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Reviewed by:
  • The Radical Enlightenment in Germany: A Cultural Perspective ed. by Carl Niekerk
  • Samuel Heidepriem
Carl Niekerk, ed. The Radical Enlightenment in Germany: A Cultural Perspective. Leiden: Brill-Rodopi, 2018. 422 pp., 2 illustrations.

Over the last two decades, the historian Jonathan Israel has undertaken an ambitious multivolume project to change how we understand the Enlightenment. Where previous scholarship emphasized the diversity of separate national Enlightenment traditions, Israel regards it as an integrated, pan-European phenomenon with two prominent strands: a radical camp, populated by principled atheists and freethinking rebels who brooked no compromise with established monarchical and clerical power, and a moderate wing, which shared many values with the radicals but did not hesitate to accommodate the status quo. Israel argues we have given too much credit to moderates like Voltaire and Kant, while the real intellectual core of the Enlightenment—as well as its ongoing normative legacy—lies with radicals such as Diderot, and above all Spinoza.

The Radical Enlightenment in Germany: A Cultural Perspective takes Israel's project as an occasion to bring late eighteenth-century German literature and culture into this debate. "This collection seeks to demonstrate," writes editor Carl Niekerk, "not only how a more explicit articulation of a cultural perspective can enrich our understanding of both the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment, but also how literature and culture have their own roles to play in the debates about these movements." This perspective addresses areas overlooked by Israel, who tends to subordinate the heterogeneity of cultural history to canonical thinkers and big ideas. For Israel, the essence of true Enlightenment is Spinozist philosophy, adherence to which distinguishes the movement's subsequent radical and moderate representatives. The essays in The Radical Enlightenment in Germany demonstrate that this is not so simple, though the volume is not expressly polemical in nature. The case against Israel has already been made vigorously by Anthony La Vopa, Keith Baker, and Samuel Moyn, among others. Instead, the contributions in this collection lend necessary complexity to Israel's categories and narrative, while granting that his theory may likewise have something of value for German literary and cultural studies.

One cue the volume takes from Israel is to broaden the range of figures typically considered representative of the Enlightenment. Chunjie Zhang's essay on Matthias Christian Sprengel argues that this relatively obscure historian pioneered a form of "historical realist" writing that communicated radical Enlightenment ideas in a sober, nonincendiary style. Similarly, Peter Höyng takes Israel's work as an opportunity to present the biography of monk-turned-Jacobin Eulogius Schneider as emblematic of Enlightenment's often violent dialectic. Both essays complicate Israel's distinction between radical and moderate Enlightenment, the porousness of which is a running theme throughout the volume. John McCarthy proposes Christoph Martin Wieland as an archetypal "radical moderate" who promoted the ideals of radical Enlightenment within existing institutions. Paul Spalding argues it is likewise with French General Lafayette and those who supported him during his imprisonment in Prussia and Austria: despite class, military distinction, and other markers of establishment, all did their part to advance radical values.

The volume further challenges the division between radical and moderate Enlightenment in the contexts of literature, gender and sexuality, and media. Niekerk's piece reads Lessing's domestic dramas as vehicles for communicating, problematizing, and otherwise reconfiguring the categories of the radical, moderate, and counter-Enlightenment. The essay reinforces Niekerk's argument from [End Page 376] the introduction that literature offers a platform for staging Enlightenment ideals in concrete situations, and thus constitutes a privileged site for considering questions of theory and practice. Continuing this line, Gabriela Stoicea reads Sophie von La Roche's Geschichte des Frauleins von Sternheim (1771) as an illumination of Enlightenment tensions surrounding the education, autonomy, and wider social role of women, topics on which iconic Enlightenment males (including, Stoicea points out, Spinoza) are notoriously inconsistent in their radicalism. La Roche's novel is also significant for Monika Nenon, whose essay examines the radicalization of the epistolary form in the German reception of Rousseau's Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Ann Schmiesing's essay shows radical and moderate Enlightenment blended in the career of Theodor...