The Enlightenment: History of an Idea

The Enlightenment: History of an Idea


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The Enlightenment: History of an Idea by Vincenzo Ferrone

In this concise and powerful book, one of the world's leading historians of the Enlightenment provides a bracing and clarifying new interpretation of this watershed period. Arguing that philosophical and historical interpretations of the era have long been hopelessly confused, Vincenzo Ferrone makes the case that it is only by separating these views and taking an approach grounded in social and cultural history that we can begin to grasp what the Enlightenment was—and why it is still relevant today. Ferrone explains why the Enlightenment was a profound and wide-ranging cultural revolution that reshaped Western identity, reformed politics through the invention of human rights, and redefined knowledge by creating a critical culture. These new ways of thinking gave birth to new values that spread throughout society and changed how everyday life was lived and understood. Featuring an illuminating afterword describing how his argument challenges the work of Anglophone interpreters including Jonathan Israel, The Enlightenment provides a fascinating reevaluation of the true nature and legacy of one of the most important and contested periods in Western history.

The translation of this work has been funded by SEPS—Segretariato Europeo per le Pubblicazioni Scientifiche.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175768
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 1,198,173
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Vincenzo Ferrone is professor of modern history at the University of Turin. He has been a visiting scholar at the Collège de France and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Read an Excerpt

The Enlightenment

History of An Idea

By Vincenzo Ferrone, Elisabett Tarantino


Copyright © 2010 Giuseppe Laterza & Figli
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6583-3



The Peculiarity of the Enlightenment as Historical Category

What do we know about the Enlightenment? Quite a lot, it would seem. The number of studies on this subject from every part of the world is extensive and growing constantly. In the twentieth century a lot of effort was devoted to the analysis of an "Enlightenment question" which proved pivotal in the study of the rise of modern European civilization. On the plus side, this produced new insights, highlighted several sensitive points, brought to the fore neglected or even hitherto unknown personages and facts. But there was a downside. These studies often failed to break free of past schemes and modes of analysis, which were informed by ideological prejudice or by so blatant an apologetic intent that they were capable only of rehearsing well-known themes. Cultural and political battles of an exceptionally intense and passionate character have been fought over the last few centuries for and against the Enlightenment. Our newborn century therefore has the difficult task of rethinking the Enlightenment: this involves investigating its meaning and the many historical forms that it has taken in Western civilization, summing up and reviewing current knowledge, and separating the old from the new, all the while keeping to a minimum the prejudices and spurious influences that constantly tend to contaminate our search for truth and frustrate efforts at gaining a scientific understanding of the past.

One way of achieving these goals might be to investigate both the profound differences and the important points of contact and reciprocal influences between the views of the Enlightenment held by philosophers and those held by historians. This could in fact prove the precious red thread that will help solve many a problem and aid a new generation of historiographers in bringing about the renewal of their discipline that is nothing less than their duty. The starting point has to be an awareness of the double nature of this eighteenth-century epistemological paradigm, caught between history and philosophy, which in turn leads to a discussion of its unique historiographical character.

The Enlightenment, a kind of conceptual Centaur, is unlike any other traditional historical category, different, for example, from humanism, the Renaissance, the Baroque, and Romanticism, which are defined by their philosophical origin to a much lesser extent. The Enlightenment expressly defines itself on a critical and philosophical level. It was, in fact, the first cultural phenomenon expressly recognized by its contemporaries through the name that it gave itself. At the same time, by this very act of self-identification, the Enlightenment also revolutionized contemporary notions of universal history and of historical time, effectively giving rise to the modern Western consciousness of time and launching a debate that still engages us today because it coincides to a large extent with the ongoing investigation into what constitutes modernity. Given the complexity of the issues at stake, let us take one thing at a time.

To call Hegel the "father of the Enlightenment" may seem surprising and even paradoxical, but it appears less so if we consider the history of philosophical thought and the dominant influence of Hegel's interpretation on the way in which many European thinkers see the Enlightenment, i.e., within a dialectical system, as thinking reality, a simultaneously logical and historical category of the phenomenology of spirit. And yet, setting aside the specific case of Hegel and his importance for historical research, to which we shall return later, it was undoubtedly philosophers who first taught historians to think of the Enlightenment as a specific concept and category within the study of the rise of modernity. Thus a gauntlet was thrown down. It was claimed that no effective discussion of the historical dimension of this subject could proceed without both a clear, precise, and theoretically well-founded idea of the nature of the Enlightenment, and an awareness as well of the fact that historical events are not possible and therefore not thinkable without linguistic acts.

In fact, this peculiarity of the Enlightenment as a category in the history of Western culture becomes especially obvious when we consider the way in which eighteenth-century thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon, and many others redefined universal history and the very idea of historical knowledge through the introduction of the radically new concept of a secularized "historical time" That concept was based on the distinction—cultural and, even more, anthropological—between past and future, experience and expectation.

