Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part 1: Nietzsche’s Role

When asked “Who invented the word ‘counter-Enlightenment?” Isaiah Berlin replied

I don’t know who invented the concept …. Someone must have said it. Could it be myself? I should be somewhat surprised. Perhaps I did. I really have no idea.1

In the quarter century since this 1988 interview, it has become clearer that the concept Berlin popularized enjoyed a limited usage prior to the publication of his influential 1973 article on the subject in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.2 But almost everything else about the term remains puzzling.


J. G. A. Pocock

Among the larger puzzles is just what it is supposed to designate, a problem nicely captured by J. G. A. Pocock when he asked whether it was intended to refer to “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another, or a fixed antipathy to Enlightenment in some final sense of the term?”3 But there are also smaller, and no less puzzling questions, as to how Berlin came to use the term in the first place and what, if anything, his use of the term might have had to do with these earlier uses.4 While Pocock’s reservations about the concept (which which I share) raise what are, by far, the most significant set of issues, my concern in this and the posts to follow will be with less weighty, but somewhat more easily resolvable, problems involving the history of the term itself.  I hope that exploring them may lend further support to Pocock’s suspicions about the utility of this confused and confusing concept.

My plan, then, is to devote a few posts to an examination of earlier uses of the term, both in English and in German, and see how these earlier uses may have influenced Berlin. In the end, we will still be left with a number of mysteries about the term (which, it turns out, has been kicking around longer than I suspected) but one thing seems reasonably certain: the account that Zeev Sternhell offers of the history of the term at the start of his Anti-Enlightenment Tradition gets much of the earlier history of the term wrong. Since his account repeats much of what has become the conventional wisdom about the history of the concept, it seems as good a place as any start. While understanding where and why Sternell’s account goes wrong will not, in itself, explain what led Berlin to use the term, it does help to clarify some of the problems that plague the concept itself.

Sternhell’s History of the Term

Zeev Sternhell’s discussion of what he characterizes as the “anti-Enlightenment tradition” begins with a short account of the history of the term “Counter-Enlightenment.” Drawing, for the most part, on earlier studies he argues:

The term Gegen-Aufklärung was probably invented by Nietzsche, and was in common usage in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. It was no accident that Nietzsche invented this term in order to define the thought of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, for its creation reflected not only his understanding of the intellectual trends of his time but also the fact that it was in the “Nietzsche years” that the Anti-Enlightenment gained momentum and became a veritable intellectual torrent. It was at that time that the antirationalist and antiuniversalist revolution of the end of the eighteenth century came down into the street, adapted to the needs of a society that within a few decades had changed as never before. In English, the term “Counter-Enlightenment” had existed for at least some fifteen years before it was used by Isaiah Berlin, who believed he might have invented it. It was employed by William Barrett, an American professor of philosophy well known in his time, editor of The Partisan Review. Barrett was one of the first American academics to introduce existentialism to his countrymen. It is not surprising that it was precisely in a book on existentialism that this Nietzschean concept appeared. It was, however, undoubtedly due to Berlin’s innate talent for the popularization of formulas that the term “Counter-Enlightenment” became accepted in the English-speaking world. If is term never existed in French, it was perhaps partly because Gegen-Aufklärung was flatly translated in that language as “the reaction to the philosophy of the Enlightenment.” The translators into French were not aware that Nietzsche had just invented an analytical concept of the greatest importance. On the other hand, the term “anti-philosophe” appeared at more or less the time that the encyclopédistes adopted the name “philosophes.” So even if in France they did not speak of an “anti” or “counter” Enlightenment, the idea, from the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, did exist there as elsewhere.5

Sternhell makes quite a few claims here (there are at least eight of them, by my count) and their relationship is not always clear. Since I am going to spending some time picking my way through them, let me begin by listing them and briefly noting where the problems in his account reside:

