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Reviewed by:
  • What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions
  • Géza Von Molnár
James Schmidt, ed. What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. 563. $50.00 cloth, 24.95 paper.

Over two hundred years ago, the question that stirred many of the foremost minds in German-speaking lands was the one to which the title of this book refers. Its potential readers will easily recognize it, and most will also instantly associate with it Kant’s classic answer. How right they are in doing so is contained in the pages before them. Whatever answers may have been forthcoming since that central question was posed, Kant’s statement remains the explicit or implicit referent for all further debate. Characteristic for this debate is the profusion of differing opinions long current in all matters regarding the Enlightenment, and since these differences have recently surfaced with unusual intensity over a broad range of animated discussions inside of academe and out, it is high time to take stock, as the editor of this volume does, and ask again: “What is Enlightenment?”

James Schmidt succeeds in fashioning a well-ordered chorus from the clamor of voices received in reply by presenting them in three distinct groupings that comprise: “The Eighteenth-Century Debate,” “Historical Reflections,” and “Twentieth-Century Questions.” All of this is preceded by an expert “Introduction,” which brings every contributor into clear focus, from an overall perspective and within each respective group. Quite generally speaking, one must, indeed, keep in mind that the question and the debate as to what Enlightenment is bears a distinctly German stamp. As the “Introduction” makes clear: “For reasons that defy explanation, neither French philosophes nor Scottish moralists (to name only the two most likely parties) were as concerned as their German-speaking colleagues of what enlightenment was” (ix). The texts that follow, however, make evident that much of the debate beyond its most initial phase takes place against the background of events in France and rapidly assumes a critical dimension of political self-definition. The historical record, even beyond the confines of this volume, would indicate that deliberations on the question “What is Enlightenment?” actually become implicitly ever more concerned with the question of what is German. Since the editor justifiably contends that these as well as other aspects of the debate on Enlightenment “came to be determined by the stance one took toward the Revolution” (15), the differing critical positions that have arisen since then hold only their ignorance in common “of the enlightenment’s own efforts at self-definition” [End Page 537] (16). The contributions assembled in part 1, “The Eighteenth-Century Debate,” are to furnish this missing link and thus do so successfully by introducing material generally unfamiliar to an English speaking reading public. For that matter, some of the authors who are cited here will not be all that familiar to German scholars. This part 1, which takes up a good third of the volume, constitutes a remarkable editorial achievement from which students of cultural history will benefit for a long time to come. The translations are to be equally commended for rendering texts that are not especially readable in the original into readable English.

Among the most difficult are the selections by Hamann, but it may be the challenge his manner of writing presents that will, at times, lead scholars to read too much into the text. Part 2 presents “Historical Reflections” on the intellectual panorama that has been unfolded for us in part 1, and Hamann is made the subject of one of the articles. In it, he is referred to as “proto-Marxist” (296–97) and praised in very modern terms for his opposition to political oppression by absolute monarchs like Frederick II (296 ff.). Of course, he is nothing of the sort; he is a Christian, foremost and last, and if contemporary vocabulary is to be employed, he is a born-again Christian with political attitudes to fit. His basic objections are directed against a government so powerful that it can be dismissive of religion. His point of attack is consequently the base of power that...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 537-539
Launched on MUSE
1998-07-01
Open Access
No
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