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Institute of Advanced Study

Clarifying the Enlightenment

Abstract

The Enlightenment is both a historical period and an instrument of polemic. Tending to become politically engaged, historians have differed over which philosophers best characterize its ideas in what period. The Enlightenment, while it overlapped national borders, seems also to have taken different forms in different European countries. Against this background my work in Durham was to consider criticism of ‘the Enlightenment’ over the last 75 years, to examine the historical background to that criticism and consider how it reflected continuing political and social tensions in the West. Associations with out-of-control technology and totalitarian politics have been deeply harmful. Further, the metaphor of light, associated with a long and dominant tradition of reason and truth, and deeply embedded in the Enlightenment’s self-understanding and reception, has obscured what the Enlightenment was and how to evaluate it.

Insights Paper