Essay: What is The Enlightenment?
Teaser (aka abstract):
A concept "The Enlightenment" was a term completely unknown the the 18thC. The closest we get is Kant, who talked about 'enlightenment', but never "The Enlightenment." (see below - the term aufklarung is the closest we can get) .His philosophical perspective would never allow for such a crass historicist term to exist. It seems that the term is a 20thC caricature, whose interpretive boundaries have extended way beyond the original vision of Cassirer who first associated the term with the 18thC in 1930, to a point now that what is characterises as Enlightenment or Counter Enlightenment betrays more about the preconceptions of modern historians than reveals about the 18thC.
Sorry about the length , but please enjoy.
This essay is not about the Enlightenment. It is an investigation as to how the idea, ‘Enlightenment’ has been adopted, and is used. It is closer to a genealogy of Enlightenment than an assessment of the actions of historical actors of the eighteenth century who have been enlisted to characterise the term. Due consideration of the ideas of the Enlightenment is only addressed in the light of this investigation. First the essay examines the reception of the Enlightenment into English, as a word to signify aspects of the eighteenth century. Then it looks at the evidence for the concept, as it existed in the eighteenth century. The essay will then investigate some of the historiographical issues that are complicit in the application of the term and some of the difficulties and arguments that have arisen from the consequence of the widening of the boundaries to which the term as been put, in contrast to the actuality of eighteenth century thinking.
It would appear that no English-speaking historian used the word Enlightenment to describe the eighteenth century, until the twentieth century. An investigation into several encyclopaedias of the Victorian period reveals not a single mention. This may reflect a nineteenth century attitude that ‘patronised’ the eighteenth century as being rather shallow. Indeed a late Victorian OED definition associated Enlightenment with a French “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority.” A perusal of the British Library catalogue reveals not a single title containing the word “Enlightenment” until 1910. But despite this negative evidence, it is not to say that nineteenth century historians did not concern themselves with the eighteenth century. Leslie Stephen, for one, devoted much consideration to the eighteenth century but did not make ‘Enlightenment’ the object of his approach. Next from the study of the BL catalogue, we have to wait for 1942 when The Age of Enlightenment, an Anthology of 18th Century French Literature becomes available. But it is not until 1951 that the word Enlightenment becomes used to describe a unity of historical thought on the eighteenth century, in a book translated from the 1932 German version from the posthumous Cassirer. The next book of significance is offered from Isaiah Berlin in 1956, The Age of Enlightenment. The 1960s provides a further handful of books, notably from Gay, Manuel, and Fellows. But even after Enlightenment’s adoption into English, Bronowski’s and Mazlish’s The Western Intellectual Tradition mention it only in passing, and then only dismissively; “To us, the Age of Enlightenment… is not a restful abstraction. It is a complex of people and groups with conflicting ideas…” Then, when dealing with France during this period they are again somewhat dismissive of the term: “usually labelled the French Enlightenment.” This demonstrates that the link between Enlightenment with the eighteenth century is not a necessary one and perhaps novel in some respects to twentieth century thinking. The 1960s is rather an interesting period for the career of this particular signifier as there was also a growing interest in Buddhism and so this decade also marks the appearance of another literary kind of “enlightenment”. It seems the word was attracting a certain kudos. During the first half of the 1970s both Buddhist enlightenment and the historical “Enlightenment” start to flourish. There were around 35 further history books on the eighteenth century containing the word in their titles. The rest of the decade sees an explosion of titles of around 100 British Library entries culminating in a cookbook of the Enlightenment. Presumably if you can eat it, it must be real? From that time to the present, Enlightenment studies has now become a massive historical industry. In the early twenty-first century, Enlightenment has become a historical category driven both by consensus and argument, and has undergone a massive proliferation of versions: French, German, Dutch, Scottish, Scientific, Radical, Counter-Enlightenment and even Christian and Jewish. Not to be left out we now also have a book about English Enlightenment from Roy Porter.
