Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Enlightenment 'Project'

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Enlightenment 'Project'

Article excerpt

In recent decades it has become fashionable to condescend to the Enlightenment as the world of unworldly pamphleteers foolishly wedded to the theory of progress, unhistorical in its contempt for the past and committed to a cold, prosaic rationalism. ... Nowadays, when someone speaks of the "Enlightenment project," a term that instantly reveals its user's partisanship--we know that this is a way of pronouncing the whole enterprise a failure.

Counter-arguments, no matter how soundly grounded, have not helped much. Anyone who cares to read the major texts of the Enlightenment, whether British or American or Continental, can recognize the injustice of these charges: The theory of progress [for example] was a 19th-century speciality, whereas Voltaire wrote his poem on the Lisbon earthquake and Candide to ridicule the theory of perfectibility....

Still, the question remains: was all the philosophes' expenditure of energy worth it? Their attack on unreason was principally directed against the ravages that religious beliefs and religious practices had wrought through the centuries. …

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