Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

Excerpt

Was the Enlightenment in essence a social or an intellectual phenomenon? The answer, arguably, is that it was both and that physical reality and the life of the mind must be seen to be genuinely interacting in a kind of dialectic, a two-way street, if we are to achieve a proper and balanced approach to this fundamental topic. Does it really matter how we interpret the Enlightenment? Surely, it does. For while it has been fashionable in recent years, above all (but not only) in the Postmodernist camp, to disdain the Enlightenment as biased, facile, self-deluded, over-optimistic, Eurocentric, imperialistic, and ultimately destructive, there are sound, even rather urgent, reasons for rejecting such notions as profoundly misconceived and insisting, on the contrary, that the Enlightenment has been and remains by far the most positive factor shaping contemporary reality and those strands of 'modernity' anyone wishing to live in accord with reason would want to support and contribute to.

It is consequently of some concern that we almost entirely lack comprehensive, general accounts of the Enlightenment which try to present the overall picture on a European and transatlantic scale; and also that there still remains great uncertainty, doubt, and lack of clarity about what exactly the Enlightenment was and what intellectually and socially it actually involved. For much of the time, in the current debate, both the friends and foes of the Enlightenment are arguing about a historical phenomenon which in recent decades continues to be very inadequately understood and described. In fact, since Peter Gay's ambitious two-part general survey The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, published in 1966, there have been hardly any serious attempts, as Gay puts it, to 'offer a comprehensive interpretation of the Enlightenment'. Especially disturbing is that it remains almost impossible to find a reasonably detailed general account of the crucially formative pre-1750 period and that there is nowadays among general historians of the eighteenth century, as distinct from philosophers and specialists in political thought, rarely much discussion of the Enlightenment's intellectual content as opposed to the—according to most current historiography—supposedly more important social and material factors.

The purpose of this present account is to attempt to provide a usable outline survey and work of reference, enabling the general reader, as well as the student and professional scholar, to get more of a grip on what the ideas of the Enlightenment actually were, and one which at the same time denies that the social, cultural, and material factors are of greater concern to historians than the intellectual impulses but does so without simply reversing this and claiming ideas were, therefore, more crucial than the social process. Rather, my aim is to strive for a genuine balance, showing how ideas and socio-political context interact while yet approaching this interplay of the physical and intellectual from the intellectual side, that is running . . .

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