Questions about Enlightenment

People are suddenly arguing about the Enlightenment. It’s terribly exciting: Madeleine Bunting posted here, leading to responses here, here, here and here, with, no doubt, more to come. But how many people have a good idea as to what they are talking about?

In the posts that follow (read down: I’ve posted them in reverse order), I ask a few standard questions about the Enlightenment. I think it’s worth having answers to questions like these — otherwise you just end up in a position where you can cheerlead for “the Enlightenment” (the rule of law! democracy! science!) or just slag it off for the bad things you vaguely associate with it somewhere along the way (racism! sexism! Revolutionary Terror!) without letting anything as complicated as history or evidence get in the way of your arguments. And that’d be a shame.

So, here we go…

Question #1

When do you think the Enlightenment happened?

Even those contemporary historians who are happy to talk of a single “Enlightenment” disagree about what the key period we’re talking about actually is. For Jonathan Israel (Radical Enlightenment), it’s the late C17th and early C18th. As he writes, “even before Voltaire came to be widely known, in the 1740s, the real business was already over” [p.7]. Is he right, or not?

Someone who disagrees is John Robertson who has recently published his book on The Case for the Enlightenment” Scotland and Naples, 1680-1760, which restates the case for a “traditional” dating of Enlightenment from the 1740s to the 1780s, replying to Israel with a claim that all that was over by the 1740s “was the radical assault on the foundations of the Christian religion” and “it was over because the authorities, Protestant as well as Catholic, had effectively suppressed it”.

Question #2

Where do you think it happened?

For a long time, when people wrote of the Enlightenment, they were thinking about France in general, Paris in particular, and – even more particularly – the small group of people clustered around the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. Lots of people want to make “Enlightenment” a broader category than that, but how broad should it go, in geographical terms? Does it include Eastern Europe (apart, perhaps, from Königsberg)? Does it make much sense to talk of England as being an “Enlightened” country in the eighteenth century, and, if so, in what respects? And there’s a social geography as well as a spatial one: to what extent was “Enlightenment” an elite intellectual movement, and to what extent was it something ordinary men and women could participate in?

Question #3

Putting the two previous questions together: was there one Enlightenment, or several?

As we make “Enlightenment” include more than just Paris, we can still ask whether Paris remains a privileged centre or not? Are you “Enlightened” insofar as you are reading the same books as the people in Paris and arguing about them in a language they would understand, or are there alternative ways of being “Enlightened” in the eighteenth century that bypass Paris altogether?

If you talk about the “Scottish Enlightenment”, for example, as people in the last fifty years have quite often done, is this in order to distinguish it from the “French Enlightenment” or the “German Enlightenment” or the “Neapolitan Enlightenment”, or is it to indicate that Scotland was participating in a much broader set of international developments?

I don’t know the history of the historiography of the Enlightenment especially well, but my sense is that the idea that there was a unitary pan-European Enlightenment only goes back to the time of the Second World War — by way of criticism in Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, and by way of celebration in post-war scholarship (a tradition that culminates in Peter Gay’s two volumes on The Enlightenment in 1966).

And if you do think there was only one, or if you think there was more than one Enlightenment, ask yourself whether you think the answer to the question matters much. Is it important to you that the Enlightenment is a unitary phenomenon, or not, and, if so, why?

Question #4

Whatever we think about “the Enlightenment”, does it matter what people at the time thought about whatever it was they were doing, or not? To what extent should we be investigating the eighteenth-century language of Enlightenment (les lumières, Aufklärung, etc.), in order to find out what it was, or otherwise trying to find out what Smith or Diderot or Voltaire or Kant thought they were doing when they were writing the books they were writing? To what extent should we be nervous about projecting onto these people stories about an Enlightenment that they might not themselves have recognised?

(This is especially important for anyone who thinks that the Enlightenment has something to do with democracy, as many of the people who figure at the centre of many of the narratives about Enlightenment were strongly anti-democratic.)

Question #5

Do you think the idea of the “Counter-Enlightenment” is a useful category or not, either intellectually or historiographically?

Isaiah Berlin and some others have tried to draw a distinction between the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Diderot, Kant, etc.) and the Counter-Enlightenment (definitely Herder, sometimes Rousseau, sometimes Vico, sometimes Burke, and so on). Does this distinction illuminate more than it misleads?

In particular, how should we understand Rousseau in relation to the Enlightenment? Is he a figure embedded right at its heart, or is he its sharpest critic? How do our understandings of “the Enlightenment” change according to the choices we make in answering this question?

Question #6

What do you take the relevant difference between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries to be, such that it makes sense to call one period “Enlightened” and the other not? What is it that makes the eighteenth-century world of Hume, Smith, Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau distinct from the seventeenth-century world of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Newton, Locke and Bayle? Or do you think the term “Enlightenment” ought to be stretched to cover pretty much all of modern science and philosophy (in which case, the more it’s stretched, the less it refers to anything terribly precisely any more)?

Question #7

Is it important that we call whatever it is we’re talking about “the Enlightenment”? Why not use the older language — which, unlike “Enlightenment”, really was very widely used at the time — of “the Republic of Letters” instead? Or use some other term altogether?

Question #8

What do you think happened to the Enlightenment?

Do the French and American Revolutions somehow represent its climax – or its betrayal? In France, was Sieyès an Enlightened architect of modern politics, or someone who turned genuinely Enlightened political theory on its head? What’s the relationship between the nineteenth-century politics of nation-states and democratisation and what happened in the eighteenth century? Is there much connection between the social philosophies of the eighteenth century and those of the nineteenth (in Hegel, Marx and Weber, say), or not? And what, if anything, has the Enlightenment got to do with the political distinction between Left and Right?