Historical Development Of Sociological Thought In The Englightenment Period

pages Pages: 4word Words: 890

Question :

Describe the historical development of sociological thought in the Enlightenment Period

Show More

Answer :

Pre-enlightenment period before 17th century

The period of enlightenment started with several scientific and intellectual revolutions from the 17th century. However, before this period of entitlement, the focus of social theory remained on being narrative and normative in nature. There was an idea of just society prevailing with the dominance of the monarchy till the middle of 17th century (Ritzer and Goodman, 2003). The period before enlightenment was dominated by the feudal system dividing the society into three classes as per the status determined through the ownership of land. There were traditional philosophies of authority without any consideration for humanity and associated ideals. 

There was restriction of peoples’ thinking by the church that was the major controller of all the information in the society. Any autonomous though that contradicted the traditional church’s view was considered crime and punishable even with a death penalty. However, the period of pre-enlightenment is associated with several movements that resulted in scientific revolution and finally enlightenment (Denham and Bratton, 2010). These events include birth of European universities, Venetian trade with Arabs bringing classical and Arab texts to Europe, movement of scholars from Platonism towards Aristotelian metaphysic, and an increased interest of scholars in understanding the natural world (Sharma, 2013). Towards the end of 17th century, i.e. the pre-enlightenment period the scientific revolution started with Galileo’s disapproval to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic theory of geocentric universe and moving towards proving it the heliocentric in nature (Ritzer and Goodman, 2003). The following sections discuss the historical development of the enlightenment period that started from these scientific developments and moved towards reorientation of politics, philosophy, science and communication. 

Development of Enlightenment Period 

The early period of enlightenment, i.e. during the 17th century, some of the precursors include the Englishmen Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, The Frenchman Rene Descartes and the important philosophers of natural science leading the scientific revolution included Galileo, Kepler and Leibniz (Crothers, 2010). Generally, the roots of these developments are traced to 1680s England, where Issac Newton and John Locke published some key texts within a span of initial three years. During 1686, Issac Newton gave his “Principia Mathematica” while John Locke published “Essay Concerning Human Understanding during 1689 and these two texts acted as the major elements of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical toolkit for the major advances during the period of enlightenment (Sharma, 2013). 

The affirmation from the period of enlightenment for scientific rationality, and the notion of social authority as derived from a social contract among people in the society instead of the divine prescription resulted in emergence of sociology as an intellectual discipline (Porter, 2004). However, it is to be noted that there was no single or unified Enlightenment, making it important to understand the era under the French Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment and the English, German, Swiss or American Enlightenment. Thinks of individual enlightenment often follow different philosophies and therefore the development of sociology can see a difference in views of Locke and Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and Frederick the Great (Denham and Bratton, 2010). However, such differences and disagreements emerged from the common theme of Enlightenment related to rational questioning and belief in progress through dialogue. 

In terms of sociology, the central thinking of philosophers was focused on empiricism and rationality. Among various sociologists of this period, Claude Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) focused on development of both conservative and radical Marxian theory (Bearnish, 2014). He favoured he superiority of science and empiricism, i.e. the positive science and promoted it as a doctrine based on observation instead of the doctrine of non-rational religion. On the conservative side, the philosophy of Saint-Simon was to preserve the society in its original form while rejecting the idea of return to life as help during Middle Ages (Denham and Bratton, 2010). Additionally, Simon was a positivist meaning that he believed in applying the scientific techniques of natural sciences while studying the social phenomenon. 

On the radical side, the philosophy of Saint-Simon explains the need for socialist reforms, especially associate with centralized planning system of the economy. However, Saint-Simon was not convinced with the Marxian view that working class can replace the capitalists. He was convinced with the view that capitalists were superseding the feudal nobility and another philosopher ‘Comte’ who developed the concepts in a more systematic manner takes up a majority of his ideas (Crothers, 2010). 

Saint-Simon reinforced the break from metaphysical and speculative though of society and affirmed the use of a scientific approach to study the society. Without developing an idea in a systematic manner, Saint-Simon sought to establish a “social physical” that would eventually provide the laws of social development (Sharma, 2013 and Dillon, 2016). These laws would be complemented by his “social Physiology” focused on scientific study of human interactions (Dillon, 2016). These views resulted in development of sociology focused on employing the same methodology as the natural sciences. 

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is the most associated philosopher contributing towards establishment of sociology embracing the scientific approach of enlightenment and adapted it to the study of human society (Bearnish, 2014). Comte was a French philosopher with the belief that a science of society is necessary to ensure progress of the society. He was disturbed by the chaos of French society and therefore focused on development of the evolutionary theory of social change. As per his ideas, any disorder in society is created by the ideas left over from the idea systems of earlier period. It is possible to attain social upheaval only through establishment of a scientific footing for the governing society (Crothers, 2010). Therefore, Comte emphasized the systematic character of the society while giving key importance to the role of consensus. 