There is a claim that ‘Enlightenment’ is one of the few words to describe an historical period for whom the historical participants are responsible for its coining. Indeed there is a significant amount of evidence for this claim and a certain amount of justification. However the evidence for this claim is somewhat limited considering the widened scope that the Enlightenment now enjoys. It is true that many of the historical actors now associated with it would not have recognised themselves as part of the Enlightenment per se, (at least not as currently characterised) nor would wish to be associated with many of the other historical actors also associated with it. This becomes especially evident if we were to confront say La Mettrie, author of L’Homme Machine, with a leading light of the so-called Christian Enlightenment. It seems, that as Intellectual Historians, we should be in the business of avoiding anachronisms and false attributions such that it would seem unfair to attribute to people in the past such descriptions that they would not have employed of themselves. This essay is a brief investigation of this problem.
The evidence for the attribution of the word “Enlightenment” to be applied to the eighteenth century comes from two key areas, and a third rather less satisfying one. First, it may be accurate to say that the philosophe grouping in France during the eighteenth century were explicitly and openly were conscious of a distinct movement, initiated by Voltaire, in which the metaphor of revealing a light was used textually and iconographically – this can be seen clearly in the preface and frontispiece, respectively, to the Encyclopaédie of D’Alembert and Diderot. But it is not clear to what degree their movement attracted a signifier that approximates “Enlightenment” at the time, though the English translation uses the ‘enlightenment’ throughout the entire work. In particular, the use to which this word was put, by D’Alembert was a recognition that the philosophes were reflecting a previous age in ancient times in which the search for truth was less restrictive than their present. D’Alembert in writing his encyclopaedia was uncovering 1200 years of darkness stating, “The masterpieces that the ancients left us in almost all genres were forgotten for twelve centuries.” This somewhat retrospective viewpoint stands in some distinction to which various practitioners of intellectual history have applied the term “Enlightenment”, as we shall see. What does come near is the use of the term of Diderot’s, siècle philosophe, which he applied to the eighteenth century, whereas the term siècles de lumiére referred, not to the eighteenth century, but to pre-Christian, ancient times. But it is this siècles de lumiére that has been recruited, and used to form the Enlightenment. This “French Enlightenment” seems to be the seed from which most other Enlightenments have borne their own contradictory progeny.
The second main area of evidence comes from the much quoted and perhaps over stated connection to Enlightenment that is the result of the famous question “was ist Aufklärung?” presented as a competition in a Berlin journal in 1783. It is often Kant’s answer that receives the most attention. This position was that Aufklärung was a maturing of mankind in its ability to be able to think for itself. Although the subsequent debate “raged” for the rest of the decade, it is evident from Schmidt’s study of the Mittwochsgesellschaft that the Aufklärung was a limited phenomenon: limited to a small group of thinkers who under the license “you can think as much as you like as long as you obey”, were asking the questions: why had the public received so little Enlightenment, and even so, was it really a good idea to let them have any more? The restrictions proposed for this limitation were class based and considered application to the public and private. Even though these thinkers considered that they were enjoying many liberties, in being able to conduct this discourse, nonetheless this was conducted to a degree in secret, and this ‘liberty’ was peculiar to the benign despotism of the reign of Frederick the Great. What little liberty the Prussians enjoyed was soon to be reversed by the succession of Frederick William II when a Censorship Commission was there to “stamp out the Enlightenment”. This Aufklärung has fed the imagination of Enlightenment studies as is exemplified by Foucault asking the same question in 1984. He was not imune to the irony that Kant’s view is the very antithesis of a position of social responsibility, and was a position not likely to have a major impact on a wide swath of the public. It might be concluded that Kant’s view is paradoxical in allowing ‘public’ freedom to a ‘scholar’, but to demand obedience to all those in a ‘private’ role : is not a scholar also holding an office? One has to ask if some great irony has been lost from the context, but also how much of an influence did Aufklärung actually have at the time in the brief reign of Frederick the Great? If this influence was so limited; why call the eighteenth century the Enlightenment? For Moses Mendelssohn, answering the same question as Kant, associates Aufklärung, with Bildung and Kulture. He stated that though these words may have been newcomers to the language, this did not prove that they are new things. “The Greek had both culture and enlightenment.” With this we might reflect how Enlightenment is become so heavily associated with the eighteenth century; or why be concerned to translate Aufklärung as Enlightenment?
