The Enlightenment: A Genealogy

The Enlightenment: A Genealogy

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by Dan Edelstein

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What was the Enlightenment? Though many scholars have attempted to solve this riddle, none has made as much use of contemporary answers as Dan Edelstein does here. In seeking to recover where, when, and how the concept of “the Enlightenment” first emerged, Edelstein departs from genealogies that trace it back to political and philosophical developments

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What was the Enlightenment? Though many scholars have attempted to solve this riddle, none has made as much use of contemporary answers as Dan Edelstein does here. In seeking to recover where, when, and how the concept of “the Enlightenment” first emerged, Edelstein departs from genealogies that trace it back to political and philosophical developments in England and the Dutch Republic. According to Edelstein, by the 1720s scholars and authors in France were already employing a constellation of terms—such as l’esprit philosophique—to describe what we would today call the Enlightenment. But Edelstein argues that it was within the French Academies, and in the context of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, that the key definition, concepts, and historical narratives of the Enlightenment were crafted.

A necessary corrective to many of our contemporary ideas about the Enlightenment, Edelstein’s book turns conventional thinking about the period on its head. Concise, clear, and contrarian, The Enlightenment will be welcomed by all teachers and students of the period.

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Editorial Reviews

Thomas M. Kavanagh

“This study articulates a resolutely innovative argument for a narrative as opposed to a epistemological understanding of the Enlightenment. Edelstein’s careful attention to how the Enlightenment itself imagined its origins and objectives clears away layers of obfuscating accretions. User-friendly and eminently well informed, this critical synthesis becomes a manifesto reorienting Enlightenment studies in new and provocative directions. Those who would understand what the Enlightenment was and is could not find a better guide.”

Patrick Coleman

“Dan Edelstein’s incisive book argues that before we define the Enlightenment as an historical period or debate it as a philosophical project we need to appreciate it as a story told by a set of self-conscious French moderns about the emergence of new social forms shaped by the methods and mentality of scientific reason. Reconstructing the chapters of this story in his own vivid style, Edelstein sets students on a sure path through the thicket of scholarly commentary while challenging specialists to re-examine their own understanding of this key episode in intellectual history.”

David A. Bell
“Dan Edelstein, one of the very best contemporary scholars of eighteenth-century French culture, has produced another tour-de-force of a book with this brilliant, provocative study of how, when, and where the Enlightenment was first defined.”

Antoine Lilti

“In this concise, bold, and innovative book, Dan Edelstein offers us an original account of the Enlightenment. It convincingly argues that the Enlightenment is above all a narrative about social and cultural changes and that its origins can be found in the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Therefore, by reconsidering the importance of the French esprit philosophique in the European Enlightenment, this book will be of considerable importance for every scholar and student interested in this period.”—Antoine Lilti, Ecole Normale Supérieure


“Edelstein provides both novice and expert readers with an accomplished work, recapitulating the encyclopedic ambitions of the philosophes, and giving peripheral attention to foreign reactions, such as the Scottish and Italian Enlightenments….Highly recommended.”

Journal of Modern History

“This book is few in pages, and its author is comparatively few in years. But it possesses more force than far weightier tomes and more learning and intelligence than most can muster in a career. Put simply, Dan Edelstein’s The Enlightenment: A Genealogy is a daring and provocative work. . . . Unlike so many of Nietzsche and Foucault’s world-be literary acolytes, Edelstein is deeply versed in the past. When coupled with his no less impressive erudition in literary studies, that deep historical and historiographical knowledge allows him to make a contribution of great importance. The Enlightenment Project, Edelstein contends, was first and foremost a ‘story’ that eighteenth-century men and women told about themselves. . . . Edelstein’s book . . . should sit, in good company, on the shelves of all students, regardless of discipline, who are interested in the period.”

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The Enlightenment

A Genealogy

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-18449-4

Chapter One

Interpreting the Enlightenment: On Methods

Scholars, philosophers, churchmen, journalists, officials, teachers, and scores of others have been discussing the Enlightenment for nearly three hundred years, yet there is still remarkably little agreement on what, precisely, the Enlightenment was. Language is part of the problem: the expression "the Enlightenment," for instance, appeared in English only around the mid–nineteenth century. Of course, there were plenty of other words, especially in other languages, available to designate a phenomenon that, on the surface of things at least, resembled what we would today identify as the Enlightenment. But what was the nature of this beast? What is it we are referring to when we speak of "the Enlightenment"? The contemporary historian is faced with an array of variegated facts, events, practices, and ideas that bear no clear relationship to one another. What unites a popularizing scientific dialogue published in Paris, a Scottish treatise on political economy, a Masonic lodge in Prussia, and the abolition of convents by the Austrian government? Rather than a neatly ordered Encyclopédie, we are confronted with a corpus resembling Borges's Chinese encyclopedia: an apparent jumble, missing a coherent classificatory system.

