Anti-Enlightenment?

Term notably more charged than the conventional academic descriptor; counter-Enlightenment. But the author of a new book on notions of anti-Enlightenment, Zeev Sternhell, is a leftist and Zionist, not known for lukewarm political commitments. He’s written extensively about the history of Fascism. A recent review of The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (published by Yale University Press) in Tablet suggests Sternhell misses important subtleties in the topic, instead oversimplifying and boostering for the cause of Enlightenment.

The reviewer argues that in condemning the anti-Enlightenment (closely associated with Burke and Herder) for laying the foundation of right-wing nationalist movements in the 20th century, Sternhell is overstating his case. In particular, Sternhell overlooks how post-Enlightenment responses (which one can call counter- or anti-) were a critical stance on the emergence of all the overly rationalist and scientistic aspects of modernity. Concepts like romanticism and vitalism, then, need to be viewed as sophisticated responses to the general universalizing trend of Enlightenment. The Frankfurt School, after all, saw the culmination of Enlightenment’s “instrumental rationality” in the darkly efficient Nazi regime. Clearly Enlightenment is something of a straw man.

In any event, dynamic new historical visions of the Enlightenment are emerging, challenging conventional readings. Scholars now talk of “Super-Enlightenment”, a fascinating synthesis of standard and esoteric paradigms. Many thinkers deny it’s possible to actually disassociate Enlightenment from its other.

What can’t be denied is the way debates about the legacies and meanings of Enlightenment are never separated from contemporary political commitments. In many ways, it remains a historical concept charged with ideology…

Originally by way of Arts & Letters Daily.

9 Responses to “Anti-Enlightenment?”

  1. amarilla Says:

    Very interesting. I’m so glad you are still blogging.

  2. Ricki Says:

    How can one “know too much”? Who decides?

  3. The Necromancer Says:

    amarilla: Thanks, glad you are still reading.

    Ricki: Not sure where “knowing too much” comes in here. Neither side put limits on knowledge, I think. Though they were certainly likely to value different types of knowledge.

  4. kerrjac Says:

    Interesting post, I agree with your conclusion.

    Historical analyses that give too much prominence to ideas, I often find, miss the mark. With notable exceptions, ideas are rarely the moving force behind history. European oppression and increasing populations – and the movement of the masses, as Tocqueville called it – all fueled American democracy more than Socratic or Enlightenment-era ideas.

    To “accuse” an era of succumbing to this or that idea is to assume that the era could just as easily have put forth some other idea, as if the era had a choice about the matter. And this is completely besides the point, as the fact is that the era did not put forth the other idea, and had it done so, it would not have been that era.

    Of course one can judge certain ideas – which rose or fell at this or that time – on their own merit. But that is not the study of history, and to bring history into it, as it looks like this person did, completely undermines the powerful commentary that history has to offer.

  5. The Necromancer Says:

    As a historian of ideas/intellectual historian I have to argue with you that the study of ideas is not the study of history. It is, without a doubt, a crucial aspect of history. History can also certainly say things about economic, political and social forces, but thought drives history more than people realize…

    Having said this, Sternhell isn’t really a “pure” historian — he’s more a political scientist and sociologist. He’s also clearly making normative claims in this book, and needs to be called out on it. Maybe that’s the real problem here.

    In so far as we are immersed in a kind of gloablism-tribalism dichotomy in the world today, debates about Enlightenment and its discontents remain solvent.

  6. Ricki Says:

    From the review of Super-Enlightenment: “The Enlightenment can no longer be seen as a sturdy, homogeneous movement defined by certain core beliefs, but one which oscillates between opposing poles in its social practices, historiography and even its epistemology: between daring to know, and daring to know too much.”

    You can know wrongly. Or incompletely. But too much…?

  7. The Necromancer Says:

    ricki: Yeah, that’s a weird concept. I think the quote is trying to capture the idea of transgressive or forbidden knowledge. Knowledge of the secrets of the universe; drive you mad with the immensity of it all, laying bare the malevolent forces behind the curtain kind of knowledge…

    But even that shouldn’t be “too much”.

  8. Ricki Says:

    Malevolent forces behind the curtain? Or just the Wizard of Oz?

  9. The Necromancer Says:

    A little from column A, a little from column B.

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