“Counter-Enlightenment” in English (1908-1942) (Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” Part III)

The two previous posts in this series examined nineteenth and early twentieth-century German uses of the term “Gegenaufklärung” and argued, contra Zeev Sternell, that the term does not seem to have been generally adopted as a convention for referring to opponents of the Enlightenment until the first decades of the twentieth century. Further, it is clear that the term has consistently been used to describe positions held by others, rather than as a characterization of the position that individuals themselves hold. Finally, some of the “others” to whom the term has been applied included figures (e.g., “materialist” followers of Darwin) who have sometimes viewed as part of a tradition associated with “the Enlightenment.” In other words, what we take to be “the Enlightenment” represented, for those defenders of a “true enlightenment” grounded in religion, a “Gegenaufklärung.” This last point is, at least for me, the most intriguing, since it suggests that the marshaling of the term “Gegenaufklärung may have been a way of continuing the dispute over what counts as “true enlightenment” after the conventional juxtaposition “true” and “false” enlightenment had begun to fade.

This post is the first of two posts examining English uses of the term prior to Isaiah Berlin’s 1973 article on the topic in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. As in previous posts, I will begin by summarizing Zeev Sternhell’s claims about the history of the term and then proceed to explore what he missed.

Tallying the Occurrences in English

Sternhell’s discussion of the history of the term in English goes as follows:

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.1

Sternhell bases this history on Robbie Wokler’s contribution to the volume he edited with Joseph Mali on Berlin’s concept.2 But by the time of the French publication of Sternhell’s book, Graeme Garrard had already noted that there were two other uses of term prior to Berlin’s dictionary entry.3 Lewis White Beck employed it in his Early German Philosophy (1969) as the title for a chapter that discussed the work of Jacobi, Hamann, and Herder, at least two of whom would loom large in Berlin’s discussion of the concept.4 And, prior to its use in Irrational Man, William Barrett used the term in a 1949 article in Partisan Review.5

More recently, Henry Hardy turned up four earlier uses of the term, the oldest of which dates from 1908.6 With the addition of an appearance of the term in an article by Daniel Aaron (which I turned up several years ago while searching for usages on JSTOR) that was inspired by Barrett’s Partisan Review piece, we wind up with eight occurrences of the term in English prior to Berlin’s 1973 article:

  1. Charles Gray Shaw, The Precinct of Religion in the Culture of Humanity (New York: MacMillan, 1908) 9.
  2. Charles Gray Shaw, “Culture” in James Hastings et. al. (eds), Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh, 1908–26), iv 358.
  3. John Tate Lanning, “The Reception of the Enlightenment in Latin America,” in Arthur Preston Whitaker ed., Latin America and the Enlightenment, (New York, 1942), 86.
  4. Charles Morris, “Empiricism”, Religion, and Democracy,” in Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein (eds), Science, Philosophy and Religion 2nd symposium (New York, 1942), 214
  5. William Barrett, “Art, Aristocracy, and Reason,” Partisan Review XVI, no. 6 (1949): 658–665.
  6. Daniel Aaron, “Conservatism, Old and New,” American Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Summer 1954): 99–110,
  7. William Barrett, Irrational Man; a Study in Existential Philosophy (Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1958).
  8. Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessor (Cambridge: Harvard, 1969), 8, 11, and Chapter 15.

In what follows, I will take a closer look at items 1-4 on this (likely still incomplete) list and see what they tell us about the career of the term “Counter-Enlightenment” in English.

Charles Gray Shaw and the English Appropriation of the Term

Shaw_1908_The Precinct of Religion in the Culture of HumanityI first learned about Charles Gray Shaw’s 1908 usage of the term in May 2011 when David Marshall (who  delivered a fine paper on various misinterpretations of Vico as a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker at the same panel at the January 2011 American Historical Association meetings where I’d discussed the context of Barrett’s initial use of the term) altered me that he’d turned up this surprisingly early use of the term while searching on Google. Neither of us could make much sense of how (or for that matter why) Shaw was employing the term and neither of us had the faintest clue as to who Shaw was beyond the brief description that appears under his name on the title page of The Precinct of Religion in the Culture of Humanity: “Professor of Philosophy in New York University.  Author of Christianity of Modern Culture.”

As chance would have it, I ran into Shaw’s name again this June in the course of my discussion of the history of the term “scientism” when I stumbled upon his 1919 book The Ground and Goal of Human Life (I was led to the book in the course of trying to make sense of an uptick in the use of this term around 1920). Trying to learn something about his work I searched for discussions of him on JSTOR and, in addition to finding a fair number of (largely unhelpful) reviews of his books, I discovered that he seems to have been a quite productive scholar, publishing regularly in such venues as The International Journal of Ethics, The Biblical World, The North American Review, The American Journal of Theology. I asked a colleague who works on the history of American religion about Shaw and was told that, while the name seemed to ring a bell, he had no idea who Shaw was.

