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

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

34

Postscript

The pleas for the great diversity and heterogeneity of the Enlightenment fuelling the current lively debate over 'which Enlightenment?'1 lose much of their intellectual force, and their usefulness as a teaching guide to the Enlightenment, arguably, when one highlights the core intellectual issues of that age and the controversies about them. The 'which Enlightenment?' debate is fundamentally misleading because all our current classifications of the Enlightenment in terms of plurality and difference, whether national, denominational, or subcultural, are inherently unable to encompass much of the intellectual ground covered by the chief Enlightenment controversies. Ultimately, the view that there was not one Enlightenment but rather a 'family of enlightenments' leads to distraction from the core issues, and even a meaningless relativism contributing to the loss of basic values needed by modern society, and hence also to the advance of Counter-Enlightenment and Postmodernism.

But the 'family of enlightenments' idea is by no means the only danger. While preference for intellectual isolationism, for adopting an essentially 'national' approach to the topic focusing on the 'British Enlightenment', the 'American Enlightenment', or 'French Enlightenment', may encapsulate some of the most essential ground and some of the most vital issues, it inevitably does so in a partial, insular, distorting, and philosophically inadequate fashion. In the past there was a strong tendency to assert the primacy of the 'French Enlightenment' which nowadays has thankfully been broadly discarded. Since France, from the 1730s onwards, was simultaneously the main base of the Radical Enlightenment and the chief branch ofthe Voltairean variant of the Lockean-Newtonian 'British Enlightenment', strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a 'French Enlightenment' at all. But what especially needs to be guarded against is the notion that an alternative particular national or social context is of surpassing importance for understanding the main lines and trends of the Enlightenment, and especially that one particular 'national' tradition retains an overriding value or relevance in our contemporary world.

Claiming that what is best and most valuable to us in 'the Enlightenment' should be attributed, indeed restored, 'to its progenitor, the British', as one historian

1 Schmidt, What is Enlightenment?, 1–44; Umbach, Federalism and Enlightenment, 25–8; Jürgens,
'Welke Verlichting?', 28–9, 38, 52–3; Schaich, 'A War of Words?', 29–31.

-863-

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