Billericay 2018 Week 8 – Conclusions


Imagining Other Home Page

Notes for final week

A. Some critical issues:

1. race and slavery

1.1 general:

- exploration, for knowledge initially, led to cross-cultural contacts,  idealising of e.g. Tahitians – by Bougainville, Diderot, Rousseau, Cook’s concerns

- explanations of racial difference: human nature constant, climate/environment creates difference (Buffon, Montesquieu) – vs. racial groups distinct (Linnaeus). Kant’s changing views (Pagden p 140-1)

- on colonialism: the natives gained little or nothing (Cook, Rousseau)

- even some of those opposed to slavery held ‘primitivist’ views


1.2 the American Indians:

- American Enlightenment more conservative, e.g. John Adams against equality. Indians and slavery problems unique to America (Himmelfarb)

- Indians inferior/savage: Declaration of Independence includes: “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Jefferson blamed the British for “seducing” the Indians to massacre the settlers; and for the consequent “brutalization if not extermination of this (the Indian) race in America”

- so, and because of superior agricultural techniques etc, settlers felt entitled to take land; others, e.g., John Jay concern over speed of settlement, and Washington: their land should be bought from them (rather than driving them off)


1.3 Slavery:

- lasted from 1740s to 1880s – legally abolished in England 1807

- nearly 30 million enslaved or died?

- ambivalences and tensions: Necessary evil? An inferior race? Assimilation?

- Christianity divided: ‘witnessing’ vs. established churches

- obstacles to its removal: economic, political, attitudinal (confused: Jefferson – and others opposed to slave trade but not slavery itself); slavery and property

- other issues confronted before slavery (opposition to torture, tax inequality, civil rights, toleration, etc)


2. Women:

2.1 ambivalence

- reason and equality, vs. an idealised motherhood (leading to ‘separate spheres’)?

- women active in the Enlightenment: Marquise de Chatelet, Sophie Volland, mistresses of salons, later: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mme de Stael

- Rousseau opposed the salons; other philosophes argued that women are rational (the mind as tabula rasa...) but not equal

- stereotypes (shrew, harlot, amazon) replaced by scientific explanations of ‘natural’ difference

- inconsistencies: autonomy for men, dependency for women; ‘reason’ for all? Isn’t ‘virtue’ the same for men and for women? (Wollstonecraft)



2.2 Key female figures in the Enlightenment:


(i) Olympe de Gouges and the anti-slavery movement:

Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, 1791.  “ignorance, omission or scorn for the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments…”.

- female anti-slavery convention 1837


(ii) Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797):

Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790 – attacking Burke

Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792 - attacking Rousseau (and Francis Bacon)


(b) The radical minority: William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and anarchism

- Godwin: Political Justice 1793, Caleb Williams 1794: for ‘a well conceived form of society without government’ based on the perfectibility of human beings

- the ‘romance of reason’ - Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge, and Shelley admired him; Mary Shelley was his daughter by Mary Wollstonecraft.


B. A reminder of the main ‘Enlightenment values’ [week 2] and discussion of reasons that could be given for criticising, or even rejecting them.

1. Reliance on reason, based on experience and experiment (science),  rationalism, empiricism. [Week 3]


The ‘romantic’ objection: everything has been subjected to a ‘mechanical’, scientific point of view, which has taken the mystery and beauty out of society.


The ecological objection: the belief in unlimited progress, together with a blind faith in science, has led us to the brink of destroying the natural environment.


2. Humanism & secularism, against the irrational in religion, deism, tolerance [Week 4].


The religious objection: the rejection of religion has produced materialism, and hence greed and selfishness.


3. Individual liberty and tolerance, human nature – sympathy and sentiment, or the sovereign self? [Weeks 5,6].


The feminist objection: it only benefited men. The ‘universal values’ it professed were not universal.


The ‘postmodern’ view: the ideas claimed by the philosophes as ‘universal’ and ‘modern’ were in fact merely the ideas of a privileged, white elite, responsible for conquering, enslaving and even destroying native peoples in other countries.

4. Belief in progress – and confidence in human powers, [Week 7].


The conservative objection: the values of tradition and community have been destroyed; the emphasis on individual freedom, revolution, and abstract ‘rights’ has in practice led to dictatorship.

The socialist objection: the real driving force was the accumulation of wealth by the ruling classes, and it only benefited them, at the expense of workers, and of people in developing countries.


