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.)

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