Enlightenment research as a vocation

Enlightenment past and present is the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This volume by Anthony J. La Vopa explores the social meanings of Enlightenment discourses in England, Scotland, France, and Germany. This blog post written by Avi Lifschitz discusses La Vopa’s new book, sharing insight into this new publication, its themes, and the introductory essay ‘Finding Meaning in the Enlightenment’.

The Weberian title of this blog post is a fitting tribute to Anthony J. La Vopa, a prominent Enlightenment scholar who has dedicated the last fifty years to the study of what he calls ‘the social history of ideas’ in the eighteenth century. This self-definition might initially conceal the indispensable role of rhetoric, literary genre, and authorial tone in La Vopa’s work on the Enlightenment. As he notes in the introduction to the new collection of his essays, one of his major early insights was that he could effectively ‘derive social meaning from the literary properties of a text’.

The essays collected here do exactly that, covering diverse topics across eighteenth-century Germany, France, and Britain. A new essay on Denis Diderot’s theory of genius joins La Vopa’s classic 1992 article on Jürgen Habermas’s and Reinhart Koselleck’s notions of Enlightenment and its public sphere of allegedly rational debate. Johann Gottfried Herder’s complex relationship with language, print and eighteenth-century readership is discussed next to the peculiar friendship between James Boswell and William Johnson Temple. Kant’s attitudes to sex and marriage are discussed next to an essay on the shifting meanings of enthusiasm (Schwärmerei) from Luther to the late eighteenth century.

Several essays concern methodological issues, from the resurrection of the contextual biography (written on the occasion of La Vopa’s 2001 biography of the young Fichte) to the gender turn in Enlightenment studies, Jonathan Israel’s work on the radical Enlightenment, and the complex interrelations between history, philosophy and literature in Enlightenment studies.

The jewel in the book’s crown is ‘Finding meaning in the Enlightenment’, the introductory essay that serves both as a retrospective stock-taking of the author’s scholarship and as a panoramic overview of Enlightenment studies since the 1970s. This is arguably a modern incarnation of the scholarly autobiographies, or accounts of intellectual development, written by eighteenth-century German professors and clergymen of a Pietist background – a genre so effectively mined by La Vopa over the years.

Indeed, the author applies to himself in the essay some of the questions that have fascinated him throughout his career. Did he follow a calling or a vocation while practising a specific trade, in this case academic teaching and writing on the Enlightenment? How much of his labour, intellectual or otherwise, has been rooted in the unconscious appropriation of a given socio-political habitus? Among other reflections on changing political and social trends from the 1970s to the present, La Vopa focuses on attitudes to higher education. Since the 1980s we have witnessed, La Vopa argues, a steady retreat of humanist ideals in the face of market-based utilitarianism, which has taken its toll on American public universities in particular.

Friedrich Schiller, the Humboldt brothers, and Goethe in Jena.  Engraving after a drawing by Andreas Müller, Die Gartenlaube 15 (1860).

In this respect, La Vopa does not shy away from drawing informed, careful parallels between past and present, based mostly on his book Grace, Talent and Merit (1988), which examined the intellectual and social implications of the career paths open to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in eighteenth-century Germany. The shift from the educational policies of the 1960s to today’s marketisation of academia is comparable, according to La Vopa, to the overtaking of the late eighteenth-century humanism of Schiller and Humboldt by the conservative educational policies of the early nineteenth century.

In both cases, class inequality prevailed, accompanied by a rhetoric that justified exclusions of the disadvantaged from university education even when in principle it implied their inclusion. Two centuries ago, the egalitarian ideals of Bildung and Menschheit were betrayed when ‘a freight of social and cultural capital – the inherited advantages of wealth and family education, including insidious codes of proper speech and manners – became a de facto entry requirement for the new classical Gymnasium, the gateway to the universities.’

This is just one of many intriguing insights in the introductory essay – an example of engaged scholarship at its best. It cautiously situates the Enlightenment in relation to the present without losing sight of diverse contexts, gaps, and discontinuities. The extensive essay spells out a central impulse behind La Vopa’s scholarship: ‘By recovering an Enlightenment field of argument about what education should do, we will not find solutions, but we can at least become more aware that a rich debate has been impoverished.’ This point applies, well beyond education, to all the chapters in this collection. La Vopa conveys here, as in his other publications, a palpable sense of Enlightenment as critique – not only of received ideas and existing structures but also of the writing self and all its habitual predispositions.

– Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen College, University of Oxford)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

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