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.