The Enlightenment: A Genealogy

Dan Edelstein, associate professor of French at Stanford University, begins his The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010) with a provocative introduction: “Every age needs its story. In the story we tell ourselves about our values, our government, and our religions, the Enlightenment plays a starring role.” We tell ourselves that the Enlightenment was the founding moment of modernity; we are “children of the Enlightenment,” it is sometimes said.

But this is a story we construct. It is doubtful, moreover, that many of the players in the Enlightenment drama would recognize themselves in these contemporary reenactments. If we are to understand the Enlightenment, we must begin by understanding the motives, doubts, and beliefs of these key players. That is, we ought to pay greater attention to their story and set aside our own.

Edelstein tells us that his prime objective is “to reconstruct how the narrative of ‘the Enlightenment’ emerged as a self-reflexive understanding of the historical importance and specificity of eighteen-century Europe.” His main argument is that this narrative was “devised by French scholars and writers, in the context of an intellectual quarrel over the relative merits of the Ancients an the Moderns.” What distinguishes Edelstein’s thesis from others, for example, Peter Gay’s monumental 2-volumen work, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966-69), is his emphasis that these French scholars were less interested in epistemology than narratology. That is, “they did not propose a new method of reasoning or advocate a new philosophical understanding of the world. Rather, they offered a seductive account of the events and discoveries of the past century, in conjunction with a more overarching history of human civilization.”

This last point was made once before, in the origins and dissemination of the “Newtonian” worldview. British historian and philosopher of history Sir Herbert Butterfield recognized this new “habit of mind,” and in his erudite The Origins of Modern Science (1958) argued that the transmission of the scientific movement of the eighteenth century into a comprehensive materialistic philosophy was largely achieved by literary men, who “invented and exploited a whole technique of popularisation.”  This observation, moreover, led Butterfield to conclude that “the great movement of the eighteenth century was a literary one—it was not the new discoveries of science in that epoch but, rather, the French philosophe movement that decided the next turn in the story and determined the course Western civilisation was to take.”  Even Gay recognized Voltaire’s desire to have “Newton’s physics without Newton’s God,”  and thus it was not science per se that was absorbed so much as a “new thinking cap,” a new view of life and the universe. And Voltaire himself acknowledges that “no one read Newton, but everyone talked about him.”  Eventually, the “Newtonian” worldview became the paradigm for constructing all human knowledge—in political theory, ethics, psychology, religious studies and even theology sought to restructure their disciplines in this “rational” and “mathematical” philosophy.

Edelstein understands the term “Enlightenment” in two primary senses: (1) The Enlightenment designates the idea, and more specifically the narrative, that gave members of the educated elite a new kind of self-awareness. (2) The Enlightenment designates a loose collection of enlightened texts, institutions, debates, individuals, and reforms that appeared in eighteenth-century Europe.

Edelstein begins chapter one with a literature review of sorts, discussing the problems of current scholarship on the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment has been discussed by an assortment of disparate characters, “yet there is still remarkably little agreement on what, precisely, the Enlightenment was.” All the traditional characters are here, from Carl Becker to Jürgen Habermas, and, more recently, Jonathan Israel’s unabashed defense of Spinozism; yet there remains “a number of outstanding problems with the approach that many scholars take to the topic.” First, most historians end up privileging a particular author, intellectual current, form of sociability, or political revolution as the fountainhead and direct source of much, if not all, that the Enlightenment produced. Yet these ideas varied so tremendously, one rarely finds a snug fit.

Second, most Enlightenment studies rest on inadequate models of reading and interpretation, where it is still assumed that ideas are simple and one-directional—that they do not undergo significant transformation as they are passed on to the next generation. Thus  intellectual historians “cannot assume that their subjects share with them the same interpretation of a text.” As Edelstein points out, some of the most dangerous Enlightenment ideas were first formulated, for very different purposes, by Catholic theologians!

Third, the probability of transformation is particularly high when ideas circulate from one culture to another. While most historians acknowledge that Paris become the headquarters of the Enlightenment, many argue that the intellectual origins of the Enlightenment lay elsewhere, notably in England or Holland.

Edelstein also considers social and cultural histories of the Enlightenment, including the impact of mediating technologies such as books, pamphlets, encyclopedias, journals, etc. In short, he finds all such “singular” studies in some way lacking. Rather than focusing on such singularities, Edelstein is impressed by the fact that when we survey the content of Enlightenment works, what stands out is there literary nature. In anticipating his central argument, Edelstein maintains that the most influential work of the Enlightenment period were frequently framed within fictional narratives. Fiction was not only powerful and influential, it is often vague and ironic, and thus it provided protection from censorship. This fictionalized historical narrative led, according to Edelstein, to a new self-consciousness: “Readers, authors, scholars, and officials could thus identify—or contrast—themselves, their works, and their actions with this idea, which…was really a historical narrative.” Borrowing terms used by sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the Enlightenment was a “second-order observation”: “it was not so much a change in the way people thought but a change in the way people thought about the way people thought.”

In chapter two Edelstein briefly states how current Enlightenment scholarship has geographically shifted away from the French philosophes to other narratives, notably the English and the Dutch. Although he has nothing against this shift, Edelstein does argue that “it was within the confines of the French royal academies and in the context of a very specific academic debate—the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns—that the terms, but also the narrative, used to identify and define what we now call ‘the Enlightenment’ were first put into circulation.” But there is more, and here is where Edelstein shows his debt once again to Luhmann and Butterfield. While these French authors seemed to be reacting to what they perceived to be a dramatic change in society, what was actually happening was a “new idea of society ” was emerging. Indeed, what the evidence suggests, according to Edelstein, “that the Enlightenment started out as an interpretation—an intellectual activity, to be sure—but of social changes, not philosophical innovations.”

In chapter three Edelstein begins tracing the esprit philosophique, discussing such figures as Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and Nicolas Fréret. Edelstein continues his argument that the narrative of the Enlightenment is largely a French phenomena, demonstrating that there was little evidence for either a English or Dutch influence on the these French writers of the period.  Dubos himself credits Francis Bacon and René Descartes as the philosophical stars of the French académiciens. As does Fontenelle and Fréret. Edelstein also points out, following the work of J.B. Shank, Newtonianism precipitated not by scientists but by such literary figures. The esprit philosophique was, according to Edelstein, a movement that “allowed scholar both to identify a unity among the variegated scientific and technological breakthroughs of the seventeenth century (a unity that we would come to call the Scientific Revolution) and to describe the transformation caused by the reception and effects of these breakthroughs in contemporary society—a transformation that led them to characterize their own age as enlightened.”

Chapter four discusses how the Enlightenment narrative subtracted the divine element in universal histories, or master narratives, and substituted in its place the celebration of society. During the Enlightenment “society” became the “ontological frame of our human existence.” Here we see the early stages of scientism and the social sciences, where it was believed that “society” operated by observable laws. “Society…was all that was left once God departed from the scene.” Edelstein argues that by making society the central subject of their historical narrative, these French writers introduced a new yardstick with which progress, utility, and greatness would be measured. “Identifying social improvement as the benchmark for national glory expressed…a wish that the new science serve to transform human conduct, beliefs, and relations…”

The how, why, and when of this new definition of society took place is the subject of chapters five through eight,  where Edelstein discusses the academic Quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns. A host of characters show up, from (once again) Jean-Baptiste Dubos and Charles Perrault, to Etienne Bonnot de Condillac and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. This was a dispute between French academics, the “Ancients” being the party who valued the philosophical tradition of antiquity, and the “Moderns” being the party who, allegedly, rejected it entirely. But as Edelstein suggests, the philosophes “ultimately owed more to the party of the Ancients, who could accommodate modern scientific achievements into their platform, than to that of the Moderns, who could not find any place for antiquity.” But the Quarrel, beginning as a literary dispute over Christian versus pagan epic poems, also “snowballed” into much larger issues, over the importance of the new science, the meaning of history, and the mechanism of cultural transformation. The Quarrel, according to Edelstein, was thus not the cause of the Enlightenment but the catalyst that precipitated the Enlightenment narrative.

In chapter nine Edelstein considers why “esprit philosophique,” given its variegated quality among Enlightenment thinkers, is ultimately an unhelpful term. In its place, he suggests, following Daniel Brewer, we consider the Enlightenment in terms of a “régime d’historicité,” that is, as a certain configuration of past, present, and future states. This, in the final analysis, seems to harken back to a utopianism of a previous generation. The sense of belonging to a “new time” was the experience of “living the Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment, then, “seems to have been the period when people thought they were living in an age of Enlightenment. It did not matter so much what and how these individuals were thinking or acting; what mattered was that they perceived themselves to be thinking or acting in ‘reasonable,’ ‘philosophical,’ and ‘enlightened’ ways in the present.”

Edelstein covers some other interesting ground in the remaining six chapters of his book. But for the sake of brevity I will discuss them in some future post. His conclusions are worth mulling over though, as he points to a theme that seems to be rather pertinent to the historian of science and those interested in modern-day myth-making. Narrative as myth has a particular powerful force. They not only provide us with an overarching meaning for our actions, they are also powerful mental constructions that cannot be disproved. To become “enlightened” was to think and act in accordance with a new set of norms—but these norms were rarely self-imposed. No matter. It was the “look,” the “fashion” that mattered. Because the narrative was simple, popular, monochrome, and, most importantly, entertaining, it was, and continues to be, enmeshed in our history.


5 thoughts on “The Enlightenment: A Genealogy

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    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!


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