43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2010
The publication of A Revolution of the Mind is most welcome, if only because it should make Jonathan Israel's ideas about Enlightenment thought more accessible to a broad reading public. His previous two volumes (Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested) total over 1700 pages of dense scholarship, more than enough to intimidate even stalwart generalist readers. Now in only about 250 pages he reviews his principal themes and gives us a précis of what apparently will be the substance of his planned longer third volume, focusing on the latter half of the eighteenth century.
This new work is based on lectures the author delivered at Oxford in 2008 commemorating Isaiah Berlin. Possibly aided by the fact that it was originally prepared to be spoken, it is clear, concise, and digestible.
For those not already familiar with one or both of the previous volumes, Israel has proposed that there was an opposition between "Radical" and "Moderate" Enlightenments. The foundation for the radicals was laid by Spinoza. Numerous others, perhaps most notably Bayle, carried the radical tradition forward, in large part through a clandestine literature, emerging later in the thought of men such as Diderot, d'Holbach, Helvétius, Condorcet, Paine, Priestly, Lessing, and Herder. The moderates in this later period included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot, several Scots (such as Ferguson, Hume, Smith, Kames, and Reid), and Kant, to name just some of those more prominent. The radicals' conception of progress was democratic and materialist-determinist (or, alternatively, Christian-Unitarian), Israel holds, versus the moderates' providential religious or Deist views (Hume excepted) and preferences for monarchical-aristocratic order.
The current book distills the relevant ideas of the key figures and illuminates the nature of the opposition between the two camps. Israel insightfully describes how radicals and moderates thought differently about the essence of tyranny, militarism, equality, and morality, for example. He boldly asserts that there was a "revolution of the mind" in the 1760s and 1770s based on the ideas of the radicals, and that "it was plainly one of the greatest and most decisive shifts in the entire history of humanity."
The Radical Enlightenment is the most important factor in properly understanding why the French Revolution developed as it did, Israel contends. He credits the more positive phases to ideas of the radicals, but the darker Terror in large measure to the views of Rousseau, whom he treats primarily as an anti-philosophe. His analysis here is relatively brief and sure to be controversial with many readers.
So too, he presents several other intriguing observations that he leaves dangling without a great deal of support or elaboration. I will mention just a few. He stresses the international character of the radical ideas -- notably encompassing not only France, but Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and North America -- but he acknowledges that Scottish Common Sense philosophy (in opposition to the radical ideas) continued to reign well into the nineteenth century in Britain and North America. Doesn't this dampen his assertion of the triumph of the Radical Enlightenment, at least in these nations?
He points out that the radicals were skeptical of direct democracy and tended to favor representative systems. Diderot and d'Holbach, for example, thought there were certain citizens best prepared to rule, persons of superior education and wisdom. Israel calls this the "Achilles heel of the radical program," but he stops there without saying much more about it.
Israel offers many other challenges to certain popular interpretations of the Enlightenment and to the historiography of the French Revolution. It would be unreasonable to expect full development of all his views to be encapsulated in the few lectures reflected here. Readers with further interest in such matters can look forward to his forthcoming longer volume, which undoubtedly will fill in many supporting details and, one hopes, tie up many of the loose ends.
79 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2010
It is commonly known that Jonathan Israel, professor of Modern History at Princeton, is a man with a mission. In Radical Enlightenment (2002) and Enlightenment Contested (2006) he presented his remarkable views on the history of the Enlightenment. His foremost motivation to do this lay in the ill-informedharsh judgment bestowed on the Enlightenment at the end of the twentieth century by anti-enlightenment thinkers and, closely connected to this, the highly unsatifactorial state historical research about this crucial epoch had fallen.
Israels central thesis in both the first two parts of his Enlightenment-project as well as in A Revolution of the Mind stresses that a fundamental distinction has to be made between Radical Enlightenment on the one hand, and Moderate Enlightenment on the other. Radical Enlightenment embodied the, if necessary through revolutionary means, pursuit of freedom of opinion, equal rights for all and the principal separation of church and state; each of which are core democratic values. Moderate Enlightenment, on the other hand, kept adhering to the idea of Providence, either Deïstic or religious and a strictly hierarchically structured society based on monarchal or aristocratic principles to which colonialism, economic exploitation and political suppression were inextricably linked. The changes these Moderates propagated would have to come about through gradual reform, leaving traditional structures as much untouched as possible; an approach with consequences not nearly as far reaching as that of their radical counterparts.
