The Enlightenment as reading project

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From The Critic:

What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s 1784 answer to the question, that the Enlightenment “dares to know”, is famous and paradoxical. Enlightenment, he maintains, requires freedom of the press, but only an authoritarian regime can allow unchecked debate: thus the Prussia of Frederick the Great is the only state where people can “dare to know”.

Above all, the freedom that matters to Kant is the freedom to question religious authorities on matters of faith. Kant’s Enlightenment thus strengthens secular authority in order to create the space required for a critique of religious authority. Enlightenment is inseparable from despotism.

Gary Kates’s important book offers a new answer to Kant’s question by interrogating a dozen 18th century bestsellers, from Fenelon to Smith. The importance of the book can best be conveyed by comparing it to the work of two scholars who made their reputations in the 1970s: Robert Darnton and Quentin Skinner. Darnton mined the records of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) to understand the trade in illegal books from the inside. Out of this he wrote a fine book, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of pre-Revolutionary France (1995).

. . . .

I remember, many years ago, sitting mystified through a seminar where the leading lights of English philosophy gathered in Oxford to discuss John Rawls’s newly published Theory of Justice. There was radical disagreement as to what Rawls meant to say. The answer seemed to me (a young Skinnerian) obvious: why not phone him up and ask him?

Kates isn’t interested in getting Rousseau on the phone. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of this book is to bring out how readings of these bestsellers differed between radicals and conservatives, Christians and pagans, shifting over time. Some of these books were obviously written to be open to divergent interpretations (Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, for example), but in the case of Letters of a Peruvian Woman publishers happily published revised texts giving the story the ending that readers wanted.

The result of Kates’s trinitarian approach is that his book is not a history of ideas, nor book history, nor cultural history, nor a study in reception. It is, in parts, all of these, but much more than the sum of its parts. After all, authors and publishers are also readers; and readers, as they write letters and compile commonplace books, are also authors, not to mention the source of publishers’ profits. Only a Trinitarian approach can grasp the complexity of the book as written, printed and read. I hope no future historian of ideas will write about a book printed before the Industrial Revolution without asking how many copies were printed, how much they cost and who actually owned them.

I think Kates’s fundamental perception, that the Enlightenment can be thought of as a programme of reading a set of books that writers and readers had in common, is sound. The figure who emerges as the most important representative of the Enlightenment on this approach is Montesquieu: his Persian Letters are presented as the model for Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, Richardson’s Pamela and Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman, whilst The Spirit of the Laws is taken to lie at the origin of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Rousseau’s Emile and Raynal’s History of the Two Indies. This is not Kant’s Enlightenment: none of these authors favour despotism.

Link to the rest at The Critic