A Note on a Recently Published Letter from Isaiah Berlin on the “Counter-Enlightenment”

Having concluded a series of posts on the history of the concept of counter-Enlightenment, I’d planned to move on to other things. But, in the immortal words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”

In my case, “they” are the series of spiffy new editions of Isaiah Berlin’s writings that Princeton University Press has been publishing, which arrive decked out with new introductions and intriguing additional elvis-costello-get-happy-inner-78252materials. Their appearance presents me with the same temptation that the reissues (first on Rycodisc, then on Rhino) of the Elvis Costello oeuvre used to present. I would tell myself that I didn’t really need another copy of Get Happy! (though I think everybody ought to own at least one).  But — unable to resist the prospect of an alternative version of “I Stand Accused” — I would eventually break down and buy one. Since I already owned Vico and Herder and Magus of the North, I took a pass on Three Critics of the Enlightenment the first time around, but the most recent edition looks quite tempting and when Princeton offered the opportunity to look at an online examination copy, I took it.

The new version includes a December 1993 letter from Berlin to Mark Lilla, who reviewed Magus of the North for the New York Review of Books and had some reservations about Berlin’s affection for the various unsavory characters who populated the counter-Enlightenment. In response, Berlin offered an explanation of his general approach:

… by temperament I am liable not to write about thinkers I approve of — I take those for granted — I find it not very interesting to praise thinkers for what I agree with, but prefer their enemies, who, however vicious and destructive at times, as they certainly were, discovered chinks in the armour of the Enlightened, important chinks, which do make valid points against them — and which cause one at any rate to think, to realise that one can’t swallow them whole, that some of the results of their teachings did lead to deplorable results (496-497).

This is followed by a paragraph in which Berlin emphasizes that “of course” Diderot and Lessing (“two of my favorite thinkers in the eighteenth century”)

did not in any way lead to the horror of uniformity, and in the end the Gulag (497).

With that out of the way, Berlin goes on to offer an extended critique of Lilla’s review.

Lilla responded with a letter that closes with a postscript that reminds us of how little was known about the history of concepts like “Counter-Enlightenment” back in those dark ages when the only way to find out about the history of concepts was to read lots of books or ask someone else:

I have been unable to track down the history of the term ‘Counter-Enlightenment’.’ I find it first in English in your essay and, simultaneously, in Lewis White Beck’s history of German philosophy (1968). I had assumed that it was a simple translation of the German Gegenaufklärung, which had its own history, but I have been unable to uncover it. There is no entry on the term in German dictionaries, Philosophical Wörterbucher, or even the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe I have even asked Reinhardt Kosellek about it, but he had no idea of its provenance. Do you, by any chance? (505).

This sparked yet another long letter from Berlin, which closed with the following:

Finally, the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’: I have no idea who used it first. It has been attributed to me, and I should like to think that to be true, but I cannot tell. Before I read your letter I had no idea there was such a word as Gegenaufklärung – so it is certainly not a translation of it by me. I modelled it on the word counter-Renaissance, which is the title of a book. More than that I do not know: I should like to think that I invented this useful word (511).

The claim that he term “modelled” the term on “counter-Renaissance,” is a somewhat more emphatic version of the account of the origins of the term that Berlin had given two years earlier in his interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo, which also alluded to Hiram Haydn’s book as an inspiration. 1 Berlin had previously cited the book in his 1972 essay on “The Originality of Machiavelli” and it turned up again in the “Bibliography” that was appended to his Dictionary of the History of Ideas article on Counter-Enlightenment.2

But what may be of greater interest here is his claim that he “had no idea there was such a word as Gegenaufklärung.” I suspect that time and memory could have been playing tricks on him: as I’ve discussed in an earlier post, the term became rather common in  German accounts of Romanticism and it is difficult to believe that, however fleetingly, Berlin would not have come across it here. Confirming that suspicion would require checking the text of those German works cited by Berlin in his discussions of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century thinkers, would pull me back in even further.