No one really subscribes any longer to the nineteenth-century condemnation of Enlightenment historiography as "anti-historical," a view born mostly out of political and ideological motives. Nowadays it would be difficult to refute Reinhart Koselleck's assertion, in the wake of Wilhelm Dilthey's famous rehabilitation of the Enlightenment, that "[o]ur modern concept of history is the outcome of Enlightenment reflection on the growing complexity of 'history in general," i.e., of history finally considered per se, history in the collective singular, an autonomous entity not linked to any object or subordinate to any subject.

In the course of the eighteenth century a long and complicated process that had begun in the middle of the sixteenth century finally came to a head. It saw the emergence in people's consciousness of the idea that they were living in new times, times that were completely different from any previous epoch: a "modern" era, characterized both by its otherness from the past, which was now being critically reviewed, and by its ability to see the present as new in so far as it contained the seeds of the future. Many started to talk about modern history as a time when nothing was stable any more: the very term "modern" derived from modus, by which was meant concrete reality's constant state of flux, the accelerated transition of every thing. Accordingly, in his Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire wrote of a "histoire ancienne" that preceded the "histoire moderne," as well as of "temps modernes" and the "progrès de lesprit humain," thus confirming the importance of certain formulae that had by then become current in historical discourse. In 1765 Voltaire also invented the phrase "philosophie de l'histoire," through which he interpreted historical events once and for all in a way that diverged radically from Christian tradition, i.e., from the tradition first developed by Augustine that was still being applied in its fundamentally religious sense by Bossuet in his 1681 Discours sur l'histoire universelle. In other words, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment opposed a brand new philosophy of history to a centuries-old theology of history, thus ringing the death knell for that reading of the future as a providential plan validated by prophecy that was one of the central tenets of Christian thought and one of the bases of the Church's cultural system.

This process had begun in the previous century, when the politics and logic of power of the absolutist state had first undermined the power of the Church over people's consciences and appropriated the right to make predictions about the future based on reason rather than faith, thus substituting prophecy with prognosis. In the wake of that shift, the vast historical scenarios built by the Enlightenment completed the secularization of that theologically based eschatological time that had been expounded with great subtlety by Augustine in his City of God, replacing it now with a time created by man and nations planning their earthly future. Time then became something more than mere chronological form encompassing all histories in their cyclical course: it turned into a dynamic force in its own right, acquiring a historical quality of its own. History was no longer inside time but through time.

All this of course constituted a great epistemological revolution. Gone was the "naive realism" of the Ciceronian historia magistra vitae, of history as chronicle and a static collection of exempla, as a never-changing catalogue and speculum vitae humanae validated only through witness accounts. In came prospective models, the discovery of the point of view as a necessary cognitive element that plays an entirely legitimate and even decisive part in our modern concept of historical knowledge. The works of the Enlightenment were, in contrast, informed by specific ideological and philosophical stances, among them the idea of a stage-by-stage development of civilizations that enabled thinking about mankind's progress as a whole. Thanks to these works historians discovered that in order to capture history per se the epistemological process could not rely solely on source criticism, which, though it remained a fundamental element, "would no longer be so central as it was to antiquarian forms of erudition. Instead, historians needed to recognize philosophy's heuristic role and to accept the idea of history as constantly liable to rewriting, a filia temporis to be pursued both with critical and philological instruments and by formulating "points of view" and historical judgments that themselves would be subject to the influence of the times.

The ultimate import of this revolution in Western thought was admirably synthesized by Goethe: "There remains no doubt these days that world history has from time to time to be rewritten." The same conviction was expressed by Hegel: "History's spiritual principle is the sum total of all possible perspectives." It is within this intellectual context that our modern concept of the Enlightenment began to develop. This unique Centaur, with its double nature, both historical and philosophical, would soon become fundamental in the study of a modernity that had newly entered Western history and must now create its own self-consciousness and its own norm.



The Emancipation of Man through Man

In 1784, Kant published a short essay putting forward an "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" in the journal Berlinische Monatsschrift. The article offered a good synthesis of the search for meaning or purpose in the historical process as carried out by Kant's contemporaries, and above all of the growing importance in that regard of a new cultural phenomenon that German scholars were beginning to call the Aufklärung.