The third justification for the attribution of ‘Enlightenment’ to the eighteenth century is that contemporary authors used the term of their own age. Burke, is sometimes quoted. But his reflections on the abandonment of old prejudices were somewhat ironic. The word was also used contemporaneously in a general way to describe a sense of growing modernity. An example of this is from Porter, quoting Revd Richard Price, “our first concern, as lovers of our country, must be to enlighten it.” Although Porter also calls the Enlightenment anachronistic he still feels the need to title his book thus. Other examples range from; “an enlightened age… of age of enlightenment – [but] the designation ‘the Enlightenment’ is nowhere to be found.” However, there is an important sense in which a long historical process that challenged the power of theology to dominate thinking had gathered pace. The question is whether such a complex process can be signified with a single word. However, it seems that the Aufklärung was the result of a thinly spread new outlook from philosophers across Europe, reaching the German speaking world who were making achievements in political thought, science and knowledge against traditional beliefs; that the philosophes and other intellectuals across Europe approximated a community connected by travel; a republic of letters and printed academic works. Significant evidence of cross fertilisation of ideas amongst European intellectuals – is, then, the basis upon which the eighteenth century has been characterised as the Enlightenment. As this concept has been conceived in the twentieth century, it has been appropriated by various interests in the academic community and has attracted a large range of supporters and detractors too numerous to even summarise in a small work such as this. What is clear is that “Enlightenment” has been used as a post hoc attribution to characterise an explicit philosophical movement, which departed from religion and faith, and has been characterised by a spectrum of philosophies, which included atheism, deism, pantheism and a mechanistic and materialistic approach to explain the natural world. This is to say nothing of a growing challenge to traditional political power relations, which is characterised by the struggle for liberty by the revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition Enlightenment as well as being coterminous with the eighteenth century is now also indistinguishable from the birth of modernity. This has led to the Enlightenment having its critics. This criticism does not only addresses what might be called the essential issues of that philosophical movement, but has also encompassed many other areas of eighteenth century history as the boundaries of the Enlightenment have been exceeded. Now we seem to have a position in historical discourse that has seen a proliferation and appropriation of the ‘Enlightenment’ which seems now to reside in a range of versions, as listed (p3) above.
As the “Enlightenment” has grown its various branches a critical response has emerged from James Schmidt and others. Some ground has been gained by his critique. In support of Schmidt, Delacapagne (2001) stated; “There is probably not a single philosophical position around which we could end up finding all the main representatives of the Enlightenment family gathered as if at a birthday party… except (perhaps) the anti-religious position.” Today, not even that is true, as the “Christian Enlightenment” has tried to gatecrash that party. Though most of the French philosophes never publicly declared full atheism, (presenting themselves as deists), it seems fair to say that this concern with unpacking of religious dogma so central to early twentieth century characterisations of the period has set the bar for Enlightenment studies. Collingwood described the Enlightenment thus: ”it was a revolt not only against the power of institutional religion but against religion as such.” This view was also shared by Paul Hazard who suggested that the aim of the Enlightenment was to put Christianity on trial, and by Peter Gay who described it as a “war on Christianity.” This position is now somewhat emasculated by a growing Christian Enlightenment which relies on what Rosenblatt, calls a ‘pluralizing’ rejection of a ‘single Enlightenment’. She suggests, “we now know … that the relationship between Christianity and the Enlightenment was more complicated and interesting.” But is this we now know better position fair? Is it not simply a consequence of the ‘pluralization’ or more aptly a ‘colonisation’ of the word ‘Enlightenment’ by theological history? Is it not simply an artefact of a false attribution, which has extended the word beyond all reasonable limits? The result of this is that what was once considered, as the definitive Enlightenment, is now relegated to “French Enlightenment”, subsumed to allow for the growth of further branches. This simply begs the question: what is Enlightenment that a static past can be so seemingly transformed in just 60 years of scholarship? Were Collingwood et al so wrong? Within this new discourse the accompanying adjective is now pruned so that, for example, Professor Stewart Brown is now able to characterise Hugh Blair’s sermons, which specifically denounce Deism, Atheism, Materialism and the American and French revolutions, as “… the greatest influential achievements of the Enlightenment.” This usage renders “The Enlightenment” as nothing other than equivalent to “the eighteenth century”, devoid of a core meaning. If the most significant core value of the Enlightenment can be so easily swept aside, this means that the Enlightenment of Collingwood has become stretched to its maximal extent: an extent that is as wide as the time period is describes. It now seems to have been robbed of its anti-superstition, anti-religion characteristics of the French philosophes, and the ‘thinking for one’s self’ aspect characteristic of Kant’s essay. The emergence of a Christian Enlightenment is in some ways the most extreme example of the extension of the boundaries of the Enlightenment. However, the various critiques of Enlightenment studies has more subtle and far less easy targets for this essay to pursue. And despite the difficulties with a definitively identifiable Enlightenment, Enlightenment studies have attracted a compelling and attractive scholarship that has asked questions which lie at the very heart of the nature and practice of Modernity.
