The Enlightenment bull market and its decolonial future

Richard Drayton (Rhodes Professor of Imperial History)

I arrived in Oxford at the end of the 1980s. I told John Prest, my moral tutor at Balliol, that I wanted to work, via the history of science, on the impact of the Enlightenment on the British Empire and how the British Empire shaped the Enlightenment. He was a kind man, and did not mock my small-island boy grandiosity. He looked puzzled, and replied, evading interestingly the empire issue, “But we didn’t have an Enlightenment. The French and Scots and Germans did. To speak of an English Enlightenment forces us to squeeze Newton, Locke, Addison, Steele, Johnson into a European cultural movement with a very different chronology, identity, and goals”.

It may be difficult for twenty-first century scholars to believe it but his view represented the orthodoxy at the time. The Enlightenment would not have been a term of trade in any English department in Britain. The key object of study and teaching which intersected with what we refer to as the Enlightenment was the Augustan age, and the key transition was, as per Walter Jackson Bate’s study From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-century England (1961), or Meyer Abrams‘s The Mirror and the Lamp (1951) towards romanticism. Examine, for example, Foucault’s Histoire de la Folie à l’âge classique (1961) and Les Mots et Les Choses (1966), and one can see that even in France there was an idea of a historical period with a seventeenth century ‘L’age de Raison’ and a sprawling ‘L’age classique’ which did not fit the German Enlightenment’s chronology.

At the time I dismissed Prest’s resistance to thinking of the long eighteenth century in terms of the Enlightenment as just old fashioned, or even as an ignorant ‘little England’ position. After all, hadn’t Ernst Cassirer in Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, fifty years earlier, woven Newton, Shaftesbury and Locke into a fabric that ran through Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot to Kant? Hadn’t Peter Gay, at whose feet I had (literally) sat at Yale as a grad student, not mapped the Enlightenment as a pan-European and transatlantic social movement in two magisterial volumes in the 1960s? Hadn’t Roy Porter in a famous essay in 1981, ‘The Enlightenment in England’, in one of the history in national costume volumes he edited with Mikulas Teich, shown, exactly as I wished to do, how Britain participated in these European currents?

I am more sceptical now. Let me be clear: I am not sceptical about the existence of a great web of European intellectual reconfigurations and interconnections over the long Eighteenth century in which England and Britain were involved. I am more wary however about how we conjure with the category of the Enlightenment and organise study and teaching around it, and about the late twentieth-century and twenty-first century uses of the idea of “The Enlightenment”.

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Examine these two Ngram graphs which show us, respectively, the incidence of the word “Enlightenment” published between 1940 and 2000 in American and British English books. On close examination, one sees that ‘The Enlightenment’, far from being some objective historical referent, as it is repeatedly used in popular culture, was a late Twentieth-century social fiction.

Enlightenment American English

‘Enlightenment’ – American English

'Enlightenment' - British English

‘Enlightenment’ – British English

Ngrams are, of course, not very accurate instruments, but they do help us to see trends. What these seem to show is that the retail of the Enlightenment as a category has two big booms: one in the long 1960s, during which it doubles in the United States, and the other from the mid 1980s, and especially after 1990, during which there is another doubling stateside, while in Britain there is a sudden takeoff and convergence with the American pattern. The idea that something called “The Enlightenment” is an effective metonym for the intellectual life of the long Eighteenth-Century century is thus a more recent idol than we often assume. We need to explain in it terms of the history of the period after 1945, and after 1990, and to ask who were the stakeholders in the Enlightenment franchise?

The first and most important stakeholders were the refugees from the Nazis who came to the United States, in particular German Jews, who sought to bridge their own intellectual heritage in Europe to the culture and politics of their new home. Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (1966 and 1969) which begin with the philosophes in France and ended with Jefferson and the American Revolution, was perhaps the most influential single intervention of these. It is rarely noticed that he punctuated its two volumes with his book on Weimar Culture. Its coda was the virtual manifesto for thinking of the Enlightenment as, Peter Gay suggested, ‘responsible for [almost] everything that was good in the Twentieth century’: The Bridge of Criticism: Dialogues among Lucien, Erasmus and Voltaire about the Enlightenment (1970). It was in the wake of the success of Gay’s first tome that Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was at last published in English in 1968. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung, written in exile in the United States in the 1940s, was only translated in 1972, which while even taking a darker view of the Enlightenment as part of the foundation for the Holocaust added to the legend of its coherence and importance.

