Robert Wokler, J. G. A. Pocock, and the Hunt for an Eighteenth-Century Usage of “Counter-Enlightenment”

In 1999, I proposed a panel on the topic “The ‘Enlightenment Project’: What is It?” to the organizers of the upcoming conference of the Northeastern division of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Judging from the correspondence saved on my computer, the call for papers seemed to have generated a fair amount of interest, which resulted in the setting up of a couple of panels on the topic. And, looking at my subsequent email exchanges with those responsible for pulling the whole event off, there were more than the usual number of cancellations and reshuffling of speakers.

A few months before the conference, I got a message on my answering machine, a fax, and a series of emails from Robby Wokler, who had been scheduled to present a paper at one of the sessions, but who now appeared to be confused as to where, exactly, the event was being held and, more generally, seemed to be having second thoughts about the venture. In an effort to keep him on board, I sent him a response that employed both the carrot and the stick. I opened with the stick:

The NEASECS session that you agreed to do (note the wording — designed to induce guilt) will be held at 10 AM on Friday, Dec. 10 in “Great Bay I” of the New England Conference Center and Hotel in Durham, New Hampshire.

The carrot followed:

As a “sweetener” (as we Americans say), after your talk in New Hampshire, I will show you a little discovery of mine: a use of the term “Gegenaufklärung” from the 1780’s.

My efforts were, alas, in vain, though there was enough uncertainty as to whether Robby might be able to attend to warrant keeping his name on the program, which allowed those of us on the panel to harbor the hope that, at the last minute, he might burst into the room, bringing with him that peculiar mixture of erudition, wit, and chaos that made him such a welcome companion.

I’d first come into contact with him in the Spring of 1996, when we exchanged various drafts and offprints. We remained in touch over the next decade, chiefly via email (though his relationship to his internet service providers tended to be somewhat dodgy), but also during his all-too-infrequent visits to Boston. Our paths crossed at conferences in Fiesole, Dublin, New Orleans and (for me, most memorably) at the 1998 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was held at Notre Dame, a conference that will loom rather large in what follows.

I can still recall his arriving at Notre Dame with an aging Windows laptop and finding himself unable to print out his talk (which he had continued to refine after his arrival). The reason, as he explained it, was that the university would only support Macintoshes (I wondered whether, perhaps, he’d been misled by Umberto Eco’s “Macs are like Catholics, Windows like Protestants” meme). Sometime after arriving he managed to lose his power cord, which meant that he was forced to attempt to read his talk (a contribution to a panel on Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment that also featured a paper from Bruce Mazlish) from his computer before its battery died.1 Somehow he pulled it off.

We stayed in touch, united by a common interest in the Enlightenment and its critics, until shortly before his death in 2006.2 In the decade since, I’ve thought about him quite a bit. For reasons that will become clearer in a moment, I’ve thought about him even more over the last couple of weeks.

A Revelation at Notre Dame

Though Robby never made it to the NEASECS sessions in Durham, he was quite intrigued by my suggestion that the term that his teacher Isaiah Berlin had made famous might have been in use during the eighteenth century. So was I. We were both members of that branch of the great Freemasonry of Useless Erudition that is distinguished by its obsessive concern with words and their history. In one of his earliest emails to me he noted (somewhat pretentiously — I suspect that, at the time, we were still trying to impress one another … it’s a thing guys tend to do):

Words and expressions are the things themselves, it seems to me. Modernity takes shape around their transfigurations.

But, as chance would have it, I somehow managed to lose (or, more likely, never properly recorded in the first place) the reference to the use of Gegenaufklärung that I had dangled before him in my attempt to lure him to the wilds of New Hampshire.

I subsequently tried to track it down by searching through the University of Bielefeld’s collection of German eighteenth-century journals, but all I could come up with was the word Gegenerklärung, which turns up quite a few times. Upon examining the articles in question, I found that what they were offering was, as the titles suggested, a Gegenerklärung: a rebuttal, a disclaimer, or, more literally, “a contrary explanation.” And this (or so I thought at the time) was something rather different from a Gegenaufklärung.

