May 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
I have been in Brussels to attend a conference on the Radical Enlightenment, and to interview Jonathan Israel, the keynote speaker, for an essay I am writing about his work and argument. Israel has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his superlative trilogy published over the past decade: Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlightenment. At the heart of his argument is his insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.
The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.
The argument, as can be imagined, has created considerable controversy. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 7, 2013 Comments Off
As I continue my life in purdah, trying to complete my book, here is the second book review drawn from the vaults. The review is of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins; it was originally published in August 2010 on Norman Geras’ normblog, as part of his Writer’s Choice series.
The poet and statesman Aimé Césaire once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed its colony into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the work of Césaire’s Caribbean contemporary CLR James. Césaire was perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. It was James, however, who most eloquently captured the poetry of the Haitian revolution in his magnificent The Black Jacobins. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 17, 2013 § 7 Comments
In my last post, on The Enlightenment’s “Race Problem”, I questioned the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. The relationship between race and the Enlightenment is, I argued, far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference. This is the story of that transformation.
In March 1800, Captain Nicholas Baudin proposed to the French Institut National a journey of scientific exploration to New Holland (as Australia was then known). The Institut agreed to sponsor the expedition and asked the newly-formed Société des Observateurs de l’Homme for help in preparing instructions for the study of the ‘physical, intellectual and moral’ bearing of the indigenous peoples.
The Société provided two memoirs of instruction for Baudin’s voyage. The first, Considerations on the Diverse Methods to Follow in the Observation of Savage Peoples was written by the philosopher and educator Joseph-Marie Degerando. The second, An Instructive Note on the Researches to be Carried out Relative to the Anatomical Differences between the Diverse Races of Men, was penned by Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was one of the founders of the science of palaeontology and would become France’s most distinguished scientist of the early nineteenth century. Where Degerando was a child of the French Revolution, and a great believer in education as a motor of social change, Cuvier was deeply conservative in both his politics and his science, a lifelong opponent not just of revolution, but also of evolution. In the space between the respective views of Degerando and Cuvier emerged the nineteenth century concept of race. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
In an essay this week in New York Times, the philosopher Justin Smith tells the story of Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former slave who defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled On the Impassivity of the Human Mind. A dedicatory letter was attached to the dissertation from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who, Smith observes, ‘praised the “natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning”, and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things”. Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.’
Smith contrasts Kraus’ attitude with that of the Scottish philosopher David Hume who in 1742 would write:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.
Hume’s attitude expresses what Smith calls ‘the Enlightenment’s race problem’:
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 10, 2013 § 3 Comments
A book that I wish I had read many years ago. JJ Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenment is a superb study of ‘The encounter between Asian and Western thought’, as the subtitle puts it. It is primarily a historical study of Western perceptions of Chinese and Indian cultures and philosophies. Any exploration of the role of ‘Eastern’ thought in the Western intellectual tradition necessarily lies in the shadow of Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism, which has effectively set the terms of the debate. Western historians, philologists and philosophers, Said argued, have fabricated a complex set of representations about the Orient through which ‘European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’.
As the title of Clarke’s book reveals, he is not only aware of Said’s importance in this debate, but takes Orientalism as the starting point for his own study. But if Clarke draws upon Said’s insights, he also rejects much of his argument. ‘Where Said painted orientalism in sombre hues, using it as the basis for a powerful ideological critique of Western liberalism’, Clarke writes, ‘I shall use it to uncover a wider range of attitudes, both dark and light, and to recover a richer and often more affirmative orientalism, seeking to show that the West has endeavoured to integrate Eastern thought into its own intellectual concerns in a manner which, on the face of it, cannot be fully understood in terms of “power” and “domination”.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
December 24, 2012 Comments Off
The most historic church in London. It is a big claim to make; after all, historic churches are to London almost as skyscrapers are to New York. And particularly so since it is a claim about a church of which I had never even heard, let alone visited, until last month. Yet the very fabric of St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place is soaked through with political and ecclesiastical history. It is the oldest Catholic building in England (though some insist that the Church of Saints Leonard and Mary in Malton, North Yorkshire, holds that honour), and one of only two surviving buildings in London dating from the reign of Edward I. It is also an architectural gem, suffused with grace and light, and echoing with almost a millennium of faith, blood and struggle. « Read the rest of this entry »