Many other constituencies of stakeholders embedded themselves in this way of seeing early modern European intellectual history and its relationship to the present. For (white) Americans, the discovery of European precedents for themselves was always attractive, and even better if, as per the Transcendentalists, the anxiety of influence by its former colonial metropolis Britain could be overcome by a reach to continental Europe. But Cold War liberalism also had its uses for the Enlightenment. The idea of the Enlightenment was backcrossed with modernization theory, with secularisation elevated, quite anachronistically, given all we now know about the religious enthusiasms which were central to the period, as the sign of Enlightenment. Anti-communists sought to find anti-romantic allies, and, as per the Liberty Fund in the United States, to conjure with the ‘rational’ Eighteenth century against the dangerous nineteenth-century ideologies of revolution. And yet at the same time, Marxists who were dismayed by the Soviet Union also claimed the Enlightenment, in the vein of Adorno and Horkheimer, as the anchor tradition of the Left. In continental Europe from the 1970s, and in Britain from the 1990s, those touched by the European project were also attracted by the idea of a historic pan-European intellectual community for which the Enlightenment appeared to be a good sign.

But the great boom in the retail of the Enlightenment comes after 1990. One important contributing current was its critics, who took up Adorno and Horkheimer’s exploration of the dark side of the Enlightenment, in particular post-colonial theorists among them, connecting the violence of the West with ‘Enlightenment rationality’. But for far more people in the post-colonial and post-communist moment– conservatives, liberals, and some socialists – the Enlightenment became central to the imagined collective identity of the West and of ‘modernity’, the two things normally assumed to be one. a flattering mirror of the past in which the present might find its face. Even the odd Marxist contributed their praisesong of ‘the enduring value of Enlightenment universalism’. Few asked about the reality of that imagined ‘universal’, or how its narcissistic gaze towards affinities excluded the experience and agency of Africa, Asia, and the darker-skinned Americas. The apotheosis of this turn came in the early Twenty-First Century, when Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis identified “Enlightenment values” with the prosecution of the “Global War on Terror”. And so, it appeared, we came to bomb and torture in defence of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment industry, of course, now has its own independent momentum. A generation of scholars have made their careers on the historical myth, while others make good money from books earnestly defending the Enlightenment. Of course, you might say that this is just a form of unconscious homage to the entrepreneurial skills of eighteenth-century intellectuals who themselves made a business of the Enlightenment. This is all good clean fun, at least when it is not part of the road which leads humanitarian intervention via cruise missile, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. And yet, as we approach ‘peak oil’ we must surely be reaching peak Enlightenment when, at the same time as the category is said to explain the values of the present, it also, as in one 2015 exhibition, appears to reach greedily backward to the Sixteenth century to engulf and consume the ‘Renaissance‘, which is threatened from the other direction by a resurgent late ‘mediaeval’ period. It begins to become simply another name for the idea of a Western liberal subjectivity, the precise temporal or spatial limits of which are never terribly clear.

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It may be that if we do wish to rescue what is living and vital about ‘the Enlightenment’ we need to shatter the idol.

To begin with we need to destroy the latter day Whig’s idea of the Enlightenment, if we agree to accept ‘Enlightenment’ as a loose name for the problem of European thought c. 1660-1830. The problem is not, pace Adorno and Horkheimer, its legacies, but its origins. It is not that the Enlightenment led to Auschwitz, but that its origins, like the origins of everything in modern Europe, lie partly in that continent’s centuries-long offshore history of racial slavery, colonial domination, and genocide in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth century. It should not be acceptable in the Twenty-First century, to speak or write or teach about the Enlightenment as having to do with the histories of rights, ideas and museums, friendship, humanitarianism, without at the same time mapping its direct involvement in the expansion of regimes of slavery, the destruction of other cultures and their values, and dehumanization.

