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New thoughts on an old idea.

The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, by Louis Dupre, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

RUMOR HAS IT that when Peter Gay published The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (the first volume of which won the National Book Award in 1967) the author regretted that he had not subtitled the work "The Interpretation." Gay's paean to the philosophes was marvelously written, but to say the least, it was not about to stand the test of time. Within a few years, and in a development no one could have predicted, the Enlightenment became one of the dirtiest words in the Western intellectual tradition. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the baby boom generation inserted itself into the life of the mind in Western Europe and America, it became an idee fixe that the Enlightenment had given birth to a number of the most odious characteristics of Western civilization: wanton imperialism, capitalism, ecological depredation. The crackup of the New Left in due course did little to keep the heat off the Enlightenment. Postmodernism soon emerged to attack the Enlightenment with abandon.

A counter-attack came from Germany. Worried that unceasing assaults on the Enlightenment could serve to revive anti-rationalist politics of the Nazi variety, Jurgen Habermas and his ever-growing circle urged that the Enlightenment be seen as an "unfinished project." Conceding criticisms about the imperialist-capitalist-ecological legacy ascribed to the Enlightenment by the New Left, Habermas argued that as a historical tradition, the Enlightenment nonetheless contained within itself the means to overcome its own shortcomings. It fell to us in contemporary times to discover and make use of these means, thereby to bring about a more rational world. Habermas has consistently shown himself to be intransigent--one might say irrationally so--towards any non-immanent form of criticism of the Enlightenment, such as the critiques emanating from the conservative tradition.

Habermas's enormous influence over the past quarter century should leave no one in doubt that the Enlightenment has had its defenders in recent times. Nonetheless, Louis Dupre in The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture believes that we still tend to give the Enlightenment less than the credit it is due. "However we assess the Enlightenment's achievements," Dupre writes, "we could commit no greater error than to deny or reject them. They have become a central part of what we are."

Whereas Habermas's defense of the Enlightenment rests upon claims of the Enlightenment's fundamental rationality, Dupre in this book undertakes to justify the Enlightenment on terms of its very existence--that is to say, on grounds of its ontology as opposed to its epistemology. Yet, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture is not a notably argumentative book. It hazards a few incomplete points about the need to understand Romanticism as a component of the Enlightenment. But by and large the book is a very detailed annotated bibliography. It canvasses scores and scores of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers who supported the Enlightenment's promotion of thinking for one's self. The entire "party of humanity" (Peter Gay's term) is here: from Diderot to Voltaire, Lessing to Kant, Shaftesbury to Hume. By my count, the book discusses works of over one hundred different lumieres from the period 1648-1789.

Dupre is very good at detailing the march of ideas across this long eighteenth century with exactitude and precision. He is able to identify the specific contribution of each figure under study despite the barrage of background noise that invariably accompanies the writing of a philosophe. On Saint-Simon: "Opinionated in the extreme, incapable of doubting his own prejudices, ferocious in his hostility, and always on the barricades, he succeeded, despite his vices, or possibly because of them, in capturing the irreducible singularity of his subjects"--viz., the fops and vamps of Versailles.

In portraying figure after figure who made the Enlightenment what is was--indeed, in composing something of an Encyclopedie of the Enlightenment--Dupre is making an argument. If, during the eighteenth century, the lion's share of intellectual activity in the Western world addressed itself to the question of thinking autonomously, then this is our heritage. Because of the sheer extensiveness of "enlightened" thought during a recent formative period of the Western mind, therefore, no intellectual or cultural project that we undertake today can claim independence from this "foundation." Dupre implies that dismissals of the Enlightenment are idle chatter; we might as well dismiss our own subconscious. For Dupre, to the extent we wish to know ourselves, we must take seriously knowing the Enlightenment.

