Enlightenment Studies

Was Hobbes a Theologian?

During lunch a friend reminded me about an article on Hobbes I sent him a few weeks back. I had only quickly scanned it at the time, sent it to him, and apparently forgotten all about it. The article is written by Jonathan Sheehan, and published in The Journal of Modern History (June, 2016). It asks the provocative (and perhaps “perverse”) question: Was Thomas Hobbes a theologian?

Sheehan begins by calling attention to the so-called “return of religion” or “religious turn” in modern scholarship, a term used by various scholars in recent decades, including Thomas Albert Howard, Thomas Ahnert, S.J. Barnett, James E. Bradley, Jonathan D. Clark, Dale K. Van Kley, Louis Dupré, Knud Haakonssen, Ian Hunter, Thomas Munck, Dorinda Outram, J.G.A. Pocock, Roy Porter, Mikuláš Teich, David Sorkin, Robert Sullivan, and Bruce Ward, among others, and mostly in the context of Enlightenment studies. Sheehan himself has participated in such work, particularly in his The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (2005), which argued that the Bible’s place in eighteenth-century German and English Protestantism was transformed rather than eclipsed. Earlier still was his important review essay, “Enlightenment, Religion, and the Enigma of Secularization,” published in American Historical Review (Oct, 2003).

According to Sheehan, asking if Hobbes was a theologian might seem perverse. Although he never claimed to be an atheist, countless commentators have called Hobbes’s philosophy atheistic. As he notes, “between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries…there is complete consensus on the anti-Christian disposition of Hobbes’s thought.” Contemporaries were horrified by his impiety. Nineteenth-century thinkers also recognised Hobbes’s mechanistic metaphysics as atheistic. But by the early twentieth century, according to Sheehan, a number scholars were beginning to view Hobbes as “perfectly orthodox.” But how could this be? One scholar, e.g., A.P. Martinich, answered that most Hobbes scholars were secularists, and thus “bowdlerized his philosophy to match their prejudices.”

But according to Sheehan, the situation is more complex. Conventional critiques that Hobbes was an atheist or, more recently, assertions that he was entirely orthodox, miss a particularly important point about Hobbes’s religious context. Sheehan is worth quoting at length:

Hobbes teaches that, absent controlling authority, the Christian archive is heterodox, that it is not one tradition or one theology or one orthodoxy. Its pluralism goes back to the very dawn of its formation, built on layers of texts, authorities, traditions, and claims. There is, as Hobbes wrote about his own book, “nothing contrary to the Faith of our Church, though there ares several [doctrines] which go beyond (superantia) the teachings of private theologians.” As Hobbes understands it, however, the “Faith of our Church” was one hardly circumscribed—at least at the moment when the Leviathan was published—by orthodoxy. Rather, it was ill-formed, internally argumentative, variable, and agonistic.

So is Hobbes a theologian? We might be in a better position now to think about our opening question. Let us imagine with Hobbes that, absent institutions that guarantee certain statements as authoritative and orthodox, anyone can be a theologian. In fact, in a certain sense, everyone is a theologian—heterodox, perhaps, or even “ heretical, ” once external and political guarantees of right teaching disappear. In that case, what I called in the opening of this essay the “perversities” of Thomas Hobbes, D.D.—an atheist theologian, a mechanist theologian, an anti-ecclesiastical theologian — are suddenly no longer perverse at all. Instead, they are possibilities of thought unregulated by authority. They are only perverse in a world where a normative standard of orthodoxy can successfully be applied.

Leviathan was not written in such a world, and this invited Hobbes to practice a theology that was simultaneously mechanist and pious, anti-ecclesiastical and pro-establishment, atheist and Christian. We do not live in such a world either. In our world, the state takes little interest in regulating the unruly and messy Christian archive.

But Sheehan might be overstating his case. To be sure, the religious and political world of England was in much turmoil when Hobbes wrote his Leviathan. Indeed, it was penned while he was in self-exile, living in Paris, fearing for his life. When the Civil War ended, Hobbes returned to England in 1652 and settled down in the household of the earl of Devonshire. These circumstances no doubt are reflected in his writings. The fact that so many writers, as Sheehan himself points out, found Hobbes’s writings atheistic also questions his notion that the “Christian archive is heterodox.” That there was an almost “complete consensus” against Hobbes’s position is telling indeed.

Philosophical Myths of the Fall

Mulhal - Philosophical Myths of the FallI came across a fascinating book today. I originally found it in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The book in question is Stephen Mulhall’s Philosophical Myths of the Fall  (2005). He begins with a long quote from Genesis 3, the story of mankind’s willful rebellion and fall from grace. Mulhal then introduces his book with a discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre noted that Enlightenment thought rejected teleological forms of understanding the natural world. It also rejected any “religious idea of the human telos as involving a relation to God, and of those who fail to fulfil that telos as existing in a state of original sin.” The Christian doctrine of original sin has been interpreted and reformulated in various ways. What Mulhall has in mind is the understanding that “human beings are not only naturally capable of acting—even perhaps disposed to act—sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.” Such a doctrine, he says, “patently violates a variety of interrelated and central Enlightenment precepts.” He quotes Wittgenstein to make a distinction:

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as sick. Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.

What Mulhall wants to do in this book is examine the work of three unlikely philosophers who “preserve a recognizable descendent of the Christian conception of human nature.” That is, he wants to show how the myth of the Fall continued to exert a significant influence upon modern philosophy, but with the caveat that “these philosophers want to keep a conception of human beings as in need of redemption and as capable of it, but [who] locate the source of that redemption within the world of human experience.” In short, this was the human desire to become like God. These three philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. According to Mulhall, all three philosophers regard humanity as “structurally perverse,” that we are “essentially enigmatic to ourselves,” that we “stand incomprehensibly in need of redemption,” but, at the same time, we are able to achieve such redemption “through a certain kind of intellectual practice that is also a spiritual practice.”

A similar argument has been put forward in the case of historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) by Thomas Albert Howard in his Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), which argues for the “theological origins of nineteenth-century historical consciousness.” Mulhall concludes his study that, in the final analysis, “it will be far more challenging than many seem to think to construct a conception of the human condition that genuinely transcends the Christian theological horizon within which Western culture has developed.” Harrison himself supports such a thesis in his book when he places the foundations of modern science in theological developments of the doctrine of original sin.

Religion and the Enlightenment

This blog has been on hiatus the last few months as I have been busy writing two papers for two conferences in July. I made the mistake of wanting to say something unique for each conference, and that has led me into the depths of archival research and the ever expanding secondary literature. The first paper will look more closely at the “origins” of the conflict narrative in the nineteenth century. The second will examine ideas of progress, from Comte to Draper. I am particularly excited about the second paper as I have to deliver it at Oxford, at St Anne’s College. I will also have the opportunity to do some archival research at the British Library afterwards. I have never been to England, and I can already feel the tension between wanting to do research and wanting to explore historical sites.

So I am returnSheehan - The Enlightenment Bibleing to blogging, albeit part time. I do have PhD candidature confirmations in October, so at most I might post a book review here and there. With that said, here are a few books I have been reading that are worth checking out. The first is Jonathan Sheehan’s The Enlightenment Bible (2005). Sheehan traces how the Bible fared in eighteenth-century Protestant Europe. I first heard of Sheehan in his survey article in the American Historical Review, which examined the relation between religion and the enlightenment. There he argued that “secularization” actually mars our understanding of the eighteenth century, for it rests on an impoverished conception of religion. Rather than vanishing over the horizon, Sheehan argues, religion “has been continually remade and given new forms and meanings over time.” In his The Enlightenment Bible, Sheehan makes a strong case for seeing the enlightenment as reshaping rather than attacking religion. When the philosophes attacked the church, they attacked it for its dogma, its theology, and its uncritical reading of the Bible. It was an effort, Sheehan writes, “not to discard, but to remake religion.”

Howard - Religion and the Rise of HistoricismSheehan’s thesis relies on the work the revisionist work of Thomas Albert Howard’s Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), the second book I have been closely reading. It is a remarkable book. In this book Howard brings to light the much neglected figure of W.M.L. de Wette (1780-1849), a German theologian and biblical scholar who had a tremendous influenced the work of much better known Swiss-German historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), most known for his provocative The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Howard cogently and forcefully argues that Burckhardt, despite renouncing religion as superstitious and background, retained a profoundly deep religious pathos from his early training under de Wette. In particular, Burckhardt remained a strong adherent to a “secularized” version of the doctrine of Original Sin.

Howard’sLowith - Meaning in History thesis, in turn, relies on the earlier and prescient work of Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (1949), which is the last book I will mention here. Löwith argues, in brief, that the philosophy of history, and particular the idea of progress inherent in early modern period histories of philosophy, emerged out Christian eschatological thought patterns. Western historical consciousness, in other words, was—and is—determined by an eschatological motivation.

All three are excellent for a better understanding of the recent “religious turn” in Enlightenment studies.

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 7Edited by Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, The Cambridge History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences (2003) is the last of the current seven volume series. There is, however, a forthcoming eight volume, entitled The Cambridge History of Science Volume VIII: Modern Science in National and International Contexts, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and David Livingstone.

The volume under consideration examines “the history of the social sciences over some three centuries and many countries, attending to their knowledge and methods, the contexts of their origin and development, and the practices through which they have acted on the world.” Part 1 discusses the origins of the social sciences; Part 2 on modern disciplines in “western Europe and North America since about 1880”; Part 3 on the “internationalization of the social sciences”; and Part 4 consists of “a collection of case studies illustrating the larger importance of social science” in public and private life. My interests chiefly concern the contents of Part 1, and thus the following will concentrate there alone.

In his chapter on “Genres and Objects of Social Inquiry: From Enlightenment to 1890,” Theodore Porter offers a “loose periodization of the early history of social science.” He begins during the “period of the Enlightenment, when discourses of nature and reason began to be applied more systematically to ‘man’ and society.” Before the nineteenth century, there were recognizable “European traditions of thought and practice concerned with politics, wealth, the senses, distant peoples, and so on.” There were treatises on human epistemology; travel narratives; medical works; and important discourses on populations, economies, states, bodies, minds, and customs that resemble what we call today “anthropology.” Porter argues that the “birth of social science has much to do with the liberalizing political moves and the growth of a public sphere.” And here the Enlightenment played an important role in its advance, for “as an intellectual and social movement, [it] depended on increasingly free public discussion, on the mechanisms for the circulation of ideas.” Indeed, philosophes like Condorcet (1743-1794) saw the printing press “as a signal event in the history of progress, since it allowed knowledge to advance without ever being lost.” The growth of newspapers, coffeehouses, salons, and lodges in the eighteenth century “provided opportunities for relatively free discussion of issues and events.”

