In Search of Humanity: The Role of the Enlightenment in Modern History

In Search of Humanity: The Role of the Enlightenment in Modern History

In Search of Humanity: The Role of the Enlightenment in Modern History

In Search of Humanity: The Role of the Enlightenment in Modern History

Excerpt

The term 'Enlightenment' is hardly naturalized in English. This is curious, because the intellectual and moral revolution which it describes perhaps obtained its most widespread acceptance and exercised its most lasting influence in Great Britain and the Englishspeaking world. But although the word is not familiar, and is open to some objection, other possible titles are even less happy. Why, for example, should we describe as the 'Aufklärung' a movement which had, or so I believe, only a superficial and transient influence on the German mind? Again, we can legitimately concentrate on the eighteenth century as 'le siȅcle des lumiȅres' and give the Enlightenment that title; but at the risk of forgetting that practically all its essential ideas were inherited from the previous century. If we go back to that flowering-time of genius we shall find that it already has a name in the text-books: it is the Age of Reason. And its philosophic rationalism, while in some respects the ally, was also the enemy of the empiricism which was one of the dominant elements in the Enlightenment.

The ambiguities of the term 'reason', and the conflict between empiricism and rationalism, is a second source of confusion about the Enlightenment and one of the reasons why it has been the subject of such different and even contrary interpretations. I do not pretend to be in agreement with all my predecessors on this subject. If Hazard's classic La crise de la conscience europęenne would fit in very well with my theme, Taine's L'ancien ręgime, Carl Becker brilliant Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-century Philosophers, or Professor Talmon influential Origins of Totalitarian Democracy represent a fundamentally opposed view; and Cassirer's 'Aufklärung', beginning in Leibniz and culminatmig in Kant, may seem to trace the history of quite another intellectual development, as indeed it largely does. These differing interpretations partly stem from concentration of interest on the intellectual history of separate countries, and partly from a tendency to exclude, or at least to regard as somehow not part of the general European movement, the development of ideas in Great Britain. It seems to me, on the contrary, that such . . .

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