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So, what was the enlightenment?

Lecturer: Matthew Sharpe

Originally Taught: Evening School Semester 2 2014

6 Wednesdays: Aug 20, Sep 3, Sep 17, Oct 1 (cancelled), Oct 15, Oct 29, Nov 12 (Note: The last class only is in room 224)

One prominent political scientist has noted that nearly every school of contemporary political science, despite their polemical differences, are united in opposition to something called the ‘enlightenment’.  The same might well be said of many philosophical positions.  Yet it is not altogether clear, very often, what is meant by the ‘enlightenment’ we are agreeing was such an unmitigated disaster: progenitor of a reductive naturalism, a totalising set of philosophies of history, an egregious set of vindications for colonial landgrabs, a Eurocentric attack on the autonomy and dignity of other cultures, a hopelessly relativistic annihilation of all solid traditional sources of value, as well as the cradle of feminism, liberal democracy, expanded suffrage and (with time) public education, and several other less unambiguously troubling legacies.  Sometimes the enlightenment is identified with ‘modernity’ or ‘liberalism’ or ‘scientism’, a set of claims which set its dates back to the 17th century, and perhaps beyond.  Yet in other leading sources, when ‘modernity’ or ‘modernism’ is in question, the French enlightenment of the 18th century is forgotten completely, excepting the dispositionally dissident figure of Rousseau, as if modernity begun when Kant wrote ‘What is Enlightenment?’ or the first Critique. This course wants to suspend the idea that we know what the enlightenment was, for long enough to relook at some key texts in the French enlightenment of the 18th century.  It will broadly argue that, here as elsewhere, our most persuasive-sounding criticisms often buy their reassuring cogency by a contestable distance from the materials, and authors, being criticised.  Drawing on recent studies of the French and European enlightenment by Peter Gay, Jonathan Israel, Dennis Rasmussen, and Genevieve Lloyd, and focussing each day on a particular hegemonic myth about the enlightenment (and a key figure or two), we will see that entire strands of the enlightenment (in fact a vexingly divided, complex thing or things) were not dogmatically sure of themselves, but determinately sceptical; not cravenly anti-religious, but anti-clerical and positively deistic or pantheistic; not simply Eurocentric, but unprecedentedly open to the virtues of cannibals, Persians, and Chinese; not coldly rationalistic advocates of totalitarian ‘métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigological’ schemes, but downright sentimentalists in morals and epistemic sceptics and fallibilists.  The hope for students of the course, and their teacher, will be that, if after understanding the divided legacy of the enlightenment we cannot perhaps cultivate our later modern gardens with the well-won peace of a Candide, at least we will have a better idea of what 18th century plants this garden actually contained, so we can thresh out better the weeds from genuine grain, and even scent some poetical flowers.

Course Schedule

week 1: criticisms of the enlightenment, beyond right or left; then a preliminary historical scoping of contemporary studies and the 18th century terrain

week 2: hybristic, utopian, rationalist?  Scepticism and the birth of scientific culture in the 17th-18th centuries (Bayle and Montaigne)

week 3: anti-religious, or anti-Rationalist and anti-clerical?  A candid day on Voltaire

week 4: Eurocentric, pro-colonial, ethnocentric?  Some Persian Letters (Montesquieu), cannibals, and enlightenment Sinophilia

week 5: Inhumane or mostly downright ‘sentimental’?  Enlightenment ethical thinking before Kant (Hume and the moral sentimentalists).

Week 6: Proto-totalitarian?  The divided spirit of political thinking in the enlightenment (Gibbon, Montesquieu)


Recommended readings:

  • Dennis Rasmussen, The Pragmatic Enlightenment
  • Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, Volume 1: The Rise of Modern Paganism
  • Genoveve Lloyd, Enlightenment Shadows.
  • Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, Candide, Zadig
  • Montesquieu, Persian Letters
  • Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy