In a conversation with a colleague, I came to the surprising conclusion that not everyone in the world thinks the Enlightenment is precisely what I think it is. In this instance, I had a rather broad definition in mind, while my colleague wanted to be a bit more restrictive. (For example, I find Wesley in the Enlightenment, my colleague does not.)
I thought it might be an interesting conversation for the list to evaluate Enlightenment studies about a quarter of a century after Peter Gay and a fifth of a century after Henry May had interesting things to say about the subject. Robert Darnton says, "the Enlightenment appears as a movement that radiated out of Paris to the cultural avant-garde in choice spots throughout Europe." Gay discusses three generations; May describes four phases. Gender dimensions, geographic variations, methodological questions have been raised by a gaggle of historians. Where are we now, and where should we be heading?
David T. Bailey
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David T. Bailey
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Michigan State University
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An excellent question. German scholars, in particular, seem to be convinced that Enlightenment is a set of ideas, or even a single idea, an epistemology characterizing the beginning of modernity. (Kant still lives, I guess, and Cassirer, too.) As a historian, I think of the Enlightenment first as a time period bracketing cultural productions and their producers, and only second as an ideology. Would others besides me settle for separating the two terms "18th-century" and "Enlightenment" so that Wesley (or better still, Voltaire's brother) fell into the first but not the second? (Where, I wonder, would Pascal fall?) If the division were to succeed, there would then need to be some effort across disciplines and subdisciplines to articulate consistency of dating - an effort that would almost immediately confront the "long 18th Century" of the literary scholars which is long enough to include Jane Austen and Jan Vermeer, but often not broad enough to include writing in German or Spanish, or writing in any language about mathematics and epistemology.
I would go further, in fact, arguing that the Enlightenment needs to be regarded ("unmasked"?) as a paradigm case of cultural coalescence. Is there any other period in Western cultural history that hangs together so well, creating its own conformities, so as to seduce later scholars into treating it as a single "episteme."
-Bill Everdell, Brooklyn
Bill Everdell wrote:
"I would go further, in fact, arguing that the Enlightenment needs to be regarded ("unmasked"?) as a paradigm case of cultural coalescence. Is there any other period in Western cultural history that hangs together so well, creating its own conformities, so as to seduce later scholars into treating it as a single "episteme." "
Roger Chartier has an interesting (and Foucauldian) take on this when he claims that "the Enlightenment" was largely *constructed* as a single episteme by 19th-century scholars looking to provide a solid foundation for their own world; it also permitted them to justify the Revolution by claiming that it was "caused" by Enlightenment ideas. Of course, it also allowed opponents of the Revolution to denigrate it by reference to the same construction. Thus, from his perspective the "coalescence" of this period is somewhat fictive and even strategic.
I'm curious about what is meant by "cultural coalescence." Is this like a unified Zeitgeist or a collective representation? Does it mean that various sub-cultures found themselves conforming to a dominant culture?
Univ. of Memphis
I found Bill Everdell's definition of the Enlightenment as a "time period bracketing cultural productions and their producers" intriguing, but I don't really understand what it means. Would he please clarify this definition as it pertains specifically to the Enlightenment? Is it simply a chronological time period or was there some mode of intellectual production specific to the Enlightenment that came to an end at about the time of Romanticism? I can imagine Henri Brunschwig's thesis about a crisis of government positions in Prussia applying here, but that is only one country.
Second, as far as coherent "episteme," couldn't we look at the history of Marxism in Europe from the Gotha Program to the Hungarian uprisings as another example of a movement in intellectual history that hangs together fairly well? Marxism never achieved complete dominance in any country (except by force), and in the West it did not accomodate itself to existing power structures as successfully as the Enlightenment (although this may be open to debate). But even in the 18th century, not everyone ascribed to the Enlightenment, and much of the Enlightenment had to be accomplished by force (e.g., Joseph II in Austria). Perhaps the comparison of these two movements would shed some light (pun unavoidable) on the formation of intellectual movements and their eventual collapse.
George S. Williamson
As an example of "Enlightenment Studies" ships passing in the night, here is a post recently forwarded to the SECFS (Society for 18thC French Studies) bulletin board and given a one-sentence reply.
-Bill Everdell, Brooklyn
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Marcel Henaff)
On Fri, 16 Feb 1996, Philip Stewart wrote:
The ongoing erudite and heated debate on this list concerning historical method prompts me to encourage list members to participate in a panel I am organizing on the topic for this year's MLA convention; the call as published in the Spring *Newsletter* is as follows: ____________________________________________________________________
"What [Was] Enlightenment?": Archaeologies of the Aufkla:rung from Kant to Foucault (and Beyond).
This panel will critique the work of theorists involved in the ongoing project of defining the features of modernity. Papers or proposals by Feb. 29. ____________________________________________________________________
Critiques of any work that tries to provide an account (or deny the possibility of any such account) of the development of of Western cultural formations over the past 300 years. I would be particularly interested in papers that consider the the work of theorists such as:
Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Marcuse, Adorno & Horkheimer, Benjamin, Gadamer, Popper, Kuhn, Foucault, Habermas, Taylor, Blumenberg, Wellmer, Cascardi, etc.
