Revisiting the “Enlightenment Project,” Inspired by Anthony Pagden and Armed with Some Ngrams

I turned in the last of my grades for the semester at the start of the week and was reminded, once again, that if April is the cruelest month, May — at least for academics — must be the kindest: a vast prospect for research, reading, and writing opens. September, for the moment anyway, remains little more than a distant threat. Conveniently enough, one of the books that I’m looking forward to reading turned up in my mailbox at the end of last week: Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters.

A passing comment near the start of the book deals with one of my hobby-horses:

The now much-quoted, and much-abused phrase ‘the Enlightenment project’ was probably coined some thirty years ago by the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (about whom I will have more to say later). It was not meant to be complimentary.1

Back in 2000, I ranted a bit in an article in Political Theory entitled “What Enlightenment Project?” (the title was supposed to be snarky, but that doesn’t always come off in print and “Enlightenment Project? WTF?” hadn’t occurred to me). Drawing on Albert O. Hirschman’s typology of reactionary forms of rhetoric (Jeremy Adelman’s recent biography of the great man is high up on my summer reading list), I examined some of the mischief associated with the term. Yet, when the time came to figure out what to put in the field that WordPress provides for briefly describing the focus of a blog, I found myself employing a variant of the phrase. My alibi was that I figured I could discuss treatments of the Enlightenment as a “continuing project” without actually committing myself to the view that this way of talking makes much sense. Pagden’s brief discussion of this “much-quoted, and much-abused phrase” provides a chance to revisit the phrase and see what sense I can make of it.

This post will focus on Pagden’s account of the genesis of the phrase (other posts, on related issues, will likely follow — after all, it’s summer and time to ruminate). Pagden makes three claims, which I’d like to a bit more closely: the first has to do with the novelty of the phrase “the Enlightenment project,” the second has to do with its alleged originator, and the third with the evaluation that the term implies. In what follows, I’ll be lending support to the first of these claims but questioning the other two.

The Ascent of the “Enlightenment Project”

The suggestion that the phrase “the Enlightenment project” was coined “some thirty years ago” is one of those claims that cries out for an Ngram:


What we have here would seem to confirm Pagden’s account: around 1980, the phrase “Enlightenment project” began its ascent, with “Enlightenment Project” following in its wake. The latter may be capturing an emerging practice of treating both parts of the bigram as proper nouns, but may also be tracking the appearance of the phrase in the titles of book sections and articles. Either way, it would seem to capture the extent to which the phrase is turning into a term of art.

The results look a bit messier if smoothing is turned off, but the same general picture emerges. There is, however, one intriguing difference:


While smoothed version makes it appear as if the ascent of “Enlightenment project” began in 1980, what we see in the unsmoothed version is a small hiccup in 1980, with the steady rise commencing in 1982, the year after the appearance of MacIntyre’s book. This fits better with Pagden’s claim about MacIntyre’s role, but it opens the question of how the phrase was the being used prior to the publication of After Virtue. A search for occurrences of the phrase limited to 1980 turns up five examples:

  1. “The development of a universal, mathematically formulated science and its emergence as the model for all science and knowledge represents a culmination of the Enlightenment’s project.” David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: From Horkheimer to Habermas (1980) p. 161.
  2. “John Wilkins, another Enlightenment project-director, who sought to fly to the moon, and who commissioned wings to be made for that purpose …” John L. Mahoney, The Enlightenment and English literature: Prose and Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, with Selected Modern Critical Essays(1980), p. 110
  3. “Yet this loss of substance does not justify Goudzwaard’s outright negation of the entire Enlightenment project — toward human rights, toward democracy and toward science and technology” and “I argue against Goudzwaard that Christians must not stand against the Enlightenment project.” Gregory Brown, “Faith in Progress or Christian Faith,”The Ecumenist: A Journal for Promoting Christian Unity 19:3 (March-April 1981) 43-48 p. 45 & 48.
  4. “Despite Maurice’s sympathy with the Enlightenment project of self-appropriation and self-possession, nevertheless he contended that the exaltation of the autonomous self-defining subject in the critical tradition was an abstraction as distorting and alienating as the older metaphysics had been.” Charles Davis, Community and Critique in Nineteenth-Century Theology (1980) p. 59
  5. (No text snippet provided), Koun Yamada, Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans (1980)

