Reason, Reaction Against

The European Dream Of Progress And Enlightenment
Author: Wallbank
Date: 1992

The Reaction Against Reason

The eighteenth century was primarily an "Age of Reason," but in the
latter decades there was a general reaction against rationalism. One form of
the reaction came in philosophy with a new idealism, in opposition to the
materialism of the early Enlightenment. Another form was an emotional
religious revival, which won back many wavering Protestants and Catholics. A
third form of reaction replaced reason with religion as the justification for
humanitarian reforms. These movements stressed emotion over reason but
continued the Enlightenment's accent upon individual liberty.

Idealistic Philosophy

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a kindly and contemplative professor of
philosophy at the German University of Konigsberg, was thoroughly aroused by
the skeptical and materialistic extremes of the Enlightenment. While
appreciating science and dedicated to reason, he determined to shift
philosophy back to a more sensible position without giving up much of its
newly discovered "rational" basis. His ideas, contained primarily in the
Critique of Pure Reason (1781), ushered in a new age of philosophic idealism.

Kant agreed with Locke on the role of the senses in acquiring knowledge
but insisted that sensory experience had to be interpreted by the mind's
internal patterns. This meant that certain ideas - the mind's categories for
sorting and recording experience - were "a priori", that is, they existed
before the sensory experience occurred. Typical innate ideas of this sort were
width, depth, beauty, cause, and God; all were understood yet none were
learned directly through the senses. Kant concluded, as had Descartes, that
some truths were not derived from material objects through scientific study.
Beyond the material world was a realm unapproachable by science. Moral and
religious truths, such as God's existence, could not be proved by science yet
were known to human beings as rational creatures. Reason, according to Kant,
went beyond the mere interpretation of physical realities.

In Kant's philosophic system, pure reason, the highest form of human
endeavor, was as close to intuition as it was to sensory experience. It
proceeded from certain subjective senses, built into human nature. The idea of
God was derived logically from the mind's penchant for harmony. The human
conscience, according to Kant, might be developed or be crippled by
experience, but it originated in the person's thinking nature. Abstract
reason, apart from science and its laws, was a valid source of moral judgment
and religious interpretation. Thus Kant used reason to give a philosophic base
back to mystical religion. ^10

[Footnote 10: See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (New York:
Collier, 1902.)]

The Religious Reaction

Religious rationalism, despite its appeal to intellectuals, provoked
considerable religious reaction. Part of this came from theologians such as
Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) and William Paley (1743-1805) in England,
both of whom defended Christianity and challenged deism on its own rational
grounds. Even more significant was a widespread emotional revival, stressing
religion of the heart rather than the mind.

The new movement, known as pietism, began in England after 1738, when the
brothers John (1703-1791) and Charles (1708-1788) Wesley began a crusade of
popular preaching in the Church of England. The Anglican pietists discarded
traditional formalism and stilted sermons in favor of a glowing religious
fervor, producing a vast upsurge of emotional faith among the English lower
classes. "Methodist," at first a term of derision, came to be the respected
and official name for the new movement. After John Wesley's death in 1791, the
Methodists officially left the Anglican church to become a most important
independent religious force in England.

On the continent, Lutheran pietism, led by Philipp J. Spener (1635-1705)
and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), followed a pattern similar to Methodism.
Swedenborg's movement in Sweden began as an effort to reconcile science and
revelation; after Swedenborg's death it became increasingly emotional and
mystical. Spener, in Germany, stressed Bible study, hymn singing, and powerful
preaching. The Moravian movement sprang from his background. Under the
sponsorship of Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), it spread to the
frontiers of Europe and to the English colonies in America.

The "Great Awakening," a tremendous emotional revival sustained by
Moravians, Methodsts, Baptists, and Quakers, swept the colonial frontier areas
from Georgia to New England in the late eighteenth century. Women played
prominent roles in this activity, organizing meetings and providing auxiliary
services, such as charities and religious instruction. Among the Quakers,
women were often ministers and itinerant preachers. One was Jemima Wilkinson
(1752-1819), leader of the Universal Friends; another was Ann Lee (1736-1784),
who founded Shaker colonies in New York and New England.

By the 1780s, religious rationalism and pietism stood in opposition to
each other. Proponents of each disagreed passionately on religious principles
though they agreed on the issue of religious freedom. Both rationalists and
pietists were outside the state churches, both feared persecution, and both
recognized the flagrant abuses of religious establishments. The two movements
were therefore almost equally threatening to state churches and the old

The New Humanitarianism

One dominant characteristic of the early Enlightenment - the concern for
individual human worth - received new impetus from religion in the reaction
against reason. The demand for reform and the belief in human progress were
now equated with traditional Christian principles, such as human communality
and God's concern for all people. Religious humanitarianism shunned radical
politics and ignored the issue of women's rights, despite the movement's
strong support among women. It did, however, seek actively to relieve human
suffering and ignorance among children, the urban poor, prisoners, and slaves.
This combination of humanitarian objectives and Christian faith was similar in
some ways to the Enlightenment but markedly different in its emotional tone
and religious justifications.

Notable among manifestations of the new humanitarianism was the
antislavery movement in England. A court case in 1774 ended slavery within the
country. From then until 1807, a determined movement sought abolition of the
slave trade. It was led by William Wilberforce (1759-1833), aided by Hannah
Moore and other Anglican Evangelicals, along with many Methodists and Quakers.
Wilberforce repeatedly introduced bills into the House of Commons that would
have eliminated the traffic in humans. His efforts were rewarded in 1807 when
the trade was ended, although he and his allies had to continue to struggle
for twenty-six more years, before they could achieve abolition in the British

Religious humanitarians enforced other movements that originated in the
Enlightenment. For example, the movements for legal reform and prison reform
were both supported by religious groups before 1800. Education, extolled by
rationalist thinkers, also aroused interest among the denominations. The
Sunday School movement, particularly in England, was a forerunner of many
private and quasi-public church schools. Finally, concern for the plight of
slaves, coupled with rising missionary zeal, brought popular efforts to
improve conditions for native peoples in European possessions overseas.

While it was not as openly political as other aspects of the
Enlightenment, the new humanitarianism played a significant part in weakening
absolutism. In general, it contributed to a spirit of restlessness and
discontent and encouraged independent thought, particularly as it improved
education. Its successful campaign against the slave trade also struck a
direct blow at the old mercantilist economies, which depended heavily on
plantation agriculture overseas. In time, the missionaries would also prove to
be the most consistent enemies of colonialism.

You Might Also Like