The Counter-Enlightenment and its Skeptics

AHA Session 34
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Boylston Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
David L. Marshall, Kettering University
Matthew W. Maguire, Kenyon College

Session Abstract

Since the publication of Isaiah Berlin’s entry on “The Counter-Enlightenment” for The Dictionary of the History of Ideas in 1973, historians have been presented with a variety of attempts to describe the intellectual inheritance of eighteenth-century Europe as an epochal conflict forcing one to choose between an “Enlightenment tradition that values reason, skepticism, and freedom” and a series of “Counter-Enlightenment thinkers who abandoned those principles in the pursuit of order, authority, and certainty.”  This particular characterization of the choice comes from Mark Lilla’s interpretation of Giambattista Vico (which is itself indebted to Berlin), but it is representative of a common tendency to present eighteenth-century intellectual history as a contest between the Enlightenment and its critics, a tendency that is visible in the work of Graeme Garrard, Darrin McMahon, Arthur Melzer, and many others.  In 2003, the research paradigm that Berlin brought into being was further examined in a volume edited by Joseph Mali and Robert Wokler, under the auspices of the American Philosophical Society.  More recently still, the tendency to see Vico, Herder, and Hamann as intellectual harbingers of a radical rejection of the Enlightenment as a project has found another iteration in works focused on what is called “the Anti-Enlightenment”—thus, Zeev Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).  The participants on this panel propose to investigate the origins of the “Counter-Enlightenment” as a topos and to evaluate it as a historical category.  Based on intimate acquaintance with the work of Vico, Herder, and eighteenth-century debates about Enlightenment, the panelists are skeptical about the utility of “Counter-Enlightenment” for historical analysis.  What is more, because the terms and arguments of “Enlightenment” and “Counter-Enlightenment” can be radically abbreviated and still remain politically potent, they are terms that circulate outside the academy and structure the historical consciousness of large populations in significant ways.  For these reasons, the panelists think it is important to subject the notion of “Counter-Enlightenment” to rigorous critique.  To this end, the panel begins with an investigation of the origin of the term in the English language (in 1949).  Predating Berlin’s usage and postdating the “movement” itself by two centuries, this appearance of the term needs to be situated in its own very particular historical context.  The panel goes on to examine the way in which categorical claims for the nature of Enlightenment, on the one hand, and Counter-Enlightenment, on the other, generates a kind of dialectical reductio ad absurdum that makes it increasingly difficult to recognize what is genuinely new in the work of the most original eighteenth-century thinkers—the work of Giambattista Vico being the case in point.  Finally, the panel turns to the latest version of the Counter-Enlightenment topos (as “Anti-Enlightenment”) and offers a critical reading of work done by its leading exponent.

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