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Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 399-400 | 10.1353/hph.2002.0056

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.3 (2002) 399-400

Book Review

Radical Enlightenment:
Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

Jonathan I. Israel. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xx + 810. Cloth, $45.00.

Jonathan Israel's goal in this excellent book is to show that we cannot fully understand the high Enlightenment—the age of the philosophes and the French Revolution—without looking at the work and influence of that "most unusual and loneliest thinker" (to borrow a phrase from a later admirer): Spinoza. Israel gives us a detailed and nuanced account of the history of ideas in early modern Europe, focusing especially on the generations before Voltaire and Rousseau. Not only does Israel describe the general struggle between Enlightenment ideas and the status quo ante, he also discusses in depth the tensions between "mainstream" Enlightenment and its "radical" wing. More precisely and importantly, Israel argues that the high Enlightenment ought to be seen as the outcome of "a four-way conflict between Newtonians, neo-Cartesians, Leibnitio-Wolffians, and radicals" (715), a conflict that took place across Europe and whose dust had essentially settled by 1740. Thus, Israel is arguing against the view that the French philosophes were the dominant force in the intellectual world that led to the Revolution, against the view that Newton and Locke played a dominant role throughout Europe, and against the view that there were several distinct enlightenments with different national characters.

What is meant by the term "radical Enlightenment"? According to Israel, radical Enlightenment comprises several views and tendencies in the realms of science, theology, and politics: in scientific matters, it embraces naturalism, mechanism, and materialism; in theological matters, it denies a moral order to the universe, a providential god, the Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) account of creation, miracles, and reward and punishment in an afterlife, and is critical of the idea of the divine inspiration of religious texts; in political matters, it unequivocally supports republicanism, even democracy; and, in all matters, it argues for the necessity of toleration and the "freedom to philosophize." For those who know Spinoza's philosophy, this ought to sound familiar.

Israel's book is divided into five parts. In the first, he sketches the general intellectual milieu of early seventeenth-century Western Europe. The second part describes Spinoza and his circle and the philosophy of the Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. In Parts III and IV, Israel discusses the immediate reactions to Spinozism, the varieties of radical Enlightenment made possible by Spinoza, and the "intellectual counter-offensive" to naturalism, materialism, atheism, and republicanism. Part V concerns the "clandestine progress" of Spinozism and radical ideas in different countries after the banning and censorship of so many radical works, and, in a brief epilogue, Israel argues that it is Rousseau who effectively reconciled mainstream Enlightenment thought with its radical relative. This is a lot of territory to cover, and Israel covers it admirably, offering illuminating discussions of other key figures of the time: Leibniz, Malebranche, Bossuet, Locke, Bayle, Wolff, Vico, Diderot, and La Mettrie. Another strength of Israel's book is, however, the extent to which he portrays thinkers (some radicals, some reactionaries) and works that are less familiar to most working in the field today. We learn not only about such figures as Bredenburg, Fontenelle, Le Clerc, Leenhof, and Boulainvilliers, but also, in a charming but unfortunately short chapter, about Spinozistic novels from the eighteenth century.

As someone trained in a philosophy department to work on the history of philosophy, I felt uneasy in one respect with this book. While Israel emphasizes the battles between philosophies and ideas, he does not concern himself so much with the process of doing philosophy. That is, if there is a failing in this book, it is that we are presented with descriptions of philosophical views without always being given an adequate account of why such views were held by individual thinkers or how the theses of the radical Enlightenment, say, are related to each other. (For example, how did radicals see the relation between naturalism and republicanism?) Philosophical views, one used to believe at least, were held for reasons...

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