Eighteenth-century thinkers were concerned with the subject of “human nature,” or what we now call “psychology.” And this subject, Porter writes, “was closely linked to natural philosophy, especially because one of its central ambitions was to understand the human ability to acquire and use empirical knowledge.” The philosophes were so impressed with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which sought a naturalistic account of human nature, that they used it as a weapon in “struggles against the moral and institutional power of the Church, as well as a rationale for systematic schooling.”

The French Revolution of 1789, Porter asserts, “marked an important shift, in which social progress came to seem both more powerful and more threatening.” Voltaire, Rousseau, Condillac, Turgot, d’Alembert, and Diderot all died between 1778 and 1784. “In the politically polarized climate after 1789, a career like that of Voltaire or Diderot, based on appeals to universal reason, was scarcely possible.” “Unruly passions,” Porter notes, “inspired a pervasive sense of danger,” which in turn gave way to a more urgent social science, “often more ideological, looking to the past, or to science, in order to comprehend what seemed the precarious circumstances of modernity.” In this sense, the social sciences moved beyond understanding to administration, particularly under the monarch. “The state, henceforth acting on the basis of full information and rational methods, would naturally advance the public good.” This was a social science in utopian form.

But this view was quickly rebuked by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), arguing that the Revolution was the “consequence of irresponsible men, shallow ideologues, provoking abrupt changes in a social organism—the state—whose natural development is slow and gradual.” Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) “attributed the excess of the Revolution to the influence of detached intellectuals, men without actual experience in government.”

Utopianism, nevertheless, continued unabated. Condorcet’s Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1794) shifted utopian ideals “from somewhere in space (far away) into time, the near or distant future.” Condercet’s mentor, Turgot, had also written on the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750), a “systematic, secular, and naturalistic statement of the ‘modern’ idea of progress,” a genre that flourished in the nineteenth century. Key figures here, according to Porter, are Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and his “most famous and rebellious disciple,” Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In their introduction, Porter and Ross summarize:

Comte initiated a massive effort to define the methods and historical progression of the sciences. His main purpose was to announce the discovery, and define the standing, of sociology. He rejected decisively the idea that social science should adopt the same methods as astronomy, physics, or physiology. Yet at the same time he defined a hierarchy of knowledge, with social science dependent for its formulation on all the sciences that had gone before. And despite his claims for the inclusion of social knowledge, he made of “science” something special and exclusive. There had been, he argued, no science of physics before the seventeenth century, no true chemistry before Lavoisier. The origins of physiology were still more recent, and the founder of scientific sociology was, to cast aside false modesty, himself. Theology and  metaphysics were not part of positive science, but its predecessors and its antithesis. Law, literature, and rhetoric could never occupy this hallowed ground. Thus, while Comte formulated his philosophy in order to vindicate sociology and to define its place within science, he insisted also on a highly restrictive sense of “science,” a standard the social sciences could not easily meet.

Another transition occurred “roughly during the decade of the 1830s, as the economic and social changes of industralization became visible to everyone.” This pushed social science to becoming a “tool for managing as well as for understanding the problems” of the era. “Economic change brought economic dislocation,” Porter tells us. The “massive flow of people from farms to cities” altered family arrangements, increased epidemics of diseases, urban squalor, crime and thus threatened the “good order of society.” “Social science, then, developed during the middle third of the nineteenth century above all as a liberal, reformist answer to the upheavals of the era.”

Statistics became the characteristic social science of the mid nineteenth century, and was carried out largely by officials of the state. “During the 1830s, many of the leading nations of Europe…created permanent census offices.” According to Porter, this effort by the states were “very much a part of the history of social science, not only because they provided indispensable sources of data, but also because their leaders often took an active role in interpreting the figures—which often mean propagandizing for public education, for example, or for improved sanitation.” This movement was not without its critics, particularly when statistical data become closely associated with laissez-faire political economy.

In conclusion, Porter makes the interesting observation that “biology, not physics, was the crucial point of reference for the nascent social sciences in the nineteenth century.” “Throughout the nineteenth century, from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to Ernst Haeckel and beyond, theories of biological evolution were less mechanical than purposeful, involving a teleological progression of species toward greater perfection.” Herbert Spencer, for example, “regarded biological and social progress as parallel instances of a more general law, a tendency for homogeneous matter to become increasingly complex and differentiated.” Indeed, biological evolution provided the “framework that many found satisfying for interpreting the diversity of human peoples.” It also manifested itself, Porter notes in conclusion, in “hybrids of biological and social theories and practices, such as Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary sociology, Francis Galton’s eugenic campaign to improve mankind by selective breeding, the racialism against which Franz Boas fought for anthropology, and the Lamarckian elements of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.”

Johan Heilbron’s “Social Thought and Natural Science” continues the discussion by focusing on how the “natural sciences have provided an enduring set of models for modern social science, models that go well beyond suggestive analogies and illustrative metaphors.” Heilbron claims that “natural philosophy” searched for “natural principles and laws, in place of supernatural agencies.” When natural philosophy was applied to the domains of moral philosophy and political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “it allowed for a shift away from Christian doctrines toward secular models.”

The “naturalistic quest for knowledge of human nature and human society,” Heilbron tells us, was initiated by natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), who “developed elaborate systems of moral duty and political obligation based upon what they took to be permanent features of human nature, such as the concern for self-preservation.” Invoking natural science involved use of mechanical metaphors, the primacy of observation and experience, measurement and quantification, and rational deduction. But such a process was neither uniform nor uncontested.

During the Enlightenment period, the “secular intelligentsia,” Heilbron writes, “explicitly claimed, and effectively exercised, the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independent of established authorities and official doctrines.” Discourses on political, moral, and economic issues relied on “factual evidence and detail” provided by the natural sciences. This is the first of three distinct trends that Heilbron wants to point out.

The second trend was the differentiation of natural science, the demise of a unitary conception of natural philosophy, and a fundamental split between “animate and inanimate bodies.” Comte, for example, distinguished social science from biology, biology from chemistry, chemistry from physics. “Social science, for Comte, was a relatively autonomous endeavor, with a subject matter of its own and a specific method of study.”

The third trend was the opposition of prevailing forms of naturalism in the human sciences. Heilbron claims that the elaboration of “humanistic or cultural alternative made natural science, with its insistence on mechanical laws and causal models, an object of criticism.” Heilbron never expands on this third trend, so what he means here is not entirely clear.

The scientific conception of moral philosophy was strongest in England, Scotland, and France, reaching it apogee in the latter from about 1770 to 1830. In France, for example, we find the “most scientistic designation for the social sciences…’social mathematics,’ ‘social mechanics,’ ‘social physics,’ and ‘social physiology.'” Those espousing a scientific model of moral and political philosophy include Charles de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), and John Millar (1735-1801). Montesquieu was particularly admired by the latter four for having demonstrated that “laws have, or ought to have, a constant references to the constitution of governments, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society.”

Salient in France were thinkers conceptualizing the social world in language derived from the physical and life sciences, such as Turgot (1727-1781), Condorcert  (1743-1794), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), all to some extant stressing “the urgency of adapting scientific method to the analysis of state matters.”

Utilitarian philosophers would also reason “in a style that was equally modeled on the physical sciences.” From Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836), proponents of the utilitarian view promoted a “calculus of pleasures and pains,” deductive reasoning, and physical analogies for understanding human nature. Drawing from the life sciences, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) argued that “human consciousness and conduct had to be explained by bodily arrangements and physical needs, and no longer in terms of immaterial substances.” Others, such as Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806) rejected mechanical conceptions and advocated a type of vitalism as the basis of the science of man. This position was taken up systematically by Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabnis (1757-1808) in his psychophysiological research programs, which also became the basis of the work of the idéologues, “a group of moderate revolutionary intellectuals.” Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), for example, wanted “the old metaphysics…to be replaced by a rigorously scientific program for which Cabanis’s biomedical theories provided the basis.” This was all appropriated by Saint-Simon within a physiological framework, “who proclaimed that human societies were also organized bodies.”

Heilbron next turns to evolutionary thought. He argues that “evolutionary thinking in the life sciences owed as much to the human sciences as it did to biology.” Notions of progressive change over extended periods of time first emerged, according to Heilbron, in “the late-seventeenth-century battle between what were called the Ancients and the Moderns.” In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) published his anti-utopian Essay on the Principle of Population. There is attacked Condorcet’s optimistic vision of indefinite perfectibility, arguing that “the operation of natural laws could well produce misery and starvation, not progress.” Malthus’ argument, as many have pointed out, “provided Darwin with the clue for his theory of natural selection.” In general, natural history reinforced the historicization of the social sciences. “Developmental or evolutionary theories in the broad sense became the prevailing form of the science of society in the nineteenth century.” But the best-known representative of evolutionism, of course, was Herbert Spencer, “an evolutionist before Darwin’s Origin.” Spencer would popularize the idea that “from the maturation of an embryo to the development of human society and the evolution of the solar system, all things evolve from the simple to the complex through successive differentiation.” Much broader than Comte’s sociology or Darwin’s biological theory, Spencer’s view of evolution “had the status of a cosmic law and formed the core of his all-embracing system of synthetic philosophy.”

But the “promise and prestige of the natural sciences,” Heilbron tells us, “did not remain uncontested. Countermovements to the naturalistic understanding of human society became an intellectual force in the course of the nineteenth century,” particularly in and through the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder argued that “each society, each people, is marked by a peculiar cultural spirit, a Volksgesit, expressed in its customs, myths, and folktales [and] the task of the human sciences is to uncover the peculiarities of this spirit.” According to Heilbron, Herder’s work “contributed to an emerging culturalist understanding of human socieites,” reinforced by the Romantic reactions of Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Bonald, among others.