Jonathan Israel points out that there really was a revolution of the mind in the second half of the 18th century in Europe and Northern America. Numerous people became increasingly disenchanted with the Ancien Régime and the long term, reformist solutions the moderates offered. Not just in France the cry for a general revolution along radical lines was heeded. The American revolution of 1776 and the Dutch democratic Patriotten-movement (1779-1795) provide ample evidence that a new radical mentality was on the rise. The transition to this political active radical frame of mind is convincingly illustrated through a number of public controversies. Israel succeeds in showing the unbridgable gap between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment using public debates between members of both sides. An interesting and important by-product of this methodology, is that in this way the overwhelming similarities between the radical agenda and 21st century democratic values are made clear for all to see.
Post-modern and other anti-Enlightenment theorists, that say rationality is just one among many discourses without special claims to validity or that denounce Enlightenment ideas based either on some Revealed Providence or some non-explicated feeling or emotion are unrelentlessly confronted by Israel, who politely points out the logical inconsistencies of their opinions based on their downright untenable pseudo-historical analyses.
The legitimate criticisms that are made against a number of supposedly basic Enlightenment principles, rangeing from Robespierres Terror to the technocratic rationality of the Holocaust, are ably warded off by Israel. In so far as these excesses are traceable to the Enlightenment at all, they are rooted in the heritage of the Moderate, not the Radical Enlightenment. After all, it was the Moderate Enlightenment that couldn't or wouldn't rid itself of its persistent ideas about hierarchical man and society, which cherished irrationalia such as Divine Providence or Invisible Hands in its core beliefs and which stubbornly clung to the political and social inequality of men.
The reputations of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, those archetypal representatives of Enlightenment thinking, suffer heavily at the hands of Israel. Both are firmly linked to the Moderate Enlightenment (Voltaire) or identified as a philosophical loose cannon (Rousseau). Voltaire is shown to be an elitist, would-be aristocrat whose democratic opinions are questionably to say the least. Rousseau comes out even worse. After distancing himself from his one-time radical kindred spirits Diderot, d'Holbach and Helvetius, he develops his theory of the General Will and People's sovereignty, both of which could only thrive when dissenting opinions were systematically suppressed. This, of course, was totally at odds with the emancipatorian outlook of the Radical Enlightenment. To make matters worse, Israel points out that the ideological justification of the Jacobins Terror (1793-1794) can for a large part be attributed to Rousseau's (who died some fifteen years earlier) legacy. It is no coincidence that Rousseau was practically deified by Robespierre c.s. and that many Radical enlighteners had their lives drastically shortened by means of the guillotine.
In A Revolution of the Mind Jonathan Israel anticipates the final part of his pioneering study in search of the roots of the Enlightenment and through that our 21st century democratic values. His fundamental distinction between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment functions as Ockhams razor. This enables him to link political, economic and social disasters that have plagued humanity since the late 18th century to the Moderate Enlightenment or to anti-Enlightenment forces he succeeds in rescueing those values which are now - nominally if not always practically - considered to be the very foundation of democracy; equal rights for all men, without regard to race, creed, nationality, gender or sexual preference; toleration for dissenting opinion and the principal separation between church and state.
Where Enlightenment historians had lost themselves in a comminution of the universal appeal of its original radical ideas in favor of petty nationalistic interpretations, Israels controversionalistic approach shows which public 17th and 18th century debates contributed to the formation of a universally appealing, new and revolutionary mentality, which remarkably enough forms the foundation of our current democratic values. It's impossible to overstate the importance of this stupendous enterprise.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2010
This is a short hand introduction to the state of mind of the European radical reformers of the late 18th century. Besides well known authors, ignored writings such as those of the Dutch politician Pieter Paulus are presented here. In this problem oriented form, in search of the essence of the radical mind, this type of introduction to 18th century radical political thinking was not available up to now. Ealier research reflects too often the general cultural mistrust surrounding thinkers who in their mind dared too turn their factual, hierachical structured 18th century world upside down. This in contrast to the thinkers of the so called Moderate Enlighenment, who while reformers, remained obliged to King, Gentry and the existing religious establishment. This book displays a fresh appreciation of the revolutionary mentality, with due respect to more conservative strands of thinking.
