The Enlightenment and why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

the enlightenmentEnlightening…but harder work than it need have been…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😦

Like most people, I have a vague idea of what is meant by Enlightenment values – scepticism, reason, science etc. – and could probably name, if pushed, a few of the intellectuals and philosophers associated with it. I hoped this book might give me a clearer idea of the history and development of the period and of the contribution of some of the main players. And to a degree it did. Pagden concentrates very much on the intellectual developments and how they impacted on the political sphere. There is very little in the book about the cultural aspects of the Enlightenment – the salon culture is mentioned, but mainly in passing, and although he refers to the emphasis placed by some of the philosophers on arts and music, he doesn’t go into what impact this had on the artistic culture of the time.

In the first couple of chapters, Pagden briefly discusses the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, showing how the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers grew out of and built onto these. In the following chapters, he takes us on a roughly chronological journey through the period of the Enlightenment, concentrating on the writings of the philosophers and highlighting how they influenced each other. Towards the end, he discusses to what extent the French Revolution resulted from Enlightenment ideas and shows the philosophical backlash following this period. And finally, he very briefly highlights the influence that Enlightenment thinking still has, particularly in the West, on national and international forms of governance.

There is no question about the amount of scholarship that has gone into this book and I undoubtedly feel considerably better informed about the subject. However, there are several problems that prevent me from feeling I could wholeheartedly recommend it. Firstly, Pagden’s writing style is often so convoluted that I found I had to read and re-read to be sure I got the sense of what he was saying. His sentences are full of asides and fragmentary quotes that, while relevant, make the process of reading much harder work than should have been necessary.

“Hamann, the “magus of the north,” of whom Hegel said that he was “not only…original…But an Original,” and whose writings “do not so much have a particular style, as they are style,” was something of a crank (whom Goethe, although he thought him the “brightest head of his time,” once shrewdly compared to Vico).”

Anthony Pagden
Anthony Pagden

If you strip the extraneous matter out of this, basically it says “Hamann was something of a crank” – there, isn’t that easier? By all means, follow this up with a sentence or two telling us what Hegel and Goethe thought of him. But this sentence also brings me to my second problem – the book would have been considerably helped by a list of the philosophers with a brief summary of their contribution and beliefs. There are so many names that I frankly couldn’t remember who was who or what each believed. So a comparison to Vico means nothing to me, however shrewd it may be. There is, of course, an index and a bibliography, but this meant I was constantly flipping backwards and forwards to remind myself of what had been said about someone four chapters previously, or, as became the case more and more, deciding I didn’t care enough to bother.

Then there are the inconsistencies. Taking the example of the Peace of Westphalia, both of the following quotes are taken from the same page (28):

“The “Peace of Westphalia”, as it came to be known, was the first treaty between sovereign nations which succeeded in creating a lasting peace and not merely a temporary ceasefire, as all previous treaties had.”

Frankly this sentence stunned me as I tried to remember a period when Europe had a lasting peace prior to 1945. But I didn’t have to remain stunned for long, since the very next paragraph begins:

“The treaty did not achieve an immediate, or indeed, in the end, a lasting peace.”

It does become apparent what Pagden means by this (that wars stopped being specifically about religion following the treaty) but it’s just one of many examples of how the scholarship of the work is let down by the lack of clarity in the writing.

And lastly, the book is absolutely chock full of typos, missed words and uncorrected errors – the proofreading is the most abysmal I have ever seen in an academic work.

In summary, I’m glad to have read this and feel considerably enlightened by it, but feel it was much harder work than it need have been. A book that I think would probably be very interesting for someone with an existing fairly good knowledge of the period and the people involved in it, but perhaps not one I would suggest as an introduction to the subject for a casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
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27 thoughts on “The Enlightenment and why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

  1. You know, I’ve always felt that a clean writing style is such a boon to readers. Convolution is not necessary to make even an important point. I find the Enlightenment and its legacy absolutely fascinating, so as soon as I saw the title of your post I was interested in the book. I still am, in the topic. But I agree completely that making things straightforward and seamless for the reader just makes for a better book.


    • I did find it interesting, but a lot of the time it felt like swimming through treacle and even at the end I still felt I wasn’t completely clear about who lived when and said what etc. However, I’m sure it will be an interesting one for people with a reasonable amount of background knowledge.


  2. Good heavens. I can only commend your ability to stay attentive and thoughtful about this. One I definitely WON’T be reading, as your examples of his writerly style had me whimpering plaintively in a ‘do I really have to get to the end of this sentence’ sort of way

    I agree with Margot. Its good writing first, first and first with me I’m afraid. MUCH too lazy and irritable to persist with even the most interesting subject if the author is not a good writer/communicator.

    Of course the downside of being so heavily influenced in favour of style, means my ability to be attentive to hard content can be suspect. I’m absolutely convinced I would NOT have stopped and thought at the Westphalia point, as you did, because I would have turned into brain porridge mush, reading without comprehending


  3. That first quoted paragraph is a beastly thing, for sure. You did a great job of extricating the sentence from all that confusion. I doubt if the professor would have ever found it!

    I can only imagine the pain involved in reading this book. (Great ripio. Using his own words against him is classic.)

    This professor is a bit surprised that the book escaped with all those errors! Dear me!

    Well, look at his face! It tells all! (He looks quite unaware of the pain he causes.)


  4. Ouch! What is the point of doing all the research, then writing in a style that would disgrace a first-year undergraduate. In fact, this reminded me of a first-year under grad. essay- “I know something and I’m going to get it in, relevant or not”. If you want to read a really good, well-written book about the Enlightenment , may I suggest “”The Scottish Enlightenment” by Alexander Broadie, who taught me Moral Philosophy when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.


  5. Yes, I think there are many scholars who would do well to employ ghost writers to help them clarify their thoughts. It’s unfortunate that those in need of help are blind to their inadequacies. And it’s also unfortunate that their editors don’t bail them out.


    • Yes, I’ve felt in recent years that academics had realised that they have to make the stuff readable as well as knowledgeable, but this one was like the old-style academic book that put me off reading history for years. Shame, because underneath the convolution, there was lots of interesting stuff in it.


  6. I love that first quoted paragraph, and your rendition of it. I was a philosophy undergrad so many years ago, then went into law school — where, somewhat to my surprise, I learned to write much clearer prose. (I mean, who’d a thunk you’d go to lawyers to learn that!) Then, about two or three years into my practice, a partner who had been a journalist before he was a trial lawyer took me aside after reading one of my briefs, and said something like, “Just because you’ve analyzed every in and out, doesn’t mean you have to use all that. Leave all the side streets and cul-de-sacs aside–the clerk in the courthouse have no time for that–and write straight to the point.”

    I expect this humanities prof has read too much translated 19th Century German. That’s what I always put it down to. Twain had something to say about this language my father grew up speaking in the tenements of what we now call the Upper East Side:

    “There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.”

    Maybe this writer drank from a similar fountain somewhere along his way.


    • Haha! Great quote. The main reason I learned Russian at school was because I couldn’t face learning German on discovering there are roughly four million ways to say ‘the’. In Russian, ‘the’ doesn’t exist. But the idea of the verb at the end of the sentence has always seemed totally weird to me – I can’t imagine even being able to speak like that in normal short sentences, much less write complex ones. Languages were never my forte admittedly…


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