, could have rights; but also, on the other, that because of their alleged irrationality and lack of autonomy, they should not be allowed to take part in politics (92). Outram also suggests that, although during the Enlightenment period there was little change in the way women were treated, the arguments of Enlightenment thinkers paved the way for those who were to bring about changes to gender roles later.


First, of course, the “natural philosophy” of the Enlightenment was not the “science” of the 21st century. The term is anachronistic, and the pursuit was different. Still, the efforts of natural philosophers in the Enlightenment period, especially their increasing focus on rationality, laid the groundwork for what would become “science.”

Natural philosophy was not a major employer of labor, and the intellectual status of natural philosophers was weak. There was little institutional organization, and such structures were weak (95). There was little governmental support, and very few men could support themselves through their pursuit of natural philosophy (94). Still, the shift to rationality helped pave the way, along with new “scientific” approaches to change the approaches to knowledge.


The Enlightenment focus on rationality and reason also led to the questioning of religious norms. But this questioning did not mean the death of religion, but rather a shift in approach to it. After all, Newton was deeply religious. But the opening up of religion to rational debate led to an increasing debate about toleration, which was especially critical for politics, which needed to calm down religious violence in order to increase stability.

Reactions to the Enlightenment focus on reason and rationality differed. For example, one way out of the apparent contradiction between religion and rationality was Deism, with its total hostility to revelation. Another was to reject the attempt to make Christianity “reasonable,” and return to a view of religion which emphasized faith, trust in revelation, and personal witness to religious experience (122).


Outram asks if the French Revolution was a consequence of the Enlightenment? Or if the Enlightenment was a consequence of revolution? The answer is not clear, but revolutions were clearly associated with the Enlightenment (even if the relation was not one of causation):

One could even say that Enlightenment began with Revolution, that which occurred in England in 1688, which created the conditions for the emergence of the philosophy with which John Locke discussed new thinking about the relationship between ruler and ruled.

What the Enlightenment contributed was not only a great number of new, non-traditional ways of defining and legitimating power, through ideas such as “natural law,” “reason,” and so on, it had also mobilized sections of society into “public opinion,” which Kant had earlier identified as requiring tight control if it were not to disrupt social and political order.


Outram attempts to add complexity to scholarship of the Enlightenment. She succeeds, I think, in doing exactly this, although for all her talk about the Enlightenment’s multiplicities, she nonetheless still titles her book in the singular: “The Enlightenment.” This suggests that, despite social context, political complexities, and so on, there is nonetheless something unifying about what occurred during this period of time or, at least, something useful about the unitarian view. Yes, the period was more complex that is indicated by reference merely to a few French intellectuals, but nonetheless, the expressions and ideas of these intellectuals are exactly what historians and intellectuals then and now drew on to form their own ideas. Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence looked to concepts expressed by the philosophes, for example, and later historians like Peter Gay are thus in a sense correct to focus on them. In short, Outram’s complexity is important, but so is Gay’s unity.