  • Claim 1. Nietzsche “probably” invented the term: this claim is clearly wrong — there seem to have been a few uses of the word prior to Nietzsche and, more importantly, the claim that Nietzsche used the term in anything approximating the sense in which it would come to be used by Berlin and others is quite problematic
  • Claim 2. It was in “common usage” in Germany by beginning of the twentieth century: the best evidence I have been able to come up with suggests that this claim is mistaken as well; the term does not seem to enjoy widespread usage until the 1960s and it is difficult to find evidence of even a modest number of uses until the beginning of the 1920s.
  • Claim 3. Nietzsche’s usage of the term was tied to (a) his understanding of his times and (b) to the spread of the “Anti-Enlightenment” movement: much in this claim is undermined by the failure of claims #1 and #2; it also rests on an interpretation of Nietzsche’s views that both to oversimplifies and overstates what he seems to have been doing on the one occasion when he used the term.
  • Claim 4. William Barrett introduced the term into English around 1958 in the context of a discussion of Nietzsche: this claim is also wrong — Barrett had used the term as early as 1949 and that use was only loosely associated with Nietzsche; further, there turns out to have been at least one other use of the term in English prior to Barrett.
  • Claim 5. Berlin popularized the term in English: on this point Sternhell is clearly correct.
  • Claim 6. The term never existed in French: this would also appear to be true, though I am not sure how important it is since, as Sternhell himself notes, there were a few alternatives (both in French and German) that did more or less the same work as “counter-Enlightenment.”
  • Claim 7. The French were (a) unaware of Nietzsche’s use of the term and hence (b) were deprived of “an analytical concept of the greatest importance”: The first part of the claim is true, if only because no one seems to have been aware of Nietzsche’s alleged invention of the concept. Regarding the second part: I doubt that the French were missing much.
  • Claim 8. Nevertheless “anti-philosophe” does much the same work as “counter-Enlightenment”: much here hangs on the question of whether “anti-philosophe” and various other kindred terms are, in fact, equivalent to “counter-Enlightenment.” I would argue that they are not: to claim that there was such a thing as a “counter-Enlightenment” is different from maintaining that the Enlightenment had enemies.

I will devote the next few posts to working my way through these claims. This post will examine Sternhell’s claims about Nietzsche’s alleged role in coining the term and glance at one earlier use of the term. Subsequent posts will take up  Sternhell’s other claims.

Nietzsche’s Use of the Term Gegenaufklärung

The sole evidence offered by Sternhell for Nietzsche’s having “probably invented” the term “Gegen-Aufklärung” consists of a reference to a footnote in Robert Wokler’s contribution to Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment, a collection of essays on the topic that Wokler edited with Joseph Mali.6 There would appear to be no indication that Sternhell has actually looked at the Nietzsche quotation itself.  Indeed, until beginning work on this series of posts, I hadn’t looked at it either, though, like Sternhell, I was familiar with Wokler’s passing reference to it.

It was my good fortune to have gotten to know Robbie Wokler and, in a series of discussions, both in person and via email, we spent a fair amount of time attempting to track down previous uses of the term. We were joined in this hunt by Graeme Garrard, whose Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present receives some shabby treatment in Sternhell’s book.7 Robbie was content simply to note, at the end of a footnote devoted to arguments about the concept of enlightenment, that Nietzsche had employed the term “Gegen-Aufklärung” in one of his notes from the spring and summer of 1877 (i.e., around the time of the publication of the final, and perhaps most problematic, of his Untimely Meditations, “Richard Wagner at Bayreuth”).8 In contrast to Sternhell, Robbie did not seem to view the note as amounting to an “invention” of the term; his assumption was that there must have been an eighteenth-century use of the term (I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him that this was unlikely).

Sternhell’s claim is considerably more ambitious:

It was no accident that Nietzsche invented this term in order to define the thought of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner,  for its creation reflected not only his understanding of the intellectual trends of his time but also the fact that it was in the “Nietzsche years” that the Anti-Enlightenment gained momentum and became a veritable intellectual torrent.

While Sternhell’s characterization of what Nietzsche was attempting to do seems sensible enough, it is difficult to square with what Nietzsche actually entered into his notebook.

Here (courtesy of the Nietzsche Channel) is a reconstruction of what Nietzsche jotted down:

Nietzsche's Note

Sternhell is right to suggest that Nietzsche’s use of term has something to do with his understanding of contemporary “intellectual trends,” though exactly what he is doing here strikes me as far more puzzing than Sternhell’s brief discussion would have us believe.

Let’s start with a translation:

There are shorter and longer arcs in cultural evolution. The peak of enlightenment corresponds to the peak of counter-enlightenment in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche Wagner. The highpoint of the little arcs come near to that of the greater arc —  romanticism.