The following essays examine the same movements and figures, only in more concentrated areas. Stephen Turner, for example, focuses on the “ideas of cause and teleology before and during the period of Mill and Comte, and its aftermath up to the early twentieth century.” Although Enlightenment thinkers agreed that arguments of teleology were problematic, “they were impressed with the idea that organisms are understandable only teleologically, only in terms of some internal principle or nature that cannot be reduced by mechanism; and they relied freely on the idea of human nature, characterized by inherent purposes, in their political reasoning.” Turgot, Comte, and Mill all wanted to eliminate final causes in their social sciences. But teleology survived the onslaught by these writers, in the form of purposive language, organic analogy, and historical directionality. As Turner concludes, “the project of stripping science of its teleological elements was difficult, perhaps impossible to carry through consistently.” Indeed, teleology persists today in many forms, particularly in rational choice theory in the social sciences.

Antoine Picon examines “Utopian Socialism and Social Science” during the nineteenth century. Under the direction of the “founding figures of utopian socialism” Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and their disciples, a scientific understanding of society was a “prerequisite for its reconstruction.” The notion of progress was a key piece of utopian arguments. Whereas Thomas More’s (1478-1535) vision of utopia was the negation of place—literally to be found “nowhere”—eighteenth-century utopias shifted from “singularity to universality, from nowhere to everywhere…[and] relocated into the future, as the final stage of human progress.” The utopian socialists’ vision of history, Picon tells us, “was based on the identification of a series of organic stages…separated by periods of cultural and social uncertainty and unrest.” Ironically, while eighteenth- and nineteenth-century utopians rejected Christianity, they had no intention of rejecting religion tout court. In fact, they wanted to replace Christianity with a new religion, a “religion of humanity.” Although the attempt to found new religions was eventually abandoned in the social sciences, late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century “sociological literature was permeated by a dull nostalgia for what had been lost,” as seen in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. The cult of progress; the belief in absolutely positive social facts and permanent historical laws that could reveal the future of mankind, were a crucial part of the emerging social sciences.

Starting in the seventeenth century, Eileen Janes Yeo argues in her “Social Surveys in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” “voluntary enthusiasts as well as state bureaucrats were becoming concerned with statistics, in the sense not only of facts useful to the state but also of a tabulated facts that would depict ‘the present state of a country,’ often ‘with a view to its future improvement.'” Population surveys were thus a source of power for the state. Unsurprisingly, many of the surveys were contested. But by the mid-nineteenth century, “the state monopolized large-scale social inquiry.” The nineteenth century “was characterized by the involvement of a wider range of social groups and institutional settings, which made social surveys a more visible part of a contested politics of knowledge.”

Likewise, “Scientific ethnography and travel” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Harry Liebersohn tells us, not only “facilitated accurate navigation over the thousands of miles of a world sea voyage”; it also opened a “new round of competition between the two great powers [i.e. British and French], who now played out their rivalry in the vast, hitherto imperfectly charted expanse of the Pacific.” Ethnographers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not simply transcribe their impressions of the things they have witnessed—rather, “they capture a many-sided drama involving actors across the world, all of them contending to dominate the ‘truth’ about encounters among strange people.” These were indeed “narratives of knowledge,” accounts of “independent-minded intellectuals who formed their own views of the things that they saw and…sometimes developed a belief that they were bearing witness to world-historical events for a European public.” The philosophes, for example, “drew on travel writing to validate their criticisms of politics at home and of colonial administration overseas.” The institution of slavery, equality, and liberty were a common topics encouraged by ethnographic works. Darwin, for example, in his 1839 account of the Beagle voyage, “attributed the wildness and poverty of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to their insistence on an equal sharing of property and power, which checked, he though, any formation of a higher culture.” These works also encouraged comparative methods of inquiry, “evaluating the fantastic clutter of skulls, costumes, vocabularies, adventure stories, economic reports, and other souvenirs” of knowledge. This would led, as many other scholars have pointed out, to the development of comparative linguistics, but also the comparative study of religion.

Johnson Kent Wright argues in “History and Historicism” that historicism was not a distinctively nineteenth-century phenomenon, but one with an extensive genealogy connected to the Enlightenment. Moreover, he stresses “the close relations between historicism and conceptions of social science throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The “modernization” of historicism came from its chief architect, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who rendered it “irreducible to any other discipline.” Ranke’s vision of “historical development, concentrated resolutely on the political histories of the great nation-states of western Europe, from their first appearances in the Dark Ages down to the present,” became the model of “scientific” historiography in the second half of the nineteenth century. François Guizot’s (1787-1874) History of Civilization in Europe (1828) is a prime example. But it also influenced, as is well-known, the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose historical materialism was the conceptual centerpiece  of “a historicist device par excellence.” And as Terrell Carver concurs in his “Marx and Marxism,” Marx “absorbed and modified, but never rejected, a German intellectual tradition concerning knowledge and science.”


The Cambridge History of Science series is a massive and comprehensive undertaking. Beginning with Medieval Science and concluding with the Modern Social Sciences, the books serve as invaluable and indispensable references to the historian of science. I have found them valuable for orientating my thoughts and its judicious survey of movements, figures, and ideas. One must however carefully and selectively sift through their contents. Most of the essays are excellent; but many are also meandering, unfocused, and varying in quality. The cost of each book may also deter those looking to add them to their private library. Despite this, the series provides an incontrovertible resource for those interested in the history of science.

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science, Volume IV

Cambridge History of Science 4The next installment of this series comes edited by Roy Porter, The Cambridge History of Science Volume 4: Eighteenth-Century Science (2003). Porter begins the volume by asking “What was Enlightenment Science?” According to historians, eighteenth-century science was subdued, “it lacks the heroic quality of what came before—the martyrdom of Bruno, Galileo’s titantc clash with the Vatican, the ‘new astronomy’ and ‘new philosophy’ of the ‘scientific revolution,’ the sublime genius of a Descartes, Newton, or Leibniz.” Such observations has led scholars to characterizing the natural sciences in the eighteenth century in terms of “consolidation.” Indeed, some scholars have claimed that “if the Scientific Revolution is seen as a broader cultural moment whereby the Galilean/Newtonian mathematical and phenomenological approach to the natural world became part of the mind set of the European and American elite, then that Revolution occurred in the eighteenth century.” In other words, the eighteenth century was the era when scientific knowledge became an integral part of western culture; it became “public knowledge.”

However, this should not lead the reader, Porter warns, to “the false impression that all the great breakthroughs of early modern natural science had already been achieved by 1700 and that what remained was no more than a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s.” Rather, the eighteenth century permeated with the esprit géometrique (or “calculating spirit”) into everyday life. Moreover, “new specialties were taking shape,” such as “geology” and “biology,” and aspects of the physical sciences—namely, magnetism, electricity, optics, fluid mechanics, pneumatics, the study of fire, heat, meteorology, hydrostatics, and others—made striking advances. These advances also included natural history, when the first evolutionary theories were promoted.

But perhaps most importantly, “the production of knowledge about Nature and the casting of discourse in natural terms were playing increasingly prominent roles in culture, ideology, and society at large. Natural philosophers and historians were claiming their place in the sun alongside of churchmen and humanists.” The state began “increasingly employing experts as administrators, explorers, civil and military engineers, propagandists, and managers of natural resources.” Eighteenth-century “consolidation” of science was also embodied in permanent institutional form. “Many European rulers, with an eye…to both practicality and prestige, made it their business to create state support programs for savants…Scientific academies, notably those in Paris, St. Petersburg, and Berlin, established clutches of permanent, state-funded posts for men of science; they might be seen as early engines of collective scientific research.” Figures such as Fontenelle, Voltaire, and many others, also played an important role in “spreading and seeding the natural sciences” into the “public sphere.” “In societies and salons, in lecture courses and museums,” the natural sciences were “becoming established in the mind, as an ideological force and a prized ingredient in the approved cultural diet.” A marketplace in ideas had emerged.

But this was not a “pure science.” This “empire of science” was advanced through “exploration and colonization,” as Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston pointed out in volume III of this series. What is more, “discourses of philosophy, poetry, religion, and politics appropriated the scientific methods and models associated with Bacon and Descartes, Galileo and Gassendi, and, above all, Newton.” But these seventeenth-century thinkers were often victims of double-dealing and intrigue of eighteenth-century philosophes. For this latter group of thinkers “scientific inquiry was the new broom par excellence that would sweep mystifications and obscurantism aside, removing the mumbo-jumbo of the Church and the “feudal” ways that kept the masses poor, hungry, and oppressed.” Thus the “natural sciences always came gift-wrapped in ideology.” The natural sciences, in other words, were applied to specific “social uses.”

This was the propaganda of the philosophes. But in reality “‘science’ never presented a united front.” Eighteenth-century natural science was fragmented by “secretiveness, jealously, and rivalry were inflamed by priority disputes, ferocious battles over the ownership of discoveries and inventions, and other claims to scientific property.” According to Porter, “much evidence adduced in this volume suggests that the balkanization of specialist disciplines was already undermining any authentic notion of a unifying natural philosophy.”

The aim of the present volume is “to provide critical syntheses of the best modern thinking” on the subject. It is designed to be read as both a narrative and an interpretation, and also to be used as a work of reference. The volume is divided into five engrossing and informative parts. Part I, “Science and society,” contains essays on “the legacy of the ‘Scientific Revolution'” (Peter Hanns Reill), “science, the universities, and other public spaces” (Laurence Brockliss), “scientific institutions and the organization of science” (James III McCellan), “science and government” (Robert Fox), “exploring natural knowledge: science and the popular” (Mary Fissell and Roger Cooter), “the image of the man of science” (Steven Shapin), “women and gender in science” (Londa Schiebinger), and “the pursuit of the prosopography of science” (William Clark).

Part II accounts for “Disciplines” of eighteenth-century science, including “classifying the sciences” (Richard Yeo), “philosophy of science” (Rob Iliffe), “ideas of nature: natural philosophy” (John Gascoigne), mathematics (Craig Fraser), astronomy (Curtis Wilson), mechanics and experimental physics (R.W. Home), chemistry (Jan Golinski) and the life (Shirley A. Roe), earth (Rhoda Rappaport), human (Richard Oslon) and medical sciences (Thomas H. Broman). And a final essay exploring so-called “marginalized practices” (Patricia Fara) of “animal magnetism, physiognomy, astrology, alchemy and Hutchinsonianism” and others, shows that these disciplines were still being practiced on the Continent, and that the “progressive views [i.e. rhetoric] of eighteenth-century rationalists” relegated such ancient and long-standing traditions to “anecdotal status.”