Over the Thanksgiving break I finally did what I should have done months before and searched the New York Times historical database, where I turned up a 1949 obituary with a title that was tailor-made to quicken the pulse of a hard-working member of the Freemasonry of Useless Erudition: “Dr. Charles Shaw, at NYU 42 Years: Philosophy Professor Emeritus, Author and Epigramist Dies — Irked Mussolini.”7 A philosophy professor who managed to “irk” Mussolini? Interesting! (usually they just annoy their colleagues).

Here is how the Newspaper of Record summed up the man’s life:

Dr. Shaw was a well-known author, housing authority and homespun epigramist. Born in Elizabeth, N. J. … he was a descendent of John Alden. He took his B. L. degree [sic: the title page of The Precinct of Religion lists Shaw as holding a B.T. degree rather than a B. L.; given Shaw’s initial focus on theological questions, I’m inclined to think that the Times was mistaken] at Cornell University in 1894 and his Ph.D. at New York University three years later. Afterwards he studied at the universities of Jena and Berlin and started in 1899 as an assistant Professor of Philosophy at New York University.

In 1904 he was named Professor of Ethics, and in 1920 Professor of Philosophy. He retired in 1941.

One of Dr. Shaw’s pronouncements which caused much discussion was his statement that only morons whistled. He said no great or successful man ever whistled. It was indignantly announced in reply from Rome that Mussolini whistled, which seems to indicate that Dr. Shaw was right, but which caused him to be embarrassed at the time.

Other of his sayings were that laughter would have no place in “a future sober world,” that knickerbocker trousers were “fatal to democracy,” that college boys often know more than their teachers, and that American women had culture but not American men. …

A list of his books follows (11 titles between 1906 and 1937), along with information about his activities as an editor (e.g. he was responsible for something called The 101 World’s Classics). We also are informed that he was a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Ethics and Religion, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and “to many magazines.” The obituary closes with a brief note on his service in the public sphere:

A persistent campaigner for better housing, he devoted much time to slum-clearance projects and served in 1927 and 1928 as secretary of the National Housing Committee for Congested Areas.

This is probably more than anyone needs to know about Shaw, but one point may well be significant: his having studied at Jena and Berlin in the final years of the nineteenth century.

As we saw in the previous installment, the earliest published uses of the term Gegenaufklärung to designate a tradition of thought that emerged in the wake of and in reaction to the Enlightenment date from the 1920s, though the term had begun to turn up in a more polemical content as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. I am leery of placing too much confidence in these dates (I prefer to use the Ngram as a check on rash generalizations, rather than as proof positive of how terms are being used), but it seems plausible that, prior to these published appearances of the term, the concept may have enjoyed a modest currency, either in works that the Ngram has not flagged or in unpublished papers or lectures. So, it is conceivable that, during his time in Jena and Berlin, Shaw might have encountered the term.

What is striking about Shaw’s use of the term — in contrast to the often puzzling examples we found when plowing through the early German uses of — is how familiar it seems. The Precinct of Religion begins with a “Historical Introduction” that is recognizably Hegelian in its provenance:

In modern philosophy, two periods contrived to produce a philosophy of religion: first, there came the age of enlightenment which covered the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; then there followed the period of culture from the French Revolution to the present. Here [i.e., in what Shaw sees as “the age of enlightenment] there was analysis which culminated in the Kantian philosophy; there [i.e., in what Shaw dubs “the period of culture’] was found synthetic movement which had its beginning with German idealism (2).

Shaw, however, stresses that any account of “those modern conditions which have made religious thought possible” must “investigate something more than clearly marked periods and leading personalities”: his goal is to construct an account that explores an ongoing dialectic between “religion” (which has its origins “in the depths of man’s spiritual nature”) and the various forms of “speculative philosophy” that have attempted to articulate this fundamental impulse.

The historical sketch he offers begins with a discussion of the how the “age of enlightenment” (which originates with Descartes’ distinction between mind and body and Hobbes’ “hedonistic” account of morality) gave rise to a “crass system of religious thinking” which,

Ignoring intuition in its zeal for inference, flouting history in its enthusiasm for reason, … failed to penetrate to the psychological essence and spiritual character of human worship (6-7).