Historians have long sought to palliate this lack of an organizing principle by ingenious theoretical innovations. From Carl Becker's 1932 Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers to Jügen Habermas's 1962 study The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and, more recently, from the volume of essays The Darnton Debate to Jonathan Israel's latest defense of intellectual history, the centrality of methodological reflection to Enlightenment studies has made this field a particularly dynamic one. Despite this continuous attention, however, there remain a number of outstanding problems with the approach that many scholars take to the topic. While it would be pointless to search for a methodological silver bullet, we can at least aim not to shoot ourselves in the foot.

These metaphors are perhaps inappropriate, as Enlightenment studies are too often derailed by the search for a smoking gun. To a greater or lesser degree, most historians end up privileging a particular author, intellectual current, form of sociability, or political revolution as the fountainhead and direct source of much, if not all, that the Enlightenment produced. Given that these productions varied so tremendously, one rarely, if ever, finds a snug fit. Yet still we seem unable to resist the siren song of a "key to all philosophies," to paraphrase the learned doctor of Middlemarch. The first methodological challenge for Enlightenment scholars, particularly intellectual historians, is therefore to imagine a different model of causation, one that allows a number of nonrelated parts—texts and events—to combine into a greater whole: the Enlightenment.

The second major stumbling block for intellectual and cultural studies of the Enlightenment is that they often rest on a very inadequate model of reading and interpretation. Indeed, most scholars still assume that ideas do not undergo significant (if any) transformation as they are passed on, and that, as Anthony Grafton bemoans, "transmission [is] a simple, one- directional process rather like high-fidelity broadcasting of classical music." ? Jonathan Israel, for instance, would have us believe that Spinozism constituted a coherent set of necessarily connected beliefs, which remained intact throughout the eighteenth century. Yet Antoine Lilti has pointed out that there is virtually no evidence that this was how Spinoza was read. Intellectual historians cannot assume that their subjects share with them the same interpretation of a text; no deconstructionist faith is required to recognize that, as a simple empirical matter, authors are read in wildly different ways. Anthropologists remind us that each time ideas are transmitted, particularly in literate, historically minded societies, they are likely to be appropriated for new, sometimes contradictory means. It is precisely this instability that explains some of the more ironic twists in the intellectual history of the Enlightenment: as Robert Palmer and Alan Kors have both shown, for instance, some of the most "dangerous" Enlightenment ideas were first formulated, for very different purposes, by Catholic theologians.

The probability of transformation is particularly high when ideas circulate from one culture to another. Much of the debate over the Enlightenment in recent years has hinged on retracing cultural transmission across national borders. These geographical histories have primarily been concerned with the genealogy of Enlightenment ideas: while most historians acknowledge that France, and especially Paris, eventually became the headquarters of the Enlightenment, many argue that the intellectual origins of the Enlightenment lay elsewhere, notably in England or Holland or both. I will return in later chapters to the historical merits of these claims; for now, suffice it to recall that the contents of a text may shift during travel. The case of Newton is paradigmatic: often hailed as a founding father of the Enlightenment, his reception in France, as J. B. Shank has analyzed, was a protracted and complex affair. It was only in the 1730s that his physical description of the universe was accepted by leading figures in the Académie des sciences. Given that, as we will see, there was already by this time a coherent and established theory of the Enlightenment in French intellectual circles, Newtonianism cannot be made into the spark that enlightened Europe.