Part III covers “Special themes” such as “scientific instruments and their makers (G. L’E. Turner), “print and public science” (Adrian Johns), “scientific illustration” (Brian J. Ford), “art and the representation of the natural world” (Charlotte Klonk) and “voyages of discovery” (Iliffe, again). Then immediately follows, in Part IV, with some essays on “Non-western traditions”; for example Islam (Emilie Savage-Smith), India (Deepak Kumar), China (Frank Dikötter), Japan (Shigeru Nakayama) and Spanish America (Jorge Cañizares Esguerra)

This volume concludes with Part V, “Ramifications and impacts.” Here we find incredibly insightful essays on “science and religion” (John Hedley Brooke), “science, culture, and the imagination” (George S. Rousseau), and “science, philosophy, and the mind” (Paul Wood). A paper on “global pillage” (Larry Stewart) reveals “that the European search for commodities, the control of and access to new markets, the identification of new medicines and useful plants, the expansion of the state and the promotion of the public interest and glittering, private wealth, all were a piece in the scientific pillage of the empires of the Enlightenment.” And a concluding essay on “technological and industrial change” (Ian Inkster) argues that “the story of industrial modernization is at heart a story of institutions and technologies.”

Social Uses of Science

The intellectual history of the eighteenth century, including the history of eighteenth-century science, used to be summed up in the term “Enlightenment.” However, as we have seen, no one has been able to define the term with any precision; nevertheless, most historians continue to use it to identify a set of opinions that characterized the century. In The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, the term scarcely makes an appearance. This is deliberate. The editors and authors of this collection of essays believe that historiography of science of the eighteenth century has been utterly changed by the advent of “contextual” scholarship in a number of disparate disciplines, from the history of ideas, mythology, new approaches within Marxism and French structuralism, techniques of historians of art, religion, philosophy, and ideology, to the seminal writings of anthropologists and psychologists and others.

In their introduction the editors rightly emphasize that we can “no longer ignore the fact that the eighteenth century ‘geography of knowledge,’ the relations between the sciences, was then markedly different from our own.” The introduction explains:

The last generation has wrought a revolution in the history of science…Certainties have given way to questions. The history of science is no longer a scientist’s hymn to science: it has become part of history itself…The development of science can no longer be served up as the sure tread towards truth. But exactly how it should be viewed is a question on which no consensus is in sight…This revolution is, of course, very familiar. Its relevance here is that this profound change in the orientation—one riddled with methodological anxieties—has as yet done little for the eighteenth century.

The aim, and hope, of the present volume is thus to present a “contextual historiography” of the eighteenth century as a corrective:

…we now take it as axiomatic—and correctly—that eighteenth-century science can be properly grasped only if its “external” relations to other intellectual and cultural systems, such as theology and epistemology, are tackled head-on…It seems elementary to us (now!) that eighteenth-century scientific ideas cannot adequately be translated one-to-one into twentieth-century terminology. Indeed, one of the aims of this book is precisely to distil and evaluate this substantial body of empirical research that has been conducted in the last generation.

To achieve its ends, the editors have compiled a series of twelve essays by twelve knowledgeable authors. Of all the contributions in this volume, Steven Shapin’s “Social Uses of Science” is perhaps the most provocative and stimulating contribution.

Shapin discusses the social uses of science by analyzing a number of studies which deal with the social significance of Newtonianism, “it is in the area of Newtonianism and its career in the eighteenth century that such perspectives show their greatest inadequacies and where new notions of science and its uses display greatest promise.” An essay by Arnold Thackray looks at political interpretation of the Leibniz-Clarke debate, “The priority disputes between Newton and Leibniz…cannot be understood without examining the dynastic politics of the period from the 1680s to the 1710s.” According to Thackray, “Newton set in motion a sustained collective effort to discredit the worth, religious significance, and originality of the German’s [i.e. Leibniz] science.” An essay by Frank Manuel supports Thackray’s account that Newton was an “autocrat of science.” And George Grinnell’s argument that Newton’s own motivation was not merely proprietary but party-political interprets Newton as an anti-Catholic Whig. Shapin concludes from these contextualist interpretations that “one cannot  understand scientific judgements without attaining to the context wherein scientific accounts were deployed.”

In several articles Margaret Jacob sets out to develop a connection between Newtonian natural philosophy and Low Church politics. Shapin positively evaluates M. Jacob’s view that “conceptions of nature are tools, instruments which historical actors in contingent settings pick up and deploy in order to further a variety of interests, social as well as technical.” According to James R. Jacob and Christopher Hill, “natural philosophy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was powerfully shaped by the social uses of natural knowledge during Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration” periods.

From the contextualist interpretations of M. Jacob, J.R. Jacob, and Hill, Shapin offers a number of suggestions to explain how eighteenth century matter theory could be given a social interpretation:

First, it is to be noted that philosophies of nature were routinely seen by the actors as imbued with social meaning. This is not because of “mere” metaphorical glossing, but because in these (and later) cultural contexts nature and society were deemed to be elements in one interacting network of significances…Second, groups with conflicting social interests developed and sustained interestingly different natural philosophies; moreover, these philosophies were often produced explicitly to combat and refute those of rival groups. Third, the distribution of attributes between “matter” and “spirit” was an issue of intense concern in all these philosophies; the relations between the two entities seemed to be something upon which all cosmologies “had to” decide, and the boundaries between “matter” and “spirit” were treated as having particularly strong social significance.

Thus “contextualism” for Shapin is the study of natural philosophy “entirely in terms of its uses in specific historical contexts,” or, as his title suggests, its “social uses.”

In the next section of the essay Shapin wants to juxtapose this new contextualist approach, of which he is a member, against the historiographic theories of post-Koyréan “intellectualist” practice, which includes, he argues, Gerd Buchdahl, Henry Guerlac, P. M. Heimann, Robert Kargon, David Kubrin, J. E. McGuire, Ernan McMullin, P. M. Rattansi, and Richard Westfall. In short, Shapin concludes that while traditional intellectualist histories of science situate scientific thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries firmly within the intellectual context of metaphysics and religion, the context of ideas, both in their formation and in their use, has not been treated adequately. At best, he argues, we have been given “footnote contextualism,” an “apparent stipulation that such context impinged peripherally or in some unspecified, but insignificant, way.” In other words, the intellectualist historiographic approach relegates the effects of social-political context on scientific ideas to footnotes and asides, therefore to an implicitly peripheral and unimportant role. Shapin disagrees and argues that in the contextualist historical research: “what we begin to see in work of this kind is a sensitivity to a variety of conceptions of nature distrubuted among different social groups. We see how divergent bodies of natural knowledge were used to further social interests and were produced in processes of social conflict.”

In the final sections of his essay, Shapin provides a contextualist interpretation of the “new science” of the early and mid-eighteenth century as a strategy reflecting its social-political uses. He maintains, for example, following M. Jacob, “where the Newtonian cosmology of the Boyle Lectures was developed partly as a defense of the Protestant succession and the court which underpinned the moral and social authority of the latitudinarian Low Church,” the hylozoist cosmology—in which outside, immaterial forces are unnecessary to move matter—of “freethinkers” such as John Toland “was the voice of conflicting social tendencies.” The latter were at odds with the Newtonians because they “perceived them to be ‘propagandizers for a science of God that would enhance the authority of ruling oligarchies and established churches.'”

Although M. Jacob’s thesis has received criticism, particularly from Christopher Wilde, who provides similar historiographic techniques to show an important English anti-Newtonianism of High Church divines, both work demonstrate that “‘dialectical’ processes of social conflict in the cultural domain may be needed to account for historical changes in dominant cosmologies.”

But intellectualists and the new contextualist can work together, according to Shapin. For example, there has been some major historiographic bridge-building between the two in accounting for Joseph Priestly’s natural philosophy. The work of J.G. McEvoy and J. E. McGuire have demonstrated that “Priestly was not embarked upon any ‘atheistical’ or ‘secularizing’ enterprise,” but a cosmology of “rational dissent,” one specifically committed to “undermining the authority of the state Church and justifying liberalism and toleration in religious matters.” Thus Priestly’s materialist monism becomes a “hierarchy-collapsing strategy.”

In conclusion Shapins lists three themes that emerge from social studies of uses of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First it shows the important role for social interests in scientific change or in sustaining scientific accounts. Second, science is revealed to us only in some context of use; “science” is never disembodied—it is always put to use in some particular social context. And third, historians of science are revealed to be implicit anthropologists, considering “collective representations of nature…to be institutions inextricably bound up with the social affairs of the communities which generate and sustain them; they are explained by identifying the ‘social work’ the beliefs do in these communities.”

Finally, this anthropological perspective, according to Shapin, represents a non-deterministic sociology of scientific knowledge. “By emphasizing that cosmologies are constructed in the contexts of use, they replace the ‘automaton-actor’ of metaphysical-influence studies with an active, calculating actor whose intellectual products are crafted to further the variety of his interests.”

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 1)

Roy Porter’s essay, “The scientific revolution: a spoke in the wheel?” in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.) Revolution in History (1986) led me to I. Bernard Cohen’s “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution” (1976), and then his expanded Revolution in Science (1985). In the next several posts, I want to address Cohen’s argument and compare it to several other recent work on the historiography of the “scientific revolution.”

I.B. Cohen - Revolution in ScienceAccording to Cohen, “for some three centuries there has been a more or less unbroken tradition of viewing scientific change as a sequence of revolutions.” But the term “revolution” only came into general use during the eighteenth century to denote a “breach of continuity or a secular change of real magnitude.” It was only after 1789 that a new meaning came to surround the term “revolution,” imbibed with “radical change and a departure from traditional or accepted modes of thought, belief, action, social behavior, or political or social organization.”

This new understanding of “revolution” replaced its older sense, as a cyclical phenomenon, a continuous sequence of ebb and flow. Its origins lie in scientific jargon, as applied to works of astronomy and geometry. This definition would then be applied to a range of social, political, economic, and cultural activities. In this context the term would gain a new definition diametrically opposite to the original, strict etymological sense of “revolution.”

During the eighteenth century, writes Cohen, “the point of view emerged that scientific change is characterized by an analog of revolutions that alter the forms of society and the political affairs of the state.” Understanding the transformation of the term “revolution,” then, from the cyclical, revolving view to a radical, discontinuous breach in history, is crucially important for the historian of science, for it construes our perspective on the development of modern science.

Cohan asks whether or not Galileo, seen by many as a revolutionary figure, considered himself to have been a revolutionary? Did Newton? When did the value of progress become linked to the concept of change by revolution? Such questions shed light on the nature of scientific change by making precise the scientists’ image of himself, which is directly related to the public image of the scientist.

