Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France

Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France

Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France

Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France


In Enlightenment Aberrations, David W. Bates shows that error was a complex, important, and by no means entirely negative concept in Enlightenment thought, one that had a decisive influence in revolutionary debates on political identity and national history. What can it mean to write a history of error? In Bates's view all philosophy, insofar as its project is the search for truth, begins in error. If truth is posited as a goal to be attained, not as a given of some kind, then error assumes a central role in the quest for truth. Going beyond both liberal celebrations and postmodern critiques of Enlightenment reason, Bates reveals just how crucial the problematic relation between human "wandering" and the mystery of truth was in eighteenth-century thought.

The author draws on a wide range of Enlightenment thinkers, including Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Jean d'Alembert, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Charles Bonnet, showing how they wrestled with the "risk and promise" of error. He then demonstrates how the concept of error and its dialectical relationship to truth played out in the political culture of the French Revolution, particularly in the Terror. In the final chapters, Bates looks at the post-revolutionary transformations of the Enlightenment discourse of error and its subsequent history in modern European thought.


Truth is nothing without the opposed error that corresponds to it.

F. L. ESCHERNEY, Les lacunes de la philosophie (1783)

Why write a conceptual history of error? And why write a history of error during the Enlightenment? The answer is not immediately obvious. Not only is it difficult to imagine error as a subject in its own right, freed from its dependence on conceptions of truth; it seems especially strange to focus on the problem of error in the Enlightenment, a period defined in many ways by its attack on error in all forms. And yet a careful study of eighteenth-century thinking about error shows just how critical this concept is for any understanding of the Enlightenment, and, as a result, for any understanding of the development of modernity. Error, in other words, will lead us not only to a new reconceptualization of the Enlightenment itself, but more important, toward a critique of those powerful historical and cultural narratives that look back to the eighteenth century as a way of explaining the incredible triumphs as well as the horrendous disasters of our modern, enlightened world.

How will a study of the seemingly marginal concept of error accomplish this difficult task? A simple observation can serve as a starting point. At its heart, philosophy is not about truth. Or at least, philosophy begins to think about truth only when it arises as a problem. Historically, truth became a problem for philosophical inquiry only when error was recognized to be an endemic condition, a recurrent possibility. The search for truth, a search that defines philosophy from its origin in ancient Greece at least to the modern era, begins really with a definition of . . .

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