In the essay Kant distinguished clearly between the traditional "work of practicing empirical historians," which consisted in a mere narrative of events (Historie), and the effort to draft instead an "[i]dea of world history, which is to some extent based upon an a priori principle" and is philosophical in kind (Geschichte). The principle in question was embodied in a cosmopolitan perspective of the fundamental unity of mankind, which, despite all the vicissitudes it underwent, nonetheless showed a constant propensity towards "progress." Proof of this was to be sought within a view of universal history that wove together nature and morality, being and having to be, biological determinism, and the liberty of man. That evidence was provided both by the laws of nature as delineated by Bonnet, Haller, and Blumenbach in their research on the epigenesis and preformation of species, and by the real meaning behind the way in which the French Revolution had burst onto the European scene. Despite the Jacobean Terror and the many "atrocities" it engendered, that radical event remained for Kant an obvious historical sign of mankind's moral disposition to feel a positive kind of enthusiasm and to participate in the collective construction of a moral ideal tending towards progress and the good, and towards the defense of liberty and the rights of the individual: "For such a phenomenon in human history is not to be forgotten, because it has revealed a tendency and faculty in human nature for improvement."

From his first essay on the idea of universal history from a cosmopolitan perspective onwards, Kant often mentioned the "enlightenment" attributing to it the function of the engine and fundamental condition for progress, without however giving a more precise definition of its contents. He simply highlighted the importance of the action exercised on mankind by this process of "continued enlightenment." That process determined the kind of moral behavior that was at the basis of a "universal civic society which administers law among men," a society that therefore puts in place constitutions and treaties capable of ensuring liberty, peace, security, and rights within and outside individual states. Although man in himself (being made of "crooked wood") at the individual level all too often remained enslaved to his own tendency to evil, the observation of nature showed instead that, as a species, mankind was capable of achieving the purpose of a "universal cosmopolitan condition" that could guarantee the rights of every human being on earth, without distinctions or favoritism. And that was due precisely to the action of the Enlightenment. As Kant explained, nature "needs a perhaps unreckonable series of generations, each of which passes its own enlightenment to its successor in order finally to bring the seeds of enlightenment to that degree of development in our race which is completely suitable to nature's purpose." Those seeds were indestructible. Universal history bore witness to the fact that, despite setbacks, wars, and all kinds of horrors, there remained a certain "plus," "a germ of enlightenment [...] left to be further developed by this overthrow" through which "a higher level was thus prepared."

A few months later, in the same Berlin journal, Kant returned to this subject, which was by now at the center of an intense dispute, with another article, entitled "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" (An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment) Here he described the Enlightenment as a precise modality of the exercise of reason, which was animated by a strong "spirit of freedom" and intimately connected with mankind's natural need for knowledge: a cultural practice, to use a modern phrase, able to guarantee "the progress of mankind toward improvement" through the "freedom to make public use of one's reason at every point" However, this attitude led to consequent actions, with grave and subversive consequences with respect to the Ancien Régime. Those consequences were not ignored by Kant, who however certainly did not stress them, for fear of causing too much alarm. They consisted, for instance, in the need to break with the primacy of tradition as moral guidance, to critique the very foundations of current existence, to fearlessly challenge the centuries-old domination of auctoritates of every kind and in every field, in order to assert man's right to the pursuit of happiness.

In Kant's concise depiction, the Enlightenment was nothing other than a great act of courage, a passionate invitation never to be afraid of emancipation. It represented

... man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!"—that is the motto of enlightenment.


Excerpted from The Enlightenment by Vincenzo Ferrone, Elisabett Tarantino. Copyright © 2010 Giuseppe Laterza & Figli. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY 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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Table of Contents

Introduction - Living the Enlightenment vii

Acknowledgments xvi

Part I The Philosophers' Enlightenment: Thinking the Centaur 1

1 Historians and Philosophers: The Peculiarity of the Enlightenment as Historical Category 3

2 Kant: Was ist Aufklärung? The Emancipation of Man through Man 7

3 Hegel: The Dialectics of the Enlightenment as Modernity's Philosophical Issue 12

4 Marx and Nietzsche: The Enlightenment from Bourgeois Ideology to Will to Power 23

5 Horkheimer and Adorno: The Totalitarian Face of the Dialectic of Enlightenment 30

6 Foucault: The Return of the Centaur and the Death of Man 34

7 Postmodern Anti-Enlightenment Positions: From the Cassirer-Heidegger Debate to Benedict XVI's katholische Aufklärung 43

Part II The Historians' Enlightenment: The Cultural Revolution of the Ancien Régime 55

8 For a Defense of Historical Knowledge: Beyond the Centaur 57

9 The Epistemologia imaginabilis in Eighteenth-Century Science and Philosophy 67

10 The Enlightenment–French Revolution Paradigm Between Political Myth and Epistemological Impasse 79

11 The Twentieth Century and the Enlightenment as Historical Problem: From Political History to Social and Cultural History 87

12 What Was the Enlightenment? The Humanism of the Moderns in Ancien Régime Europe 95

13 Chronology and Geography of a Cultural Revolution 120

14 Politicization and Natura naturans: The Late Enlightenment Question and the Crisis of the Ancien Régime 140


The Enlightenment: A Revolution of the Mind or the Ancien Régime's Cultural Revolution? 155

Notes 173

Index 203

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