Pursuing the “Shallow Enlightenment” (Part I: Nineteenth-Century Trash-Talk)

In my efforts to make sense of the various pejoratives hurled at the Enlightenment, the one whose depths I’ve yet to plumb is (oddly enough) “shallow.” The term surfaces in a number of places and there’s a lot to be untangled here. But I thought it might be time to make a first stab at tracing the history of the term’s usage, if only because we will wind up encountering some interesting characters and stumbling into an area of research that is far removed from the normal concerns of this blog.  So, let’s cast off for the deep waters.

Professor Stirling, Meet Professor Cassirer

One of the more infamous appearances of “shallow Enlightenment” occurs in the flawed source quote from Stirling’s Secret of Hegel that the OED used as an example of its now-revised definition of “Enlightenment”:

Shallow Enlightenment, supported on such semi-information, on such weak personal vanity, etc.

As I argued in my article on the problems with the OED’s definition, the broader context from which the quote was extracted makes it clear that Stirling was criticizing the shallowness of the “enlightenment” achieved by Henry Thomas Buckle, rather than the shallowness of the historical period known as “the Enlightenment.” This means that what the OED presented as an example of second sense of the term (i.e., a reference to the views of certain French philosophers of the eighteenth-century) was, in fact, yet another example of the first sense (i.e., “imparting or receiving mental or spiritual light”).

But the phrase turns up in another important place: the translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment. It can be found towards the close of the Preface to the work, which dates from October 1932 (i.e., a few months before Hitler’s seizure of power). There Cassirer calls for a revision of the “verdict of the Romantic Movement on the Enlightenment.” The 1952 translation renders the passage as follows:

This verdict is still accepted by many without criticism, and the slogan of the “shallow Enlightenment” [flachen Aufklärung] is still in vogue. A major objective of this study would be achieved if it succeeded in silencing that slogan.

Now, of course, the slogan Cassirer saw himself as battling was “flachen Aufklärung”, not “shallow Enlightenment;” but the fact that his translators opted for “shallow” rather than one or another of the possible options (e.g., my big Langenscheidt suggests “superficial” or “vapid”) raises the possibility that the “flachen Aufklärung” Cassirer was hoping to silence may have had something to do with the usage of the phrase “shallow Enlightenment” that the OED (wrongly) thought it had discovered in Stirling’s 1865 study of Hegel. This would suggest that, though the OED might have been wrong about the particular citation from Stirling, the catch-phrase “shallow Enlightenment” might have been employed by other nineteenth-century English writers who had taken it over from the same place where Cassirer thought it had originated: in the “verdict of the Romantic Movement on the Enlightenment.” Were this the case, it might also help to explain why the OED’s old definition offered, as precedents for the use of “Enlightenment” to refer to an historical period, not only the normal German term Aufklärung but also the pejorative Aufklärerei.

Running a few nGrams and then looking at a few of the sources suggests that there might, indeed, be something more connecting Cassirer’s “flachen Aufklärung” and the OED’s “shallow Enlightenment” than the obvious fact that “shallow” is not that bad translation for “flachen.” From what I’ve been able to work out — and I hasten to add that all of this is rather tentative — (1) both “shallow Enlightenment” and “flachen Aufklärung” enjoy a modest currency in the nineteenth century, (2) the terms seems to have migrated from German into English, and (3) the vehicle for this transmission consisted of Anglophone admirers of German Romantics. Making things even more interesting is that fact that there is also a madman in the mix, along with an ocean voyage that left its mark on American literature.  We’ll get to the really interesting stuff next week;  today’s assignment is to look at some of the nineteenth-century trash-talk that was used to refer to the Enlightenment.

Some Bad Words for the Enlightenment

Let’s start by comparing the German and English terms:

Shallow v Flache

The first thing to notice is that we are dealing with pathetically small numbers of occurrences (so I’ve turned off the smoothing entirely). But the results do lend some support to the suspicion that the phrase “shallow enlightenment” originated in German and then migrated over to English and that its heyday was the period between 1830 and 1900.  A quick look at the samples suggests that most of the action in German after 1945 consists of quotations from nineteenth century texts or characterizations of how critics of the Enlightenment allegedly talked about it. The lack of appearances of flache Aufklärung before 1830 is, however, somewhat puzzling: if the term is something that the Romantics were using, Google should be picking it up. But there’s nothing there.

