We often designate the 18th century as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason due to the pervasive confidence in rationality and the burgeoning optimism that distinguished the era. According to many virtuosos of rationalism, the possibility of mitigating all of our problems – social, psychological, and material – seemed not just feasible but inevitable.
Evidently, the revolution of reason was essential in debunking an enormous amount of superstitious nonsense, but it also illuminated the extremely narrow range of human knowledge. As the problems we faced were being better defined, it was becoming clear just how intransigent they were. Moreover, as the painful “truths” were being discovered, reason’s ability to determine truth was being disputed.
By the middle of the century, David Hume had taken rational skepticism to its logical limits, only to find himself at a nihilistic stalemate. In A Treatise on Human Nature he claimed that there are really no provable foundations or proofs from which to systematize reality. And because nothing can be proved, he argued, the vaunted products of rational discourse were, at best, suspicious conjectures, not facts.
In the final decade of the century, Immanuel Kant contributed further confirmation for Hume’s ambivalence when he attempted to synthesize rationalism and empiricism. The human machine as an information processor is intrinsically limited, Kant noted, and is therefore deceptive. Such enlightenment helped subvert the confidence of the times and brought many philosophers closer to nothing.
Ironically, by the end of the Enlightenment, reason was idealized by an anarchic mob during the French Revolution. Ironic, too, is the fact that the authority of reason which Enlightenment thinkers revered served to deteriorate the optimism it had inspired and magnified the fissure in the system of delusions on which we depend on for meaning. All and all, any confidence we had in our ability to overcome a growing existential horror was shattered.