At first glance, it would seem that the only problematic word here is Bogen, which performs a number of services for Nietzsche. In the immediate context, “arc” seems like the best choice: Nietzsche, after all, immediately draws a series of arcs to illustrate his point. But Bogen also can be translated as “bow” and in his passing discussion of the Enlightenment in the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil it is this sense of the term comes to the fore:

Freilich, der europäische Mensch empfindet diese Spannung als Nothstand; und es ist schon zwei Mal im grossen Stile versucht worden, den Bogen abzuspannen, einmal durch den Jesuitismus, zum zweiten Mal durch die demokratische Aufklärung:—als welche mit Hülfe der Pressfreiheit und des Zeitunglesens es in der That erreichen dürfte, dass der Geist sich selbst nicht mehr so leicht als “Noth” empfindet!

The Nietzsche Channel translates this as follows:

To be sure, European man experiences this tension as a state of distress; twice already attempts have been made in the grand style to slacken the bow, once by means of Jesuitism, the second time by means of the democratic Enlightenment:—which, with the aid of freedom of the press and newspaper-reading, might indeed bring it about that the spirit would no longer experience itself so easily as “distress”!

While there is more to say about the implications of Nietzsche’s discussion of the tightening and slackening of bows might have to do with Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, for now it may be enough simply to note the pliability of the word Bogen. My chief interest, however, is with the peculiar diagram that Nietzsche drew to illustrate his account of cultural development: I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

The text would lead us to expect that Nietzsche would go on to draw arcs contrasting the trajectory of Aufklärung and Gegen-Aufklärung (with the latter exemplified by Schopenhauer and Wagner). But that, it would appear, is not quite what he does: instead, we have a series of smaller arcs — the first of which is labelled  “Romantik” — and a broader, higher arc that is connected to the name “Wagner.”    As Nietzsche explains in the text underneath the drawing, the peaks of these smaller arcs approach (but do not reach) the peak of the larger arc.

Nietzsche’s note would have been easier to understand if the smaller set of arcs had been labeled “Aufklärung” instead of  “Romantik”:   in that case,  Wagner and Schopenhauer could be seen as standing on the great arc of the Gegenaufklärung with the various peaks below representing the smaller arcs of Aufklärung.  But that is not what he did.  One way of making a bit more sense of the note would be to question whether, in the text below the drawing, Nietzsche intended the word “Romantik” as a specification of the phrase “the larger arc.” Coming at the end of sentence about the relative relationship of larger and smaller arcs, perhaps “Romantik” was intended simply as a suggestion that this might be a way to think about the function of romanticism within the more general process of “cultural evolution” that Nietzsche was sketching (i.e., it amounted to little more than a reminder that romanticism ought to be brought into the discussion at some point).  It is also possible that Nietzsche had not initially labelled the two arcs (which were intended only as a way of illustrating the general point about shorter and longer arcs) and only proceeded to do so after having written the final sentence.

But this still leaves us with the problem of sorting out how we are to understand the relationship between “Enlightenment” and “Counter-Enlightenment.”  As things stand, we are faced with the difficulty of mapping the opposition between Aufklärung and Gegen-Aufklärung onto the opposition between romanticism on the one hand and Schopenhauer and Wagner on the other.  And there is no way of doing that if we continue to employ the terms Aufklärung and Gegen-Aufklärung as equivalent to the distinction between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment.  For that would force us to see either Wagner and Schopenhauer or romanticism as associated with the Enlightenment.  And that seems quite implausible.

There is, however, on final option.  It is possible that, in this particular context, “enlightenment” may not be best way of translating  Aufklärung:  perhaps Nietzsche was using it, not to designate the movement that we know as “the Enlightenment,” but instead in the broader sense of conveying information or as educating someone about something.   Whatever its shortcomings, this  interpretation of the text at least has the virtue of echoing the way in the which Schopenhauer had been characterized in the third of the Untimely Meditations:  “Schopenhauer als Erzieher” (“Schopenhauer as Educator”).  The term Aufklärung turns up three times in section 5 of the discussion and is used there in the more general sense of “enlightening” or “informing” someone about something.  I am not particularly wedded to this interpretation and would be interested in seeing what others might make of Nietzsche’s note.  But this reading does allow us to make a bit more sense of Nietzsche’s text and the diagram that he draws, even though it comes at the price of forcing us to abandon the idea that Nietzsche is discussing the relationship between what we could call “the Enlightenment” and “the Counter-Enlightenment.”

In any case, the one lesson that can be taken away from this is that the text we are dealing with is, after all, just a note in a notebook.  It was something that was unlikely to have been seen by anyone during Nietzsche’s lifetime and I suspect that Nietzsche jotted down in considerably less time than I have spent discussing it.   All of this is enough to suggest that Sternhell’s claim that Nietzsche’s use of the term amounts to the “invention” of the concept of “the counter-Enlightenment” is a bit of a stretch.  And, as we shall see in the next post, his further claim that it was “no accident” that Nietzsche invented the term at this particular moment amounts to little more than whistling in the dark.