In addition to the acquisition of the term and its promotion by sectional interests within academia, Enlightenment has also been acquired for a range of critiques. Schmidt notes that the Enlightenment has been blamed for a long list of crimes from the French revolution, totalitarianism, absolute values, imperialism, aggressive capitalism, the destruction of a sense of community by individualism and many more. Ironically enough many of the earliest attacks from the nineteenth century were made on the basis of the apparent opposition to faith and religion to those identified as atheistic philosophes and deistic Aufklärer and by those that might now be welcomed paradoxically into the Christian Enlightenment. The attacks have continued in many forms to the present. But as the temporal distance has grown and the boundaries of Enlightenment have extended, the attacks become inconsistent as the object of the attack changes, so much so that any attack made against it could, with some little effort, be engineered in support of it. For example, Political scientist J. Q. Wilson attributes modern day problems with rights, as a legacy of the Enlightenment. Haakonssen’s objection to Wilson correctly drives a distinction between the Enlightenment’s hierarchical social ethics and a rights-based liberalism of modernity. However, this begs the question, what is Enlightenment, and although Haakonssen’s objection is accurate using a precisely defined Enlightenment, it may simply be too late for such an objection to fit. The Enlightenment and its legacy, it seems have moved on: it is now indistinguishable from Modernity itself.
Garrard sets out a range of “Counter-Enlightenments” from the eighteenth century to the present. Some of the contemporary ones share features with those set out by Schmidt. Schmidt (2000) explains some of the abuses to which the term Enlightenment has been put. He characterizes such critiques as falling into categories of jeopardy, futility and perversity. He shows how the critics of the Enlightenment project, use ‘a projection’ of the writers own choice and runs with this to knock down what might be called a straw man argument. “Critiques of the Enlightenment project thus rest on an act of projection in which the unpleasant features of our own time are explained as the consequences of certain general principles whose ultimate origins are located in a particular eighteenth century thinker or group of thinkers who are stipulated as representative of the Enlightenment.” Though he hints later on, he does not make quite so much of the same evident tendency in the supporters and defenders of the Enlightenment to do the same thing. Are the Enlightenment’s defenders not also projecting their own concerns? Surely this too is a feature of Enlightenment studies. When Berlin, Lively and Manuel made choices as to those particular philosophers who were to be included in their own works, they were inevitably projecting their own concerns by allowing a selection of eighteenth century philosophers to speak for ‘themselves’, by speaking for the ‘Enlightenment’. But by making those choices they were inevitably creating and defining the boundaries and essential qualities of their personal conception of the Enlightenment.