Small though this list may be, it remind us of at least two things. First, some of these examples take some pains to specify just which Enlightenment project the author has in mind. For Held, the “Enlightenment project” involves the “development of a universal, mathematically formulated science,” in the first of the examples from Brown, Goudzwaard (a Dutch theologian)2 is said to reject an “Enlightenment project” that was directed “toward human rights, toward democracy and toward science and technology,” and, according to Davis, Maurice (about whom, I have been able to learn nothing) is sympathetic towards an Enlightenment project that has to do with “self-appropriation and self-possession.”

As a crude way of tracking what, if any, differences there might be in usages of an “Enlightenment project” that is not further specified and one that is specified in the ways that our examples suggest, we can compare two NGrams: one for “Enlightenment project” and the other for “Enlightenment project of.” Here are the results (the smoothing is turned off):


Were all the instances of “Enlightenment project” simply the start of a phrase that continued “Enlightenment project of,” the two lines would overlap. Obviously they don’t. But caution is advised in interpreting what we are seeing here:

  1. As always appears to be the case with the things I want to investigate, these are really puny numbers (I guess I should be doing what Google wants and constructing an Ngram that compares Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes, and Frankenstein). This might be reason enough to not to put much stock in any of these results.
  2. Not all instances of what we might call the “specified Enlightenment project” take the form of “Enlightenment project of” (e.g., only example #4 above would be captured by the Ngram for “Enlightenment project of.” As a result, it is likely that there are more invocations of “specified Enlightenment projects” than our Ngram is showing.
  3. Further, as example #3 illustrates, an author may initially specify what specific “Enlightenment project” is being discussed but then go on, for the remainder of the text, to employ the phrase “Enlightenment project” without a modifier. This, like the undersampling of “specified Enlightenment projects” noted in #2 would tend to reduce distance between the two lines.

Nevertheless, we may be on to something here. I can’t think of a good reason why the undercounting of “specified” uses of “Enlightenment project” should vary over time, but what we are seeing on the Ngram is a trend towards using “Enlightenment project” without spelling out just what it involves (though, once again, reservation #1 may still trump all other considerations). If this holds up, it would mean though invocations of the “Enlightenment project” increase, a specification of what it might involves are failing to keep pace.

The second thing that our five examples (four examples, if we leave Yamada out of the discussion) from 1981 suggests is that the phrase “Enlightenment project” is being used in at least three different disciplinary contexts: the first comes from a book on the Frankfurt School, the second is an editor’s note to one of the poems included in an anthology of literary texts from the eighteenth century,3 the third and fourth come from discussions in theology. While MacIntyre’s subsequent discussion of the “Enlightenment project” would be quite important for the context inhabited by the third and fourth examples, his work would appear to be rather alien to the tradition invoked in David Held’s study (true, MacIntyre wrote a book on Marcuse, but he made it clear that he didn’t think much of him). All of this is enough to wonder whether Pagden may have overlooked another possible candidate for “originator” of the term.

The Project of Enlightenment as the Project of Modernity

In 1997, the Swedish historian Sven-Eric Liedman offered the following account of the origins of the phrase “Enlightenment project.” It differs markedly from Pagden’s.

it was the German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas who, in 1980, first talked about ‘the Enlightenment Project’ and maintained that it had not lost its vitality and value.4

Liedman was alluding to the speech given by Habermas in September 1980 when he was awarded the Adorno Prize by the city of Frankfurt. The section of the speech that carried the title Die Projekt der Aufklärung began as follows:

The project of modernity as it was formulated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century consists in the relentless development of the objectivating sciences, of the universalistic foundations of morality and law, and of autonomous art, all in accord with their own immanent logic. But at the same time it also results in releasing the cognitive potentials accumulated in the process from their esoteric high forms and attempting to apply them in the sphere of praxis, that is, to encourage the rational organization of social relations⁠.5

So here we have another account of the “Enlightenment project” and Habermas’s use of the phrase, unlike MacIntyre’s, could hardly be read as “not meant to be complimentary.”