Social and cultural histories of the Enlightenment are not immune to interpretive troubles either. In the wake of Habermas's influential study, and of Marxist theory more generally, historians sought to link shifts in public opinion to the emergence of new forms of sociability. In some instances, such "egalitarian" models as Masonic lodges seem to have encouraged "republican" political views, as in the Dutch cases analyzed by Margaret Jacob. Yet this apparent correspondence may have had more to do with Dutch political culture than with any intrinsic properties of Masonic sociability. Across the border in France, there is far less evidence that these same (or similar) practices produced a comparable republican outlook: one of the most engaged Masons of the late eighteenth century, Antoine Court de Gébelin, perceived the order in strictly monarchic terms. Despite their egalitarian pretensions, lodges could equally well be associated with hierarchic and conservative ideologies. Rather than infuse elite Enlightenment sociability with a republican ethos, the salons similarly seem to have perpetuated a "curial," aristocratic mentality. As David Bell warned, "It is a fallacy to assume any direct, automatic, relation between social and technological change and changes in consciousness."

Definitions of "the Enlightenment" in terms of media and mediation confront similar challenges. In a recent volume entitled This Is Enlightenment, Clifford Siskin and William Warner have gathered essays that underscore the central role played by media and other forms of mediation in the creation and operation of the Enlightenment. Their emphasis lies in particular with journalistic genres, communication infrastructure (such as development of postal services), and new information technologies (e.g., telegraphy), in addition to the new social practices mentioned above. They subsequently define the Enlightenment in terms of the overall "proliferation" of these new mediations.

The considerable achievement of this volume is to remind us of the extent to which mediating technologies were a necessary condition for the Enlightenment to occur. It was, after all, in and through books, pamphlets, encyclopedias, journals, Masonic societies, and academies that the ideals and even the notion of the Enlightenment were transmitted. But is mediation a sufficient condition as well? We must also recognize that the philosophes and their allies were not alone in making use of these media. The Jesuits had a far more sophisticated system of global correspondence: does this mean they were more enlightened? As Robert Darnton has shown, the whole of eighteenth-century France can effectively be described as an "early information society." ?? But how can we distinguish works of the Enlightenment from the rumormongering of Darnton's libelers if they are both primarily defined in terms of media? Not all red trucks are fire engines. Moreover, it is difficult to identify any genres or technologies that originated or were even uniquely associated with the Enlightenment: as Ann Blair and Peter Stallybrass note in their contribution to This Is Enlightenment, many of the information technologies—including those famously put to use in the Encyclopédie—derive from early-modern humanist practices.?? To locate the singularity of the Enlightenment, we must also consider what was mediated, not just how it was.

When we survey the content of Enlightenment works, the fact that so many are literary texts further highlights the need for careful interpretive attention. The most influential work of political thought in eighteenth-century France was Fénelon's Les aventures de Télémaque, a pastoral novel; the fictional dialogue was the preferred essayistic form of Voltaire and Hume; Diderot, Lessing, and Beaumarchais turned to the theater to stage their philosophical principles; epistolary novels from the Persian Letters to Dangerous Liaisons voiced arguments for and against enlightened practices; even didactic works on pedagogy, such as Rousseau's Emile, were framed by fictional narratives. Where philosophical and scholarly works sought in general to limit as much as possible the different interpretations of their content, fictional texts, particularly in an age of censorship, used vagueness and innuendo for powerful effect. Voltaire did not spell out what he meant, exactly, by the famous conclusion of Candide, "il faut cultiver notre jardin," leaving it instead for the reader to decide. At face value, statements such as these did not directly challenge traditional beliefs. How one read a deeply ironic author like Voltaire depended largely on what one expected (or wanted) to find there: he could be interpreted as a dangerous radical or as an entertaining bel esprit.

One strategy that historians have devised to account for the philosophical divergences between Enlightenment figures and periods has been to divide them into groups: we now have the "radical Enlightenment," as opposed to a "mainstream Enlightenment"; and the last twenty years have seen a flurry of studies dedicated to resituating the Enlightenment in a "national context." This growing attention paid to local and smaller currents has even led some historians, such as John Pocock, to insist that we speak only of "Enlightenments" in the plural. This recalibration of Enlightenment studies presents a formidable challenge to the earlier view that, in Peter Gay's words, "there was only one Enlightenment." But it also rests on a fundamental misunderstanding about the epistemological status of "the Enlightenment."

From an empirical perspective, it may seem justified to group authors and projects into different "Enlightenments." After all, a number of features appear to distinguish Prussian, Tuscan, Austrian, Scottish, Catholic, Protestant, and other Enlightenment currents. One anecdote reveals the divide separating, for instance, the French and German Enlightenments: upon learning that Voltaire had died, Mozart, who was staying with Friedrich Melchior Grimm in France at the time, rejoiced, much to the horror of his host. And Margaret Jacob and Jonathan Israel, among others, have brought to light the existence of shadowy networks of writers, publishers, and philosophers who embraced and disseminated highly heterodox religious and political ideas.