To present the Enlightenment in this fashion is, ironically, to re-introduce the kind of argumentation that the Enlightenment supposedly made obsolete. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, the transformation in the Western mentality that occurred in the early modern period may be summarized as the rise of the distinction between fact and value. In ancient and medieval times, things implied essences, goals, and goods. A chair implied good sitting; a city, good living; a person, excellence in the human being's most distinctive characteristic, the mind. Beginning with perhaps Descartes, and certainly culminating in the Enlightenment, a parsimoniousness descended upon the description of things. Things came to be regarded as things simply: facts. If we associate value with them, this is our imputation. Values do not inhere in anything. To use the Hegelian terminology, values are merely the worth that subjects see in objects.

Therefore if we hold that the very facticity of the Enlightenment is the reason we should take it seriously, we must also concede that we are beginning to think in a pre-Enlightenment fashion. We can try to escape this predicament by one of two alternatives. We can, with Habermas, argue for the Enlightenment on grounds of simple rationality. Unfortunately, this does not work very well. Habermas and many of his followers are characteristically petulant and impatient in their glorification of the "unfinished project" for a reason: Enlightenment values do not always pass the test of rationality, much less of desirability.

The other option is to concede that the facticity of the Enlightenment is the reason we should take it seriously, while also holding that that facticity implies disvalue as well as value. Few disagree--it is quite universally recognized--that the modern self suffers from a crisis of confidence, if not a mild self-loathing. The modern self simply does not wholly like what it has become. The self in our times may be better informed, scientifically and cognitively speaking, than in the past, yet it does not often experience psychic equanimity, much less a sense of fulfillment, joy, or purpose. Surely aspects of the self that derive from Enlightenment rationalism are partially responsible for our wounded amour-propre. In its abstraction about human affairs, in its condescension towards the past and the "other," and in its superciliousness towards religion, the Enlightenment inculcated qualities in the human mind that are flatly inconsistent with the yearnings of the human spirit.

Dupre himself acknowledges this deficient legacy of the Enlightenment, and he further suggests that the emotive Romanticism that burst upon the scene in the nineteenth century was a necessary corrective. This latter point is made all the more intriguing by his finding that certain philosophes who were wise to the Enlightenment's blind spots themselves laid the groundwork for Romanticism. Dupre writes: "One severely oversimplifies the nature of eighteenth-century thought in dismissing it as rationalism. The rationalist tendency did indeed exist, but so did others pointing in an opposite direction. One might just as well describe the Enlightenment as an era of sentimentality."

Since Dupre is firm in his decision to stop the book with the onset of French Revolution, his suggestive points about the fundamental unity of the Enlightenment and Romanticism can remain only conjecture. However Dupre does provide three ample chapters on religion and the Enlightenment, two of which deal not with atheism and rationalist criticisms of religious faith, but with new, "enlightened" modes of belief that arose in the eighteenth century. These chapters are sufficient to rebut any claim that the Enlightenment definitively banished religious notions from the boundaries of legitimate discourse--a claim central to Habermasianism.

It is difficult to concur with Dupre's conclusion that "[t]he impact of the Enlightenment was undoubtedly felt more deeply in the area of religion, either as loss or liberation." For some reason, it is not generally recognized that the nineteenth century was the greatest era of orthodox Christian belief in history. The Enlightenment's religious traction in the nineteenth century was limited to small circles of intellectuals and to dedicated religious communities, such as the Swedenborgians and various utopians. By contrast, Roman Catholicism of an unambiguously traditionalist variety experienced a popular renaissance in the nineteenth century that was the most oceanic in the history of the Church.

We should not hold a book about the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the standard of explaining the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth or the twenty-first. Indeed, the more one compares the Age of Enlightenment, so diligently detailed in this book, with our own times, the more one does not see the seeds of things to come. Dupre necessarily speaks barely a word about technology, the business firm, and popular culture--a trinity of determinants of our own world about which the Enlightenment paid little heed. Unquestionably, the Enlightenment did much to organize our world-picture, and perhaps our politics, and in the offing it probably introduced a bit of anomie into our souls. But contrary to both its critics and its acolytes, it did not make us who we are.

BRIAN DOMITROVIC earned his doctorate from Harvard University. He currently teaches history at Sam Houston State University.
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Title Annotation:The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture
Author:Domitrovic, Brian
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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