How has the historiography of the Enlightenment changed since the 1960s?

Discussions of the Enlightenment have been in place since as early as the eighteenth century.[1] ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, Immanuel Kant stated in his 1784 essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’[2] In this, Kant cleverly defines the Enlightenment as an event or a process which brings humanity out of its self-inflicted ignorance and lack of knowledge through reason. Similarly, Moses Mendelssohn defines the Enlightenment as an ongoing ‘process of education’.[3] Academics, such as Christopher Nadon, have suggested that the Enlightenment will never cease to hold significance in a society in which it is paramount that one knows and understands the world, in order to make informed choices from a young age.[4] Further, historian Anthony Pagden defines it as the ‘true beginning of modernity, as an open-ended, continuing progression’, suggesting that the study of the Enlightenment is paramount to any historian analysing the journey that society, and humanity, embarked upon in getting to its current point.[5] This study will examine and investigate the historiography of the Enlightenment, from the limited early studies of historians such as Peter Gay in the 1960s, through the breaking of the limitations of these early studies, to current understandings. Specifically, this essay will address how historians developed Enlightenment history in a national context and how historians came to uncover the ways in which the Enlightenment was transmitted through newspapers, pamphlets and popular culture.

Originally, the Enlightenment was studied as a ‘unitary phenomenon’, presented as a period in which rationality prevailed over faith, and in which ideas were shared by the great thinkers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, Wolff and Leibniz.[6] Peter Gay is an example of the historians of the 1960s who studied the Enlightenment by this definition. Gay defines the periods of the Enlightenment by the chronology of the thinkers, from Voltaire to Diderot and Rousseau, followed by Kant.[7] Further, Gay defines the Enlightenment as a movement in which ‘men …united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom’, in a staunch rejection of organised religion in favour of progress.[8] Interestingly, Gay suggests that the philosophers of the Enlightenment formed a ‘family’, in which philosophical unity did not necessarily dictate political alignment and so there were numerous rifts within the family.[9] However, since the ‘lofty’ intellectual discussions of Peter Gay and the 1960s, academic historians have generated new ‘down-to-earth’ approaches to Enlightenment history, which attempt to locate it more precisely in terms of its geographical and social context.[10]

Robert Darnton was one of the first historians to offer a comprehensive discussion of the limitations of Gay’s work; Darnton suggests that Gay was most simply limited by his blinkered focus on the great writers of eighteenth century France – ‘for how can it be written from within the confines of even a first-rate library?’[11] Further, one cannot truly understand the culture of France’s ancien régime or how it, coupled with an insidious distaste for their monarchy, paved the way for a period of new thinkers.[12] Darnton proposes that new sources and methodology must be approached in order to enable historians to place the Enlightenment more accurately within a social and geographical context.[13] Since the work of Darnton, historians have challenged these limitations, creating histories which address the Enlightenment through different geographical perspectives, and economic structures, taking into consideration its movement through social classes and the public and private spheres. Further, historians have considered how the Enlightenment was transmitted through pamphlets, newspapers and novels, as well as its interactions with popular culture and women. Enlightenment studies continually developed from the study of great men with great ideas, to a study of the transmission of new ideas in varying cultures and contexts.

For Peter Gay and other historians of the Enlightenment, it was very much a case of studying the thinkers of eighteenth century France; Charles W. J. Withers states that Gay’s Enlightenment was ‘embodied in those Voltairean radicals’.[14] However, despite the beliefs of many 1960s historians, the Enlightenment found a home in many cities outside of Paris. Voltaire himself stated in 1733 that ‘the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them’ was the English; thus is it not England that embodies a spiritual home for the history of the Enlightenment.[15] The Enlightenment was studied in a national context which provoked analysis of varying writers, the structures within each society, such as the Church and newspapers, and the transmission of ideas between states. Withers further discusses the development of the Enlightenment in a national context by highlighting the pluralisation of the term in order to avoid its unitary presuppositions. National difference has become one of the most frequent themes in Enlightenment studies, regardless of whether the discussion also concern economic, social or gender themes.[16] This is, perhaps, due to the fact that the culture and socio-political context of a single nation can have the greatest impact on the development of its history.[17]

