The Enlightenment: FOR or AGAINST? (Part 2)

In the interest of equal time on the Enlightenment issue, here is the call for the next discussion. Virtual contributions welcome: 


Please join the University of Maryland English Department Eighteenth-Century Reading group for a discussion of:

The Enlightenment: FOR or AGAINST? (Part 2)


Did the Enlightenment free humanity from the tyranny of superstition or did it create more powerful forms of social control through new technologies of power?  Did it lay the groundwork for fascism or for human rights?  Have you ever wondered what Swift was really making fun of in Book 3?  Unless you’re too busy purifying the English language, find out and weigh in on the Enlightenment on Wednesday, August 1, 1-3 pm in Susquehanna 3105, University of Maryland.  As usual, refreshments will be served. All are welcome.

Readings for Part 2:

 Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London

Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity 

(both are available on Amazon)






11 responses to “The Enlightenment: FOR or AGAINST? (Part 2)

  1. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for putting this up. For the convenience of those who don’t have access to Sprat or to the Tillotson anthology of 18c Literature , I’m including a link to Jack Lynch’s ever-useful selection of e-texts:

    If someone else knows of a more complete version somewhere on the web, could you put it into the comments, or let either of us know? Likewise for the Habermas, which to my knowledge is not available online.



  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,

    I just have these in hard copy. Amazingly, a paperback facsimile of the 1667 edition of Sprat can be ordered from Amazon for under $30.


  3. Before the discussion at UMD tomorrow, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on reading Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society and Habermas’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in response to Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (and Gulliver’s Travels). I must confess that I heartily enjoyed the language Habermas used to critique Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, particularly the recurring words “dark” and “odd”! Habermas focused on the sealed aspect of H & A that we discussed last time; that is, the extent to which their critique refused to offer an alternative and imagined only that the dialectic would continue.

    So a dramatic difference in these readings is that both writers offer alternatives. Along these lines, I was struck by a key similarity in both texts: the focus on a form of collective knowledge acquisition that not only emerges for the so-called betterment of its individuals, but for the improvement (variously conceived) of society in general (if you’ll excuse the rather crude terms I’m employing). Of course, their projects and situations certainly make for an uneasy comparison, but I want to defer the (easier, I think) discussion of their differences to think through the remarkable similarities. For Sprat, the Royal Society offers an opportunity to build a culture of consensus; granted, his model institutes lots of important limitations (especially with rank, gender, and location), but for argument’s sake, I want to focus on the collectivity that Sprat and the Royal Society construct. As we know, and as Sprat makes clear, the Royal Society authorizes knowledge only when it has been tested through witnessing, experimentation, and consensus, even if some of these steps must be accomplished virtually (Shapin and Shaffer call this “virtual witnessing”). It seems to me that Habermas’ paradigm of mutual understanding and of “communicative action” is, at its core, cut from the same conceptual cloth, as it were. Habermas envisages a collectivity made up of “subjects capable of speech and action” (295-96) which itself depends upon a “performative attitude of participants in interaction” (296); this is central the “lifeworld” to which he makes repeated reference. The benefits that Habermas outlines again seem not too far from those that Sprat adumbrates: communicative action safeguards us from the idealist abstractions of the subject-centered reason that postmodernism inevitably produces and (interestingly) from the complete evacuation of reason and even individualism that systems theory demands. For Sprat, the knowledge production of the Royal Society has seemingly innumerable benefits for empire, for trade, for reason, for civility, for the arts, for social ills, which he categorizes in quite specific terms.

    With these broad comparisons, though, I am left thinking that Sprat offers a “solution” that Habermas cannot fully articulate. For Sprat, experimentalism is the answer, a method of social and epistemological particularizing, always contending that knowledge is knowledge only when it meets certain criteria. Of course, the limits of this, as I mention above, are quite apparent, and we can understand Swift’s satire (though I would likewise argue that Swift was likewise enabled and even entranced by experimentalism). But for Habermas, who is devoted to historical materialism, it seems that engaging in communicative action is not as clear. For all of his attention to temporality and historicity—one of the reasons Habermas admires Foucault—there seems to be a deferral; we get a bit of a discussion of capitalism, but I wonder how, using Habermas’ communicative action, we can better understand “historical time, social space, and body-centered experiences” (325-26) as he wants us to do?


  4. Laura Rosenthal

    I think another thing they have in common is an embrace of a certain kind of modernity, expressed by both as progress. Habermas appreciates Foucault, but he also counters Foucault’s critique of modernity by arguing that modernity offers certain rights previously unheard of. For Habermas, it seems, one gets to rights by way of reason. I don’t think Sprat would put it in terms of rights, but he is very much interested in the ways in which life is getting better through the advantages of knowledge. Habermas’s critique of Foucault seems like a familiar one. He accuses Foucault of leaving no possibility of action (or progress) given his totalizing model of power. But he also notes that Foucault himself noted some of these problems. One difference, of course, btwn Sprat and Habermas is that they are arguing against different limits, Sprat in the early stages of this embrace of progress (or “progress”) but Habermas trying to retrieve Sprat-like optimism and also a purity of language (I’m thinking of his critique of Derrida and observations of the collapse of differences between literary and nonliterary language) after post-structualism, which is quite a challenge. The ideal of communication to which he returns, it seems, absolutely depends on the possibility of a purified (non-literary, non- Romantic, non-Dionysian) language. Hard for me to see that as possible, yet at the same time it also seems pessimistic to resign oneself to the world of Foucault as read by Habermas (which might not be entirely convincing as a reading but there is something to it as well.)