Whilst Schmidt points to Birken and Lang, Garrard points to Crocker and Macintyre as critics of Enlightenment, all implicitly or explicitly implicate the Enlightenment in the horrors of WWII and totalitarianism. Is this justification any more convincing than laying the blame of racism and Nazism at the door of Darwin or Pol Pot at the door of Marx? Arguments against Birken’s and Lang’s notion that the Enlightenment is to blame for the horrors of Nazism is discarded and replaced by the more reasonable suggestion that the mysticism of Hegel; the Irrationalism of the Romantic and Nationalist nineteenth century, and the misappropriation of Nietzsche, are far more responsible for the rise of Nazism, and the concentration camps. It was not the rejection of faith and superstition, so characteristic of the philosophy at the time of the Enlightenment that can be held responsible for these horrors. But it is the use of science as a socially constructed tool, by political forces motivated by the irrational superstition that is Nationalism and Racism. Forces that justified evil deeds on scientific grounds, by using science as a rationale for an anti-Semitism that predated the eighteenth century by 100s of years. Anti-Semitic forces needed no encouragement from a thing that could have been called Enlightenment. Such an aberration seems able to justify itself within any historical context and was at the heat of Martin Luther’s personal ideology. Could this inversion be laid at the door of the anti-clerical forces of thought contained in eighteenth century philosophy; and the rise of nineteenth century Nationalism that seemed to have taken the place of the binding force of religion? It is clear from this, that if Enlightenment thinking can be blamed for this, it is due to omission rather than commission. Is it that Enlightenment thinking was unable to account for, or replace with reason, the human need to be bound to a systematized human group in distinction to the other, as it is this tendency that lies at the heart of Nazism and is a continuing problem to the present that seems always to plague our species. If it is the Age of Reason that is to blame, perhaps the detractors of Enlightenment thinking would like to suggest how unreason might have faired in the intervening 2-300 years? In Dialectic of Enlightenment , Adorno and Horkheimer tend to identify the problems of the twentieth century by posing the question: why has value neutral instrumental reason failed to enlighten humanity, which has continued to sink into barbarism. There seem to be two things that the Enlightenment could be criticized for in the reception of modernity and what that has involved for the world at large. One, is a critique of the thoughts and values contained within the historical period. And two, the valorization of the Enlightenment in terms of the historiographical process which has maintained it, writes about it, and feeds a kind of mythologisation of modernity. In this, Intellectual History would seem to be complicit with this activity. But are Adorno and Horkheimer criticizing one or the other, or both? It seems that they dissolve this distinction. Thus Enlightenment is all that characterizes the project of modernity from the eighteenth century to the present. The Dialektik der Aufklärung is less about the historically defined ‘Enlightenment’, but a general attack on the way elements of modern thought from Homer to the present that ought to have produced a better world have lost their way. If one were to hold to a definitive Enlightenment their critique is more about the failure of Modernity than its subordinate; the Enlightenment. Despite this compelling and thoughtful approach their own critics have caricatured their approach. It has been suggested, by Jan Gollinski, that Adorno and Horkeimer level a criticism at the Enlightenment for the ‘enlightened rationality responsible for the rise of totalitarianism itself… and ultimately to the extermination of human beings.” But the book is written in a mode of ironic puzzlement in which rationality has failed to penetrate deeper levels of human horror. Thus the debate seems to be rather confused if we look at what they actually said. They demonstrate that there is nothing new in Anti-Semitism. It has been transformed by a new rationale, and is “all that has been retained of religion by German Christians.”
The result of this widening of its boundaries, then, has led to a diminution of its meaning and its value as a tool in understanding the history of ideas. Outram suggests that the Enlightenment is “obscure or even meaningless” due to history studying ideas, “not as autonomous discrete objects, but as deeply embedded in society.” This would be correct if the Enlightenment could be identified exactly with a series of autonomous ideas: it cannot. There never was any agreement as to what the Enlightenment was or whether it was possible to make it conform to a clear set of ideas. But is it clear that the seeds of that obscurity can be found not in the late twentieth century but in the middle of the twentieth century, between the works of Cassirer on the one hand and the likes of Manuel and Berlin on the other, at the very moment that ‘Enlightenment’ is introduced. These distinct approaches lie at opposite ends of a conceptual spectrum: in the very use of the term which is used as if the Enlightenment were a causal agent by Cassirer, but only as a label for a period of philosophical history by Berlin and Manuel. Cassirer, far from applying ideas as autonomous objects he imposes a Geist – a process or form of thought not simply the sum total of the leading thinkers of the time, but he rather chooses to characterise the work of those thinkers as a “manifestation” of the essential Enlightenment. This is the very epitome of ‘embedded ideas’. But this was fraught with problems from the start, as Price pointed out: Cassirer fails to establish the Enlightenment as an “event”, but effectively produces a work of fiction by attributing to it a gentle process of historical development, devoid of the conflicts inherent in the period. Berlin suggested that Cassirer “offers a conciliatory view at the expense of the critical faculty”, by characterising the Enlightenment without the “conflicts and crises … [in this] serenely innocent book”, showing the need for a more “business-like approach.” Cassirer is not without further critique: Boas in 1952 asked whether such an approach was at all possible; “neither times nor movements have Minds in any intelligible sense of the word.” Oddly, Cassirer, by promoting this type of thinking, it seems, is flying against the aims of eighteenth century materialist philosophy by ironically promoting a romantic view of history and reflecting Hegelian counter-Enlightenment interests of the nineteenth century. The echo of this Geist appears throughout Enlightenment studies. Both the critics and promoters of “the Enlightenment” rely on a modified conceptualisation of the Geist of the eighteenth century. It is this unity of concept, and idealist notion of ‘culture’ this single mind that relies, not on eighteenth century self-critical thinking, but on the sort of nineteenth century mysticism of Hegelian Geistgesische. It is then of the deepest irony that Cassirer uses this to promote the Enlightenment. At the other end of the conceptual spectrum, Berlin et al cleverly allow the philosophers of the eighteenth century to speak for themselves with books that are selections of their writings with commentary. For example, Berlin with Locke and Voltaire but reveals his own peculiar interests by devoting a third of his book the writings of Hume. This sort of approach, which is common to Enlightenment studies, is a means by which the editors create their own toolkit of connotations and piece together an Enlightenment of their own imagination.
In 1876, Leslie Stephen observed; “in some minds the desire for unity of system in the more strongly developed; in others the desire for the conformity to facts.” In the case of Enlightenment studies both attributes stand out in clear contrast. Those that love facts would seek conformity to a narrowly definitive Enlightenment; those that love a system can, like a magpie, attribute whatsoever they desire to find a systemic truth. Those wishing to hold hard to the facts have more chance to agree, whilst the systematisers can only hope to adopt a relativism to co-exist with other participants in Enlightenment studies. Outram has suggested a way forward. She prefers to look at the Enlightenment as a “capsule containing sets of debates, stresses and concerns, which however differently formulated or responded to, do appear to be characteristic of the way in which ideas, opinions and social and political structures interacted and changed in the eighteenth century.” Her idea is a viable and pragmatic approach to tackle some of the key issues that were discussed in the eighteenth century, though the notion that the selection of such issues will also tend to pre-configure the Enlightenment, there will also be those practitioners that see a spirit or system emerge out of their chosen arguments. Perhaps this is an unavoidable tendency that leads towards the Enlightenment becoming a thing with its own volition; a simple consequence of what to choose to place inside the capsule? There is a sense in which Outram is trying to salvage the Enlightenment. Her idea seems to be workable, but makes one ask, why not jettison the term entirely and continue to talk about what actually happened in the eighteenth century without colouring it with an inappropriate term, a term that carries the baggage of so much connotation and textual accretion? Perhaps the attractiveness of the word preserves its usage? Schmidt noted; “Historians searching for a felicitous way of capturing the spirit of the age have cited it, philosophers hoping to incite a renewed devotion to the ideal of Enlightenment have appealed to it, and present-day social critics-apparently in need of a bit of historical legitimacy have sometimes wrapped themselves in its mantle.” So why has the term attracted so much interest, or should it be asked, what has encouraged its acquisition by a range of interests? Such a word has a great positive feeling to a degree that anyone would wish to be associated with it. And when using it as an object of critique or ridicule, the effect is so much more enhanced being such a positive sounding word. But the Enlightenment by being vague such critiques are easier to pursue than, say, an attack on “the Age of Reason”. After all who would attack Reason? The Enlightenment connotes accomplishment, knowledge acquisition, attainments, illumination, awakening, civilisation, debunking, broad mindedness, sophistication, de-mythologisation. It is no surprise given the set of connotations that theological studies would wish to cover themselves in its mantle or is it just seeking a bit of historical legitimacy? These connotations stand against confusion, darkness and ignorance, notions that no one would wish to be associated with. What it has come to denote is far more complex and indefinable: the period terminating in the eighteenth century; a philosophical movement; a philosophical process; a philosophical project; a mental and social attitude; a set of philosophical and political argumental vignettes; and it is conflated with a wider category: Modernity itself.
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