I apologize for the short turnaround time provided with this call; all I can do is plead my own subjection to higher powers (i.e. the MLA's series of tight deadlines).
I look forward to your replies.
You should not forget Ernst CASSIRER in your list....
George Williamson asks if I could clarify what I mean by defining Enlightenment as a "time period bracketing cultural productions and their producers"
I used the vocabulary of post(neo?)marxism, but did not really have in mind the relations of production that still accompany such language. I meant to try to define the Enlightenment as a reductio of 18th-century culture, mostly high culture, in the west. For me it would have almost nothing to do with the modes of its production - only with the modes of collective behavior (chiefly thinking) that were produced (arose or appeared) around that time, especially those that differ considerably from other behaviors in the same cultural categories (or redefinitions of categories) that may have gone before or have been seen to come after. This means that "the Enlightenment" has to be a distinctive set of ideas and behaviors, even a movement, which therefore does not include all 18th-century behaviors, but only a few of them. For example Rousseau seems to me to be a counter-enlightenment figure - a French Wesley. But both men are clearly 18th-century characters, fitting between c1685 and c1789. It is Rousseau and Wesleys that seem to me to clear the way for the Hugos and Wordsworths of the Romantic period. Thus I see at least two eighteenth centuries and only one Enlightenment - a self-consciously (even misleadingly) cohesive Enlightenment.
I shall add Chartier's to my list of writings that are skeptical of the eighteenth century's degree of cohesion, with thanks to Christopher Forth. Cultural self-consciousness, if any, seems to be first cohesive, then critical.
Forth asks "what is meant by 'cultural coalescence.' Is this like a unified Zeitgeist or a collective representation? Does it mean that various sub-cultures found themselves conforming to a dominant culture?"
The phrase "dominant culture" begs what are for me three *more* questions not yet satisfactorily answered. 1) Is it possible not to have a dominant culture or to have a non-dominant culture? 2) Is it possible to know or to recognize that there is a dominant (sub)culture within one's culture while one is living in it? 3) Assuming one can indeed recognize such a dominant (sub)culture, is a dominant (sub)culture a bad thing?
The most contentious "theorists" these days manage not only to recognize a thing called a culture, but to distinguish it from other cultures, and from its parts, and to posit relationships between the parts. This is no easy task, any more than was the task the logical positivists set themselves in discovering what a word denotes. I have a hard time keeping up. It's philosophically easier to ask these questions of past cultures than it is to ask them about ourselves, but it's still plenty tough.
In the meantime, I'd call a "cultural coalescence" one in which there are more behaviors shared by more people in a society than before (or after - or in some other society). "Zeitgeist" is awfully Hegelian. "Collective representation" sounds too virtual. Culture to me is the anthropologists' "learned, social behavior." Is this uncanonical?
I'm unsure that all this is as clear as I'd like it to be, but am reluctant to reach for more bandwidth. The question of what constitutes a culture and a cultural difference as important as it is muffled in debate. If I could answer it satisfactorily, I could go on more blithely to try to field Hughie Lawson's related question about unmasking. Any help would be welcome.
-Bill Everdell, Brooklyn (Manhattan is dominant?)
Chris Forth asks "what is meant by 'cultural coalescence.' Is this like a unified Zeitgeist or a collective representation? Does it mean that various >sub-cultures found themselves conforming to a dominant culture?"
Bill Everdell responded:
>The phrase "dominant culture" begs what are for me three *more* questions not
>yet satisfactorily answered. 1) Is it possible not to have a dominant
>culture or to have a non-dominant culture? 2) Is it possible to know or to
>recognize that there is a dominant (sub)culture within one's culture while
>one is living in it? 3) Assuming one can indeed recognize such a dominant
>(sub)culture, is a dominant (sub)culture a bad thing?
Bill Everdell continued:
>In the meantime, I'd call a "cultural coalescence" one in which there are
>more behaviors shared by more people in a society than before (or after - or
>in some other society). "Zeitgeist" is awfully Hegelian. "Collective
>representation" sounds too virtual. Culture to me is the anthropologists'
>"learned, social behavior." Is this uncanonical?
While I have no problem with this definition, is this really what was going on during the Enlightenment? Does "cultural coalescence" take place when only a cultural elite coheres in a fairly uniform manner? I guess that my reservations lie in allowing the shifts in elite practices to stand for changes in the society as a whole, which seems to be often done in the case of such historical periods. I think that the phenomena described in Norbert Elias' *The Civilizing Process* would more closely correspond to your use of "cultural coalescence"--that is, changes in manners and everyday behavior across social classes.
Chris Forth writes about 'cultural coalescence', in part: "I guess that my reservations lie in allowing the shifts in elite practices to stand for changes in the society as a whole."
I would have the same reservations. One must not allow the Kants to stand for the Koenigsbergers or the Europeans of c1780. I have to say, though, that I am more interested in those who think of something first - the Kants - than in those who think of it last - and am likely to remain so. Nor would I defend this preference as democratic; but I do think that the history that results from studying how extraordinary minds came up with extraordinary innovations (or how several of them came to agree on the same innovation) is not bad history.
-Bill Everdell, Brooklyn
Perhaps Kant did not stand for Koenigsberg, but with the large enrollments he drew, he seems to have represented a large segment of the university community. hlw