Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview
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i. The Emancipation of Women

The revolutionary implications of radical thought for Europe's institutions, monarchical governments, and aristocratic social order could, at most, be only faintly glimpsed in the decades down to the mid-eighteenth century. Politically, the ultimate significance of the new radical ideas was not to become fully evident until the 1790s. Very different was the case with issues of sexuality, eroticism, and the place of women in society. Here the unsettling ramifications of philosophical naturalism and Spinozism, as well as Bayle's radical separation of morality from religion, became apparent at an early stage and were elaborated by such radical writers as Beverland, Leenhof, Radicati, Mandeville, Doria, and d'Argens.

The shift of intellectual debate in Europe from Latin to French, and from the academic sphere to courts, coffee-houses, clubs, and salons, enabled some women, especially noble ladies supplemented with a sprinkling of escaped nuns, actresses, female singers, courtesans, and others who were relatively well-educated, to discover the new philosophy and science and by means of intellectual 'enlightenment' transform their outlook and lives. Such was the impetus of philosophy in these decades that it could not only shatter authority, tradition, and the belief system of the past but also, for the first time, challenge and indeed fundamentally alter existing patterns of social and cultural relations between men and women.

Intellectually, women for the first time became an audience and an active presence. Thus Fontenelle remarks, in the preface to his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), that he writes primarily 'pour les femmes' and those men who know little Latin, explaining that he esteems native insight and judgement, what he calls 'esprit', male or female, far higher than mere erudition, however great, which indeed, he notes, can sometimes be entirely devoid of true understanding.1 But he seeks not just to educate women about science but also to 'enlighten' them and by so doing activate them in society. His aim, as he puts it, is to win over his fictional 'Madame la marquise' for the 'party of philosophy'.2 Other philosophes similarly envisaged themselves as

1 Fontenelle, Entretiens, preface, pp. Aiv–iv; Niderst, Fontenelle, 284; Brockliss, 'Scientific Revolution', 70.

2 Fontenelle, Entretiens, 1–3.


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Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750
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