Seeing Reason


Kenan Malik on Jonathan Israel's radical vision, in Eurozine:

Like many before him, Israel lauds the Enlightenment as that transformative period when Europe shifted from being a culture “based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority” to one in which “everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason” and in which “theology's age-old hegemony” was overthrown. And, yet, despite language and imagery that hark back to Kant, Israel is also deeply critical of much of the Enlightenment, and hostile to the ideas of many of the figures that populate the works of Cassirer and Gay. At the heart of his argument is the insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know, which provides the public face of the Enlightenment, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d'Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that provided the Enlightenment's heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream's intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment “rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely”.

In Israel's view, what he calls the “package of basic values” that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derives principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment.