Another Enlightenment, beyond the postmodern myths

Zadig finds Astarté again in Voltaire’s Babylonian romance (1750?), textile print, Paris (BnF, Département des estampes, TB-324-PET FOL).

Many of us educated in the humanities in the 1990s and 2000s came to intellectual consciousness having been taught that ‘the Enlightenment’ was something not far short of a dirty word. Whether it was Adorno and Horkheimer’s denunciation of the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ as radiating ‘disaster triumphant’ in the totalitarian states, Michel Foucault’s denunciation of the disciplinary powers undergirding modern states’ supposed advocacy of rights and liberties, or Martin Heidegger’s depiction of the modern age as characterised by nihilistic ‘will to will’ looking back to Descartes’s cogito …, all these authorities presented the European ‘Enlightenment’ as a sort of nightmare, from which we needed to reawaken.

As Dennis Rasmussen has masterfully documented, a host of charges are laid at the feet of the Enlightenment in this broadly ‘postmodernist’ orbit. Generously ecumenical, the anti-Enlightenment consensus takes in proponents of positions we might otherwise suppose to be deeply opposed. They converge in claims that ‘the Enlightenment’ overvalued human reason, reducing the richness of human experience and ‘difference’; that its ‘project’ is or was dangerously utopian, seeking to force the wonderful roundness of human reality into the soulless squares of theoretical and socio-political systems; that ‘it’ was single-mindedly Eurocentric, giving direction and vehemence to Western colonialism; and that all of ‘the Enlighteners’, often individually unnamed, were ‘to a man’ patriarchal, closed both to women’s rights and abilities, and to the feminine more widely, including the ludic and literary, as well as the affective components of human existence.

I probably don’t need to convince readers of this blog that there was something awry in these visions of a putatively singular ‘Enlightenment’. This ‘something’ becomes clear almost as soon as we begin to test these criticisms against texts by leading figures of the French Enlightenment, led by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. For, when we look, what period in Western thought had seen a closer, proto-postmodern rapprochement between philosophy and literature, and such a profusion of literary play, than the France of 1720–1790, excepting perhaps the Silver Age in Rome? In what period had forms of philosophical scepticism and critique played a greater role in challenging the uncontested, overly ambitious rational claims of metaphysicians and theologians? And in what period, above all, was coming to terms with what the postmodernists call ‘cultural difference’ more a primary concern than in the French Enlightenment, from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters to Abbé Raynal’s The History of the Two Indies?

Matthew Sharpe, The Other Enlightenment: self-estrangement, race, and gender (Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

Yet, when the postmodern criticisms of the Enlightenment were taught, rarely was any attempt made to square the damning allegations about it against the primary texts of the philosophes. Indeed, often ‘the Enlightenment’ as a more specific period of intellectual ferment and debate was subsumed silently within wider, totalising criticisms of ‘modernity’ or ‘liberalism’, with the philosophes unmentioned, or relegated to minor footnotes. Even when the Enlightenment was defended, if it was defended at all, the defence was assigned to Jürgen Habermas, whose recovery of a ‘philosophical discourse of modernity’ nevertheless shares with the postmodernist critics a more or less complete overlooking of all Enlightenment-era thinkers preceding Immanuel Kant.

The Other Enlightenment: self-estrangement, race, and gender is my attempt, as a philosopher and social theorist, to push back against the popular discrediting, and academic sidelining, of the texts of the French Enlightenment. I also want to show why doing this pushing back matters in a period where increasingly politics is divided along tribal, identitarian lines. Working in the lineage of Dennis Rasmussen’s The Pragmatic Enlightenment and Genevieve Lloyd’s Enlightenment Shadows, this little book sets out to challenge the broadly ‘postmodern’ myths about the over-rationalistic, heartless, Eurocentric Enlightenment. After revisiting the foundational critical work of Francis Bacon on the idols of the mind, John Locke on the conduct of the understanding, and the critical scepticism of Pierre Bayle, the ensuing chapters then each examine more closely specific, classic Enlightenment texts.

The image used to illustrate the cover of the 2011 Belin Gallimard edition of Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville is a ‘View of a part of the village of Motavae, Tahiti’, from Louis Isidore Duperrey’s Voyage autour du monde sur la corvette La Coquille (Paris, 1826) (National Library of New Zealand).

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, I argue, sets up what becomes a key motif of Enlightenment philosophising, the practice of self-estrangement: that is, relearning to look at what ‘we’ do, and usually take for granted, from the perspective of others, like the Persians Usbek and Rica. This practice, which allows us to resee ourselves – as well as to consider the perspectives of others whom we might characteristically overlook or prejudicially stereotype – then runs like a red thread through texts like Voltaire’s Micromégas (where the other becomes a benign giant from the planet Sirius); Diderot’s Letter on the blind, where it is people-born-blind who provide the critical mirror to the sighted; and Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, where the others are the Tahitians, from the Moses-like Elder who ringingly denounces European imperialism near the start, to the more diminutive but no less discerning, Orou.

The Other Enlightenment is a book which aims, like many Enlightenment texts, to span different audiences in different disciplines. For many specialists on the Enlightenment, much of what the text examines will hence not be novel. What I hope is more novel, and more impactful, given the state of wider debates about the Enlightenment, is that the book shows, by textual analyses, the spuriousness of many of today’s more popular claims about the Enlightenment.

– Matthew Sharpe (Deakin University, Australia)

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