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The Radical Enlightenment in Germany

A Cultural Perspective

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Edited by Carl Niekerk

This volume investigates the impact of the Radical Enlightenment on German culture during the eighteenth century, taking recent work by Jonathan Israel as its point of departure. The collection documents the cultural dimension of the debate on the Radical Enlightenment. In a series of readings of known and lesser-known fictional and essayistic texts, individual contributors show that these can be read not only as articulating a conflict between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, but also as documents of a debate about the precise nature of Enlightenment. At stake is the question whether the Enlightenment should aim to be an atheist, materialist, and political movement that wants to change society, or, in spite of its belief in rationality, should respect monarchy, aristocracy, and established religion.

Contributors are: Mary Helen Dupree, Sean Franzel, Peter Höyng, John A. McCarthy, Monika Nenon, Carl Niekerk, Daniel Purdy, William Rasch, Ann Schmiesing, Paul S. Spalding, Gabriela Stoicea, Birgit Tautz, Andrew Weeks, Chunjie Zhang

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William Rasch

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This essay problematizes the strong normative underpinnings of Jonathan Israel’s Radical-Enlightenment-project by focusing on his treatment of war. When examining the history of European warfare, basic distinctions – war/peace, absolutism/democracy, standing armies/peoples’ militias, Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment – can be surprisingly deceptive. One often finds desired outcomes in undesired places. In contrast, Jonathan Israel’s desire to see eighteenth-century warfare in terms of its Enlightenment critics produces distortions of the historical record, as does ignoring the long-term legacy of democratic, French Revolutionary warfare. This study aims to remind us of some of the well-known counterintuitive developments in European military history and international law, not least the positive effects of viewing war as a legitimate and legal part of international affairs rather than a crime. Paradoxically, to be ‘against perpetual peace’ does more for the limitation of war’s damage than does its opposite.

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Daniel Purdy

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The media scandal surrounding Christian Wolff’s 1721 Lecture on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese marks the entry of German academia into the broader debates around Radical Enlightenment. Within the terms of Jonathan Israel’s argument, Wolff’s lecture shows how Chinese culture was deployed subversively within western philosophy. The academic debates also signal a new found German concern to extend Christian missions into Asia. Wolff’s praise for Confucianism and the Pietist’s response constitute the first German controversy about Europe’s global relations. This paper argues that Wolff’s speech must be evaluated in relation to Catholic and Protestant missionary work in Asia.

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Peter Höyng

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Eulogius Schneider (1756–1794), an educated monk from Franconia who became a professor and then radical Jacobin in Strasbourg before falling victim to the guillotine in Paris, does not fit into Jonathan Israel’s bifocal differentiation between the promulgated Radical and the disparaged Moderate Enlightenment. Whereas Schneider’s ending of his political career serves as a paradigm for the dubious realization of radical philosophical ideas through radical political action, his earlier life can be viewed as a model of and for Volksaufklärung. While Schneider’s public and political life points us to Israel’s blind spots in his Enlightenment narrative, Israel helps us to see Schneider’s biography within the larger context of the Enlightenment.

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John A. McCarthy

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The Enlightenment was a watershed event of reform and renewal that transformed society. With his concepts of radical, moderate and counter Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel inspired debate on the Enlightenment’s contours. This essay examines those concepts against the backdrop of Ernst Cassirer’s ‘attitude of mind’ and Rudolf Vierhaus’s notion of process without end. These concepts stretch the movement’s essence well into our own time and across disciplinary borders. Motion is a major metaphor for mental operations. Like the English radical freethinker Anthony Collins seventy years before him, Christoph Martin Wieland firmly believed that great benefits would accrue to society through the freedom to philosophize on any matter. Wieland’s emphasis on cosmopolitanism serves as a paradigm for understanding the nature of ‘radical’ Enlightenment. Because his insistence that tolerance and human dignity are liberal positions, whereas his call to maintain order is conservative, Wieland can be characterized as a ‘moderate liberal’. His approach is the middle way between the extremes of too much and too little freedom of speech.

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Andrew Weeks

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Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment appears in a different light when read in conjunction with George H. Williams’ Radical Reformation and Israel’s own history of The Dutch Republic. The radical dissent of the Reformation and its aftermath extended to Holland, influencing Spinoza’s milieu and creating preconditions for his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). The radical turn attributed by Israel to Spinoza appears less unprecedented when juxtaposed with its extended Reformation background, including the German speculative or mystical dissenters who anticipated his themes.

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Monika Nenon

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Taking Jonathan Israel’s division of the Enlightenment into different camps as a starting point, this essay focuses on Rousseau’s novel Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse and several prominent German authors such as Sophie von La Roche, Goethe, and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and the way they creatively responded to that work. Special attention is given to the female protagonists with a view to the conception of gender exhibited through them and the ideas of happiness and love that motivate them. It turns out that Rousseau’s notion of gender cannot easily be subsumed under any of the common headings and that it is taken up in different ways by each of these authors.

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Carl Niekerk

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In recent years, Jonathan Israel has argued for the existence of a progressive and emancipatory Radical Enlightenment with roots in the writings of a group of international, heterodox, and often societally marginalized eighteenth-century thinkers who questioned the power structures and orthodoxies of their time. The following essay discusses and engages with some frequent criticisms of Jonathan Israel’s theory of the Enlightenment by proposing a dynamic, relational, and situational interpretation of the key terms ‘Radical’ and ‘Moderate’ in his work. Considering in particular the German contexts of Israel’s theories, the essay first looks at the reshuffling of different national Enlightenment traditions proposed in his work, while simultaneously pointing to the trans-national elements present in Israel’s concept of Enlightenment. As a next step, the essay looks at both the Moderate and Radical Enlightenment as forms of interplay between theory and practice. Finally, the essay asks what the consequences of Israel’s theoretical framework are for the study of literature and culture, focusing in particular on late-eighteenth-century German literary history.

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Chunjie Zhang

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This article focuses on the German Enlightenment historian Matthias Christian Sprengel (1746–1803) and his writings on slavery and the American Revolution. While Jonathan Israel emphasizes the quintessential role that philosophy played in the establishment and development of the Radical Enlightenment, I argue that Sprengel’s method of writing history is an alternative method of spreading Radical Enlightenment ideas of democracy, religious tolerance, and abolitionism. Historical realism, as I call it, is Sprengel’s narrative strategy that, not necessarily always fact-oriented, definitely intends to imagine a society of democratic government in the time of aristocracy.

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Sean Franzel

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This essay compares ideas of spatial storage at work in eighteenth-century periodicals with various spatial metaphors deployed by intellectual historians of the Enlightenment, including by Jonathan Israel with his notion of the ‘package logic’ of radical thinking. As a model of gathering and storing various entities in a single location, the metaphor of the magazine guided important print periodicals and served as a point of orientation for eighteenth-century reflections about the larger print landscape and public sphere. The metaphor of the magazine engages the tension between theoretical design and the practice of knowledge production for it implies the drive toward both order and coherence and heterogeneity and asystematicity.