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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


GE Modern Thought: Enlightenment and its Critics from Kant to Heidegger

GE Modern Thought: Enlightenment and its Critics from Kant to Heidegger

Course Convenor: Dr Martin Ruehl (, Section of German & Dutch

The Enlightenment was one of the main roads to modernity in eighteenth-century Europe and its latter-day proponents still regard its central tenets – rationalism, secularism, individualism – as the very definition of what it means to be modern. For many historians of European thought, it represents the single most significant event since the Renaissance: an intellectual revolution that fundamentally transformed man’s understanding of his place in the natural as well as the social world and produced not just the ‘ideas of 1789’, but the various ideologies (liberalism, socialism, pacifism) that would shape Western political theory and praxis over the next two centuries.

While the scholarly output on the Enlightenment and its various individual representatives is vast, relatively little is known about those thinkers who resisted the ‘Age of Reason’ and launched what Isaiah Berlin later identified as a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’. And yet there was, as early as the mid-eighteenth century, a vociferous and highly articulate contingent in the new republic of letters which fiercely opposed the materialism and atheism of the lumières, their abstract, a-historical conceptions of the self and their levelling of national traditions and cultural diversity in the name of universalism and progress. These anti-philosophes, though frequently marginalized in the history of ideas, played a no less important role in the formation of European thought. Appalled by the rapid ‘disenchantment of the world’ (Max Weber), they attacked what they viewed as the terribles simplifications and, especially in the wake of the French Revolution, the doctrinaire intolerance of their enlightening enemies. In doing so, they formulated crucial new concepts and ideals that laid the discursive foundations, first for what we now call, somewhat vaguely, ‘the Right’, and later, in the second half of the twentieth century, post-modernism. At the same time, they also forced the ‘party of progress’ to re-define its own positions. 

In this seminar, we will trace the intellectual struggles over Enlightenment from Kant’s critique of revealed religion in the ancien régime to Heidegger’s challenge to the narratives of progress, rationality, and technocratic control. We will examine these struggles as on-going, politically charged controversies about the nature and meaning of modernity, without, however, establishing any facile links between ‘the unfinished project of modernity’ (Jürgen Habermas) and the ‘Enlightenment project’. We shall approach both projects, instead, as profoundly dialectical phenomena that were generated and defined, from the beginning, by their opposites. Particular attention will be given, accordingly, to liminal figures, theorists at the interface between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment like Herder, Nietzsche, Weber, and Adorno, who embraced central aspects of Aufklärung while questioning its triumphalist belief in humanity’s inexorable march towards ever-higher levels of rationality, emancipation, and civilization. We shall read the works of these theorists as historically as is possible in such a text-based seminar, concentrating on the following themes, listed here, rather simplistically, as binary oppositions: progressivism/historicism, optimism/Kulturkritik, society/community, reason/faith, rationalization/myth, peaceful meliorism/violent renewal.

Although all of the primary texts on our syllabus are by German authors, we will also consider the concept of Enlightenment as it was formulated and debated in other national contexts. While you are encouraged to read the primary literature in the original German, you can of course consult English translations (I am happy to point you to particular editions). The reading list attached below, though quite expansive, is by no means final and I welcome bibliographical suggestions (regarding the set texts as well as the scholarly literature) from all participants.

Preliminary reading:

  • K. A. Appiah, “Dialectics of Enlightenment”, New York Review of Books (9 May 2019).D. Outram, The Enlightenment, 3rd edn (Cambridge 2013), ideally the whole book (it’s only 150 pp. long), but at the very least the Introduction (pp. 1-10). 

General reading

  • Introductions
  • * T.J. Reed, Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment (Chicago 2015), pp. 1-77.
  • A. Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (Oxford 2013), ‘Preface’ (pp. vii-xiv), ‘Introduction: What is Enlightenment?’ (pp. 1-19), and ‘Conclusion: Enlightenment and Its Enemies’ (pp. 315-352).
  • J. Robertson, ‘The Case for the Enlightenment’, in: J. Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 1-52.K. Thomas, “The Great Fight Over the Enlightenment”, New York Review of Books (3 April 2014)* J. Schmidt, ‘Introduction: What is Enlightenment? A Question, its Context, and Some Consequences’, in: J. Schmidt (ed.), What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-century Answers and Twentieth-century Questions (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1996), pp. 1-45
  • R. Porter, The Enlightenment, 2nd edn (London 2001)


There will normally be a maximum capacity of 14 for this module.


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