Further Thoughts on “the Enlightenment,” the OED, the History of Concepts

Last week’s post ended with some misgivings about the distinction Koselleck drew between the “history of concepts” and the “history of words.” Admittedly, the distinction seems plausible enough: since concepts can be designated by a number of different words (e.g., “liberty” and “freedom” refer to more or less the same thing) there’s not a lot of point in getting hung up on the history of particular words. That history is the business of etymologists; historians of concepts have other fish to fry. But, on the other hand, the history of certain concepts sometimes exhibits periods when writers display an acute sense that other people are using words in the wrong way and that their misuse of these words may even have something sinister about it. To counter these perceived abuses, they produce texts that veer off into discussions that look, for all the world, like a sort of proto-Begriffsgeschichte. Moments like this abound in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century treaments of the family of terms we associate with the concept “Enlightenment.”  It is (with apologies to Carl Becker) as if every man has become his own historian of concepts.

I first encountered this sort of thing while reading Thomas Carlyle’s copy of Johann Georg von Zimmerman’s Fragmente über Friedrich den Grossen zur Geschichte seines Lebens, seiner Regierung, und seines Charakters (1790) in the Houghton Library at Harvard (to give credit where it might be due, it’s possible that I was pointed to the text by the entry on Aufklärung in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe). In the decade that has passed since this encounter the text has been swept up in the gaping maw of Google’s scanners and is now freely available, minus the peculiar aura attached to pawing through Carlyle’s copy (the age of digital reproducibility has been even harder on the aura than the age of mechanical reproducibility).

Since I’ve discussed the context of Zimmerman’s complaint elsewhere, I’ll limit myself to focuing on the moment when he finds it necessary to trace the terms that Berlin enlighteners are tossing around back to their alleged French roots:

The entire initiative in Berlin is now called Aufklärung (Illuminatisme); the members of the synagogue are called Aufklärer (Illuminants); and Aufgeklärte (Illuminés) are the blind slaves of this sect. Of the true enlightenment (progrès des lumières) nothing is spoken in the clique of Berlin enlighteners.

Zimmerman’s concerns are hardly unique: they are but one example among many. In such texts, a fair amount of work is done by attaching modifiers (the most popular being “true” and “false”) to the term being contested. It is as if all the contestants are trying to keep hold of a term or set of terms that they fear might be slipping away from them into the hands of the enemy.

Here’s another example, from a 1792 article by Friedrich Karl von Moser that I included in my collection of texts on the question “What is enlightenment?” without entirely fathoming what was going on in it:

All enlightenment that is not grounded in and supported by religion, all enlightenment that does not grow out of the dependence of the created on its Creator and on the goodness and care of the Creator for His human creations, all enlightenment that draws back from the duties of love, reverence, gratitude, and obedience to His will, His commandments, and the institutions of His great world government, all enlightenment that leaves man to his own willfulness, vanity, and passions and inspires him with Lucifer’s pride to see himself as his sole, independent, ruler and to make his own arbitrary natural law — all such enlightenment is not only the way to destruction, immorality, and depravity, but also to the dissolution and ruin of all civil society, and to a war of the human race within itself, that begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism.

It may be significant that, although Moser was desperately trying to save “true enlightenment” from the hands of its falsifiers, he had convinced that another term had already been lost. At the start of the essay, he defines enlightenment as the intellectual power that “progresses in equal proportion to the oppression of a people” and serves as a counter-weight to the “arts of seduction and delusion” by which despots maintain their power. He then goes on to observe that, rather than using “enlightenment” to denote this force, he “would have liked to use the word philosophy instead, if she were still the pure, chaste daughter of the heavens, come from the hand of the Creator through the godly gift of reason.“ Moser, in other words, was convinced that by 1792 ”philosophy“ had fallen into the hands of the French cannibals. So he fell back and tried to defend ”enlightenment” from their assault.

That defense stretches on for longer than we tend to realize. Among the tidbits swept up in Google’s scanning initiative is a translation of Gotthold Salomon’s Twelve Sermons Delivered in the New Temple of the Israelites, done by Anna Maria Goldsmid in 1849 and published in London. The first of the sermons dates from 1820 and takes its point of departure from Isaiah II.5: “House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Very quickly, Salomon finds himself attempting to untangle the sort of conceptual confusions that Moser was wrestling with three decades earlier:

To walk in the light of the Lord, to use our reason and the examination of His word, we term Enlightenment—religious enlightenment. Doubtless, my friends, you have often heard religious Enlightenment lauded by some of our co-religionists as the greatest blessing to man; and we have all in truth ourselves experienced the good and cheering results which his heavenly gift has produced. But are you not aware that others of our brethren, shudder and recoil at the mention of its name? Are you not aware that this portion of our community regard enlightenment as a disturber of peace; as the deadly foe of religion? Whence does it arise that one and the same thing can be so differently judged and treated? that one sees light or another beholds not but darkness, which is to him, as to the lisping child, an object of terror? Whence does it arise my brethren, that one feels the blessing of heaven, were the other fears the curse of hell? Whence does it arise that one considers this enlightenment as the herald of evil, another, good?

At this point he proposes to “examine more closely the meaning of the word Enlightenment, and over the next paragraph proceeds to lay out the various ways in which the word had been employed:

This word, my friends, applied first objects in the material world, is now adapted to abstract ideas. It signifies a clearing up of our sight and our sense of that which was previously obscure and confused. When the dark clouds part, and the blue firmament is no longer hidden from our site, we say the sky clears up. The human being whose inward heaven is obscured and overcast, in whose mind confusion prevails, in whose intellect false and true notions are mingled, and who was subsequently enabled by means of wise instruction to separate the true from the false, gradually ceases to be enveloped in the mists of error—that man is enlightened. Heaven has opened upon him the portals of day, and light and heat pervade the previous domain of night, at the call of reason:– Let there be light—Light was!

Salomon was a representative of what David Sorkin has called the “religious enlightenment.” Early in his career he came into contact with such luminaries of the Haskalah as David Friedländer and he spent some time in Berlin before moving on to his post in Hamburg, where he produced one of the many tributes to Moses Mendelssohn that marked the centennial of his birth in 1829.

But if Salomon is part of what we would now see as the “enlightenment” version of “religious enlightenment,” it is worth remembering that what some might be inclined to call a “counter-enlightenment” interpretation of “religious enlightenment” also proliferated well into the nineteenth century (let us postpone, for another time, a discussion of why the notion of “counter-enlightenment” really needs to be put to sleep). The persistence of such arguments has been ably traced by Richard Schaefer in a recent article in The Catholic Historical Review.

Looking through this literature, we occasionally can find examples of individuals who have concluded that the battle just isn’t worth fighting any longer. One example, which I’ve discussed in the same article where I discuss Zimmerman, can be found in Paul Leopold Haffner’s book on the German Enlightenment. Haffner, who would go on to become Archbishop of Mainz, began his account by feigning some confusion as to what it meant to write a history of “enlightenment”:

Enlightenment is a sublime word, if one goes back to its meaning; it means illumination of the spirit through truth, liberation from the shadows of error, or uncertainty, of doubt. Enlightenment is, in its deepest meaning, the transfiguration [Verklärung] of reason.

But, rather quickly, he drops the pretense: he is, he concedes, “too much a child of the nineteenth century” to pursue a history that would depart so violently from what he now sees as the established convention of usage. Resigning himself to speaking the degraded language of his day, “which exchanges the meaning of light and darkness,” which produces a literature that regards “the light of Christian centuries as dark gloom,” and which “greets the shadows of doubt and the progress of religious barbarity as light,” he opts to recount the history of an enlightenment that has little to do with God. To speak of enlightenment in the middle of the nineteenth century is to use a concept that is “purely negative, destructive, empty; it has no positive content and no productive principle.” In order to be counted among the truly enlightened, one must “know nothing.”

Ngrams: Spikey, Not Smoothed

One of the dangers of the ease with which Ngram is that it tends to cover up battles like the ones in which Haffner and Salomon are engaged. Consider my previous Ngram tracing the steady rise of “Enlightenment” in English.

Aufklärung,Ill, and Enl

While I was heartened to see that uses of “the Enlightenment” prior to the publication of John Grier Hibben’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment, I’d assumed that it would also pick up some uses of “the Illumination” or even, in English texts from the period, the contiued use of the German Aufklärung. After all, that was the way that James Hutchison Stirling talked and, as I noted in the previous post, I could do a pretty fair imitation of a Hegel-besotted Scot. But, on further reflection, it makes sense that I’m not seeing those words on my Ngram. First of all, the further back in time that Ngrams stretch, the slimmer the pickings. And, more importantly, since the uses of such terms are so few and far between, they will tend to drop from sight:  the Ngram turns them into little ripples.

