Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

3

SOCIETY, INSTITUTIONS, REVOLUTION

i. Philosophy and the Social Hierarchy

Is there a social dimension that helps explain the timing and psychological origins of the rise of radical thought? That the chief breeding-grounds of radical ideas during the century 1650–1750 were large, internationally orientated, dynamic cities with exceptionally high levels of immigration from a wide area, commercial and manufacturing, as well as governmental centres, such as Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Paris, Venice, Naples, Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Hamburg, where traditional, sharply delineated social hierarchies and forms of deference were perceptibly eroding, suggests that there may be. Radical ideas, seemingly, were nurtured within an urban milieu characterized by exceptional fluidity of social relations and movement between social strata, features which correspond directly to the freer, more flexible intellectual framework which emerged.

Historians in recent decades have become conscious of the evolution in western and central Europe during the century and a half before the French Revolution of a wholly new kind of public sphere for debate, exchange of ideas, and opinionforming, located outside the formal consultative procedures and assemblies of the past, a public sphere which emerged only where a high degree of social and cultural interchange existed outside the deliberations of formal political, judicial, and ecclesiastical bodies and institutions.1 Among the novelties in European life generating this forum of public opinion formation beyond the sway of princely courts, the judiciary, the Church, and parliaments were the new erudite journals, 'universal' libraries, literary clubs, lexicons, and encyclopaedias, culminating in the great Encyclopédie (seventeen volumes, Paris, 1751–65) of Diderot and D'Alembert, and generally the new post-1648 Republic of Letters,2 as well as, more mundanely, newspapers, gentlemen's magazines, tea-and coffee-houses and, after around 1730, also Masonic lodges.3

Except the last, all these new cultural institutions and forms of sociability were products of the last part of the seventeenth century and conclusively demonstrate the

1 Habermas, Structural Transformation, 27–38; Chartier, Cultural Origins, 20–30; Goodman, Republic of
Letters
, 11–22.

2 Habermas, Structural Transformation, 25.

3 Van Dülmen, Society, 10.

-59-

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