Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

32

The Parti philosophique Embraces
the Radical Enlightenment

1. RADICALIZATION OF THE DIDEROT CIRCLE

The years 1748–52, as has often been noted, marked the onset of a new stage in the history of the French Enlightenment: the emergence of the parti philosophique into the open as a publicly identifiable bloc, an organized opposition not to the crown but to censorship, ecclesiastical power, institutionalized intolerance, and the cultural primacy of theology and tradition within France and, by extension, soon all Europe. The resulting generalized conflict between 'philosophy' and accepted ideas, the process of philosophical polarization and party formation which ended with setting virtually the entire camp of theologians, dévots, gazetiers ecclésiastiques, antiphilosophes, and most of the educational establishment publicly at odds with the parti philosophique, a struggle in which, from 1748, large sectors of society became involved, turned the intellectual encounter into a general struggle which ultimately permeated the whole of society, indirectly including the poor and illiterate.

Of course, this newly emerged opposition bloc seizing the attention of the reading public, and even of many who were unable to read the ensuing torrent of reading material, was an alliance of two very different camps, albeit pushed together for the time being by circumstances. The evidence very clearly shows that the French Enlightenment remained throughout a tense and deeply divided duality. But if this point has by now become familiar to the reader and no longer seems particularly extraordinary, what is truly remarkable about the drama of 1748–52 is that it was the Radical Enlightenment which at this juncture emerged as the dominant partner, squeezing the Lockean-Newtonian Enlightenment into a subordinate, marginalized status.

While the eruption of major new intellectual controversies in the years from 1748, the year of the publication of Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois, down to the early1750s, has long been recognized as a decisive turning point, indeed in the past was often mistaken for the start of the French Enlightenment itself, the crucial importance of the controversies of 1748–52 lies less in any injection of new ideas— for intellectually almost nothing changed—than in a general reconfiguring of the French cultural-ideological factions and parties. This dramatic transformation of

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