  1. Isaiah Berlin and Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (New York: Scribners, 1991) 69-70
  2. The Machiavelli essay originated as a 1953 lecture. There is a copy of “a lightly edited transcript” of what would seem to be a somewhat later lecture on Machiavelli available from the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, but it does not contain a reference to Haydn or, indeed, anyone else: it has no footnotes.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to A Note on a Recently Published Letter from Isaiah Berlin on the “Counter-Enlightenment”

  1. I appreciate your persistence with the Enlightenment, and in particular with the Aufklaerung, and I hope to come back on that. Just for the moment on Isaiah Berlin, The third of Three Essays on Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century opens with these two paras and a sentence:
    “One of the most notable characteristics of the literary and artistic scene during the year 1951, not merely in Western Europe but beyond its confines, was the revival of religion, in the widest as well as the narrowest sense of the word, as a central issue of discussion. Historians of opinion have often noted the fact that periods of doubt and scepticism, of criticism and analysis directed against the dogmatic certainties and orthodoxies of previous periods, are as a rule followed by new periods of faith and irrationalism.
    But as a rule, the ages of faith are to some degree also those of reason; there is a dominant opinion, there is also an opposition; during the ascendancy of sceptical rationalism, the voices of anti-rationalist faith are never wholly silent; and during the rise of orthodoxy or emotional abandonment to ideals conceived as either above or at any rate beside empirical or rational inquiry, are seldom allowed to occur unchallenged but are compelled to run the gauntlet of what is usually described as radical or left-wing opposition.
    Nevertheless, during the year, it appeared almost as if the rising preoccupation with religious or quasi-religious-metaphysical and eschatological-issues was becoming almost a monopoly.”

    A bit further on we read: “The plays of Marcel, the plays and philosophical essays of Sartre and Albert Camus, the philosophical essays of such writers as Jacques Maritain or Jean Wahl and Kojève, the interest increasingly taken in the Russian theological essayist Nikolai Berdyaev, or the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, the brooding presence of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, and behind them the greater figures of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, dominated French intellectual circles to the relative exclusion of older liberal and humanistic writing.
    Against this virtually the only voices which were raised loudly were those of the Communists, who, unlike the more rationalist Marxists of an earlier day, preached a fanatical counter-religion of their own. The celebrated Gallic spirit – secular, detached, humane, sceptical and concerned with the empirical facts and the lives of men on earth – the spirit of Voltaire and Diderot, of Michelet and Taine, of Flaubert and Proust, seemed temporarily in abeyance. Socialism, liberalism, rationalism had won their victories and become absorbed into the texture of normal experience and lost their cutting edge. The wave of metaphysical spiritualism seemed to have engulfed all or at any rate much of what was most gifted and expressive in France, or temporarily obscured from view other tendencies which might have been stirring.”

    Two major points of interest here: writing in 1951 (for the Encyclopedia Britannica? See below) Berlin is employing the Counter-Enlightenment category long before he names it. Secondly, for me as a Russianist, he acknowledges the work of Berdyaev (and by implication its roots in nineteenth-century Russian religious thought) although this is the OTHER side of the tradition that first flourished in The Remarkable Decade and which he was about to present to an anglophone audience as essentially in sympathy with Western liberalism. The Cold War surely played its part in this screening out of the Russian counter-enlightenment, although Isaiah would come back to it personally with his late passion for Lev Shchestov (Chestov, as he is usually known, in French).

    A note on the text, out there in the web: does the 1951 essay correspond to item 46b in Henry Hardy’s bibliography for 1952? This would need to be checked.

    • Thank you for pointing this article out to me, which I’d previously missed. Henry Hardy is in the best position to answer the question of the provenance of the article, but it does read like the other contributions that Berlin was writing during this period for what I assume were those yearly updates that subscribers to the Encyclopedia Britannica received (this was a world that I’d forgotten about, but reading this reminds me of a childhood that involved browsing the yearly updates that arrived to whatever encyclopedia my parents had been convinced to invest in — it was one of the lesser ones, I’m afraid, which I suppose may account for all my later failings).

      I agree with you that what Berlin is suggesting here jibes rather nicely with the idea of enlightenments being followed by counter-enlightenments, which is more or less the sense in which Charles Morris was using the term in the early 1940s. And here, as well, are traces of that “strange religious revival (or attempt at one)” to which Barrett alluded in his initial response to Chase. In some of the subsequent Britannica pieces on Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, Berlin notes the popularity of Reinhold Niebuhr (Trilling was reading him as well).

      There is a difference, though, between this and the way in which Berlin would eventually use the term “counter-Enlightenment.” For him it refers to something that we find in the past, not something that continues into the present. Herder, Hamann, Vico, and de Maistre populate his counter-Enlightenment, but Mortimer Adler — who Berlin described in one of his letters as “most frightful man I have seen yet … a minor figure of extreme horror, who combines with his fanaticism and nonsense a kind of bassesse, a horrible slimy cunning, and [the] general looks and behaviour of a shyster philosopher, a kind of philosophical spv which I had never encountered before. (Really you had better destroy this letter)” — doesn’t figure in it.

      Thank you, once again, for pointing this out to me. I am in the process of trying to gather more material on responses to the Enlightenment during the 1940s for a seminar that I’m teaching this term and this looks quite helpful.