Steven Shapin has discussed the “image of the scientist” in several places and his comments  are worth reviewing. But what makes Cohen’s argument unique, if not prescient, is the question of whether the scientists allegedly participating in such supposed revolutions may or may not have considered themselves to be active in a “revolution.” Newton, for instance, did not see himself so much as a revolutionary as a “reformer,” rediscovering the knowledge of nature that had been known among certain ancient sages. We will return to these images of Newton later.

Cohen sketches out how “revolution” was understood during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In both instances “revolution” was understood to be the “rise and fall of civilizations or culture, as a kind of tidal ebb and flow.”

Those who wrote about revolutions in political affairs in the late seventeenth century most often had in mind some kind of “restoration,” or “reform,” a return to a former or original state, or at least the completion of a cycle. Thus it was during this time that some ambiguity arose with the term “revolution.” As Cohan points out, “revolution” could and did mean a dynastic change or a dynastic restoration, or a change in the actual form or system of government rule, as well as a cyclical change in administration, economics, and the social life of a people. English philosophers and political theorists Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704), for example, used the term “revolution” in this double sense.

Early in the eighteenth century, however, “revolution” gained currency as a radical or significant change. A characteristic revision to “revolution” as a “radical change” occurs, unsurprisingly, among French writers. For example, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) credits Newton (1642-1727) and Leibniz (1646-1716) with ushering in a  “total revolution in mathematics,” emphasizing that this “revolution was progressive or beneficial to mathematical science.” Elsewhere, in his éloge of mathematicians, Fontenelle would continue to use the term in the sense of “radical change.”

Another Frenchmen in the eighteenth century, Alexis Claude de Clairaut (1713-1763), also made reference to Newton as ushering a “revolution” in the sciences, arguing that Newton’s Principia marked an “epoch of great revolution in Physics.”

EncyclopedieThe Encyclopédie (1751-1772) of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) contains a number of notable references to “revolution.” According to d’Alembert, in science Newton brought to fulfillment a revolution that Descartes had prepared but had never actually achieved. D’Alembert makes this even more explicit in the article in the article entitled “experimental.” Here he not only expresses a philosophy of historical development in science according to generation, he also centers the great revolution in science on the work of Newton. Diderot’s own article on “Encyclopédie” leaves no doubt as to the significance of “revolution,” conceiving that the progress of science is marked by a succession of revolutions.

In short, “by the time of the publication of the Encyclopédie, ‘revolution’ had gained currency…in its new meaning of a secular, rather than a cyclical, change of great magnitude.”

The writings of Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), published in the decade before the French Revolution, introduced revolutions of several sorts and magnitudes: they range in scope all the way from revolutionary innovations in the design and use of telescopes to the elaborate Copernican system of the world and the Newtonian natural philosophy. In Bailly’s writings there revolution is often a two-staged process, in which there is first a destruction of an accepted system of concepts, followed by the establishment of a new system. According to Bailly, Copernicus fulfilled these two necessary functions of revolution, as well as Newtonian natural philosophy.

By the 1780s, there is no difficulty in finding French authors who refer explicitly to one or another revolution in the sciences.

Condorcet (1743-1794) uses the concept of revolution in science in his éloges of deceased academicians. The major work of Condorcet in which the term and the concept of revolution figure most prominently is his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, first published in 1795. It is in this work where Condercet spells out the “pre-conditions” of a revolution.

According to Cohen, we also find this concept in the writings of the Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who once compared his “own philosophical revolution with initiated by Copernicus,” and Joseph Priestley, who was among those who transferred the concept of revolution from the political realm to science.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of revolutions in science had become firmly established. The first overall review of the intellectual accomplishments of the eighteenth century, Samuel Miller’s (1769-1850) Brief Retrospect, published in 1803, stated this plainly in its subtitle: a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature. Miller’s use of “revolution” to denote progressive steps is notable, according to Cohen, for he was an American clergyman.

Within a decade of Miller’s book there was a further recognition of the existence of revolutions in science, in the fifth edition of the Dictionaire de l’Academie Francoise, revu, corrigé et augmenté par l’Academie ell-méme, published in 1811. “Thus formally entered into the lexicographic record,” writes Cohen,  “the expression ‘revolution’ in science obtained official recognition as the name of an accepted concept to characterize scientific change.”

Cohen wants to point out the fact that “these earliest references to a revolution in science occur in relation to Newton.” It is also important to note that most of these earliest references come from French authors. This is not mere coincidence. Long ago Butterfield claimed in his The Origins of Modern Science (1949) that the construction of so-called “Newtonianism” was not primarily the work of scientists; rather, the translation of Newton’s scientific achievements into a comprehensive materialistic worldview was wrought primarily by literary men, who wrote for a rapidly expanding educated reading public. The works of popularizers, such as the French Fontenelle, Clairaut, Diderot, d’Alembert and others, more than scientists, constructed a revolutionary image in Newton.

The focus on Newton and Newtonianism is indeed important, but we ought to take into account the claims of Dan Edelstein, particularly in his The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010), and J.B. Shank’s The Newton Wars (2008). For example, although it was in the 1720s that Newtonianism emerged as a coherent physical and metaphysical philosophy, and only in the 1730s that one began to find self-identifying French “Newtonians,” none of them were to be found among the académiciens. According to Edelstein, Fontanelle remained throughout his life “the most famous defender of Cartesian physics.”

I have elsewhere commented on Edelstein’s The Enlightenment, so here my comments will be brief. The Enlightenment, Edelstein contends, was first and foremost a “story” that eighteenth-century men told about themselves. Yes, the Enlightenment was a story, a grand “master narrative” and “myth.” Edelstein traces its telling to a specific time and a contingent place. The narrative of the Enlightenment, he contends, was forged in France between roughly 1675 and 1730 in the context of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, which “opened up a period of intense self-reflection in which the present was thoroughly studied and contrasted with the past.” Put another way, the quarrel invoked a new régime de historicité that bid contemporaries to reflect on what it was that distinguished their own time from those that had come before. The present age was “enlightened,” they came to believe, distinguished by a “philosophical spirit” that derived from new methods of critical inquiry elaborated since the “Scientific Revolution.” Crucially, that spirit had taken hold among important segments of the educated elites and was slowly infiltrating civil society at large. The narrative of Enlightenment gave society a starring role, subtly supplanting older accounts that afforded prominence to kings, heroes, Providence, or God in shaping human history.

Given a succinct and early articulation in Jean-Baptiste Dubos’ (1670-1742) Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (1719), this narrative, in Edelstein’s estimation, was no simple tale of the new vanquishing the old. The Ancients and the Moderns shared a good deal in common, he insists, with defenders of the Ancients like Dubos frequently embracing modern science even as they praised the virtues of ancient art. Conversely, defenders of the Moderns took pains to claim their own reverence for the Classical age. The result of this convergence was a unique form of “modern paganism” that allowed eighteenth-century intellectuals to situate themselves in reference to those previous ages in which the philosophical spirit reigned (ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance), while at the same time permitting them to mark their distance from times of barbarism and superstition (Middle Ages).

Enlightenment thinkers’ hero worship of Descartes, Newton, and others is well known. The key French contribution to the genealogy of the Enlightenment, writes Edelstein, “was not epistemological but rather narratological: it simply happened that it was in France that the ramifications of the Scientific Revolution were interpreted as having introduced a philosophical age, defined by a particular esprit, and having a particular impact on society.” “This espirt philosophique,” he goes on, “allowed scholars both to identify a unity among the variegated scientific work 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.”

Indeed, what the Enlightenment narrative highlights is how the first theories of the Enlightenment started out as celebratory histories of “the Scientific Revolution.” In other words, these French thinkers needed the narrative, the story, of the “Scientific Revolution” to bolster their own self-fashioning as an “enlightened age.” So they set out to construct one, culminating in the figure of Isaac Newton.

Shank - The Newton WarsThe case of Newton is paradigmatic: often hailed as a founding father of the Enlightenment. In Shank’s The Newton Wars, he argues that the philosophes spun a mythology in promoting Isaac Newton’s theories. The philosophes, notably Voltaire (1694-1778), took far too much credit for having established Newtonianism as a new scientific orthodoxy, and even today some historians are all too ready to accept the philosophes‘ self-congratulations at face value. Shank contends, however, that Newton’s ideas had acquired a strong following within the French academy well before Voltaire and the “party of humanity” undertook to explain and champion them during the 1730s.

Shank teases apart the multiple strands of Newtonian thought to demonstrate how various factions within the French academy came to weave one or more of them into their pre-existing philosophical, scientific, religious, and methodological outlooks. He finds no single Newtonian party in France, but many, each with its own stake in Newton’s victory. Similarly, he shows that far from representing a clear and present danger to established religion, Newtonianism, at least in some of its versions, was perceived as a bulwark against the dangerous, allegedly Spinozist tendencies of the competing philosophy of Leibniz. In that light, Newton’s eventual victory now appears, if anything, overdetermined.

Voltaire was not the only French anglophile of this period, and Shank singles out as his major comrade-in-arms the mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759). None was a match for the ideological vigor brought to the dispute in the 1730s by Maupertuis and Voltaire. Maupertuis used a genteel skepticism to avoid the issue of pantheism and mathematics to validate the Principia, while Voltaire became satirical and openly anti-church, a deist. According to Shank, Voltaire turned Newtonianism into “a creed or an intellectual identity…more than a scientific or philosophical position.” And the philosophe, “a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual” was born in the French version of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques.

Newtonianism, in other words, is conceived of by Shank as a “discourse”; what mattered was the manner in which such ideas were deployed by Voltaire and “the particular self-fashioning he accomplished with them, a self-fashioning that led to the definition of a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual in France.”

In short, the engrained notion that Newton’s genius can account for the advent of scientific modernity and the subsequent French Enlightenment is seriously misguided. Shank rejects the narrative of self-serving philosophes, whose version of events was accepted de facto and then perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Cohen, Edelstein, and Shank reveal that the transformation 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.”  As Butterfield concluded, “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.”