This collection of essays is lively written and accessible not just to experts, but to any intellectual interested in the roots of our modernity. I can advise it to students and to a more general public. There are also some surprises in these texts, that should appeal to the specialists in the field.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2013
This is the best book I have read on the Enlightenment; one that clarifies and organizes the streams of thought and political action that form the proudest development of humanity. To counter the depressing expressions of mankind: war, dominance, slavery, crime at all levels, exploitation of the weak, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the strong and often corrupt, we have beautiful art... AND we have the thought and action that express themselves the Enlightenment. The author makes it very clear that this precious movement is ever threatened by ignorance and credulity and by those who would nurture the weaker, more passive side of the populace while enriching the forces of those who concentrate power and wealth and rig the system to darken the Enlightenment.
It is shocking and sad that the current education of many, if not most Americans, ignores the development of the Enlightenment and allows superficial and highly distorted of teachings about our revolution to define freedom and liberty. Equality on many levels is seen as a threat, one as great as that of teaching children to be rational and to question authority. Our democracy suffers greatly from this ignorance and closed-mindedness. Free-thinkers are a threat to institutions that depend upon the credulity and fear, ignorance, and irrationality that reign in huge pockets of our electorate.
I would like to encourage the author NOW to write a book aimed at high school children and adults who have never read books on the Enlightenment nor, of course it's principle authors, and who do not speak French or Latin. I would stand on the corner and help him sell it!
NB: Be careful, this title is easily confused with many identical or similar. I also have an iTunes mp3 version which I could not find here for flooding of similar mp3 titles.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2013
This seminal historical work is by far the best book I have read thus far on the subject. By distinguishing the "moderate" from the "radical" enlightenment, Israel makes it much easier to see the actual sources of the long lasting effects of the enlightenment. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2015
Jonathan Israel, Revolution of the Mind (PUP, 2010)
In the late sixteenth century in Europe, thinkers began to question church authority and the unquestioned reverence for Aristotelian natural philosophy. Francis Bacon in that period lay down laws for scientific research that remain insightful to this day. Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Descartes lay the basis for a secular epistemology, and Kepler demonstrated the elliptical shape of planetary orbits.
We tend to think of the resulting period of Enlightenment thought as rather a whole cloth, but Jonathan Israel rather convincingly shows that this was not the case. Rather, he argues that the early Enlightenment figures were rather conservative, wanting a reformed state and religious elite to lead the way in social progress. Four out of six of the Enlightenment’s philosophical founding fathers---Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Bayle--- believed that enlightened states and religions could improve the masses understandings of the world and improve society thereby. Spinoza was rather more skeptical of dominant institutions, though, although he to believed extensive structural reform of Christianity could lead the way.
Turgot and Adam Smith first developed coherent theories of social progress, based on the human capacity to learn from experience, innovate technically, and to evaluate evidence rationally. This led to the idea that education and reason were all that was necessary to improve society. Political democracy thus became a possibility for the new Radical Enlightenment thinkers, whereas democracy was anathema to the earlier moderate Enlightenment thinkers.
There was considerable wavering over this key issue. Kant, for instance, supported a pervasive liberalism and qualified support for the French Revolution, but was not anti-aristocratic or anti-religious. Rousseau started out quite radical but became moderate in his old age. Kant, Ferguson, Kames, Smith, Voltaire, Hume, Locke and Turgot considered the basic social order not defective, but needing change. They argued that history has proved the value of basic institutions of church and state.
The radical Enlightenment figures included Paine, d’Holbach, Priestley, Diderot, Godwin, and Bentham, who dropped the reverence for history and tradition in favor of promoting “reason” as the basis for all social, political, and moral decisions. They believed in full individual rights, freedom of expression, democracy.
