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In eighteenth-century Britain, philosophy was a broader subject than it is today and included many subjects covered elsewhere in this book, such as science, political theory, and theology. This chapter focuses chiefly on those eighteenth-century topics in philosophy that have most shaped present-day philosophical discussion. The first of these is epistemology or the theory of knowledge: the study of what we know and how we know. John Locke, David Hume, and Thomas Reid called this the study of the human mind or understanding. We will also consider another area where the contributions of eighteenth-century British philosophers are widely recognized today: the work in moral and ethical philosophy of a group of thinkers commonly called the ‘British moralists’. From the ancient Greeks and Romans, eighteenth-century thinkers inherited an understanding of philosophy as a way of life and a guide to living well. On what basis do we arrive at moral principles of right and wrong, and what motivates us to follow those principles in our actions: our reason or our feelings? These questions concerned such thinkers as Samuel Clarke, the earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and Adam Smith.
The Introduction offers a contextual framework for exploring aspects of eighteenth-century thought. In the first section, ‘Ideas and their history’, the question of how to approach the ways of thinking that animated English-speaking peoples some three centuries ago is briefly considered. This is followed by an outline of how knowledge was structured in the eighteenth century, particularly as this is reflected in the pioneering encyclopedias of the period, such as Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopédia and the French Encyclopédie. The limitations of attempts to label the prevailing intellectual ethos of the period (Age of Reason, of Revolutions, of Enlightenment, of secularization, of progress) or to define its temporal limits (the ‘long’ eighteenth century) are next considered. The introduction concludes with a discussion of the institutional framework and social habits—elements of the sociology of knowledge—that structured intellectual inquiry in the eighteenth century. A short appendix of terms highlights differences between the meanings of key words in the eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries: how they were understood and used then, in contrast with their meaning for us now.
The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Thought gives a comprehensive overview of intellectual life in the eighteenth-century Anglophone world at a time when the boundaries of knowledge were growing rapidly in response to a world undergoing radical change. Organised in two parts, the volume begins with four wide-ranging chapters on key areas of thought: philosophy, science, political and legal theory, and religion. The second part comprises shorter chapters that focus on subjects of emerging inquiry, such as aesthetics, economics, and sensibility and emotion, as well as intellectual disciplines undergoing methodological evolution, such as history. A chronology is provided to help situate historical events, important thinkers, key publications, and intellectual milestones in relation to one another, and guides for further reading point the reader to avenues for deeper exploration of the Companion's various topics.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings reveal a mind keenly interested in the politics of her day and well-read in the works of prominent political theorists of her time – Locke, Rousseau, “commonwealth men,” Scottish Enlightenment thinkers – whose ideas helped shape her political thought. Among these writers, none had quite the catalytic, galvanizing effect that Edmund Burke did in spurring her to articulate her political convictions and her feminist principles. Burke’s writings on the French Revolution, especially his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and his early aesthetic treatise, An Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757, 1759), challenged Wollstonecraft to formulate her views on key issues in eighteenth-century political thought, such as the basis of political virtue; the origins of political society (social contract theory); the existence of natural rights or “rights of men” (as human rights were then called); and the place of women in the social and political order.
The accession of George III to the throne of Great Britain in 1760 inaugurated a tumultuous new era in the country's politics. A succession of political crises agitated the nation, from the Wilkite disturbances of the 1760s and the American War of Independence to the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the ideological challenge of the French Revolution. The Wilkite controversy was sparked by the government's attempts to prosecute and silence John Wilkes, a radical member of parliament who had dared, in his newspaper The North Briton, to criticise the king directly in print. The political campaign against Hastings was motivated by allegations that, as head of the East India Company, he had grossly abused his position of power, enriching himself and his underlings at the expense of the people of India.
These political struggles inspired a formidable literature of political controversy. In the press, such eminent writers as Samuel Johnson, the pseudonymous Junius, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (among many others) placed their literary talents in the service of political polemic. In parliament the issues of the day elicited from members of both Houses speeches of such distinction that the latter part of the eighteenth century has come to be called the golden age of British parliamentary and forensic oratory. Opposition members, in particular, acquired a reputation for oratorical brilliance, most notably Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. But in his mastery of contemporary political eloquence, Burke was widely conceded to be primus inter pares. No one else dominated quite like him all the available avenues and modes of political discourse, both in the press and in parliament.
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