Faith in the Enlightenment? The Critique of the Enlightenment Revisited

By Lieven Boeve; Joeri Schrijvers et al. | Go to book overview

The Productive Power of Reason
Voices on Rationality and Religion – A Sketch of the
Development of the Enlightenment and its Aftermath1

Cornelia Richter

Doch ich besorge es nicht erst seit gestern, daß, indem ich gewisse Vorurteile
weggeworfen, ich ein wenig zu viel mit weggeworfen habe, was ich werde
wiederholen müssen. Daß ich es zum Teil nicht schon getan, daran hat mich nur
die Furcht verhindert, nach und nach den ganzen Unrat wieder in das Haus zu
schleppen. Es ist unendlich schwer, zu wissen, wenn und wo man bleiben soll, und
Tausenden für einen ist das Ziel ihres Nachdenkens die Stelle, wo sie des
Nachdenkens müde geworden.2

'Enlightenment' is indeed a difficult term. It is usually used as a general concept for the historical epoch as well as for the intellectual and sociopolitical developments in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, as soon as we try to give a more specific definition, it becomes more complicated because we have to distinguish (at least) between: a) national traditions like the French, English, or German Enlightenment, b) intellectual movements like Rationalism and Empiricism, which soon were accompanied by romantic and idealistic philosophies as well as theological positions like Orthodoxy, Neology, Supernaturalism, or Pietism, and c) ideas, subjects and motives like freedom and autonomy, morality and public order, or the progress of mankind in history. So our first question simply has to be the following: 'What is Enlightenment?'

1 The work on this study was funded by the Danish National Research
Foundation.

2 "I have been concerned since yesterday that in the process of discarding
certain prejudices, I have thrown away a little too much. I shall have to retrieve
some things that I have rejected. Until now it is only a fear of dragging all the
rubbish back into my house that has prevented me from taking back a great
deal. It is infinitely difficult to know when and where to stop, and for the
overwhelming majority of people the result of their reflections is the point at
which they grew weary of reflection" (Lessing 1996a: 880; English translation
after Altmann 1973: 256 and Flajole 1959: 52).

-23-

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