Israel tells a persuasive story, though I thought for the average reader the job could have been done in about a third of the number of pages.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2014
That has been Jonathan Israel's thesis - that "the Enlightenment" we were taught in school was actually a Moderate Enlightenment that rejected democracy, equality, and the potential for all people to be educated and "enlightened." By contrast, a Radical Enlightenment advocating those values, arising mainly from Spinoza and Bayle and propagated by Diderot, Lessing, and others, was recognized in the late 18th century as a motive force for revolution, culminating in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but in the post-Revolutionary reaction came to be dismissed as senseless idealism, even though its values have slowly gained popular acceptance in the West.
Israel certainly isn't a dispassionate observer: he thinks the Radicals had it right, and he thinks that historians have accepted 19th-century revisionism instead of attending to what the Radicals and their opponents said at the time. (His work seems similar in some ways to what Bernard Bailyn did in "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" - go back to the sources and the popular pamphlets and see what people *said* their motivations were.)
The thesis is a controversial one (google up H-France's roundtable for some sharp words between Israel and his critics), but this lecture series revised as "Revolution of the Mind" makes a good case. Israel's not claiming that the French Revolution happened solely because of the Radical Enlightenment, but he does argue that the form the (early) Revolution took, before it was hijacked by Rousseauist tyrants, is inexplicable without understanding the Radicals' contribution: economic distress does not explain the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Easily the most interesting book that I've read in several months, and surely a better introduction than his 900-page tomes ... though I will likely be picking up "Radical Enlightenment" in the near future.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2011
I picked this book up out of curiosity regarding Israel's thesis, which in essence states that there were two separate and incompatible enlightenments during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Moderate and Radical. Having learned the basics of the Enlightenment in college, I was eager to learn about this schism and how it related to the ensuing French and American revolutions.
Israel's book is very engaging, with flowing and voiceful prose that makes it easy to read. In fact, I really only have to criticisms of the writing. One is that Israel occasionally forgets that we don't all speak French, and so some direct quotations are left hanging without translation. While usually simple to decipher, it creates a break in concentration that I found frustrating. Also (and perhaps this is because the book is based on spoken word lectures) Israel has a few passages that are awfully confusing in syntax. For example on page 69:
"Admittedly, in Germany the network of princely courts, imperial and ecclesiastical tribunals, and ecclesiastical authorities--along with a thick overlay of overlapping jurisdictions, legal mechanisms, and customary law--staffed by jurists and officials turned out in awesome quantity by an academic machine of over thirty universities prioritizing theology, law, and scholastic versions of Wolffian philosophy looked denser and more intractable than anywhere else."
I'm pretty sure my old English professor would have had my head for writing a sentence as disjointed as that one. Style qualms aside, the content of Israel's argument is both controversial and intriguing. He is fairly dismissive of Rousseau and Voltaire, categorizing them as moderates who are generally supportive of the monarchical status quo. I learned quite a bit about lesser known figures like d'Holbach, Price, Priestly, and Weishaupt--in fact, d'Holbach's "System of Nature" will be my next read, as Israel cites that work extensively and seems to portray it in an excellent light.
Given the short nature of the book, there are a few arguments that Israel briefly mentions before moving on, which I think deserved more investigation (e.g. Bayle and Spinoza's contributions to Radical thought, which are mentioned briefly in the Conclusion and left me wanting more).
Finally, the book is beautifully bound in black fabric and is printed in Minion Pro, which I find to be a really pleasing and readable typeface. The craft of printing isn't much appreciated these days, but I find it important nonetheless.
All in all, I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2014
Earlier reviewers of this book complained that the Kindle edition had weird formatting and that the clicking on the footnote numbers didn't take you to the footnotes. I recently bought the Kindle edition and can report that Princeton U. P. seems to have fixed the problem. The formatting seems to be normal, and clicking on the footnote numbers now takes you to the footnote.
on August 13, 2015
Having read several of Jonathan Israel's huge Enlightenment histories, I found this publication an excellent summation of how quickly the Enlightenment Philosophes changed traditional political and social thinking ...and how much our minds today are a result of this rapid and radical change of orthodoxy 1740-1800.. The battle is not ended...still going on...back and forth...conservative vs liberal, religion vs secular freedom; women vs ppatriarchs etc etc. fast read for me.