Apart from a few small, tightly knit groups or secret societies, however, these micro-Enlightenments could be equally heterogeneous. Israel portrays Diderot as a principal representative of the "Radical Enlightenment" in mid-eighteenth-century France but does not mention that Diderot authored an entire book rebutting the "radical" proposals of his fellow "radical" philosophe Helvéius. Similarly, as Lilti notes in his review of Israel's two volumes, not all of those involved in the dissemination of "Spinozist" texts adhered to his doctrine. The works produced by Enlightenment authors in a single national context exhibited considerable differences as well: Ian Hunter has argued that there were no fewer than "three rival Enlightenment movements at the University of Halle in Brandenburg" alone. If we choose to speak of "the French Enlightenment," we must ignore the obvious disagreements between, say, Rousseau and Diderot, Morellet and Galiani, or d'Holbach and Voltaire.

This shattering of the Enlightenment into a thousand little pieces, however, seems to be the product of a basic misunderstanding. The Enlightenment was never just the sum of its parts: instead of an aggregate of ideas, actions, and events, it provided a matrix in which ideas, actions, and events acquired new meaning. To partake in the Enlightenment, it was not enough simply to pen a materialist treatise or frequent a salon: it took the awareness, by oneself or others, that a particular action belonged to a set of practices considered "enlightened." The Enlightenment constituted a prise, not a crise de conscience. Or in the terms of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the Enlightenment can be described as a "second-order observation": it was not so much a change in the way people thought but a change in the way people thought about the way people thought.

Complicating matters is the fact that this new self-consciousness was not a post facto interpretation invented by historians to make sense of these diverse social or philosophical changes, as in the case, for instance, of the Scientific Revolution. On the contrary, as I will argue, there was an idea of the Enlightenment present and readily available from the very onset of the period we now call "the Enlightenment." Readers, authors, scholars, and officials could thus identify—or contrast—themselves, their works, and their actions with this idea, which I suggest was really a historical narrative. To be sure, the books and beliefs that eighteenth-century observers deemed enlightened may not correspond to our current definition. But there was not always an agreement at the time either as to what qualified as an enlightened work. Then as now, the narrative of Enlightenment was open to different and evolving interpretations. What all these versions did share, if nothing else, was an assumption that the Enlightenment was nonetheless a singular entity. For this reason, even though there was not in fact "one Enlightenment," it still makes sense for historians to speak of "the Enlightenment," as the plural-only rule contradicts the lived experience that Aufklärer and philosophes were made of the same wood—a slightly less crooked timber. The alternative would have surprised (the Prussian) Kant, who idolized (the Genevan) Rousseau, just as it would have surprised the (Neuchâtelois) jurist Emmerich de Vattel, who worshipped the (Silesian) philosopher Christian Wolff. Though the Enlightenment differed in key respects from early-modern conceptions of the Republic of Letters (as I discuss below), its members did share similar values of cosmopolitanism and intellectual fraternity. If they disagreed on many other points, there was nonetheless a "thin coherence" to their understanding of their community and philosophical agenda, a coherence that (as Josiah Ober, building on the work of William Sewell, has argued) may be all we can expect from cultural groups of a certain size.

Merely stating that the Enlightenment, by the early eighteenth century, was already a recognizable and theorized category into which a set of cultural activities could be classed does not resolve the methodological difficulty of how we gain access to and define it. A first, straightforward step would be to return to the commentaries of the day in order to piece together how contemporaries understood this category. Such a philological approach has been standard procedure in French and German scholarship for decades: French literary historians have analyzed the meaning and evolution of such keywords as "lumières" and "philosophes"; the German Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history) school has similarly produced studies of central Enlightenment concepts. These investigations provide a very helpful sketch of how and when the Enlightenment became a self-reflexive object; they also serve as a strong rebuttal to the commonplace still found in Enlightenment studies that it was only in "the second half of the eighteenth century," with the publication of the Encyclopédie and the ensuing disputes it caused, that "Europeans began to reflect on the epochal significance of the intellectual transition of the preceding century."


Excerpted from The Enlightenment by DAN EDELSTEIN Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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