“Gegenaufklärung” Before Nietzsche

It might, however, be argued that Sternhell was simply claiming that Nietzsche invented the term — rather than the concept — of Gegenaufklärung and that his attaching of this term to Wagner and Schopenhauer, while perhaps not entirely consistent with its subsequent uses, nevertheless served as a starting point for what would go on to become a fully-developed critique of the Enlightenment.  But this claim is also problematic:  for the word Gegenaufklärung appears to have been in use  prior to Nietzsche’s note, though (as I have argued may also have been the case with Nietzsche) the word does not appear to have been used to designate the concept  “Counter-Enlightenment” as we now understand it.

Take, for instance, this brief note from the Augsburger Tagblatt of April 14, 1835 (441-442), which seems to have been written in response to a earlier article having to do with the functioning of church bells.  It reads, in full,

Dem Einsender des Aufsatzes, das Schlagwerk der St. Stephansthumuhr betreffend, diene zur wohbedürftigen Aufklärung, das ausser ihm, niemand weiss, dass das Viertelschlagwerk jemals auf das Chorglöcklein geschlagen habe, sondern früher wie jetzt auf die sogenannte Messglocke schlug und noch schlägt.  Als Beweis diene:  dass weder an dem Glockenstuhl noch an dem Chorglöcklein selbst nicht die mindeste Spur von einem ehemaligen Schlagwerke zu finden ist; an der Messglocke hingegen sind vom Hammer so tiefe Narben geschlagen, das man im vorigen Jahre für gut fand, diese Glocke berreits zum zweitenmale zu verrückern, wobei bemerkt wird, dass wenigstens ein Jahrhundert nötig ist, bis von Schalgwerk eine solche Narbe entsteht.  Da übrigens das Chorglöcklein kleinen ist, und daher wohl einen höhern, keineswegs aber hellern oder stärkern Ton gibt als die Messglocke, auch zu der Stundenglocke, der grossen Distanz wegen, in ungewöhnlichen Tonverhältnisses steht, so ist nicht einzusehen, warum eine Abänderung hätte vorgenommen werden sollen, und man bittet deshalb den verehrlichen Herrn Einsender um gefällige Gegenaufklärung.

I will not even attempt a translation of this tedious discussion of the finer points of bell ringing, but instead will simply note that what the author is doing amounts to providing some “contrary information”  (Gegenaufklärung) to the “enlightenment” offered in an earlier article in the journal.  Searches of German books from the first half of the nineteenth century using both Google and the search engine of the Hathi Trust turn up a few other appearances of the word, though trying to figure out the variety of  ways in which the term was used would require a good deal more time than I can spare at the moment, especially since the search engine on the Google Books site seems to be having some problems distinguishing between “Gegenaufklärung” and the much more common — and much less interesting — phrase “gegen Aufklärung.”)9   

My suspicion is that while we are like to find scattered occurrences of the word Gegenaufklärung during the first half of the nineteenth century,  it is unlikely that the contexts in which it is used are going to be ones in which its usage amounts to an invocation of what we would understand by “Counter-Enlightenment.”  It is clear that, by the middle of the nineteenth century the Enlightenment had accumulated any number of enemies.  What is far from clear is that anyone found it necessary to lump all these enemies together into something called “the Counter-Enlightenment.”

But the best evidence for maintaining that the idea that there was such a thing as a “Counter-Enlightenment” arrived far later than we sometimes assume can be found by looking for appearances of the term during a period when, if Sternhell’s second claim is correct, we should have no problems in seeing instances of it:  the latter part of the nineteenth century.  My next post will take a look at that period and see what, if anything, we can learn about how Gegenaufklärung was being used in the wake of Nietzsche’s alleged invention of the term.

