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Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 Hardcover – November 9, 2006
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"Enlightenment Contested is full of wonderful things."--John Dunn, Literary Review
"Mr. Israel's groundbreaking interpretation looks to establish itself as the one to beat."--The Economist
"An enormously impressive piece of shcholarship. The breadth and depth of the author's reading are breathtaking and Enlightenment Contested is set to become the definitive work for philosophers as well as historians on this extraordinary period."--Keith Richmond, Tribune
"Brilliantly presented and dense with learning."--Simon Blackburn, THES
"Evocative and compelling."--John Dunn, Literary Review
About the Author
Jonathan Israel is Professor of Modern European History, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is the second volume of Israel's planned three-volume intellectual history of the Enlightenment. It follows his Radical Enlightenment (2001). These are works aimed primarily at specialists and will hold the attention of lay readers only if they have a strong interest in the subject matter plus hearty endurance.
It doesn't help that Israel is not a good stylist and that the editors apparently were lenient. Lengthy sentences composed of murky subordinate clauses populate nearly every page. Those who do not read French, Latin, Dutch, or German will have to guess the meaning of substantial paragraph-length (or longer) quotations that are not translated from the source language.
Nevertheless, Enlightenment Contested, like its predecessor volume, is rich both in its thesis and in its impressive offering of expansive, indeed overwhelming, supporting detail. The bibliography of this volume alone covers 180 small-print pages.
Israel proposes that a set of "radical" core ideas drove the intellectual conversation in Europe in this period, with Spinoza as the central figure and with Bayle, Diderot, and others later assuming key roles. Against the radicals stood the "moderates," notably including Locke, Newton, Hume, Montesquieu, Turgot, and Kant. These are just a few of the major players in Israel's cast of dozens (even hundreds) of thinkers engaged in the contest of European ideas in this period.
Israel concludes that the radical party ultimately won out. Their core ideas, nearly all of which can be traced to Spinoza in some form, included, for example, one-substance materialism (versus Cartesian mind-body dualism); the adoption of philosophical reason as the exclusive criterion of what is true; a rejection of the supernatural, tending toward atheism (as opposed to Deism or theism); secular "universalism" in ethics; religious and political tolerance; and democratic republicanism in politics.
One of Israel's most important contributions is his exhaustive documentation of who read whom when, and of how they reacted. He convincingly demonstrates how ideas were disseminated and why certain ideas either did or did not take hold. This is how good intellectual history should work.
This is an awesome book - it covers an incredible amount of ground, and it is a pleasure to engage with. it is not, however, a pleasure to read; it is a slog to read. Huge sentences are structured so that you read half way along before you know what he is talking about, and then you have to go back again to the start. You suddenly realise that whole paragraphs have slipped by in a haze and you have to go back and read them again. Given that the main text is eight hundred large dense pages, this is a problem (hey, the next volume, which I plan, for some weird masochistic reason, to read next, is even bigger).
You would think that British enlightenment historiography, which is often held up as the best english prose ever, would have had some sort of an influence, but alas not. Just a month or so ago I read History and the Enlightenment by Hugh Trevor-Roper, more precisely, I _inhaled_ History and the Enlightenment by Hugh Trevor-Roper. It was an unadulterated delight to read. I suspect that Israel has strong, and not terribly favourable, opinions about Trevor-Roper, but people who previously had no interest in the influence of Montesquieu on Edward Gibbon will happily learn about it from Trevor-Roper just for the sake of it. Nobody is ever going to read Jonathan Israel just for the sake of it; reading Jonathan Israel is a slog; the only audience he is ever going to have is graduate students who are held down and force-fed him by their professors, and that is a shame.
[finished it now]
I think I probably retract the 'awsome' that I originally wrote in the title to this review. Impressive, yes; awesome, not quite. I was left with too many reservations at the end, e.g. about Israel's teleological perspective and his 'a few good men' theory of history (with Benedict Spinoza and Pierre Bayle as Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer). But it's still a five star book, and worth the (considerable) effort. The problem is that it is also 870 large pages long, and I have neither room nor time nor - really - enthusiasm, to construct an appropriate response just for an amazon review (if the NYRB is interested, they should feel free to get in touch). But I shall certainly read Democratic Enlightenment sometime fairly soon, and in the face of a prospective thousand pages or so of logorrheic, narcosis-inducing, careless prose, that has got to be saying something positive.