Whiggery, or to put it more simply the present’s recruitment of a flattering myth of its past, is central to what we might call the unbearable whiteness of the Enlightenment. By ‘whiteness’ I do not mean the skins of those who are assumed to be its principal participants, or even today’s Enlightenment mongerers, some of whom are brown. I am focusing instead on how the idea of the Enlightenment is based on cognitive compartmentalizations and repressions which have a generic relationship to racially-based past and present regimes of exclusion, subordination, and exploitation.

For example, were we to ask what was the most emblematic product of the Enlightenment, we would usually reach towards a text like Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. A good case, however, might instead be made however for the Slave Ship of the 1780s as the crowning achievement of Enlightenment civilization: they carried hundreds of captives, packed with mathematical efficiency, across thousands of miles with relatively small normal loss of life, and depending on the collaboration of engineers, shipbuilders, Europe-wide sharing in the capital and insurance risks, and state-of-the-art food preservation and tropical medicine. Other candidates might be the attempts at the psychological manipulation of human subjectivity with mesmerism in St Domingue, in the ‘rational’ prisons of Pennsylvania and Tasmania, or in the methodical experiments with using torture to force two-handed cotton picking in the American south. Or we might consider the Malthusian experiments of Sir Richard Temple, the lieutenant governor of Bengal, with how little food might be given to starving men forced to perform hard labour, which led in 1877 to the ‘Temple ration’ of 1627 calories (almost 100 less than was dispensed at Buchenwald).

We ourselves need to think with both hands, and to put together both sides of the story. The involvement of John Locke in the Royal African Company, and as a key member of the Board of Trade and Plantations, or the investments held by philosophes in the Compagnie des Indes, are widely known by scholars but not by the public. It is almost never used to make sense of how Locke or Voltaire thought of rights and freedom.  But the constitution of forms of rights which have as their premise categories of rights-bearers who, as Charles Mills has noted, are limited to people of a particular race and gender has some interpretative importance. Rather like those who glibly ascribe the origins of modern liberties to Magna Carta, so those who trade in the Enlightenment prefer us to focus on the potential future interpretations of texts than on what they meant in their context. But context matters, not least because it alerts us to ask what social and political and intellectual struggles led to their later renegotiation? How did the excluded, whose total exclusion from kinds of rights had a foundational role in the constitution of a set of rights-bearers, become the included? As an example, we might look at how Nick Nesbitt has shown how Haitian revolutionaries fought and died on behalf of rethinking of the idea of the Rights of Man as universal emancipation. If the Enlightenment has anything to do with contemporary human rights, that is due to how people around the world, usually innocent of any knowledge of Rousseau, demanded rights.

If ‘the Enlightenment’ can do any work for us now, it is in directing our attention to how contradictions unfolded in ideas as they were put to work by different interests in struggles, conflicts, and crises across the space of the globe. Even the most eurocentric vendors of the category accept that ‘the Enlightenment’ was profoundly engaged with the forms of global knowledge made possible by European imperial systems. But it is usual to consider this in diffusionist terms, with centres of calculation and peripheries towards which knowledge diffused. We need now to follow the lead set by work such as Simon Schaffer’s on the global history of physics to recognize how extra-European people and places acted on the development of modern thought. Unexpected gifts of knowledge and sensibility came from the periphery in the eighteenth century, bundled with tobacco and calicoes. It is in a focus on the global history of the ‘Enlightenment’ as a cross-cultural and transnational phenomenon that the category may perhaps become meaningful again. At the least we might begin to decolonize the Enlightenment, of which, perhaps, Diderot and Raynal would have approved.

1 Roy Porter, ‘The Enlightenment in England’, in Roy S. Porter and Mikuláš Teich, The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).


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