- Reassessing the Radical Enlightenment by Steffen Ducheyne
This volume includes fifteen chapters, case studies and broader reflections, on the notion of ‘radical enlightenment,’ separated into three main sections entitled, respectively, “The Big Picture,” “Origins and Fate of the Radical Enlightenment, ca. 1660–1720,” and “The Radical Enlightenment in Europe and the New World after ca. 1720.” It is presented as “the first stand-alone collection of studies in English on the Radical Enlightenment.” It is worth mentioning, however, that two very similar volumes already exist in French and German (C. Secretan, T. Dagron and L. Bove, eds., Qu’est-ce que les Lumières “radicales”? ; and J. I. Israel and M. Mulsow, eds., Radikalaufklärung ). Like its French and German counterparts, Ducheyne’s volume opens with two essays by the modern inventors of the “radical enlightenment,” Margaret C. Jacob and Jonathan I. Israel. We recall that [End Page 168] Jacob first employed the expression in The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (1986) to describe certain egalitarian political movements in early modern England, particularly in masonic milieus. Israel then transformed and considerably expanded the notion for his trilogy Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2005), and Democratic Enlightenment (2011). In this context, ‘radical enlightenment’ refers to a pervasive pan-European current in early modern intellectual culture, deeply rooted in Spinozist atheism, and opposed to the mainstream “moderate Enlightenment,” represented by figures like Locke and Voltaire.
Jacob and Israel have been summoned on numerous occasions to comment on each other’s work and the mutual sniping characterizing their essays here echoes the full-blown confrontation already published in Diametros (n° 40, 2014). Israel simply bans Jacob from the discussion, proclaiming that “Freemasons and the seventeenth-century English Revolution. . . were not important in the making of the Radical Enlightenment” (40). Jacob, in turn, attempts to “restate, revitalize, and defend” the conception of the radical enlightenment as she originally formulated it, contesting the view, attributed to Israel, that we “can fixate on a single thinker . . . as capable of causing a cultural and intellectual shift so major and deep as to constitute . . . the foundation of modernity” (49). If Jacob’s contribution reminds us that Israel can claim neither paternity of, nor monopoly on, the “radical enlightenment,” the following chapter, by Frederik Stjernfelt, demonstrates that neither can she, tracing the expression as far back as late eighteenth-century political discourse. Stjernfelt also notes, importantly, that Leo Strauss already opposed “radical” to “moderate” enlightenment in his 1935 Philosophie und Gesetz (35). Nonetheless, for better or for worse, the notion is today primarily associated with Israel’s work, including in the remaining contributions to the present volume.
Despite this evident success, Israel complains about how his radical enlightenment has been “vehemently opposed from the outset” (15). According to Israel, the fierce resistance with which this “game-changing concept” has been met must be explained in large part by cultural historians’ resistance to a perceived “extreme form of ‘idealism’” (3). Israel rejects the charge on the grounds that his approach “combines intellectual with social and political history by studying broad context, diffusion, and controversies” (40), stressing methodological categories also developed in Enlightenment Contested (15–26). This is an apt reply, and yet the charge of excessive idealism is not entirely unwarranted: Israel has himself done much to attract the objection, especially by presenting the radical enlightenment as a conceptual package deal of mutually consistent philosophical and political concepts and ideals, and by promoting the idea that the conceptual consistency of that package was the primary key to its success (see again Enlightenment Contested, 12 and 14). In this respect, I see his response here as a welcome clarification of his position that ought to put the dispute to rest.
One important lesson to learn from this clarification, however, is that the ‘radical enlightenment’ is best understood as a historiographical heuristic and not as a philosophical “-ism.” For this reason, it must be used with precaution by historians of philosophy who take a more detailed interest in the conceptual intricacies of the philosophies they study. For...