Enlightenment and Its Impact

Salon de Madame Geoffrin

Stretching from the mid 17th century to the decades of revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Enlightenment was a transformative period in Western culture, establishing new norms of understanding and behaviour that endure to the present day. By understanding this Enlightenment background, we are able to approach the future of democratic societies in a global context. Although the Enlightenment took slightly different forms in several countries, each with its own priorities and trajectory, there are nevertheless certain core developments and ideas that have shaped contemporary values: scientific enquiry, global commerce, exploration and a new understanding of the world, the development of a knowledge economy, novel ideas about governance and citizenship, and radical changes in human relations within and across cultures, to the natural world, and in our understanding of ourselves as agents and individuals. These are only some of the Enlightenment concerns that helped shape the modern world. Many of them were also central to the political and cultural development of colonial and postcolonial Australia, itself an Enlightenment project. Yet these foundational ideas we inherited as the universal values of Western culture have come to be challenged, raising new questions about the continued impact of the Enlightenment on contemporary culture and its relevance for Australian society in the future. Our aim with this project is to show how the answers to today’s urgent questions of meaning and value lie in bringing new critical approaches to bear on the historical perspective of Enlightenment thinking.

Our research program for 2017-2018 will focus on five core themes– Empiricism, Prosperity, Subjectivity, Tolerance, and Globalisation – providing a transformational understanding of the continued relevance of Enlightenment thinking to societies today.

Lead Researcher: Jennifer Milam

Participants: Francesco Borghesi, Barbara Caine, Stephen Gaukroger, Cat Moir, Dalia Nassar, Glenda Sluga and Anik Waldow