It is always difficult to explain why something isn’t occurring, but it is possible that the absence of appearances of flache Aufklärung may have something to do with the presence of other, more popular pejoratives that were deployed against the Enlightenment. So, let’s see how the phrase fares against some competing terms.

German Neg TermsThis nGram presents a rogues’ gallery of pejoratives: false enlightenment, shallow enlightenment, and the untranslatable Aufklärerei, which was an attempt to create a word for enlightenment that is modeled on the word that enlighteners use to characterize certain forms of religious fanaticism (Schwärmerei). There are probably a few other terms that could be thrown into the mix (suggestions anyone?), but this will do for now.

We can safely ignore just about everything after 1900:  appearances of these terms (with the possible exception of flache Aufklärung) will likely be occurring in new editions of earlier texts, quotations from earlier texts, and discussions of the way in which Aufklärung was treated in the previous century (for example, if the nGram is doing its job, it should pick up Cassirer’s use of flachen Aufklärung in 1932).  It’s possible that some of the usages of these terms between 1932 and 1945 come from National Socialist denunciations of Aufklärung, but a quick poking around in the examples from that period didn’t bear out that suspicion and, in any case, it is unlikely that there would be many National Socialist texts in American libraries for Google to scan (and with this we stumble into a broader bias in the corpus that I’m working from:  what’s being searched here aren’t “German texts” but, instead, a particular subset of German texts:  the ones that Google managed to scan). And, finally, don’t trust the flat line before 1790:  the terms are there, but Google isn’t turning them up either because the books are not sitting on the shelves to be scanned (for an explanation of where they might be, consult this discussion) or the OCR software is having difficulties with old German fonts.

The Waning of the Trash-Talk

But, if we are willing to live with these reservations about what the nGram is showing us, what, if anything, does it suggest about the transformation of arguments over the concept of enlightenment during century between 1790 and 1890?  When I look at the nGram (caveat:  your mileage may vary), I don’t see anything here that raises problems for my general take on the conceptual history of Aufklärung during this period:  falsche Aufklärung (false enlightenment) can survive only as long as there is a wahre Aufklärung (true enlightenment) that can be marshaled against it.  It is the creature of a world in which all parties want to defend what they take to be “enlightenment,” but the notion of “enlightenment” is still capacious enough to encompass much of what will later be slotted (anachronistically and unhelpfully) into the misleading concept of “counter-enlightenment” (in a subsequent post I will try to explain it is a very bad concept that needs to be sent to its room without dinner).  The appearance of Aufklärerei marks a stepping up in the intensity of the debate:  it’s a term of ridicule that, at least initially, still functions as part of an opposition to Aufklärung, properly understood, but which eventually functioned as an abusive term for Aufklärung in general.  Hence, it has a longer tail than “false enlightenment.”  It stretches into the last decades of the century when, at long last, the term Aufklärung will be employed, sometimes pejoratively, sometimes affirmatively, and sometime neutrally:  everyone is now generally clear on what “the Enlightenment” designates, even though they differ on how it is to be evaluated.  What’s a bit puzzling here is how few instances of “shallow enlightenment” are turning up.  Looking at the samples, a fair number of them seem to be in the context of the loss of religious sentiments during the eighteenth century, but there’s the risk of reading too much into the limited sample I’ve looked at (after all, this is a blog post, not an article — it’s a preliminary formulation to be scrutinized and criticized).

We are still no clearer on two points than we were before we started this voyage:  (1) why the OED (or, more specifically, the extractor of the quote from Stirling) was so eager to read Stirling’s critique of Buckle’s “shallow enlightenment” as an accusation that the Enlightenment itself was shallow and (2) what the German pejorative Aufklärerei was doing in the OED’s definition.    The answers to those questions turn out to be lurking down in the troubled waters of Google’s samples.  We will descend further into those depths in next week’s post and, when we plumb them, we will encounter an American writer, a very disturbed college professor, and the whitest of all white things.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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