Myths about Science and Religion: That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion

the-enlightenment-1On May 12 of 2010, the general reading public witnessed a robust, if not at times acerbic, exchange between two prominent scholars of modern European history. It began with the publication of a review essay entitled “Mind the Enlightenment” in The Nation magazine by Samuel Moyn, professor of modern history at Columbia University. In that article he attacks Jonathan Israel’s massive multivolume history of the Enlightenment. Israel, professor of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, is a recognized expert on early modern European history. Much of his work is concerned with European colonial history, with a particular emphasis on the history of ideas. He is an authority on the Dutch Golden Age (1590-1713), including the Dutch global trade system, seventeenth-century Dutch Jewry and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), and the Glorious Revolution (1688-91) in Britain. In his article, however, Moyn’s primary concern is Israel’s recent multivolume series on the Enlightenment, beginning with his Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and his latest, which happens to be only an interlude, A Revolution of the Mind (2010).

Israel’s thesis in this series of writings is that the impetus for the “radical” Enlightenment was largely “Spinozist.” That is, a great number of eighteenth-century philosophes adopted Spinoza’s materialist monism and his critique of revelation and religion. For Israel, Spinoza acts as the progenitor of modern thought, who seemingly dismissed all authority grounded in tradition. In other words, Spinoza’s thought was the sui generis which propelled the “general process of rationalization and secularization” that produced “modernity.”  Other scholars, however, have recently not only pointed to the overall moderate nature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but have also demonstrated a preference for a “family” of Enlightenments, distinguished by geographical boundaries.

Israel, by contrast, dismisses both positions. It was the radical, monist, incredulous, and antireligious wing that emerged victorious from the intellectual crisis of the eighteenth century. In the Radical Enlightenment, Israel believes that the unity of the European Enlightenment can and should be defended, arguing that there was indeed a single, unified Enlightenment, a movement with a general intellectual integrity and unity, and one  which transcended national boundaries. And the prime mover of this Enlightenment was Spinoza. What was so radical about Spinoza’s philosophy? According to Israel, “the essence of the radical intellectual tradition from Spinoza to Diderot is the philosophical rejection of revealed religion, miracles, and divine Providence, replacing the idea of salvation in the hereafter with a highest good in the here and now.”  In Enlightenment Contested, Israel continues this narrative by accentuating the controversies and polemics between the radical and moderate wings of the Enlightenment. As thoroughly documented as the first volume, Israel attempts to demonstrate two central themes: first, that the radical positions were philosophically more consistent than those championed by the moderates; and, second, that the radicals were universalistic, egalitarian, and democratically minded, while their moderate opponents acceded various modes of exclusion along sexual, racial, religious, social, and political lines.  Indeed, in a lengthy Postscript Israel defends the radical wing unreservedly, not only in the historical context of the eighteenth century, but also in the intellectual debates of today. Israel concludes that the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment were the veritable trailblazers of modernity, freedom, and equality. Finally, Israel explicitly follows this thought in his A Revolution of the Mind, arguing that the

Radical Enlightenment is the system of ideas that, historically, has principally shaped the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values…democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state.

In short, Israel’s work on the Enlightenment expresses the conviction that the revolution in thought, which seemingly received its impetus from the atheistic, deistic, or materialist philosophy of Spinoza, ultimately inspired a profound and deeply progressive advance in society and culture.

But “after a number of years of stunned silence,” Moyn proclaims in his article, “critics have begun to circle Israel’s colossus, even as he finishes the extraordinary task of raising it to completion.” Indeed, Moyn claims that his critics, like vultures, are “gnawing at the flesh of Israel’s creation.” Moyn begins by arguing that “Israel’s monomaniacal Spinoza worship…leaves him without a story of the Enlightenment’s intellectual or cultural origins.” Citing French historian Antoine Lilti,  one of Israel’s most outspoken critics, Moyn’s first contention is that “it strains credulity to organize what was a massive and century-long cultural phenomenon around the philosophical breakthrough of a single thinker.” While Spinoza did defend a more robust version of freedom of thought than that of Locke and others, Moyn objects to Spinoza and his followers as “chiefly responsible for the rise of wider toleration of speech and opinion.”

Further, Moyn finds Israel’s A Revolution of the Mind supported by a faulty premise: namely, “that a philosophy of naturalism and liberal-democratic politics are inextricably linked.” By arguing that the universe was only one substance, Spinoza, as it were, “knocked the legs out from under priests and kings alike.” But according to Moyn, this “leitmotif” is deeply flawed. Israel ignores the impact of other thinkers, for example, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who, a whole generation before Spinoza, declared a politics likewise based on a materialist metaphysics. On a methodological level then, Moyn contends that Israel selectively subordinates all thinkers under a categorical “Spinozism.” This has led another critic, Anthony J. La Vopa,  to argue that Israel’s central fallacy is a sort of “package logic.” As Moyn puts it, “the result of evaluating a century’s worth of thought according to how closely it conforms to a checklist is strange history, and arguably not history at all.” Constrained by his own constructed categories, Israel has evoked not only with a presentist, metahistory of the Enlightenment, but an oversimplified classification of the “radical” and “moderate” camps.

Indeed, it is this “package logic” that concerns Moyn most in his article. He sees Israel as working under presuppositions that are “dogmatic” and which act as “a profession of faith.” As a result, “Israel is tempted to cast those with alternative views as enemies not of his argument but of the Enlightenment itself.” Moyn again cites another critic for support, historian J.B. Shank,  who has said that “Israel’s works breathe the spirit of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.” Moyn’s central complaint against Israel, therefore, is his belief that “the moral horizon of today’s partisans of Radical Enlightenment is crystal clear.” On the contrary, says Moyn, there was profound ambiguity of what counted as radicalism to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers. In saying this Moyn depends most exclusively on Dan Edelstein’s recent work, The Terror of Natural Right (2009),  which argues, contra Israel, that Enlightenment naturalism or materialism “turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs.” In short, Moyn wants readers to see that the “Enlightenment had many rival features from the outset, and could still have many possible versions to come.”

Israel, in turn, has directly responded to Moyn’s criticisms. His first response “Spinoza and Vultures and Gnats, Oh My!” was published in the “Exchange” column in The Nation’s 2010 July issue.  It is a biting rejoinder, calling Moyn’s interpretation of his argument “unbelievably inaccurate.” Israel responds first by saying that his work accounts for the Enlightenment’s origins and development by “setting out various social and cultural factors pivoting on the philosophical revolution of the late seventeenth century,” with contributions from Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, and Leibniz. All shaped, Israel maintains, “the moderate and radical wings of the Enlightenment.” Yet he continues to uphold Spinoza, who “surpassed the others in contributing to the Radical Enlightenment.” He argues that there is no “faulty premise” in his connection of naturalism with liberal-democratic politics: “The only way to break the ancient régime system conceptually…was to destroy the notion that the existing order was divinely authorized, directed by divine providence and legitimately presided over by the clergy and monarchy.” He concludes by saying that Moyn’s understanding of the French Revolution is “absurdly wrong,” and accuses him of not having the “faintest clue” of the argument of the books under his review.

In the same “Exchange” column, Moyn tersely responds that Israel has missed the point of his original criticism. Israel not only continues to measure the thoughts of other philosophers “against the singular yardstick that Spinoza [allegedly] provided,” but fails to see the “Enlightenment’s multiple possible versions, and therefore its continually problematic character, now and in the future.”

But Israel was not quite finished with Moyn. The exchange continued—and still very publicly—on George Mason University’s online newsletter, History News Network.  In a piece as long as Moyn’s original review article, Israel provides an extended response to Moyn’s criticisms. And once more Moyn responds to it.  Rehearsing both responses here is unnecessary. What needs to be emphasized however is twofold. First is Israel’s continued espousal of Spinozism as the basis for not only the Enlightenment, but political revolution: “the radical encyclopedism that underlay their ideology [viz. Diderot, d’Holbach, Helevétius and Raynal] was what in the eighteenth century was called Spinozism.” Second, and related to it, is Israel’s unabashed “package logic,” which he maintains is simply the recurring “package logic” of the radical thinkers he studies. These thinkers, Israel argues, promoted equality, individual liberty, freedom of the press and expression, basic human rights, and democracy, whereas the more moderate thinkers quite often capitulated to aristocratic domination of society. Accordingly, Spinoza’s radical influence was undoubtedly subversive, politically as well as religiously, and thus lies as the foundation of modern democratic values. In his turn, Moyn facetiously claims that Israel is “one of the most Christian historians of the day.” He writes (perhaps unfairly, however) that “the point of writing church history is not to complicate the past but to show how it might inspire new victories, as Israel clearly wants his project to do,” and it is in this sense that Israel “fails entirely to reflect on the Christian template for his plot.”

Besides these many criticisms hurled at Israel’s multivolume work, Margaret J. Osler too, her entry in Galileo goes to Jail, takes a jab at Israel’s “package logic.”  She begins by quoting from his Radical Enlightenment: “It was unquestionably the rise of powerful new philosophical systems, rooted in the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century and especially the mechanistic views of Galileo, which chiefly generated that vast Kulturkampf between traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and the secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction.”

This amounts to the belief that the scientific revolution liberated science from religion. After the scientific revolution, the story goes, it was inevitable that God would eventually be pushed entirely out of nature and that science would deny the existence of God. But according to Osler, these are ultimately unsubstantiated claims. “A closer look at history,” she writes, “reveals an entirely different story.”

To begin with, science and religion as terms did not have the same meanings then that they do today. There was no such creature as the scientist (see forthcoming post on Steven Shapin’s Images of the Man of Science). Physics, and science in general, was called natural philosophy (as the title cover of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, translated Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, demonstrates), and its study included consideration of God’s creation of the world, the evidence of divine design in the world, and the immortality of the human soul. Indeed, “natural philosophy encompassed many topics now considered theological or metaphysical.”

The close relationship between natural philosophy and theology is evident in almost every area of inquiry about the natural world during the scientific revolution. The debates about the new heliocentric astronomy, the arguments for a new philosophy of nature to replace medieval Aristotelianism, the development of a new concept of the laws of nature, and discussions of the scope and limits of human knowledge were all infused with religious commitments and theological presuppositions.

For example, many seventeenth-century natural philosophers rejected Aristotelianism and adopted some version of the mechanical philosophy. But virtually all the mechanical philosopher claimed that God had created matter and had set it into motion. “God infused his purposes into the creation either by programming the motions of the particles or by creating particles with very particular properties.” As Osler puts it, “even a mechanical world had room for purpose and design.”

Another common theme in seventeenth-century discussions was expressed in the metaphor of God’s two books: the book of God word (the Bible) and the book of God’s work (the created world). Natural philosopher regarded both books as legitimate sources of knowledge.