German philosophy, however, “was not so premature” in its embrace of Deism and, hence “did not follow the regressive course which modern philosophy elsewhere had been founding” (7).  After a few pages that discuss the shortcomings of Deism, we find the following:

Assuming, this we may safely do, that history teaches philosophy in an exemplary fashion, a glance at the counter-Enlightenment will aid in clarifying the modern concept of religion. This period, while not marking out the religious precinct, sufficed to negate the false ideal of rationalists and served to prepare the way for Kant and the modern constructive thinkers. Here may be noted that the attack on the Enlightenment inaugurated by Vico and Voltaire, Hume and Lessing. One hundred years after the appearance of Herbert’s “De Veritate,” Vico produced “Scienza Nuova” as a foundation work in the philosophy of history. Vico criticizes Grotius, Hobbes and Puffendorf among the jurists as those who indicated a false beginning for civilization, while he himself returns to the actual beginning of human culture in the naïve idea of the primitive man. From such a genuine beginning, which saw the poetical rather than the political and the original man, he proceeds to outline the development of mankind according to the threefold plan of naturistic [sic], heroic, human. To the plan of Vico’s new science Voltaire adds no substantial principle, yet his “Essai sur les moeurs des nations” reflects a historical spirit counter to Deism and directed towards the scientific ideals of the present.

Hume and Lessing nullify the programme of natural religion, when one points out that, not reason, but “custom is the great guide of human life,” and the other regards revelation as “the education of human race.” (9-10)

Despite the presence of Vico, this is not quite Isaiah Berlin’s “counter-Enlightenment” (the idea that Voltaire as a “counter-Enlightener” is a bit hard to reconcile with Berlin’s tale of French philosophes and their mostly German opponents).8 But it comes close.

Shaw made no further use of the term in The Precinct of Religion, though he did employ it again (as Hardy notes) in the article he wrote on “Culture” for the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics. Perhaps because Shaw focused here on the history of the concept of culture, rather than the relationship between culture and religion, the account is somewhat easier to follow. As before, “the Enlightenment” (and I should note that while Shaw tended to eschew the capital when speaking of “the age of enlightenment,” he consistently employed “the Enlightenment” in his discussion of the period in The Precinct of Religion) is seen as marked by a “rationalistic spirit, political earnestness, and relentless criticism of religion” that “removed it from the Graces” and yielded “a static system of natural religion (Herbert), of natural rights (Grotius), as also a naturalistic system of ethics (Hobbes) and of knowledge (Locke).” Naturally, such an arid and unappealing system of thought was bound to meet with opposition.

This blind rationalism, however, was destined to undergo repudiation, and in the Counter-Enlightenment of Rousseau, Vico, Lessing, and Herder the counter-problem was rehabilitated (358).

Shaw more or less follows the pattern that Jonathan Knudsen (in one of the last works of his much too brief career) detected in nineteenth-century German historicists: their “emptying the Enlightenment of a sense of history” positioned them to appropriate it “exclusively to itself.”9 In much the same fashion, Shaw constructs a thoroughly “rationalist” Enlightenment, and then proceeds to slot any eighteenth-century thinker who doesn’t conform to this image into something called the “Counter-Enlightenment.”

There is, however, one difference between this account and Shaw’s earlier book. While Kant appeared in The Precinct of Religion as a “rationalist” member of the Enlightenment, he turns up here as one of the founders of “Romanticism”, the age which finally begins to appreciate the concept of culture:

The age of culture began as Kant emerged from rationalism, and by means of philosophic criticism transcended the conceptual views of the Enlightenment (359).

One might ask, why this change? It would appear that, while Shaw was content to consign Kant to the arid world of the Enlightenment on the basis of his essentially “Deistic” account of religion, he was forced to reposition Kant in his history of culture because Kant employed the term “culture” in the Critique of Pure Reason.  Because Shaw takes it as a given that the “blind rationalism” of the Enlightenment ruled out the possibility that  those involved in it would have any sense of the importance of “culture,” anyone who invokes the concept of culture is, by definition, not part of the Enlightenment. And thus the lines of division are kept clean and history kept simple.

Counter-Enlightenment as Historical Concept and Contemporary Threat

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the term “Counter-Enlightenment”: Revolutions breed Counter-Revolutions and the Reformation was met by a Counter-Reformation. Why shouldn’t the Enlightenment get to have a Counter-Enlightenment? After all, since at least 1938 Renaissance scholars have been invoking something called the “Counter-Renaissance.”10

Used in this fashion, the term “Counter-Enlightenment” resides somewhat uneasily in the no-man’s land between those terms that designate particular periods (e.g., the Renaissance) and those terms that specify distinct intellectual movements (e.g., Surrealism). There are a fair number of other concepts wandering about in that no-man’s land, most of them distinguished by an uncertainty as to whether they are quite robust enough to be treated as marking a complete break with the age that preceded them (as “Romanticism,” in some quarters, is seen as doing vis a vis “the Enlightenment”) or whether they are doomed to play the role of guerrillas condemned to wage an inconclusive battle in the enemy’s country. But we can delay an assessment of the utility of the term “Counter-Enlightenment” until we have completed our survey of the way in which it has been used. For now it may be enough to note a significant difference that appears in the two examples that Henry Hardy picks up from the 1940s.

First, consider John Tate Lanning’s chapter “The Reception of the Enlightenment in Latin America” in the 1942 collection Latin America and the Enlightenment. Having discussed the appropriation of ideas associated with the Enlightenment, he goes on to “look at the opposite side of the coin”: the resistance that Scholastic approaches offered to the “experimentalism” associated with the Enlightenment. Noting that while the “force of inertia operated on the side of the status quo” the same “lethargy which at first retarded philosophical change” also “served to restrain opposition to such innovation.”

Most moderns were astute enough to blend their doctrines with the conventional formulas either to avoid disastrous open clashes or because they were actually part liberal and part conservative. At no definite point, except in individual cases, could one say the Peripatetic ended and the experimental began (85).

In considering such struggles, Lanning notes that “Lima offers an exceptional theatre upon which to observe the play of the counter-Enlightenment” (86). And that is the last time we see the word. Like a good historian, Lanning spends the rest of his chapter exploring the struggles of individuals, individuals who — as he has already hinted — were never completely at one with either “the Enlightenment” or “the Counter-Enlightenment.”

Now consider the way the term is used by Charles W. Morris in his contribution to the Second Symposium on Science, Philosophy and Religion. Morris is not writing history. He sees himself, instead, as engaged in a struggle that may ultimately determine the fate of democracy. Searching for potential converts to the empiricist cause he observes that

there are large groups of persons among the youth, the workers, the artists, the religionists, the scientists, the technologists for whom the older religious and political symbols — claiming a special metaphysical sanction – have lost their force. If there is confusion in contemporary culture, there are also deep sources of energy, frustrated aspirations, new beginnings, movements hovering on the verge of consolation, untapped sources of heroism. If the empiricist can overcome his own frustrations, and develop or encourage others to develop a clear program for living, he may rally these forces for a powerful, integrated, and perhaps successful opposition to the counter-Enlightenment and counter-Reformation which threatens to spread over mankind. (214).

Used in this way, “counter-Enlightenment” refers not to something — be it a period or a movement — that lies somewhere in the past. It designates a contemporary threat, a movement that, if successful, may herald the arrival of a new age of darkness. This is not how Isaiah Berlin used the term, but it is very much the way in which Zeev Sternhell tends to think about the concept when he proceeds to narrate a history of an “anti-Enlightenment tradition” that includes, among its leading figures, someone named Isaiah Berlin.

The context in which Charles W. Morris was using the term “counter-Enlightenment” and the way in which this particular sense of the term was taken up by William Barrett may be of some help in trying to make sense of how Sternhell arrives at this peculiar result. Since this post has gone on long enough (and I have a pile of papers and exams that are about the descend on me), we will have to deal with that in the next installment.

To be continued …

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 3
  2. Joseph Mali and Robert Wokler, eds., Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 93, no. 5, New Series (2003): 13.
  3. Graeme Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).
  4. Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) 361-392.
  5. William Barrett, Irrational Man (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958) 244; Barrett, “Art, Aristocracy, and Reason,” Partisan Review XVI, no. 6 (1949): 663-664.  For Garrard’s discussion, see Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) 2.
  6. This list appears as a footnote in his “Editor’s Preface” to new edition of Berlin’s Against the Current (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) xxv.
  7. “Dr. Charles Shaw, ” New York Times, July 29, 1949, 21. I may have something more to say about Shaw’s dust up with Mussolini in a later post.
  8. For a later discussion of Voltaire that sheds some light on this interpretation (but eschews the term “counter-Enlightenment”) see Shaw, Trends of Civilization and Culture (New York: American Book Company, 1932), 90-91.
  9. Jonathan Knudsen, “The Historicist Enlightenment” in Keith Michael Baker and Peter Hanns Reill, What’s Left of Enlightenment? : a Postmodern Question (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001). 39-49)
  10. Berlin himself noted that his use of the term Counter-Enlightenment might have been inspired by Hiram Haydn’s The Counter-Renaissance (New York Scribner, 1950).   See Baird W. Whitlock, “The Counter-Renaissance,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 20:2 (1958): 434–449 for earlier uses of the term.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to “Counter-Enlightenment” in English (1908-1942) (Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” Part III)

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

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

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