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Reading the French Enlightenment. System and Subversion.

Reading the French Enlightenment. System and Subversion. By Julies Chandler Hayes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. 243. [pounds]40.00.

The present closely-argued study draws extensively on the work of modern critical theorists and is aimed as much at explaining present-day attitudes as features of the French Enlightenment itself. After drawing a parallel between the forcible use of English in colonial Ireland and the attempt to make everybody adopt the liberal traditions of the Age of Reason, Hayes examines the ambiguities inherent in these traditions, while ultimately refusing to accept entirely the rather over-negative closed view of them as put forward by Horkheimer and Adorno. Foucault's exploration of modernity from Kant onwards illustrates even more clearly the diversity of the Enlightenment and 'the tension between the general scheme and the unruly particular'. The central problem -- as shown especially by Rousseau in his criticism of Hobbes and by d'Alembert in the preface to the Encyclopedie -- is to what extent the philosophes were themselves guilty of over-systematizing their thought in their attacks on 'soulless systematic philosophy'. In the semantic development of the word systeme from the Renaissance to the Revolution, its increasingly negative sense associated with over-classification is well-illustrated in Buffon's attack on Linnaean taxonomy. While Hayes insists on a selective approach, maintaining that by limiting the corpus of texts to be studied she 'can thus paradoxically open up the range of possibilities of interpretation', it is possible to argue that the view of the Enlightenment is somewhat selective. While a fair amount of space is given to analysing seventeenth-century correspondence, an anonymous pamphlet of 1789, and an essay by the comparatively obscure Swiss naturalist Jean Senebier, some writers normally seen as major figures of the Enlightenment are neglected. Voltaire is only referred to fleetingly, Bayle only indirectly, and Montesquieu is not mentioned at all. Despite this, the book does fulfil its purpose in counteracting an over-reductive view of the Enlightenment and in presenting through the image of the maze its labyrinthine nature. Madame Du Chatelet is seen as defining herself, while working for recognition within the French scientific community. There is a useful presentation of Condillac's lesser-known Traite des systemes and through looking at Diderot's views on language we can again appreciate how he above all showed the Enlightenment in its most open-ended complexity.

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Author:TODD, CHRISTOPHER
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Words:384
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