The development of the Enlightenment in France, for example, was unique to its nation. Norman Hampson discusses how France remained powerful despite its ineffectual monarchy; France’s power instead stemmed from a ‘highly developed’ bureaucratic government, containing law courts, civil services and a largely literate public.[18] ‘The disgruntled parlements and a divided Church weakened the authority of the state’ so that ‘critical writers might find protectors amongst their disunited opponents’.[19] Hampson states that though censorship in France was theoretically strict, publication and spread of new ideas was made relatively simple by the ‘pretence of anonymity’ and the ‘manipulation of influence’.[20] Contrastingly, Naples and Palermo formed part of a kingdom in which ‘real power belonged to a landed aristocracy’.[21] Whilst the eighteenth century proved unsettled for much of Italy, factors such as Catholicism and ‘their proud cultural tradition’ kept it in close contact with other European nations.[22] The strength of their Church and theatre created what Hampson claims was a ‘complicated pattern of influences’ by which Italy allowed the ideas of a similarly-minded Paris to flow into its culture without much resistance.[23] Additionally, the Enlightenment in Spain proved to be an interesting contrast to those aforementioned; ‘despite a reforming ruler, the new ideas made very little headway in the face of clerical opposition’.[24] It is evident that placing the Enlightenment within a national context is significant in terms of gaining a full understanding of its origins and how it was accepted and adapted across the globe. These ideas have been discussed by several historians concerning a wide range of nations; Sergio Moravia addressed the Italian Enlightenment as early as 1969 and notably Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich provide a fascinating collection of essays concerning an array of nations.[25]

Alongside studying the Enlightenment in a national context, historians have also used the Enlightenment as an opportunity to study the transmission of ideas. Though the historians of the 1960s focussed on great thinkers, such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, who passed on their ideas by recording them in grand academic literary works, it has since become evident that the ideologies of the Enlightenment were more frequently shared in pamphlets, newspapers, and discussions in salons. For the literate public, the widespread availability of printed material enabled ideas to travel with speed and accuracy; Carla Hesse states that ‘no technology better embodied the ideal of ‘Enlightenment’ than the printing press- a machine of human invention that could make useful ideas manifest in material form and spread them in unprecedented quantities.’[26] Historians, such as Hesse, discuss the Enlightenment in terms of how print culture affected the transmission of ideas, since it would surely not have been possibly to amass such support without ease of communication. For those less-literate, culture played a large part in the spreading of ideas. For example, in a state in which power lay in the hands of the people and not their monarchy, such as France, ideas could quickly spread by word of mouth, in lectures and meetings; Norman Hampson stated that the salons of Paris ensured quick dissemination of Enlightenment ideas.[27] Recent historians have increasingly focussed on how Enlightenment ideas came to the attention of wider audiences instead of their circulation amongst an elite few which was focussed upon by earlier historians, such as Gay.

To conclude, the original view of the Enlightenment was entirely limited. Historians of the 1960s chose to approach the Enlightenment as a unitary movement, which was led by a small group of eighteenth century French philosophers, such as Diderot and Voltaire, leaving them largely open to criticism from historians, such as Darnton, who suggest that the Enlightenment should be approached in a way which enables thorough analysis of its social and political context.[28] The historiography of the Enlightenment has much developed since this point, encompassing analyses of how ideas were transmitted, the people who became involved in the Enlightenment and the countries which it spread throughout. By taking an interest in the print culture surrounding the transmission of Enlightenment ideals and the geographical context in which these ideals were spread, historians can gain a much more thorough understanding of why these philosophical ideas became popular at this specific point in history and how this popularity differed between nations. Historians have now come to the conclusion that to use the term Enlightenment is misleading, when history abounds with many varying Enlightenments, emerging in different places at different times.

[1] D. Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.1.

[2] I. Kant, An Answer to the Questions: What is Enlightenment?, (London: Penguin Books, 2013), p.1.

[3] Outram, The Enlightenment, p.1.

[4] C. Nadon, Enlightenment and Secularism: Essays on the Mobilisation of Reason, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.xi.

[5] A. Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.10-11.

[6] Outram, The Enlightenment, p.3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] P. Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p.3.

[9] Ibid., p.4.

[10] R. Darnton, ‘In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas’, Journal of Modern History, 43.1, (1971), pp.113-132.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C. W. J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.26.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p.28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] N. Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values, (London: Penguin, 1982), Chapter 1 (ebook).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Enlightenment in the National Context, R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Sergio Moravia, ‘An Outline of the Italian Enlightenment’, Comparative Literature Studies, 6.4, (1969), pp.380-409.

[26] Carla Hesse, ‘Print Culture in the Enlightenment’, The Enlightenment World, M. Fitzpatrick et al. (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), pp.366-381.

[27] Hampson, The Enlightenment, Chapter 1 (ebook).

[28] Darnton, ‘In Search of the Enlightenment’, JMH, (1971), pp.113-132.


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