Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Enlightenment Contested

Anyone who follows the various historical debates over the Enlightenment will be aware of Jonathan Israel’s hulking 2 volumes, ‘Radical Enlightenment’ and ‘Enlightenment Contested’. These widely acclaimed works rejected the focus on the mainstream enlightenment - including such figures as Hobbes, Locke and Voltaire - in favour of the radical rationalism of Baruch Spinoza. In this view Spinoza and the radical enlightenment – including Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet and Bayle - were the true originators of modern ‘Western Atlantic ‘values; individual liberty, universal equality, democracy and rationalism. The mainstream moderate enlightenment by contrast were fence sitters seeking to ameliorate the more radical elements of it’s opposing movement.

This argument is probably the antithesis of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book ‘The Roads to Modernity’ which saw the British enlightenment – centred on a humane social ethic - as on a more solid moral foundation than the Radical French enlightenment. In my opinion anyone who wants to wholeheartedly advocate the French Enlightenment has to deal with the fact that France after 1789 became a bloodbath; Israel does so by blaming the whole thing on Rousseau – which seems a bit harsh.

Perhaps inevitably –such is the way of academia – the negative reviews have begun appearing now that Israel is close to completing his third volume and has revealed most of his argument. A critique by Samuel Moyn – a professor of intellectual history at Columbia University has appeared in ‘The Nation’. It’s lengthy but worth a read, as is the book by Dan Edelstein which Moyn recommends, ‘The Terror of Natural Right’. Moyn writes:

‘Contrary to Israel, Edelstein argues that Enlightenment naturalism turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs. Edelstein wants to know how the Jacobins, whom he rightly credits with some of the most progressive and egalitarian aims any political movement has ever professed (notably the invention of social rights to work and education), ended up orchestrating a reign of terror. Against interpretations that simply blame circumstances, Edelstein too insists that ideas mattered. But the most provocative argument in his book is that the ideas that made the revolution spiral out of control were the cult of nature and the belief in natural rights.’


Jonathan Israel replied to Moyn's review on the History News Network and Moyn then published another response

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

Hard to link the Jacobins to the Enlightenment. Many of Roberspierre's speeches are pure Platonic totalitarianism and the model the Jacobins discussed for their education system was that of Sparta.The American Constitution is more representative of Enlightenment thinking. Jack Rakove's book Revolutionaries shows how the Founding Fathers drew on contemporary thinking.

Humphrey said...

Thanks anon - I shall have to see what Edelstein has to say. I am reading the kindle edition at the moment but I have had to send it back to the publishers as the formatting is broken.

Stan said...

"I am reading the kindle edition at the moment but I have had to send it back to the publishers as the formatting is broken."

May I offer a suggestion as to the contents of the note accompanying your broken file?

"Dear Publishers,

Papyrus scrolls and illuminated manuscripts have been with us for several centuries. They are durable, they are easily read (provided you understand the language), and they don't suffer from formatting errors and computer viruses.

Amazing how the ancient peoples manage to look far more impressive and produce a better product than you, no?"

He he he.

Brandon said...


Actually, I think it's not so clear that they can't be linked to the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment was not a well-defined movement. And politics isn't a barrier in any direction; depending on exactly where and when we're talking about, you can find thinkers who were clearly part of the Enlightenment arguing in at least qualified ways for philosophical totalitarianisms and enlightened despotisms as well as for the opposite. Part of the reason being, of course, that if you're interested in reforms it is much easier to enact them by convincing Catherine of Russia, say, than by convincing the common people. Also, no one in the Enlightenment thought that that Enlightenment was the goal; even people like Diderot who doubted whether despotism was ever justifiable explicitly held that Enlightenment was consistent with it, because Enlightenment was just the transitional state, and that has to be consistent with lots of things. And, setting aside the Jacobins themselves, it's not as hard as one might think to find Enlightenment thinkers who saw the French Revolution itself as being clearly an expression of the Enlightenment, even if they disagreed with the methods of the Terror.

The question is made even more complicated by the fact that who counts as an 'Enlightenment thinker' can sometimes change depending on who is arguing and what, precisely, they are arguing for -- Rousseau is the most notorious example of someone who is Enlightenment or not entirely as people find convenient, but he's not the only one. Also, it's become more and more clear over the past few decades that some of what gets counted as 'Enlightenment thinking' might actually be post-Enlightenment, connected to the Enlightenment by Rousseau-inspired educational movements, but early nineteenth century rather than eighteenth century, and highly Romantic in character.

Such things are one of the reasons why historians are increasingly tending to talk in terms of Enlightenments rather than in terms of 'the Enlightenment'.

Matko said...

Humphrey, is Israel's book still worth a read?

Humphrey said...

Again I have only dipped into it, but it's pretty impressive from what I have seen so far. I't won a lot of acclaim in it's field and has set the context for future debate. Only two complaints. 1) it is of course highly focused on Spinoza which can be a bit myopic; but overall he has restored the enlightenment as an international movement rather than one focused on national lines. 2) it tends to see the moderate enlightenment as fence sitters - for example Noel Malcolm complained in 'Aspects of Hobbes' that Hobbes was at least as critical a figure in the radical enlightenment as Spinoza which is certainly not Israel's view.