Enlightenment Past by Daniel Brewer

March 22, 2010

Last week I read Enlightenment Past by Daniel Brewer. [For a truly knowledgeable review, see Darrin M. McMahon’s review in H-France Review.]

First let me start off by saying that I am new to the 18th century. So Brewer’s book is really my initiation into the historiography of the French Enlightenment. I can’t offer a true critique of the book, but will summarize below.

The opening pages unfolded as I presumed they would; a general description of the French Enlightenment, an overview of the intellectual and social characteristics that have come to stand for the idea of Enlightenment, including:

  • Reformist
  • Progressivist
  • Emancipatory
  • Future oriented
  • Utopian

What I found particularly thoughtful was Brewer’s discussion of the genealogy of history; the search for direct relations between this historical moment (i.e. the present) and the 18th c. and of course, to all recorded and unrecorded (?) history. I think that Brewer’s emphasis on reflection on the present moment, and on the question of whether and how the 18th c. is relevant to this historical moment is a creative argument. Brewer’s language is of course, much more sophisticated than what I’ve written here, and I would encourage any reader who is interested in the philosophy of historiography to read the arguments made in the opening chapter.

Brewer looks at several interpretations of Enlightenment history and highlights a few of the more pointed criticisms, such as those made by Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940’s who argued that Enlightenment historiography is another form of western hegemony. Today historians view the Enlightenment period as flawed, but recognize its currency as the foil against which postmodernism has developed. Brewer either makes an argument or quotes a previous argument that if modernism hadn’t developed the post-modernists would have had to invent it. Kant was kinder in capturing the Enlightenment as a cycle of growth of human intellect; of the maturity of human thought and rejection of the need for guidance in coming to one’s own opinions and judgements. For Kant, the Enlightenment represents the age of critique and criticism.

Brewer discusses the question of whether the Enlightenment played a direct role in the French Revolution and notes that contemporary historians have largely shut the door on this argument, though Brewer notes that d’Alembert, even in the 18th century was writing about the relationship between epistemology and politics. This question has come up again and again as I continue my reading on the 18th century. I am currently in the process of reading the Cambridge companion to Voltaire and a collection of essays called Using the Encyclopédie : ways of knowing, ways of reading (edited by Daniel Brewer and Julie Candler Hayes), which I will summarize when I am finished. Certainly the issue of the role of philosophy is dead centre for the thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment, and I appreciated Brewer’s gentle introduction to this notion in Enlightenment Past.

Another feature of this book which I found extremely pleasurable and useful was its emphasis on the documentary history of the period. In Chapter 2, Brewer outlines the major publications of the mid-18th century which range from L’Homme machine by La Mettrie (1747) to Essai sur les éléments de philosophie by d’Alembert in 1759. On the whole, this book offered a good introduction to the major influential texts of the period. This has been meaningful in my subsequent reading and in compiling the links to e-texts in different sections of this blog. While Brewer’s book is not the best or most detailed work for this (a specialized bibliography obviously would be better) I found it quite helpful in highlighting the key publications and their general reception.

One argument which Brewer does raise from time to time is the issue of Robert Darnton’s identified “literary underground” which isn’t particularly elaborate or even very necessary in Brewer’s book. It’s an interesting notion however for those wanting to pursue study in the social history of books and reading. Essentially Darnton argued a distinction between the elite intellectuals who were able to have their works published in book form and circulated widely from those who were more likely publishing literary ephemera (and pornography) in manuscript form. Darnton also questions who would have been able to access the Encyclopédie, as it was an usually large format, contained many volumes, and was sold by subscription to 3,000 subscribers only. I found it interesting in my more recent reading of Cronk’s collection of essays on Voltaire that Voltaire exploited the manuscript format so beautifully to the point that he even admitted that there’s nothing to fear in a big expensive book, but rather cheap, numerous and small manuscripts were to be feared. I absolutely adore Voltaire’s business mind; he is the 18th century Open Access master — ensuring that pirated editions of his works were available widely; publishing simultaneously in different places without the other publishing company having any knowledge of it; creating multiple editions of works that were truly organic, always with corrections and enhancements in later editions. He realized the power of distributing literature cheaply and widely, and was rewarded through his enormous impact and wide readership.

It isn’t a shortcoming of Brewer’s book specifically but I found myself wanting to know more about the salons as alternative spaces and also about clandestine literature. That said, the book is in no way incomplete, as it really strives to expose the reader to concepts about how to relate to the Enlightenment, and it does that very well through many references to philosophers and historians (especially Barthes, Sartre and Foucault) and through their many interpretations of the period.

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