Thus despite the claims of Israel and other modern commentators, that the seventeenth century witnessed the “rise of powerful new philosophical systems,” theology and natural philosophy were closely aligned. The entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasized divine creation, design, and providence. “Newton himself,” writes Osler, “took seriously both God’s work and God’s word, as he demonstrated by devoting even more effort to the understanding of Scripture than he did to the natural world.”

Natural philosopher undoubtedly disagreed about exactly how God related to the world. But to study the created world produced knowledge both of the phenomena and the laws of nature and revealed God’s relationship to his creation.

In the final analysis, seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Reading the past from the standpoint of later developments, as Israel certainly does, leads to serious misunderstandings of not only the scientific revolution but these seminal historical figures as well. “For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion—or, better, natural philosophy and theology—were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.”

Desecularizing the World

Christianity Judaism Islam Buddhism Hinduism symbolsContinuing the trend from the last post, in this post we will be looking at a different book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), edited by Peter L. Berger. Few scholars have contributed so much to our understanding of religion and modernity as Berger. Beginning in the 1960s, he advanced the argument that the collapse of “the sacred canopy” provided by religion has created a crisis for faith, forcing it into a position of “cognitive bargaining” but ultimately ends up bargaining away religious substance in order to survive in a relentlessly secular and secularizing modern world. These thoughts were first published in his widely popular book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).

In this more recent book, however, Berger has changed his mind, reproves his earlier thoughts on the subject, and tells us why in the introductory essay. Indeed, what needs explanation, he tells us, is not the continued vitality of religion, a phenomenon that puzzles so many modern intellectuals, but why so many modern intellectuals are puzzled by it! The present collection of essays emerges from a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which includes a leading essay by Berger, along with other expert sociologists George Weigel, David Martin, Jonathan Sacks, Grace Davie, Tu Weiming, and Abdullahi A. an-Na’im.

What needs to be said at the outset is that this book is dated. Most of the essays, moreover, are unremarkable and thus most are not worth detailed exposition. To summarize its contents is a simple task. In the opening essay, Berger refutes the link between secularization and modernity; Weigel writes about Roman Catholicism, telling us that the Catholic Church “has reacquired a certain critical distance from the worlds of power, precisely in order to help those worlds accountable to universal moral norms;” Martin writes about the Evangelical upsurge, assigning its political implications to its individualistic approach and pragmatism; Sacks, who focuses on Jewish identity in the context of post-modernity and secularization, says that Jews live “in a condition of ambivalence about themselves and trauma about their relationship with the world”; while the rest of the world tends toward desecularization, Europe seems to be the exception to the rule, says Davie; in communist China Weiming writes that “as China is well on it sways to becoming an active member of the international society, the political significance of religion will continue to be obvious”; and writing about political Islam, an-Na’im says that the principle of pluralism and the protection of basic human rights, which is and always has been an Islamic imperative, should be followed.

Out of the seven essays, two stand out. Berger’s essay was the keynote lecture of the series, and of course, he is interested in doing more than just describing the current state of play of world politics. Berger begins by musing over the recent interest in the Fundamentalism Project. Sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the MacArthur Foundation, the Project was an international scholarly investigation of conservative religious movements throughout the world. The Project, which began in 1987 and concluded in 1995, was directed by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Why, Berger muses, exert resources to studying religious fundamentalism? The most obvious answer was that because “fundamentalism” is such a strange and hard-to-understand phenomena, the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable.

But understandable to whom? This crucial questions leads Berger to an epiphany: the concern that must have led this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which “fundamentalism” is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but the knowledge of it. That is to say, it is this elite group of intellectuals that is a rare, and hard-to-explain thing. “The world today,” writes Berger, “is a furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” Thus the assumption of secularism, and the secularization theory, is both mistaken and false. The key ideas of the theory, traced back to the Enlightenment, is that modernization necessarily leads to religious decline, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It is this key ideas, Berger maintains, that has turned out to be wrong. “To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed: religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism have widely succeeded.”

Turning to the global religious scene, Berger observes that, on the one hand “it is conservative or orthodox or tradtionalist movements that are on the rise almost everywhere,” and, on the other, that “religious movements and institutions that have made great efforts to conform to a perceived modernity are almost everywhere on the decline.” From the remarkable revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the rapidly growing orthodox Jewish groups in Israel and the Diaspora, to the vigorous upsurges of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, “taken together they provide a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena.”

While the world today is massively religious, there are, however, two exceptions, one somewhat unclear, the other very clear. The first apparent exception is of course Europe. In Western Europe, if nowhere else, the old secularization theory seems to hold true. There are indeed increased indications in secularization both in expressed belief and personal codes of behavior.  Yet there are a number of recent works, Berger notes, that make this exception deeply problematic. Notably in France, Britain, and even Scandinavia, there is a body of literature indicating strong survivals of religion. What’s more, it seems that there has only been a shift in the institutional location of religion, rather than secularization. That is, there has been a shift away from organized religion, to personal, “spiritual” religious attitudes. Thus Europe as secular is a rather ambiguous assertion, requiring much qualification, detailed and careful analysis.

The other, and definitely clearer, exception to the upsurge in religious movements is the existence of an international subculture composed of people with Western-style higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. “This subculture is the principal carrier of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. Although relatively thin on the ground, they are widely influential, providing the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system.” Berger calls them the a “globalized elite culture,” and the plausibility of secularization theory owes much to this elite subculture, for when they travel they usually touch down in isolated, intellectual circles, i.e. among people much like themselves. But because of this, they easily fall into the misconception that these people reflect the overall society, which is, of course, a mistake.

What are the origins of this new religious upsurge? Berger hints at two possible answers: first, religion provides certainty when so much of our taken-for-granted certainties have been undermined by modernity, or it appeals to people who resent the social influence of that small, cultural elite. But the most satisfying answer, Berger says, and the most historically accurate, is that “strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.” Thus the so-called “religious upsurge” simply serves to demonstrate continuity in the place of religion in human experience.

What are the prospects of this new religious upsurge? Berger argues that there is no reason to think the world of the twenty-first century will be any less religious than the world of past generations. But it is also true that many of these religious movements are linked to non-religious forces of one sort or another, and thus the future course of the former will be at least partially determined by the course of the latter.

The “new” religious upsurge is, of course, particular, differing in their critique of modernity and secularity. But what most of these religious movements do seem to agree upon is the shallowness of a culture that tries to get along without any transcendent points of reference. “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity” from time immemorial. The critique of secularity common to all the resurgent movements is that “human existence bereft of transcendence is an impoverished and finally untenable condition.”

The other essay worth noting in the collection is Davie’s “Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?” Davie takes secularization theory quite seriously, and it seems that data proves that in Europe the old secularization thesis hold true. But data, she points out, never explains anything. It is the interpretation of data that explains. The data from Europe, for instance, provides several interpretations, and that some explanations are more nuanced than others. Davie proposes that “might it not be the case that Europeans are not so much less religious than citizens in other parts of the world as differently religious?” Her emphasis.

Davie disentangles various meanings behind the term secularization, specifically as used by Steve Bruce, José Casanova, and Daniele Hervieu-Léger, evaluating them against recent data from the European Values System Study Group (EVSSG), survey findings of 1981 and 1990. In her estimation, it is not so much that there is less religion but that European religion is now expressed differently from how it used to be expressed: hence, Europe is less “secular” than it is “unchurched.” She writes, “while many Europeans have ceased to participate in religious institutions, they have not yet abandoned many of their deep-seated religious inclinations.”

In interpreting the data, Davie finds the approach of French sociologist Hervieu-Léger most promising. Hervieu-Léger argues that modern societies (especially modern European societies) are less religious, not because they are increasingly rational (they are not), but because they are less and less capable of maintaining the memory that lies at the heart of the religious existence. In other words, they are “amnesiac societies.”

While modern societies may well corrode their traditional religious base, they also open spaces that only religion can fill. Hervieu-Léger calls this “utopian” spaces. Modern individuals are encouraged to seek answers, find solutions, and make progress. Such aspirations become an increasingly normative part of human experience. But the image of utopia must always exceed reality, and the more successful the projects of modernity, the greater the mismatch becomes. “Hence the paradox of modernity, which in its historical forms removes the need for the sense of religion, but in its utopian forms must stay in touch with the religious.”

In the end, religion, and churches in Western Europe, still function as a kind of “vicarious memory.” Many Europeans remain grateful rather than resentful of their churches, recognizing that the churches perform a number of tasks on behalf of the population as a whole. One of the most obvious risks of operating vicariously, Davie notes, is the lack of direct contact between the churches and the population. This dramatically leads to a generation-by-generation drop in religious knowledge. Davie concludes that “an ignorance of even the basic understandings of Christian teaching is the norm in modern Europe, especially among young people; it is not a reassuring attribute.”

Rethinking Secularism: José Casanova’s The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms

José Casanova’s exemplary essay in Rethinking Secularism is one of the best I have read on the subject. Casanova, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, engages secularism from a critical analytical angle. Because there are multiple and various ways of experiencing the secular, what we need is to differentiate between such experiences, as the “secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism.”

The Secular

There has been a radical—if not paradoxical—reversal in how the term “secular” is understood. The secular as a modern epistemic category is used to construct, codify, grasp, and experience a realm or reality differentiated from the “religious.” That is, the secular has often been assumed to be simply the “other of the religious,” that which is non-religious.  As such it functions as a residual category, something left over from the “religious,” a remainder. But in our modern “secular age,” as Taylor puts it, the secular encompasses the whole of reality, in a sense replacing the “religious” altogether. This naturalization of the non-religious, of unbelief, of the secular, completely reverses the traditional view. The secular is no longer the residual category, it is the category, the norm. Understood as a natural reality, the secular is the true natural social and anthropological condition or substratum that remains when the “religious” is lifted or disappears.

Casanova remarks that this reversal is quite the paradox. “Rather than being the residual category, as was original the case, the secular appears now as a reality, tout court, while the religious is increasingly perceived not only as the residual category, but also as a superstructural and superfluous additive, which both humans and societies can do without.”

But according to Casanova, such a reversal is the uncritical and unreflexive functionalist ideologies of theories of secularization and secularist worldviews. Such ideologies often disregard—and indeed sometimes mask—the particular and the contingent historical process of the secular, projecting instead a universal human development. In the end such ideologies of the secular as a natural and universal substratum “avoid the task of analyzing, studying, and explaining the secular.”

