Enlightenment! Which Enlightenment?
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Journal of the History of Ideas 67.3 (2006) 523-545

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Enlightenment! Which Enlightenment?

Institute for Advanced Study
Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, 4 vols., editor in chief Alan Charles Kors; eds. Roger L.Emerson, Lynn Hunt, Anthony J. La Vopa, Jacques Le Brun, Jeremy D. Popkin, C. Bradley Thomson, Ruth Whelan, and Gordon S. Wood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

On the surface it might well seem that during the last fifteen or twenty years the Enlightenment understood as a new way of thinking about reality and society has receded more and more from its former privileged status as a pivotal turning-point in the making of the modern world, and especially as any kind of leap forward in the making of a freer, more rational, and better humanity. Under the combined assaults of Post-Structuralism, Postmodernism, Postcolonialism, the rise of the new social history (and not least Robert Darnton's critique of the old intellectual history), the Enlightenment conceived as a movement of ideas appears to be not just firmly in retreat and increasingly under siege but also fragmenting into disparate remnants with no coherent overall profile.

Yet, paradoxically, there are grounds for conjecturing that the Enlightenment despite all this, has actually been becoming, under the surface, an even more crucial and robust force than it was before, much like a powerfully compressed spring being pushed back but ready to rebound with greater impetus than ever. One reason for thinking this is the extensive new material unearthed in the last few years, mostly by colleagues in continental Europe, about the origins of "radical," in the sense of egalitarian, secularist, Spinozist, and anti-colonial, thought. A second and possibly more important [End Page 523] reason is that the terrible events of the last several years have provided thoughtful readers with more than just a glimpse of the nightmare world apt to result from enshrining as a new set of privileged and prevailing values "difference," a thoroughgoing relativism, and the doctrine that all sets of values, even the most questionable kinds of theology, are ultimately equivalent.

The inevitable recoil from Postmodernist "relativism" will presumably strengthen the appeal, at least in some quarters, of the Radical Enlightenment's claim that the improvement of human life inescapably involves emancipating men from the collective force of autocracy, intolerance, and prejudiced thinking, and establishing a predominantly secular morality, no less than it involves promoting the ideals of equality (sexual and racial), democracy, individual liberty, and a comprehensive toleration. Indeed, recent developments on all continents seem likely to lend new weight to the radical philosophes' argument that the moral basis of their theorized egalitarianism, democracy, toleration, and individual freedom, despite the arguments of the Postmodernists (which by no means lack weight in certain contexts), is after all concretely superior in terms of reason and moral equity not just to what one faith or traditional system or another contends, in opposition to its claims, but absolutely—that is in ethical and political as well as social terms. One may confidently predict that such a development will render the Enlightenment both more compelling and much harder to disparage than it has appeared to be in the wake of the Postmodernist upsurge in recent years.

The prestige and status of the Enlightenment Western and Eastern, still conspicuously low for the present, may powerfully rebound, then, and in all parts of the world; and this for the simple reason that "Enlightenment thinking," as one scholar recently expressed it, "remains the best foundation for any genuinely progressive politics not simply in the West but in those states that suffered most at its [i.e. the West's] hands."1 To anyone authentically committed to democracy, toleration, and personal liberty this seems undeniable and, what is more, as we see in Bayle, Diderot, the Abbé Raynal, Lahontan, Van den Enden, and other radical writers of the Enlightenment, the roots of anti-colonialism itself, as well as the modern idea of racial, ethnic, and sexual equality, are undoubtedly to be found precisely in the "philosophical" thought-world of the Enlightenment—and especially the...