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  • A New Passion for Enlightenment
  • Vivasvan Soni
John Bender, Ends of Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012). Pp. xiii + 294. $25.95.
Hina Nazar, Enlightened Sentiments: Judgment and Autonomy in the Age of Sensibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). Pp. x + 182. $45.00.
John C. O’Neal, The Progressive Poetics of Confusion in the French Enlightenment (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2011). Pp. 237. $75.00.
Wolfram Schmidgen, Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Pp. xvi + 240. $59.95.

For better or for worse, literary scholars of the British eighteenth century have largely made do without the overarching conceptual category of “enlightenment” when trying to make sense of the distinctiveness of literature in this period. Whereas, for example, it would be presumptuous to attempt to understand German Romanticism without an intimate knowledge of the innovations and short-comings of German idealism, eighteenth-century British literature has tended to resist analysis in terms of a guiding intellectual project like “enlightenment.” Even when scholars make reference to Locke, Hume, or Adam Smith, the focus tends to be on particular aspects of their theories rather than on a systematic outlook. The reasons we might speculatively assign for this resistance are manifold: the absence of anything so straightforward and unitary as a project of enlightenment in the British context (and, indeed, the question of whether the category is relevant to British philosophy in the eighteenth century); the difficulty of mapping the large-scale literary trends of the period (satire, Augustan literature, the novel, neoclassical aesthetics) onto corresponding philosophical agendas; the interpretive [End Page 239] assumption that literary production should not be shaped by philosophical programs; the reluctance to assign agency to ideas; the question of how to isolate the influence of a philosophical tradition whose “common sense” orientation amounts to a kind of antiphilosophy. However, there is indubitable evidence that this trend has been dramatically reversed over the past few years. A new crop of conceptually ambitious, theoretically inventive, and historically grounded books by scholars of British literature (including three of those reviewed here) explicitly and polemically takes up Enlightenment as an indispensable rubric, in order both to frame the literature of the period in new ways and to argue for the continuing vitality of Enlightenment thought in the present. This is an exciting development that promises to bring a new degree of philosophical seriousness to the study of the period’s literature.

The impetus behind these studies is not only to teach us to see unnoticed alliances between eighteenth-century philosophy and literature (which they do), but also to counter a legacy of twentieth-century critical thought, going back at least to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Michel Foucault’s work on the emergence of disciplinary society, which sought to forge an indissoluble link between Enlightenment thinking and the calamities of modernity: instrumental reason, rationalization, the exploitation of nature, disciplinarity. Wolfram Schmidgen explains the context in which a project to recuperate the conceptual legacy of the Enlightenment becomes necessary: “Exquisite Mixture has told a positive story. . . . This book is related to a number of studies that have, over the past ten years or so, begun to redeem the enlightenment from the withering critiques it suffered in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the wake of Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor Adorno’s absorbingly bleak Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). . . . As little as twenty-five years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a broad following for such a redemptive effort” (148; see also Bender, 8–11; Nazar, 1–10). Such redemptive work is imperative, and is in fact implied in any properly dialectical conception of Enlightenment. But we must be on our guard lest legitimate enthusiasm blunt our critical attention to the conceptual impoverishment also at work in the period. As more studies make apparent the alliance of today’s (inadequate) critical paradigms with those of the eighteenth century they purport to critique, the need to delve further back in intellectual history to find the necessary critical resources becomes increasingly evident. What such studies reveal, whether they intend to or not, is that contemporary...


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