Casanova takes up the task in the remaining pages of his essay. He begins by pointing out that the term “secular” first emerged as a theological category, as a unit of a dyadic pair of religious/secular, as mutually constitutive. In its original theological meaning, to secularize meant to “make worldly,” to convert religious persons or things into secular ones, as when a religious person abandoned the monastic rule to live in the saeculum, “the worldly age,” or when monastic property was secularized following the Protestant Reformation.

From this point of historical origins, Casanova draws our attention to at least two dynamic forms of “secularization.” First, there was an internal Christian secularization, a process which aims to spiritualize the temporal world, bringing the religious life of perfection out of the monasteries and into the secular world, the countryside, the urban, the court. This was the chosen path of those associated with the devotio moderna, with medieval movements of Christian reform, eventually receiving a  radicalized form by Protestant reformers. Second, there was a converse process, that of anticlericalism and laicization, a liberation of all secular spheres from ecclesiastical control. This was the chosen path of the French Revolution and later subsequent liberal revolutions. “Its aim was the explicit purpose of breaking the monastery walls to laicize those religious places, dissolving and emptying their religious content and making religious persons, monks and nuns, civil and laic before forcing them into the world, now conceived as merely as secular place emptied of religious symbols and religious meanings.” Such as path of laicization, argues Casanova, could well serve as the basic metaphor of all subtraction narratives of secular modernity. It is important to note that in both forms the “secular” means the same thing, as the worldly age.

Closer to our own day, Casanova points another, and narrower, way of conceiving the “secular” as that of self-sufficient and exclusive secularity. We mentioned this point in Taylor’s essay, so we will be brief here. The secular in this sense is a self-enclosed reality, where people are simply “irreligious,” closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame. Taylor describes this phenomenological experience of the immanent frame as constituting an interlocking constellation of the modern differentiated cosmic, social, and moral orders. That is, all three orders are understood as purely immanent secular orders, devoid of transcendence and thus functioning etsi Deus non daretur, “as if God would not exist.”

This understanding of the secular, however, is deeply problematic. This naturalization of unbelief, or non-religion, as the normal human condition in modern societies corresponds to the assumptions of dominant theories of secularization, which postulate a progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices with increasing modernization, so that the more modern a society happens to be, the more secular, and thus the less religious. But the connection between secularity and modernity becomes questionable, according to Casanova, when we realize that in many modern non-European societies are fully secular yet their populations are also at the same time conspicuously religious (e.g. the United States or South Korea).  Thus this second, and modern, meaning of the term “secular,” as being devoid of religion, the secular does not happen automatically as a result of processes of modernization or even as the result of the social construction of a self-enclosed immanent frame; rather, it needs to be “mediated phenomenological by some other particular historical experience.”

Casanova finds this particular historical experience in the “stadial consciousness” inherited from the Enlightenment narrative, which understands the change in the condition of belief as a process of maturation and growth, as a “coming of age,” and as progressive emancipation. It was the construction of this quasi-natural process of development, this philosophy of history, which has functioned as confirming the superiority of our present modern secular age over other supposedly earlier, and therefore primitive, religious forms of understanding. “To be secular means to be modern, and therefore, by implication, to be religious means to be somehow not yet fully modern.” Thus any remnant of thus “surpassed” condition, to a primitive mode of thinking, becomes an “unthinkable intellectual regression” in our modern times.

The function of the secular as a philosophy of history, and thus as ideology, is to turn secularization into a universal teleological process of human development from belief to unbelief, from primitive irrational or metaphysical religion to modern rational post-metaphysical secular consciousness.

Casanova’s core criticism against this second, modern definition of secular (i.e. as ideology) is that in places where such secularist historical stadial consciousness is absent or less dominant, as in the United States or in most non-Western post-colonial societies, the process of modernization is unlikely to be accompanied by a process of religious decline. Indeed, Casanova persuasively argues that it was this secularist stadial consciousness that was the crucial factor in the widespread secularization that has accompanied the modernization of western European societies. “Europeans tend to experience their own secularization as a natural consequence of their modernization. To be secular is experienced not as an existential choice, but, rather, as a natural outcome of becoming modern.” This consisted, according to both Casanova and Taylor, as stadial accounts or conceptions of history, which emerged first in the Scottish Enlightenment from thinkers such as Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). According to these and subsequent thinkers, human society passes through certain stages, e.g. hunter-gatherer, agricultural, commercial. These stages, usually defined ultimately in economic terms, describe an advance. Higher ones represent development, a gain, from which it would be quite irrational to try to retreat once they have come about. But as we have seen in the work of Dan Edelstein and others mentioned in these posts, such a narrative is a modern myth.


While the “secular” may be a central, modern epistemic category, “secularization,” usually refers to actual or alleged empirical-historical patterns of transformation and differentiation of the”religious” and the “secular” institutional spheres from early-modern to contemporary societies. As Casanova explains, although the social sciences view secularization as a general theory, it actually consists of distinct and, ultimately, disparate parts: (1) institutional differentiation, such as state, economy, and science, from the religious; (2) the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices as a result of modernization; and (3) the privatization of religion as a precondition of modern and democratic politics.

The tendency of social scientists to view all three processes as intrinsically interrelated components of a single general teleological process of secularization and modernization, is, however, deeply problematic. In recent years two of the sub-theses of the theory of secularization, namely, the decline of religion and the privatization of religion, have undergone numerous critiques and revisions. Yet the core of the thesis, the single process of functional differentiation of institutional spheres, remains relatively uncontested.

Why? Answering this question once again leads us to another paradox. As already mentioned, the “secular” first emerged as a particular Western Christian theological category. Yet its modern antonym, the “religious” is itself a Western-European modern secularist category. By recognizing this paradox, we begin to comprehend the critical significance of the colonial encounter in European developments, the concomitant globalization of the category of religion, and the hotly disputed and debated how, where, and by whom the proper boundaries between the religious and the secular ought to be drawn.

Indeed, the very category of secularization becomes deeply problematic once it is placed in this historical context, as Eurocentric. European secularization should be seen, according to Casanova, as provincial, as the exception and not the rule (but even here there is some ambiguity—see my forthcoming Grace Davie post, Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?). This historical process was exceptional, and is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the world with a similar sequential arrangement and with the corresponding stadial consciousness. “Without such a stadial consciousness,” writes Casanova, “it is unlikely that the immanent frame of the secular modern order will have similar phenomenological effects on the conditions of belief and unbelief in non-Western societies. Secularization thus requires—indeed, needs—a stadial consciousness, a narrative of progressive stages from the primitive to the modern.


Finally, there is “secularism,” viewed as a worldview and ideology, or more broadly to a whole range of modern secular worldviews and ideologies which may be consciously (or unconsciously) held and explicitly (or implicitly) elaborated into philosophies of history and normative-ideological state projects or cultural programs. But “secularism” may also be viewed, as we have seen, unreflexively or be assumed phenomenologically as a taken-for-granted normal structure of modern reality, as modern doxa or an “unthought.”

Casanova finds it fruitful to draw a distinction between secularism as statecraft doctrine and secularism as ideology. By statecraft Casanova means the principle of separation of church and state, between religious and political authority. Such a principle neither presupposes nor entails any substantive theory of religion. But when the state hold explicitly a particular conception of religion, one enters the realm of ideology.

There are at least, according to Casanova, two basic types of secularist ideologies. The first we have already mentioned, which is grounded in some progressive stadial philosophies of history that regulate religion to a superseded stage. The second is related to the first, in that it presuppose religion as either an irrational force or a non-rational form of discourse that should be banished from the democratic public sphere.

Reformed philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, William P. Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William J. Wainwright, George I. Mavrodes, and many others have shown the latter to be utterly bankrupted and no longer tenable. For his part, Casanova, being the sociologists and not the philosopher, is more interested in examining the extent to which secularist assumptions permeate the taken-for-granted assumptions and thus the phenomenological experiences of ordinary people. Such secularism “stands for self-sufficient and exclusive secularity, when people are not simply religiously ‘unmusical’ but are actually closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame.”

At this point Casanova returns to the crux of his argument, that in places where secularist stadial consciousness is absent, processes of modernization are unlikely to be accompanied by processes of religious decline. It follows that there must exist a normative self-image, a narrative, a belief that being religious is not modern. “To be secular is this sense means to leave religion behind, to emancipate oneself from religion, overcoming the non-rational forms of being, thinking, and feeling associated with religion.” Indeed, it is this assumption that entails both “subtraction” and “stadial” theories of secularity.

It is this essentializing of “religion,” of the “secular,” and even of the “political,” that is the fundamental problem of secularism as ideology. The whole idea of “religion is intolerant,” or “religion is in conflict,” with various modes of modernity is a construct that functions to positively differentiate modern secularists from the “religious other,” either from premodern religious Europeans or from contemporary non-European religious people, particularly Muslims. But such a view, as numerous historians of science have discovered, can hardly be grounded empirically in the collective historical experience of Europeans societies.

Why has this view nevertheless persisted? Casanova perceptively suggests that such a view of religion as the source of violent conflict is actually connected to “retrospective memory.” By viewing religion in the abstract, detaching it from historical reality, secularist ideology places modern secularist problems on the “religious other.” Indeed,

from 1914 to 1989, twentieth-century Europe can be characterized as one of the most violent, bloody, and genocidal centuries in the history of humanity. But none of the horrible massacres—not the senseless slaughter of millions of young Europeans in the trenches of WWI; or the countless millions of victims of Bolshevik and Communist terror through revolution, civil war, collectivization campaigns, the great famine in Ukraine, the repeated cycles of Stalinist terror, and the gulag; or the unfathomable of all, the Nazi Holocaust and the global conflagration of WWII, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—can be said to have been caused by religious fanaticism and intolerance. All of them were, rather, products of modern secular ideologies.

Yet contemporary Europeans, and many worldwide “intellectuals,” obviously prefer selectively to forget the more inconvenient recent memories of secular ideological conflict and retrieve instead a fictionalized account of religious wars or conflict with modernity. As Casanova puts it, “one may suspect that the function of such selective historical memory is to safeguard the perception of the progressive achievement of Western secular modernity, offering a self-vindicating justification of secular separation of religion and politics as the condition for modern liberal democratic politics, for global peace, and for the protection of individual privatized religious freedom.”

But nothing could be further from the truth.