As late as 2002 Robby was still wondering whether I had managed to figure out where I had seen the word Gegenaufklärung. But, by then, I was convinced that what I thought I’d seen must have been the result of my mistaking Gegenerklärung for Gegenaufklärung (after a few hours of reading eighteenth-century German journals it’s a wonder that I’m capable of making sense of anything). What eventually persuaded me that I was mistaken had much to do with my working out the implications of J. G. A. Pock’s plenary address at the Notre Dame ASECS conference. I was there to give a talk on Horkheimer and Adorno at a panel on “Modern and Post-Modern Interpretations of the Enlightenment,” Robby was there to talk on Cassirer’s defense of “the Enlightenment,” and Pocock was there to explain why we should all be very suspicious about invoking something called “the Enlightenment.”

Pocock’s talk was entitled “The Tell-tale Article: Reconstructing . . . Enlightenment.” It opened with an explanation of the three dots in the title:

The significance of the dots is that I am trying to eliminate three letters from the study and discourse of Enlightenment; yet the same three letters stand at the head of my own title. It is “the” tell-tale article I propose that we eliminate: the practice of prefacing the word “the” to the noun Enlightenment; yet the structure of my own sentence shows that the definite article is not easy to do without ….

Looking back over the photocopy of the handwritten talk that — years later — he was kind enough to send me, I am chastened (but not entirely surprised) to realize how much of what I’ve been doing over the last two decades appears, in one way or another, to have been prompted by what he said.3

What I learned that night (or, more precisely, what I began to work out at about 5 AM the next morning when my brain decided that it had spent enough time mulling over what Pocock had said and concluded that it was time to wake me up so that I could sketch out the implications of his argument for the work I’d been doing) was that “the Enlightenment” was (as J. C. D. Clark put it in a review that appeared around the same time) one of those “nineteenth-century terms of historical art” that “fall noiselessly away” as we draw closer to the material we are trying to understand.4

A year later Pocock elegantly summed up the ambiguity that plagues any discussion of a “counter-enlightenment”: it’s unclear whether the term is supposed to refer to “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another, or a fixed antipathy to Enlightenment in some final sense of the term.”5 The latter would appear to have been what Isaiah Berlin had in mind in his uses of concept and, I suppose, may have been what Robbie was hoping to find lurking in the pages of an eighteenth-century German journal. By the time of the Notre Dame ASECS meeting I’d published my collection of translations of answers to the question “What is Enlightenment?” (in which I’d sought to enforce a distinction between “enlightenment” and “the Enlightenment”), but it was not until hearing Pocock’s lecture that I first began to understand what the texts I’d collected were telling us.

Once it became clear that the dispute that had been launched in the pages of the Berlinische Monatsschrift was not a discussion of how to define “the Enlightenment,” but instead was an argument about the nature of an activity known as “enlightenment”, the only “counter-enlightenment” that eighteenth-century thinkers could have been talking about would be the first of Pocock’s two varieties: i.e., “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another” (I think, however, that it would be a good idea to get rid of capital E as well as the definite article). And, as I became more familiar with the vocabulary that was used in the eighteenth century, it became clearer to me that there were other ways of marking the distinction between the different “brands” of “enlightenment” (e. g., “true enlightenment” vs “false enlightenment”). So, while Robby still hoped that the word Gegenaufklärung might still be lurking in one eighteenth-century text or another, by the closing years of the last millennium I was reasonably confident that it wasn’t.

Imagine my surprise then when, about two weeks ago, I came across the following passage while browsing through the Hathi Trust’s scans of the Deutsche Monatsschrift for November 1790 (emphasis mine):

Was kann das Gegengift der Aufklärung, welches Zimmermann dem lesenden Publikum dispensirt, anders seyn, als eine Gegenaufklärung gegen Mirabeau’s Aufklärung, womit dieser letztere (mit Zimmermann zu reden) die Preussische Monarchie bedroht? — d. i. eine Bekanntmachung der Zimmermannischen Meiningen, gegen die Meinungen, welche der Graf von Mirabeau bekannt machen wollte.6