    • Now that I have had the chance to skim the text(s) you mention, I’m even more indebted and, like you, curious about the provenance of the texts. I would guess that what we have here are the essays that Berlin wrote for the Britannica year book for 1949, 1950, and 1951. I found this comment from the 1950 offering quite interesting (for reasons that, by now, should be obvious):

      “In philosophy, indeed, the great chasm between, on the one hand the clear dry world of Anglo-American (and to some extent Scandinavian) empiricism, with its preoccupation with the importance of different uses of language in life and in the sciences, and, on the other, the darker and more personally anguished world of French and German religious or aesthetic or political metaphysics, was never deeper or more unbridgeable. Neither side recognised merit in the other, and no interpreters appeared to explain these apparently disparate activities to the other camp. To the lucid prose writers of the English-speaking world, the ‘logic’ of, for example, Karl Jaspers appeared at best as a deep, impenetrably dark, romantic meditation whose claim to be a treatise on logic bore no relation to anything which they might understand by this term. Nor did they with any greater degree of success grasp the import of the Gifford lectures of the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, or the agonised pensées and fragments of Simone Weil. Doubtless to thinkers of this kind, struggling like so many Laocoons with cosmic issues on which they most suppose salvation in some sense to depend, the logical writings of such positivists as Professor Ryle of Oxford, or such logicians as Professor Quine of Harvard, must, in their turn, have appeared thin, arid and almost wholly pointless. As for that quasi-philosophical world in which literature has a common frontier with abstract thought – that unclassifiable no man’s land between the two, whose condition serves often as the truest index of the vagaries of the Zeitgeist – in that world formalism and positivism seemed to be yielding ground to a kind of neo-romantic revival, in which criticism both of the arts and of life drew its inspiration from Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kierkegaard and the German romantics, rather that the tradition of European enlightenment, with its emphasis on clarity, its reliance on accessible evidence, rational argument and secular values.”

      So, here we have Berlin doing more or less what Trilling was doing and assembling a “counter-Enlightenment,” though yet labeling it as such. Instead, in the final sentence, he labels this “a kind of neo-romantic revival” (which conforms with some of the ways in which “counter-Enlightenment” had been used earlier in the century, when it was roughly equivalent to “romantic.” But, unlike Trilling, Berlin is not identifying himself with this movement.

      • Yes, and I think you’ll agree that Berlin is not necessarily confining this ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, largely understood, to the past. His limitations, so far as the twentieth century was concerned, were a question of what he had not read (insofar as he was essentially a nineteenth-century man.) Since you mention Trilling, let me counter with Meyer Schapiro whose positions in the 40s were so close to Trilling’s that someone referred to ‘Lionel Schapiro’. Yet I don’t think of Schapiro as anything other than a man of the Enlightenment, so perhaps there’s something to thrash out there. You may be interested in Jed Perl’s comparison of Schapiro with Isaiah Berlin on exactly that ground. See his article in New Republic 30 October 2006, p.30. I’ve been working on Schapiro as such a convinced apostle of Enlightenment that he couldn’t understand where Derrida’s criticism of him over Heidegger came from. (My book A Shoe Story Van Gogh the Philosophers and The West, in which this episode features, will appear in May.)
        Something I’d like to point up meanwhile about Berlin is the way he concludes the Herder essay, section XI, in Three Critics of Enlightenment. I see this is as his rather mild and certainly not conscious equivalent of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, in that he wants to focus on all the ungovernable materiality of experience that can’t be dominated by the concept, all the more obviously when this rationalist epistemology is disastrously applied to the building of new kinds of society in The French Revolution and the The Russian Revolution. He doesn’t directly indict Hegel over the latter catastrophe but there are glancing references, and to ‘Hegel and Marx’ as standing over against Vico, Herder et al while being simultaneously influenced by these Counter-Enlighteners. If I remember rightly Berlin shares the suspicions of Hegel of the men of the Marvellous Decade, that an excess of rationality destroys real reality. (Although surely that should be a fear of Hegelianism, rather than of what Hegel was actually about. I suspect IB didn’t know Hegel first-hand and hedged his bets.) My interest in Berlin is very much as a Russian thinker, deriving his suspicions of Enlightenment — understood as Hegel’s perfecting of reason — from those nineteenth-century liberals whom he loved. Philosophically it’s not the Nazi extenuation of Reason that prompts his renewed discovery of Counter-Enlightenment but a parallel concern with Reason instrumentalized as revolutionary and later state ideology in Soviet Russia. But then since the legacy of that outlook depended on Hegel as interpreted by Marx and Marx as utilized by Lenin these were more than just parallel cases. They were the threat totalitarianism presented to the twentieth century in the guise of Reason.

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