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  • Enlightenment as Concept and Context
  • James Schmidt

Enlightenment, Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock, Ian Hunter, John Robertson, conceptual history, history of ideas, historiography of the Enlightenment

The Ideas in Context series has served the Enlightenment well. Roughly a quarter of the first hundred books in the series deal (at least in part) with the period, including studies of Locke (Tully, Carey, Dawson), Rousseau (Rosenblatt), Smith (Forman-Barzilai), Mandeville (Goldsmith and Hundert), Thomasius (Hunter), the reception of Hobbes (Parkin), and a now-classic account of the ideological origins of the French Revolution (Baker).1 Of no less significance are broader-gauged examinations of the “common good” (Miller), “luxury” (Berry), and “empire” (Brown, Armitage), as well [End Page 677] as explorations of the Enlightenment’s relationship to Rational Dissenters (Haakonssen) and Judaism (Sutcliffe) and its debts to theories of natural law (Hochstrasser and Hunter).2 The nexus of commerce, politics, and history has also been a major concern of the series (Pocock, Tribe, Winch, Force, Robertson).3 But a tally of this sort only begins to register the significance of Ideas in Context for studies of the Enlightenment. As might be expected from a series ably shepherded by Quentin Skinner, significant methodological questions have also come to the fore.

According to the statement that stands at the front of each volume, the goal of the series is to trace “the emergence of intellectual traditions and of related new disciplines” by setting the “procedures, aims, and vocabularies” generated by these traditions and disciplines in the context of the “ideas and institutions” in which they developed. If the way in which this setting of ideas in contexts was to be effected might not have been entirely clear from the programmatic essay in the inaugural volume (though jointly signed by Skinner, Jerome Schneewind, and Richard Rorty, it was, as Richard Fisher has recently explained, “largely written” by Rorty and “tonally rather different to much of what has followed”),4 such matters would be [End Page 678] clarified considerably by the second volume in the series, J. G. A. Pocock’s Virtue, Commerce, and History. Reviewing recent developments in the history of political thought, Pocock observed that the “history of thought (and even more sharply ‘of ideas’)” was being supplanted by a “history of speech” or a “history of discourse.”5 An overview of what such a history might look like quickly followed: The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe, a volume tracing the various discourses in which political thought had been conducted from the Renaissance to the dawn of the nineteenth century.6 In his contribution to the volume, Pocock observed that the ability to say anything presupposed “a language to say it in,” which suggested that the relationship of ideas to contexts might be conceived along the lines of that between parole and langue.7 While the volumes that followed were not limited to products of what came to be called the “Cambridge School” (and while not all of those associated with the “Cambridge School” embraced the analogy Pocock was proposing), a concern with the discursive context in which arguments were conducted has implications for accounts of the Enlightenment.

“Enlightenment” can be used both to designate a particular historical period (i.e., “the Enlightenment”) and to refer to a process (i.e., “enlightenment”) that, though associated with certain historical periods, is captive to none of them. Drawing out the implications of the “history of discourse” that Pocock, Skinner, and their colleagues were developing, “the Enlightenment”—as a discursive context in which things could be said (and, hence, done)—might be seen as a sort of langue, while “enlightenment” might be understood as encompassing a variety of activities, the bulk of them presumably occurring within the discursive context known as “the Enlightenment.” Thinking about the Enlightenment in this way stands in sharp contrast both to Ernst Cassirer’s attempt to grasp “its conceptual origins” and “underlying principle” and to Peter Gay’s identification of it with the “little flock of philosophes” who, though adhering to no single party line, nevertheless constituted the “party of humanity.”8 Against Cassirer (and, momentarily, in company with Gay), an attention to texts and discursive [End Page...


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