A Different Sort of Gegenaufklärung

The text that I was looking at on the Hathi Trust website was the very article that I’d seen two decades earlier in Zwi Batscha’s Enlightenment and Freedom of Thought, an anthology that was one of the inspirations for my own collection.7 I’d cited the article — an anonymous survey of the various answers that had been given to the question “what is enlightenment?” — a few times in my own work but had never discussed it at any length. The explanation for my perfunctory handling of it is simple enough: its approach to the question that Kant made famous diverged so markedly from what I expected to find that I couldn’t understand it. When I first read it two decades ago, I’d assumed that it would be concerned with the diverging accounts of Aufklärung that appeared in the essays by Mendelssohn, Kant, and the others that I had read. But the texts that it discussed (which were not listed until the start of the second part of the article) were rather different from the ones I’d been reading and its way of carving up the different meanings of the term (which was laid out in an outline that turns up some thirty pages into the article) struck me as something that might as well have been concocted by Jorge Luis Borges.

My problem, in brief, was that I was coming to the text expecting it to have something to do with my questions. And I suspect that my lack of understanding of the text may have something to do with why I soon forgot that this was the place where I’d seen the word that Robby was hoping to find (that I’d yet to begin to become more systematic in my note-taking only made it easier to lose track of something that I didn’t understand in the first place). It is only in the last few weeks that I’ve managed to make any headway in beginning to figure out what its author’s concerns appear to have been.

I hope to say more about this peculiar text (which somebody really ought to translate) in future posts. For now, it may be enough to explain what “Gegenaufklärung” is doing here. The word appears in section XVII of the text, which is devoted to the use of Aufklärung as a way of denoting an attempt to clarify one’s views to those who are either ignorant of them or have misunderstood them. 8 One important context in which this process takes place provides the chief focus of the discussion: the efforts of writers to lay out their views to readers. The article observes that, when engaged in efforts of this sort, these authors tend to draw a distinction between “true” and “false” enlightenment.9

The article goes on to note that, in the case of what it describes as the “passive” sense of the word Aufklärung (i.e. Augeklärtheit— a word that designates “the state of being enlightened”), the idea that there could be such a thing as “false enlightenment” might seem a contradiction in terms (the author likens it to an expression like “bright darkness”). But the article suggests that the distinction does make sense when applied to the “active” sense of the term (i.e., when it is used to refer to the various activities, practices, and institutions that allegedly advance the prospects for enlightenment). The point would appear to be that the distinction between true and false enlightenment ultimately stems from disagreements about the effectiveness of various efforts (which are collectively designated by the word  Aufklärung) that seek to bring about a state of affairs known as “enlightenment” (i.e., Augeklärtheit).

As an example of how arguments of this sort unfold, the review considers the attack that Johann Georg Zimmermann (Frederick the Great’s physician and a well-known critic of the alleged influence of French philosophes on the Berlin enlightenment) mounted against the Comte de Mirabeau’s account of the Prussian court.10 The discussion concluded with the passage (quoted above) that contained the word that Robbie and I had been seeking. It might be translated as follows:

What can the antidote [Gegengift] of enlightenment which Zimmermann dispenses to the reading public be other than a counter-enlightenment [Gegenaufklärung] against Mirabeau’s enlightenment, with which the latter (as Zimmerman would put it) threatens the Prussian monarchy? In other words, an exposition of Zimmermanian views, against the views which Count Mirabeau wishes to make known?11

What’s interesting (at least for me) about this passage is the role played by the prefix “gegen”. It opens with a discussion of the Gegengift [literally, an “anti-poison”] that Zimmermann is offering in hopes of countering the poison pen letter that Mirabeau had written about the Prussian monarchy. The passage turns out to be a paraphrase of the conclusion of the Preface to Zimmermann’s Vertheidigung Friedrichs des Grossen gegen den Grafen von Mirabeau, which describes the text as “the antidote to the enlightenment, with which Mirabeau … threatens the Prussian monarchy.”13 The author of the article in the Deutsche Monatsschrift transforms Doctor Zimmermann’s metaphor into a somewhat more prosaic formulation: Zimmermann’s Gegengift becomes a Gegenaufklärung, an effort at enlightenment that counters the enlightenment that Mirabeau sought to provide.