There are two peculiarities that should be noted at the outset:

  1. While the section carries the title Projekt der Aufklärung, the “project” that concerns Habermas in the speech itself is the one that the philosophes allegedly initiated: namely, “the project of modernity.”
  2. The German Projekt der Aufklärung presents its translators with the dilemma of whether or not to employ the definite article: the two existing translations opt for “Project of Enlightenment,” but they could also, with equal justification, have used “Project of the Enlightenment.” Or they could have reproduced the ambiguity by going with “The Enlightenment Project.”

So, it’s time for another Ngram, this one comparing the German and English terms:


What’s clear from the Ngram is that the German literature is discussing the “Projekt der Aufklärung” slightly earlier than Anglophone publications are invoking the “Enlightenment project” and the German discussions go on to invoke it much more frequently, peaking around 1997 (which, lest we forget, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment). I suspect the falling off of instances of “Projekt der Aufklärung” after that date tells us more about purchasing patterns in American libraries than it does about German usage.

What this doesn’t prove, however, is that all of those German discussions of the “Projekt der Aufklärung” are devoted to Habermas’s enlightenment project: since German academics are more likely to read English books than Anglophone academics are likely to read German ones, it stands to reason that a fair number of those discussions of the “Projekt der Aufklärung” will be dealing with MacIntyre. Nevertheless, as the example from David Held’s 1981 study suggests, readers interested in Habermas were already picking up the habit of invoking something called “the Enlightenment project” before the publication of After Virtue. (I should be able to provide first-hand testimony on this since David and I were both in the PhD program in Political Science at MIT in the 1970s, but I have no recollection of when I first heard the words “Enlightenment project.” I do, however, recall when I first heard the word “deconstruction,” but that’s a story for another day.)

This suggests that we might want to modify Pagden’s account of the origins of the phrase “Enlightenment project” and suggest that, while it did indeed come into fashion right about the time when he claimed it did,

  1. The credit (or blame) for the invention and popularization of the term would seem to belong to both Alasdair MacIntyre and Jürgen Habermas.
  2. While, for MacIntyre, it may appear as if the term “was not meant to be complimentary” (there may be more I want to say about this, though), for Habermas it clearly was.

What this suggests is that sometime around 1981 we begin to see the beginning of a dispute over what “the Enlightenment project” involved and whether or not it was a good thing. This alternative account has its appeal: among other things, it makes 1981 look rather like 1784, when any number of people were arguing about what “enlightenment” was and wondering whether it was always a good thing. Perhaps this explains why, around this time, I thought it might make sense to start looking at the German debate on the question “What is Enlightenment?”

  1. Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters, (New York, Random House, 2013) 16.
  2. There is a bibliography of his works in English here.
  3. A copy of the book is making its way to me through interlibrary borrowing.
  4. Sven-Eric Liedman, “The Crucial Role of Ethics in Different Types of Enlightenment (Condorcet and Kant),” in The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment, ed. Sven-Eric Liedman, Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities 58 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997), 45-58, p. 45.
  5. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” in Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, ed. Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves and Seyla Benhabib, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge [England]: Polity Press, 1996), 44-46. For an earlier translation, see Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” trans. Seyla Ben-Habib, New German Critique, no. 22 (January 1, 1981): 8-9

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to Revisiting the “Enlightenment Project,” Inspired by Anthony Pagden and Armed with Some Ngrams

  1. Philip Grant says:

    Let us be thankful that Padgen’s terrific rehabilitation of the enlightenment doesn’t use Ngrams.

  2. Pingback: Whose Buttock? Which Enlightenment? – Thoughts on Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters | Persistent Enlightenment

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