To be continued …

  1. Isaiah Berlin and Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (New York: Scribners, 1991) 69-70
  2. Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Scribner’s, 1968-73) Volume II:100 (reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (New York: Viking, 1980) 1).
  3. J.G.A. Pocock, “Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, revolution and counter-revolution; a eurosceptical enquiry,” History of Political Thought XX, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 132.
  4. I’ve dealt with some of these questions in a conference paper that can be downloaded from Academia.edu.
  5. Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 3.
  6. Joseph Mali and Robert Wokler, eds., “Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 93, no. 5, New Series (2003).
  7. See Graeme Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) . Sternhell’s complaint against Garrard (see 446-447) is that his book’s agenda is “the deconstruction of the Enlightenment and the Anti-Enlightenment into an infinite number of Enlightenments and Anti-Enlightenments” and that Garrard “agrees with the disastrous assessment of the Enlightenment by John Gray, who like himself is also a liberal of the school of Isaiah Berlin” (the latter seems to be decisive for Sternhell). Garrard, in fact, spends some time criticizing Gray. For Garrard’s response, see “Review Article: The War Against the Enlightenment,” European Journal of Political Theory 10, no. 2 (April 1, 2011): 277–286.
  8. There is much to be said about Nietzsche’s complicated stance towards “the Enlightenment” itself, but I would prefer not to open that can of worms here.  For Garrard’s take on it see “Nietzsche For and Against the Enlightenment,” The Review of Politics 70, no. 04 (December 2008): 595–608.
  9. A search of the Google scans archived by the Hathi Trust turns up a few hits for Gegenaufklärung prior to 1850, but access to the texts themselves is blocked for copyright reasons. As a result, there is no way of know what is in the texts without actually tracking down physical copies. 

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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8 Responses to Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part 1: Nietzsche’s Role

  1. Thanks for the suggestions about the Nietzsche translation. I think you’re right about Bogen: “arc” would seem to fit the context better than “bow.” I’m not sure I quite understand the difference between “height” and “peak,” though. And thanks as well for pointing out the typos in my transcription of the piece from 1835 (which, I’m afraid, weren’t confined to ie inversions — there were quite a few others!).

    Finally, I’d be interested in having you flesh out your comment that “It is absolutely possible … that an actual ‘counter-enlightenment movement’ has been dreamed up in fact.” While any number of things are “possible,” I haven’t been able to find (1) instances of the term “Gegenaufklärung” being used either by opponents of what we would call “the Enlightenment” as a way of designating their own position (i.e., no one describes themselves as a “Gegenaufklärer”) or (2) instances of the term being used, by defenders of “the Enlightenment” as a description of their opponents. The Nietzsche quote might count as an instance of the first usage, especially when read alongside Morgenrot §197.

    Thanks again for the suggestions!

  2. Homunculus says:

    ‘It is clear that, by the middle of the nineteenth century the Enlightenment had accumulated any number of enemies. What is far from clear is that anyone found it necessary to lump all these enemies together into something called “the Counter-Enlightenment.”’
    It is absolutely possible, IMO,that an actual “counter-enlightenment movement” has been dreamed up in fact.

    As for the bell ringing excerpt – it shows quite a few misspellings and was obviously translated by an American (Americans notoriously – at least in my view – seem to have a problem distinguishing between “ie” and “ei”).

  3. Homunculus says:

    I don’t believe there is a problem with Nietzsche’s use of different meanings of the word “Bogen” in two different contexts. In one, it means very clearly “arc” as illustrated by his own sketch, in the other, “bow”, used together with the idea of tension which makes sense as the idea of “slackening the bow is expressed by himself (den Bogen abspannen). He simply used two different, common meanings of the word “Bogen” in two different contexts; let’s leave it at that and not try to confuse things further.

  4. Pingback: Charles W. Morris on Empiricism and the Counter-Enlightenment (Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” Part IV) | Persistent Enlightenment

  5. Thanks for the suggestions about modifying the translation (and for catching the error which caused me to substitute Nietzsche’s name for Wagner’s … which, I’m sure, would not have pleased him). Any other thoughts on how to make sense of Nietzsche’s note would be appreciated. I find it rather puzzling!

    • Homunculus says:

      I woud suggest using “height” for “Höhe”, rather than “peak”. The meaning of “peak” is very close, but IMO introduces some subtle difference in it. Nietzsche simply referred to the height of each of these arcs, rather than to their peaks – as meaning their highest points. The difference may seem trivial or even non-existent, but I do feel there is one.

  6. Schopi Fan says:

    Vielen Dank, i’d just like to suggest that in your translation of Nietzsche’s vague note it should be WAGENER instead of Nietzsche. And perhaps the highpoint are hightpoints (since he uses kommen in plural) and nächste sounds more like come next or come after instead of come near.

    There are shorter and longer arcs in cultural evolution. The peak of enlightenment corresponds to the peak of counter-enlightenment in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The highpoint of the little arcs come near to that of the greater arc — romanticism.

  7. Pingback: Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part II: German Uses 1875 – 1925 | Persistent Enlightenment

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