Comte believed in sociology as the science of humanity and envisioned positivist sociology similar to Saint-Simon’s view about superiority o an observation-based positive science. As per the view of Comte, it is the observable data that should be the focus of sociology, and its subject matter be approached with the same objectivity and impartiality, and the same systematic attention to processes and causes, that is used by physical scientists (Rotzer and Goodman, 2003). For instance, while studying the life of plants, biologists do not expect that empirical values of observation of plant life getting influenced by his or her values or social background; and therefore, Comet believed that it is necessary to study the social life in similar sense in an objective manner (Sharma, 2013). This concept of sociology is considered as ‘Positive Philosophy’ where an empirical determination of knowledge about humanity is conducted without adding any speculation, and by the affirmation only of that which is discoverable and objectively evident in society (Dillon, 2016). In Comet’s view, sociology would represent a progressive advance in various disciplines and this view of evolving progress hold key importance in the way of thinking about humanity during the period of Enlightenment. This is a deep-seated presumption in scientific thought and was present in the societal and social organization related views of Marx and Durkheim as well. This perspective is often considered as an evolutionary view of progressive social change and therefore the changes in society are not limited to simple changes but these often come in as a better scenario in comparison to what existed previously (Dillon, 2016). 

These popular views of Comte made him the founder of the religion of humanity of a scientific sociology whose knowledge would guide society. The work of Comte helped in discovering the scientific laws of humanity and society guiding through the process of demonstrating and understanding the working of society, its functions and the way human could move and take the society forward in a progressive manner while imposing some order of its organization and development (Dillon, 2016). In this view, humans can avoid all the inferior and speculative knowledge that prevailed during the pre-enlightenment period. 

The result of the work of these and other philosophers came in the form of new ideals with importance o individuals in the society, considering individuals as being self sufficient, rejecting the authority of tradition and breaking the beliefs that did not met the test of reason.

Post-Enlightenment Period

As evident from the last section, sociology emerged as a key discipline during the period of enlightenment and came up after the French Revolution in the form of a positivist science of society. Several key movements in the philosophy of science and knowledge resulted in the emergence of modern concept of sociology. The concept of sociology as developed during the phase of Enlightenment says, “Sociology is the scientific study to social relationships, their variety, their forms whatever effects them and whatever they effect” (Abel, 1992 as cited in Dillon, 2016). 

The major contributor to the positivist view of sociology was Comte who introduced the key relationship between theory, practice and human understanding about the world. Comte coined the word “altruism” to explain the moral obligations of the individual in the society focused on serving others and place people’s interest over one’s own (Denham and Bratton, 2010). Comte opposed the ideas of individual rights as these fails to maintain consistency with the supposed ethical obligation of individuals. Furthermore, it was the three stages of law that came from Comte and became one of the first theories of the social evolutionism. This law says that development of human beings progresses from the theological stage to metaphysical and then to scientific phase where the last stage is considered ‘positive’ because of the polysemous connotations of the word (Porter, 2004). 

The first phase is Theological phase where man’s place in the society and the restrictions of the society upon the man were referenced to God. The second phase is Metaphysical phase where the basic problems of the society were explained as the revolution of 1789 (Sharma, 2013). This phase existed during the end of 17th century and justified the universal rights as being most important in comparison to authority of any human ruler. Finally, the third phase of scientific reasoning explains that people are capable of finding solutions to social problems and implements such solutions despite the proclamations of human rights or prophecy of the will of God. 

The interpretive view of sociology was largely developed during post Enlightenment period through the philosophies of German sociologist Max Weber. The concept was established to provide an understanding of subjective experience instead of observation and facts as introduced under positivist view of sociology (Crothers, 2010). This is so as the society has a large number of different people holding different perspective, therefore, sociological claims based only on facts may not always be correct. This makes it important to study functioning of the society to understand the reason behind such actions or functions through the subjective unique point of view (Ritzer and Goodman, 2003). 

From the perspective of positivist, the French sociologists ‘Emile Durkheim’ developed sociology during the 19th century for raiding the level of the subject up to rational science, like physics and chemistry (Bearnish, 2014). The aim of such a view is to understand social institutions through reliance on facts that are well known and observable in nature. This resulted in a more formal understanding the way of society’s functioning but fails to give adequate credence to the study of social mechanisms that cannot be properly proven with the help of collected facts. 


Before the origin of the term ‘sociology’, the society was understood through religious method, philosophical method, historical method and political and economic method. However, the historical development of the term and the field of study started from the work of Saint Simon and Auguste Comte during the period of Enlightenment. Simon and Comte were the first who liberated social sciences from the influence of religion and philosophy. It was Comte who took the work forward post-Enlightenment and introduced the concept of positivist sociology where the society is studied on the basis of facts and observation. During the prehistoric period of sociology, the first ideology represents the radical thoughts associated with Enlightenment and the basic ideas of the French Revolution. This was followed by a second ideology suggesting the possibility to incorporate conservative ideas and the preservation of the existing order. These two ideologies are still reflected in the though of sociology and developed through the 19th century to take up a new form after being influenced by the physical sciences and the biological sciences.


Bearnish, R. (2014). The Promise of Sociology. University of Toronto Press

Crothers, C. (2010). Historical Developments and Theoretical Approaches to Sociology. EOLSS Publications.

Dillon, M. (2016). Introduction to Sociological Theory. Wiley

Denham, D. and Bratton, J. (2010). Capitalism and Classical Social Theory. University of Toronto Press

Porter, J.N. (2004). The American Sociologist. The Journal of the History of Sociology: Its Origin and Scope. (35) 3. Pp. 52-63.

Ritzer, A. and Goodman, D.J. (2003). Sociological Theory, McGraw-Hill.

Sharma, R.K. (2013). Fundamentals of Sociology. Atlantic Publishers