Academic journal article The Historian

A Meta-Analysis of Critiques of Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment

Academic journal article The Historian

A Meta-Analysis of Critiques of Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Few recent works have ruffled the feathers of intellectual historians in the way that Jonathan Israel's presentation of radical thought has in his four books, Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, Democratic Enlightenment, and A Revolution of the Mind (the last one being a condensed, accessible version of the themes running through the first three books), published from 2001 to 2011. (1) Across nearly 3,000 pages, Israel posits that modern ideals such as the increased use of reason, the advance of democratic principles, increased equality, and greater liberty have their roots in Baruch Spinoza's highly unorthodox radical philosophy. (2) This philosophy, Israel contends, emanated from the Netherlands, engulfed Western Europe, Central Europe, and Russia, crossed the Atlantic, and expanded its reach to the Americas. As it did so, it encountered hearty opposition from counter-Enlightenment and "moderate" Enlightenment forces. These intellectual behemoths fought an unrelenting battle for people's minds until Spinoza's radical strain won out. This abbreviated summary captures the essence of Israel's thesis, which has attracted tremendous scholarly attention, much of it critical. In fact, there are more than fifty published reviews of these four works, conferences have been convened to discuss Israel's arguments, and an entire book is devoted to a discussion of his main thesis and the arguments supporting it. (3) These critiques, while often admiring Israel's erudition, are far reaching and cogent, covering topics from his tone to his central thesis. They are, with few exceptions, from experienced scholars who have published important works on the Enlightenment and on various facets of the long eighteenth century, including: Enlightenment philosophy, social forces, political change, the French and American Revolutions, cultural movements, economic forces, literature, contemporary religion, and a host of other fields from the time frame that Israel engages. It seems fair to say that few works of Enlightenment intellectual history have evinced so much commentary from so many qualified scholars.

The aim of this article is to examine the objections to Israel's conceptualization and analysis of the radical Enlightenment and to present the findings as a meta-analysis. Meta-analyses are more common in psychology, sociology, education, science, and other fields that present experimental findings; consequently, some justification is required for applying this method to historical reviews. Customarily, meta-analyses use statistical analyses to tease out more reliable conclusions or correlations from scientific studies that share common goals but may not share methods, may differ in methodological implementation, or suffer from design flaws. By aggregating data, it becomes possible to identify tendencies or draw inferences not available in the analysis of individual studies. While meta-analyses are rare in the humanities, they are not unknown. For example, Ada Palmer's Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance is in some respects a meta-analysis. Palmer studied the marginalia of fifty-two manuscript copies and 172 printed copies of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura to find patterns of reader annotations using a technique that she describes as "largely quantitative." Using this meta-analytical method, she discerns changing purposes in annotation--and hence in reading--across timelines. (4) In the present study, objections to Israel's view of the Radical Enlightenment occupy the place of individual scientific studies in more traditional meta-analyses, without qualifying as scientific studies per se. Here, the aggregation of data that is the hallmark of meta-analyses is the categorization of objections and replies to Israel's theories and methods. This aggregation yields insights into the breadth of those objections. In this sense, the coherence of replies to Israel's work is akin to aggregated, convergent data in traditional meta-analyses. …

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