But what Google takes away, it also gives back: the family’s digital consoliere advised me that, from time to time, it pays to turn off the Ngram’s default smoothing and have my Ngrams spikey, not smoothed.unsmoothed

With the smoothing turned off it becomes a little clearer that the long flat plane during the first half of the nineteenth century is marked by a few isolated spikes, followed by a few more aftershocks that stretch down to the middel of the century. Something is happening down there, though it’s not clear what it is. Google makes it easy enough to find out what’s going on: taking a closer look at those peaks and checking out the texts that turn up reveals not only some examples of bad metadata (e.g., the misdating of Eucken’s history of philosophy that I mentioned in my previous post) but also some texts I’d never seen before (hello there, Rabbi Salomon!).

The problem isn’t that Ngrams doesn’t play nicely with the sort of conceptual history that Koselleck and his colleagues were doing: it is that, in some cases, Ngrams are all too amiable a playmate. To the jaded, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe might be seen as the sort of offspring one would expect from a marriage between a certain sort of Begriffgeschichte and a version of social history that privileges a familiar narrative about the transition from traditional society to modernity. Most of the action is shunted off into the so-called Sattelzeit, the period when concepts undergo marked transformations.  The locus classicus for this might be the transformation of the concept of bürgerliche Gesellschaft that Otto Brunner sketched in his classic studies of treatises on householding and Manfred Riedel elaborated in the context of making sense of what Hegel was doing with the notion in the Rechtsphilosophie. Since it makes a great deal of sense to understand the transition to modern society as having a lot to do with the rise of a domain of economic relationships that are distinct from both the household (or, as Hegel now dubbed it, “the family”) and the state, it makes sense that the traditional conceptual opposition between oikos and polis, between domestic and civil society, might have needed refurbishing.

Smoothed Ngrams of the sort that I used above have a tendency to seduce us into seeing the rise of “the Enlightenment” as something that resembles the progress of other markers associated with the march into modernity: the line for “the Enlightenment” looks like a line tracking the percentage of the world’s population living in cities or the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. While turning off the smoothing doesn’t entirely banish that impression, it helps. Gazing at those tiny spikes and the silences in between them (what I really need here is a bar graph; I’d like to see nothing in the spaces in between) calls to mind other analogies of how things change: popcorn starting up or winding down, the early stages of a pandemic, or — for those of us who think about the history of concepts in the way that Quentin Skinner appears to have been thinking about it at that unexpected moment in Volume 1 of Visions of Politics when he suddenly began to channel Michel Foucault — “the distant roar of battles.” Those little spikes are testimonies to a series of discrete engagements, some of which eventually had weightier implications and some of which did not.

Towards a History of Contingently Contested Concepts

Like everyone else who works on the Enlightenment, I complained about the old OED definition of Enlightenment; but I secretly liked it. I used to begin my course on the European Enlightenment by showing a slide with the definition (accompanied by the famous picture of James Murray, in his library, with a beard that made him look like he could have joined up with these guys). I’d come back to it at the end of the course, right before plunging into a discussion of the “better” answers that could be found to the question “What is Enlightenment?” in Kant and Mendelssohn. This is the world we have lost: a world in which the Enlightenment might, somehow, seem dangerous. But now the OED, like Father Haffner before, has resigned itself to living in the modern world. The battle against the OED’s definition, begun back in the early 1950s by the young Peter Gay, is over. And it is as if the victors were given the final edit on the definition.

The OED’s definition of “the Enlightenment” now conforms to the way in which we talk about it today. Though we can still hear traces of the old Illuminati, Freemason, philosophe conspiracy dialect in accounts of the period that turn up from time to time, mainstream conservative pundits (e.g., David Brooks) have learned to follow the lead of Gertude Himmelfarb and play the good, English enlightenment off against that crazy French one (and, predictably, after the nod to Himmelfarb, Brooks moves on to juxtapose the wise Edmund Burke to that hothead Thomas Paine — plus ça change, indeed).

One reason for caring about getting the history of a concept like enlightenment right is that it might restore a sense of contingency to this process and allow us to catch echoes of the distant roar of battles in places like David Brooks’ column (which might, at the very least, make them slightly interesting).  At about the same time as philosophers were arguing that all three words in Walter Bryce Gallie’s notion of “essentially contested concepts” were somewhat problematic, William Connolly ported the notion over into political philosophy, where it appeared to make a bit more sense. But while it might be useful to think of the history of political thought as a long series of struggles with notions on which both reasonable and unreasonable people are bound to differ, it is also worth recognizing that, more often than not, the history of concepts involves the tracing of “contingently contested concepts.” The history of concepts needn’t be restricted to an account of titanic battles involving Big Notions that eventually gave birth to The Modern World. It might also be worth viewing it as an attempt to write the history of a series of bar fights, a few of which eventually blossomed into something bigger.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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