Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Inventing the Enlightenment: Anti-Jacobins, British Hegelians, and the Oxford English Dictionary

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Inventing the Enlightenment: Anti-Jacobins, British Hegelians, and the Oxford English Dictionary

Article excerpt

Collecting the Prejudices

For over a century the Oxford English Dictionary has defined "enlightenment" as follows:

1. The action of enlightening; the state of being enlightened ... [I]mparting or receiving mental or spiritual light.

2. Sometimes used [after Ger. Aufklarung, Aufklarerei] to designate the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c., or of others whom it is intended to associate with them in the implied charge of shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority, etc.1

The second definition has, understandably, not sat well with historians of the period. More than four decades ago, Peter Gay began a dissection of the persistence of various "stubborn misreadings" of the Enlightenment by noting that the virtually identical definition in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary had the dubious distinction of "collecting most current prejudices in one convenient spot."2

The OED provided three examples of the second usage. The first two came from James Hutchison Stirling's Secret of Hegel (1865): 1) "Deism, Atheism, Pantheism, and all manner of isms due to Enlightenment" and 2) "Shallow Enlightenment, supported on such semi-information, on such weak personal vanity, etc." The third came from Edward Caird's Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889): 3) "The individualistic tendencies of the age of Enlightenment." The OED's choice of examples has also raised some hackles among dix-huitiemistes. John Lough observed, "What these examples have to do with French thought it is difficult to see; the first source is a book on Hegel and the second one on Kant."3

A glance at the context from which the Caird quotation was taken would have been enough to ease Lough's confusion. While Caird's book may have been about Kant, the passage quoted was part of a general characterization of eighteenth-century philosophy:

The individualistic tendencies of the age of Enlightenment, which separated each man from the unity of the social organism to which he belonged, separated him also from the past out of which his intellectual life had grown. Hence to the writers of that time the independence of philosophical thought seemed to involve that each thinker must begin the work of speculation de novo: and to admit the possibility or necessity of a mediation of truth to the individual by the communis sensus of humanity was in their eyes the same thing as to accept the dictation of an external authority.4

While there is much here that might be criticized, such a characterization of the Enlightenment still enjoys support in some quarters today.

A closer look at the examples from The Secret of Hegel, however, yields a few surprises. For in the first extract the OED misquoted Stirling and in the second it misrepresented how he employed the phrase "shallow enlightenment." Both examples are taken from a passage in the book's Preface which launches a diatribe against Henry Thomas Buckle, whose materialist approach to history particularly incensed Stirling. At issue in the first is the question of whether Buckle--who conveyed to Stirling "the air of a man who is speaking by anticipation, and who only counts on verifying the same"--truly understood Kant's work. The passage runs as follows (the portion extracted, and misquoted, by the OED has been italicized):

He had a theory, had Mr Buckle, or, rather, a theory had him-a theory, it is true, small rather, but still a theory that to him loomed huge as the universe, at the same time that it was the single drop of vitality in his whole soul.-Now, that such redoubted thinkers as Kant and Hegel, who, in especial, had been suspected or accused of Deism, Atheism, Pantheism, and all manner of isms dear to Enlightenment, but hateful to Prejudice-(or vice versa)-that these should be found not to fit into his theory-such doubt never for a moment crossed even the most casual dream of Buckle!5

In the passage misquoted in the OED Stirling speaks not of "isms due to Enlightenment" but rather of "isms dear to Enlightenment. …

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