There are various ways of interpreting the European Enlightenment, some long cultivated in the historiography, others of more recent provenance. One formidable tradition of study adopts a primarily 'French' perspective, seeing the wider European phenomenon as a projection of French ideas and intellectual concerns, especially those of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, D'Alembert, d'Holbach, and Rousseau. Another approach, which enjoys support not only among Anglophone but also some continental scholars, envisages the Enlightenment as an intellectual reorientation inspired chiefly by English ideas and science, especially the endeavours of Locke and Newton. In recent years, it has also become fashionable to claim there was not one Enlightenment but rather an entire constellation or family of 'Enlightenments', related but distinct, growing up in numerous different national contexts. Finally, there has also been an incipient tendency latterly to distinguish between a mainstream 'moderate' and a more radical underground Enlightenment, albeit usually with the latter being deemed essentially marginal to the wider phenomenon.
One of my two main purposes in this work is to argue for another and different way of approaching the subject. The French perspective, though it has much to offer, remains increasingly susceptible to the charge that it underestimates the extensive philosophical and scientific borrowing all major eighteenth-century French thinkers engaged in. The 'English' approach might seem initially more plausible, not least since Voltaire's original stance was based almost wholly on Locke and Newton. Yet given the slow and sporadic reception of Locke and Newton outside Britain, and still more the often penetrating criticism their ideas were subjected to, this perspective is, in reality, even more vulnerable not just to the charge that it overly inflates the role of a particular nation but also that it fails to grasp the wider play of forces involved. As for the idea that we are dealing with a whole family of Enlightenments, there are seemingly insuperable objections to this too. For this notion encourages the tendency to study the subject within the context of 'national history' which is decidedly the wrong framework for so international and pan-European a phenomenon. Worse still, it unacceptably ignores or overlooks the extent to which common impulses and concerns shaped the Enlightenment as a whole.
My first goal then is to try to convey, however imperfectly and tentatively, a sense of the European Enlightenment as a single highly integrated intellectual and cultural movement, displaying differences in timing, no doubt, but for the most part preoccupied not only with the same intellectual problems but often even the very same books and insights everywhere from Portugal to Russia and from Ireland to Sicily. Arguably,