The Enlightenment

By Robertson, John | History Review, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Enlightenment


Robertson, John, History Review


Definition of the Enlightenment used to be a straightforward matter. It was a group of French philosophers, the philosophes, who along with a few curious foreign visitors gathered in Paris in the middle decades of the eighteenth century to talk and to write about ways of improving the world. While the subjects they discussed were many and varied, they shared and expounded a common set of values, prominent among which were reason, humanity, liberty and tolerance. The Enlightenment, in other words, existed in a certain time and place, was identified with a particular group of men, and was characterised by specific ideas. Over the past thirty years, however, scholars have questioned virtually all of these assumptions. The Enlightenment has been extended far beyond France, and has been associated with a wider range of intellectual interests than those which formed the staple of the Paris salons. Still more energy has been devoted to writing its social history, to identifying the parts played by its publishers and booksellers, to debating its significance for women, and to enlarging our knowledge of its institutional and cultural contexts.

Not surprisingly, the result of all this activity has been disagreement, to the point where many scholars now question whether it is helpful to continue to think in terms of a single Enlightenment; and even those who are still willing to talk of `the' Enlightenment as a whole do so only in a loose and inclusive way. Such a gulf between new scholarly thinking and traditional assumptions is of course to be found in many fields of history. But the problem seems particularly acute in the case of the Enlightenment. As good an indication as any of its severity is the shortage of accessible and up-to-date surveys of the subject: not until 1995, when Cambridge published Dorinda Outram's The Enlightenment in the `new approaches to European history' series, was there a replacement for Norman Hampson's 1968 Penguin of the same title.

A short article is not the place to resolve the problem and provide a new, instantly usable account of the Enlightenment. Even if, as I shall end by suggesting, it is still possible to present the Enlightenment as a single, coherent intellectual movement whose ideas shaped the modern world, this case cannot be made without recognising the importance of the new directions in Enlightenment scholarship, and the extent to which they have complicated and even undermined the traditional picture. The better to measure the change, I shall begin by taking a closer look at the traditional Enlightenment, as scholars understood it until the 1960s.

The traditional Enlightenment

In fact the traditional Enlightenment had two aspects, literary and philosophical. Literary historians identified the Enlightenment almost exclusively with a small circle of philosophe and their supporters in France. These included a few indisputably great writers -- Voltaire and Montesquieu, thought of as the founding-fathers of the movement, Diderot and D'Alembert, editors of the Encyclopedie, the philosophers D'Holbach, Helvetius, Condillac and Condorcet, the political economists Turgot and Quesnay, and the profoundly original if rebellious political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These and other men of letters who identified with them had made their way to Paris between the 1730s and the 1780s, were admitted to the salons of free-thinking ladies to discuss their ideas, and then or later made these ideas public in an array of books and pamphlets. Since the salon conversations were not recorded, it was the philosophes' publications which were taken as defining the intellectual content of the Enlightenment. Besides the Encyclopedie (1751-72), its characteristic works included Montesquieu's Espirit des Lois (1748), Voltaire's Candide (1759) and Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), and Rousseau's Discours sur les origines de l'inegalite' (1755), Du contrat social (1761) and Emile (1762). …

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