C. Appraisals: points from the books I have mainly used:


1. Roy Porter (The Enlightenment, Studies in European History, 2001)

On the ‘negative’ side:

Note Porter’s point (p 23) whilst Voltaire and Diderot ‘flirted with and flattered’ the leading absolutists of Europe, viz: Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia, their ‘relative silence… when confronted with the internally oppressive and externally bellicose policies pursued by both autocrats, leaves many questions to be answered.’ This point applies even more strongly when it comes to slavery and the treatment of native peoples in colonised countries, and the treatment of women.


On the positive side:

We are creatures of the Enlightenment (rational, secular, liberal, and democratic) – would we want to go back to pre-Enlightenment ways and values? To a society where the church has ‘hegemony’; where tradition holds sway; and where extreme inequalities of status and power, wealth and well-being were justified by the system of feudal ties?


The Enlightenment a mixed blessing:

Porter concludes: not all the changes that came about during the Enlightenment were unmixed blessings (e.g. male obstetricians, long prison sentences rather than execution), and not all were due to the philosophes (for example the end of slavery) – but at least there was a belief ‘in the air’ (my words) that progress was possible.


2. Dorinda Outram: the Age of Enlightenment saw the beginnings of ‘public opinion’ – i.e. space was created for the ruling elites to express their opinions and eventually to influence the running of their societies. She specifies: “the Enlightenment was much better at creating new relationships amongst elites... than it was in reaching out to lower social classes... In the end, Kant’s concerns about the disruptive impact of the Enlightenment... were probably justified.”



3. Gertrude Himmelfarb (The Roads to Modernity, 2008), sets out to “reclaim the enlightenment – from critics who decry it [as ‘Western cultural imperialism’] and defenders who acclaim it uncritically, from postmodernists who deny its existence [as ‘the modern that postmodernism revolts against’] and historians who belittle or disparage it, above all, from the French who have dominated and usurped it.”

Himmelfarb argues that too much emphasis is usually put on the French Enlightenment thinkers – the British (Scottish) Enlightenment was more concerned with “the sociology of virtue” (I prefer: ‘moral sentiment’) – and the Americans were more concerned with “the politics of liberty”.


4. Kieran O’Hara (The Enlightenment, a Beginner’s Guide, 2010):

(i) “I have to assert that reason and tolerance have made the world a better place,” – and where the Enlightenment did not have any impact people are “less free, more discontented and poorer.”

(ii) On the other hand other ‘Enlightenment values’ have caused damage: “rationality can become a coarse instrumentalism where monetary value and scientific progress trump the beauty of a forest, or the obligations and relationships within families, or the silence of the wilderness.” 

(iii) Finally the progress it did make was “patchy” – compared to the 17th century or the 19th there was little progress in science – and while music and the novel produced great works, the visual arts were not striking.

(iv) There were two “sub-traditions” in the Enlightenment, the “moderate, sceptical [and] tolerant” (Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Montesquieu) and the “democrats and radicals (Diderot, Condorcet and above all Rousseau)” – and both were part of the Enlightenment. While the moderate ‘side’ did little harm, it was “weak” over issues such as slavery (and women) – Rousseau’s radicalism stirred up (dangerous?) passions, but also spread Enlightenment ideas beyond the middle class. It is Adam Smith who has most influence today – and he was a moderate. (A similar point to Himmelfarb’s.)


5. Tzvetan Todorov (In xzDefence of the Enlightenment, 2006) also argues that we need to remind ourselves of key Enlightenment ideas that are still of value today, since postmodernism had rejected the Enlightenment, and others have distorted it – he lists: autonomy, secularism, truth, humanity and universality. His (topical!!) conclusion is that the contemporary European ‘project’ is based on these Enlightenment ideals and is the way we can ensure they are kept relevant today.


6. Anthony Pagden (The Enlightenment and why it still matters, 2013): the enlightenment was as much concerned with ‘sympathy’ as ‘reason’ – and its aim was ‘cosmopolitanism’


7.  John Gray (reviewing Pagden): some aspects of the enlightenment were totalitarian, and a belief in ‘reason’ and ‘humanity’ can still produce such evils as communist totalitarianism. Pagden argues its ideas were all good, and any bad consequences must be a distortion of ‘true’ enlightenment views. Gray sees the enlightenment project as deriving from the Christian project to seek the ‘truth’.