Chris's Reviews > Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750

Radical Enlightenment by Jonathan I. Israel
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Aug 26, 10

bookshelves: early-modern-history

Appearing in 2001, and weighing in at over 800 pages, this is the first of a projected three volumes on the Enlightenment. In this first volume, Israel constructs the basic argument that is foundational for the second and third volumes, which together present a comprehensive survey of the Enlightenment as a whole. He sets out to supplant Peter Gay's two-volume work, which has been the standard treatment of the Enlightenment for three decades. Reviewers are abuzz.

Back in 1981, Margaret Jacob argued that the Dutch Republic was crucial to the Enlightenment. After France revoked the Edict of Nantes, Huguenots fled to the four winds, and a concentrated population settled in the Dutch Republic. Their refugee experience forged arteries of traffic for the book trade all over Europe, and printing boomed in the low countries. Their sour experience in France gave these Huguenots a decidedly anti-monarchist tilt, and new notions of social order were set forth in treatises that flowed out of the Dutch Republic. Now Jonathan Israel picks up on Jacob's thesis, but inexplicably, he does not interact with her work. (She took polite umbrage in her review that appeared in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 387-389.)

Back to Israel's big book. Coinciding with this focus on the Dutch Republic is an emphasis on Spinoza, the main protagonist of Radical Enlightenment (which Jacob had previously suggested). “The question of Spinozism is indeed central and indispensable to any proper understanding of Early Enlghtenment European thought,” he says. Israel’s choice of Spinoza, who was born and raised in a Jewish community in the Dutch Republic, may have been anticipated by his previous books on early modern Jews and on the Dutch Republic--books which established him as a solid scholar. Another implication of this focus on the Dutch Republic—again, which Jacob had proposed—is to push the Enlightenment’s formative period back to the mid-seventeenth century.

In Radical Enlightenment, Israel places Spinoza at the center by solidifying the three-part taxonomy for Enlightenment-era intellectuals that Jacob had first suggested. Israel posits, first, a moderate Enlightenment; second, a radical Enlightenment (represented by Spinoza); and third, a conservative opposition to the Enlightenment. The moderate Enlightenment sought to establish toleration and revolutionize ideas in such a way that sought to preserve elements of traditional social structures; it blended old and new. The radical Enlightenment, by contrast, countenanced no compromise with the past, rejected all ecclesiastical authority and scorned any God-ordained social hierarchies. Spinoza’s work circulated in the Dutch Republic in the middle of the seventeenth century, but soon diffused throughout Europe along the arteries of the print trade, which Israel documents in impressive detail.

The ensuing philosophical debates provide the motor for the progress and shape of the Enlightenment. Israel says that the growth of Spinozism prompted moderates to position themselves as the middle group of the three. They responded to challenges from conservatives, in part, by distancing themselves from the radicals. The conservatives, making up the third group, also tried to position themselves in the middle. Their polemical strategy was to couple the moderates with the radicals. On Israel’s analysis, all sides in the Enlightenment’s intellectual battles defined their own positions, and those of their opponents, in relation to the radicals. Thus, though Spinoza’s philosophy may not have claimed the most adherents, it nonetheless framed the major issues of the period. By recentering the Enlightenment around Spinoza, Israel pushes the more familiar, canonical writers (Descartes, Voltaire, Locke, Hume, Newton) out to the Enlightenment’s periphery. This is one of the stunning implications of his interpretation, and reviewers are taking notice.

See my review of Enlightenment Contested.
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Stefan Szczelkun Thanks for pointing out the Margaret Jacob's precursor.


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