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Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France.

by David W. Bates. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2002. xiii, 262 pp. $39.95 U.S. (cloth).

We do not live in an enlightened age. We live in an age that must rethink Enlightenment error. This may well encapsulate David Bates's challenging interpretation of the Enlightenment's "structure of error" (p. 18) and its legacies. Bates attempts to transcend the familiar polemic that celebrates Enlightenment reason as emancipatory or indicts it as polemical, arguing instead that "error" represents a crucial yet neglected aspect of Enlightenment culture. He contends that the discourse of errancy and aberration offers a new understanding of Enlightenment rationality and modernity; Enlightenment Aberrations thus ranges far beyond the domain of epistemology, to explore the construction of political errancy in revolutionary and post-revolutionary culture and trace the contours of "modem error." The result is a rich appraisal of the intellectual and political meaning of errancy in French culture.

Enlightenment Aberrations resembles a conventional intellectual history to the extent that it draws upon the work of familiar figures: d'Alembert and Condillac serve as guides to Enlightenment epistemology, Condorcet and Sieyes expose the relationship of error and troth in revolutionary politics, Robespierre and Saint-Just represent the politics of the Terror, while Bonald and de Maistre outline a counterrevolutionary "politics of sin." Yet if the dramatis personae and the sources are familiar, Bates's reading of their interrelations is not. Enlightenment Aberrations exposes an enduring French engagement with the epistemological and ontological problems of error.

Bates's approach to the "structure of error" is innovative and important. He offers a sensitive exposition of Enlightenment error by exposing the tropes that circumscribed assumptions about human reason. Bates reveals, for example, the striking spatial metaphors that structured eighteenth-century debate over human reason and the truth claims of language. When thinkers such as d'Alembert or Condillac used metaphors of discovery and wandering--mapping, paths, labyrinths, torches--they exposed the "unresolvable tension between radical errancy and systematic troth" (p. 31). Error, in this Enlightenment perspective, was not the negation of troth (something to be transcended) but the inescapable "risk of a reasoning process" (p. 51). Condillac, indeed, becomes for Bates a characteristically misinterpreted figure, grappling with the problem of reconstituting individual and collective identity in the face of the fragmenting power of errancy. In short, Bates offers a powerful restatement of the epistemological modesty of Enlightenment reason.

More provocatively, he suggests that the relationship between errancy and identity is a key linkage--structural rather than causal--between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Condorcet, as might be expected, is the transitional figure marking the overlap between epistemology and revolutionary practice. Bates explores the Revolution's discourse of political errancy through Condorcet's agonized efforts to theorize the political decision and Sieyes' s attempts to delimit representative decision-making in the name of the nation's will. Bates stresses the relationship between identity and errancy: caught between the presumed infallibility of the general will and the demonstrable fallibility of individual reason, the revolutionary insistence on political troth was less a manifestation of utopianism or pathology than a response to the complexity of human errancy. The revolutionary gap between representation and nation became an attempt to create a space for tree decisions, mediating between the world of errant individuality and true identity, revealing the interpenetration of "an epistemology of error with an ontology of aberration"(p. 98).

For Bates, this fusion of errancy and existence represents the crucial connection between 1789 and the Terror. Yet he challenges the revisionist claim that violence was latent in revolutionary political culture. Bates insists that Robespierre and Saint-Just, as they articulated the theory of the Terror, embraced a defensive strategy to preserve a "space" (a metaphor employed repeatedly) for political truth. Robespierre's attempts to moralize politics, to differentiate virtue and crime, were direct manifestations of the Enlightenment structure of error; his eventual downfall was the product of an unwillingness to accept the irreducible ambivalence of errancy and troth. Likewise, counter-revolutionary thought also replicated the currents of Enlightenment epistemology. As writers such as Bonald and de Maistre stressed the problem of human deviance and error in the face of divine troth, they retraced the ambivalent connections between errancy and identity in a manner akin to eighteenth-century theories of biological and historical recurrence. The pejorative model of Enlightenment rationality, Bates suggests in an eloquent epilogue, can be traced to nineteenth-century positivism, in which the totalizing notion of troth in the emerging statistical, psychological, and sociological sciences decisively broke with the ambiguity of Enlightenment errancy.

Despite these powerful claims, Enlightenment Aberrations exhibits some curious features. Bates is a talented close reader, but the rich insights drawn from tropes of errancy are, unfortunately, not sustained through the work. Unlike the vocabulary of the Enlightenment, the metaphors of revolutionary and post-revolutionary errancy are (with the banal exception of "space") largely neglected. But the profusion of well-known adjudicatory tropes--the tribunal of opinion, the body politic--cry out for detailed analysis. If Bates's focus on the structure of error is richly repaid, the cost is not negligible: Enlightenment Aberrations frequently loses sight of its thinkers' historical contexts--Condorcet, Sieyes, Robespierre, and Saint-Just are curiously static within the revolutionary moment--and fails to emulate the best scholarship on revolutionary political culture. Bates's work is curiously eclectic, citing the management guru Peter F. Drucker as a theorist of decision, though somewhat historiographically dated, straggling against a Furetian interpretation of revolutionary sovereignty that has been more effectively challenged by others over the past two decades.

Overall, Enlightenment Aberrations stands as an ambitious and important study, which will richly repay the specialist (it may, conversely, overwhelm the reader unfamiliar with eighteenth-century authors). Bates powerfully argues that the portrait of the Enlightenment as the domain of totalizing, instrumental reason is flawed and ahistorical. This caricature can best be best transcended by recapturing the subtlety of Enlightenment error. In this respect, Bates has blazed a path for others to follow--with fitting errancy, one hopes.

University of Auckland

Joseph Zizek
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Author:Zizek, Joseph
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:983
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