  5. dave mazella

    This work of JH’s was new to me, and so I came to this really unsure where it fit in with the works of JH’s that I’d seen before.

    The interesting thing for me is how this seemed to be the work where JH worked really hard to explain disagreements with the Frankfurt School, with post-structuralism, and specifically with Derrida and Foucault. Some of the arguments, like the one with Foucault, I’d seen before in more essayistic form, but the scope of this was very impressive.

    This text could easily be the centerpiece of a wonderful seminar on modernity and critical theory–which indeed was how these “lectures” originated.

    Having said that, it seems like a very “first world” argument, since we always seem to get back to a handful of German philosphical texts to understanding the meaning of entire worldwide epochs. In contrast, Nestor Garcia Canclini approaches modernization from both a philosophical and a geo-sociological point of view (since Mexico or Latin America are places where modernization either didn’t happen, didn’t succeed, or didn’t happen uniformly enough to be considered modernization), and this seems a more persuasive way to approach it nowadays. [I discussed NGC in an earlier post this year, if anyone’s interested]

    But the idea of modernization as both technological innovation and self-consciousness seems crucial here, as it does in Foucault’s What is Enlightenment? which preceded these lectures, correct? And most importantly, both JH and MF want to keep those two aspects of modernization separate, if we wish to preserve something of a non-authoritarian version of Enlightenment.


  6. Laura Rosenthal

    I think I would be wary of organizing a course around this book unless you read the other theorists he discusses side by side with it. Yes, the scope is quite impressive, but Habermas does not capture (and doesn’t intend to, I think) the intellectual excitment of the figures he explores, even though he does give them lots of credit. There is a kind of flattening out of all these very diverse philosophers (not that I’ve read them all!) into what he often comes back to as their “Dionysian” qualities.

    Re the Eurocentrism: I really didn’t get the impression that he was claiming any kind of global sense of modernity. His project seems to me to be a very specific critique of a particular tradition of European philosophy of which he wants to alter the course from Dionysus to I guess Apollo, although he wouldn’t like the idea of reason as a god as well. But maybe I missed something there.

  7. dave mazella

    Given JH’s stance re communication and language, his biggest problems here involve Nietzsche and aesthetics, and I suppose rhetoric as well. The flattening you describe can I think be attributed to his insistence on maintaining a rhetoric/philosophy split that I think most of us in lit departments would find untenable. I certainly was not persuaded by this part of the argument. And how read Rousseau or Swift without some acknowledgment of their rhetorical force?

    As for the eurocentrism, I was struck by the quickness with which we moved in the first pages from Weber’s aspirations toward a “universal history” to the Usual Suspects of German philosophy. But as I indicated, from the point of view of this philosophical tradition, modernization was once considered something the West had in secure possession, which the East would have to emulate. Nowadays, the process of modernization seems a lot more complicated.

    More in a bit . . .

  8. dave mazella

    I reread the chapter (or excursus) on poststructuralism’s collapsed distinction between the “genres” of philosophy and literature, and think that if any one piece of writing explains JH’s distance from Derrida et al., this is it. And I suspect that we are working within an entirely different paradigm, anyway. But I still felt that JH’s model of communication was powerless to describe the appeal, or historical persistence of Nietzsche, aesthetic modernism, or rhetoric. All these things seem to exist in some irrationalist or “anarchist” realm that he cannot analyze or even cogently discuss.

    Incidentally, the clearest historical connection between Sprat and JH’s treatment of post-structuralism is the suspicion of rhetoric. I’m assuming that that came up in your discussions. But how much is the faith in progress (or what I’d call compulsory modernization) predicated on a suspicion of rhetoric?


  9. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, we talked quite a bit about their discussions of language. Habermas engages an argument made by Mary Louise Pratt about how the distinction literary and non-literary language always collapses. Sprat argues that all English should become plain and simple, but Habermas deals with Pratt’s point by arguing for the situated use of language. While Sprat wants all language to be plain (including ‘literary language’–witness the ‘pruning’ of Shakespeare in the period), Habermas want to argue that literary language takes place in a different context than communicative action. So I’m not sure he’s quite as opposed to rhetoric as Sprat, but wants to separate literary writing from practical communication. This communication then forms the basis of the public sphere. In some ways it seems clear to me anyway that this separation never really happens, but then again Habermas seems to be arguing that one gives up all hope of progressive change without some kind of investment in communicative action.

  10. dave mazella

    I’ve gotten stuck on the rhetoric angle, because I find it so hard to understand what JH is proposing with “communicative action.”

    This seems to involve some kind of unification of classical rhetoric’s model of speech-as-action, with some kind of model of transparent, mutually intersubjective understanding.

    But his notion of communicative reason doesn’t seem to allow for any appeal to the emotions, which is a central issue for any serious rhetor trying to persuade an audience to act a particular way. So no emotion, no collective action, as far as I can see.

    When I think about rhetoric and communication, I think that rhetoric, as the art of making “the weaker argument appear the stronger,” presupposes that arguments both good and bad need vigorous advocates and well-thought-out defenses. Simply validating a point of view as factually correct may be nice, but nowadays we know that successful politicians may be able to “make their own reality,” and that they may very well find supporters for such delusional views.

    So this leaves us with all the important questions about the political efficacy of such communicative action unanswered.

    Or am I taking JH too far outside his intended domain?


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