But if we are going to translate the reviewer’s Gegenaufklärung as “counter-enlightenment”, we need to be clear that this counter-enlightenment is not the second of the two variants that Pocock noted: i.e., “a fixed antipathy to Enlightenment in some final sense of the term.” For there was no “final sense” of enlightenment available to Zimmermann or to Mirabeau and the absence of this final sense helps to explain why they cannot agree. So, we are left with a play of arguments and counter-arguments, explanations and counter-explanations. Nor am I entirely confident about characterizing this contest of interpretations as “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another.” For, while the review’s discussion of the role played by the distinction between “true” and “false” enlightenment captures something about the way in which rival “brands” of enlightenment (e.g., radical vs moderate, religious vs. secular, etc.) faced off against each other, there is a simpler way of dealing with the term Gegenaufklärung. We are not always obliged to translate Aufklärung as “enlightenment.” After all, Aufklärungsunterricht is conventionally rendered as “sex education”, rather than “sexual enlightenment” and the uses of Gegenaufklärung in military treatises refer to what we are used to calling “counter-intelligence.”

The Gegenaufklärung that the reviewer for the Deutsche Monatsschrift invoked was a “contrary account” or “contrary explanation.” And the latter phrase could easily serve as a translation for the German word that I thought I’d mistaken for Gegenaufklärung: Gegenerklärung. So, while I was wrong when I suggested to Robby that the word I’d glimpsed, a couple of decades ago, must have been Gegenerklärung rather than Gegenaufklärung, it turns out that it didn’t matter: the Gegenaufklärung that I’d seen amounted to the same thing as a Gegenerklärung.


  1. Both papers subsequently appeared in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 29 (2000).
  2. Those unfamiliar with Robbie might want to read Joshua Cherniss’s tribute in the Guardian of August 22, 2006. 
  3. There was also an echo of Pocock’s talk in the email Robbie sent me later in the year, pointing me to P. N. Furbank’s reservations about routinely attaching the definite article to the word “enlightenment.” See Philip Nicholas Furbank, Diderot: A Critical Biography (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992) 450-1.
  4. J. C. D. Clark, “Review of Haakonssen, Enlightenment and Religion,” The American Historical Review 103:1 (1998): 176–77. I believe that Clark was also present for Pocock’s talk, as were Peg Jacob (who was either beginning or ending her term as ASECS President) and Roy Porter.  Such a gathering of remarkable scholars in one place should serve as a reminder that some conferences turn out to be considerably better than others.
  5. J.G.A. Pocock, “Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, revolution and counter-revolution; a eurosceptical enquiry,” History of Political Thought XX:1 (1999): 132.
  6. Anonymous, “Kritischer Versuch Über Das Wort Aufklärung (Beschluss),” Deutsche Monatschrift III (November 1790): 233. I will attempt to translate this later on in this post.
  7. Zwi Batscha, ed., Aufklärung und Gedankenfreiheit : Fünfzehn Anregungen, aus der Geschichte zu Lernen, Edition Suhrkamp 890 (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, n.d.).
  8. Anonymous, “Kritischer Versuch über Das Wort Aufklärung (Beschluss),” Deutsche Monatschrift III (November 1790), 230-233. The title of the section is Darlegung seiner Meinungen. The term Darlegung literally means a “laying out” of a position, but is used more generally to refer to an exposition, demonstration, explanation, or statement.
  9. “Kritischer Versuch” 231.
  10. I’ve discussed Zimmermann’s critique of Berlin enlighteners in “What Enlightenment Was, What It Still Might Be, and Why Kant May Have Been Right After All,” American Behavioral Scientist 49:5 (2006): 649-651.
  11. Kritischer Versuch 233.
  12. Zimmermann, Vertheidigung Friedrichs des Grossen gegen den Grafen von Mirabeau (Helmingischen Hofbuchhandlung, 1788) 4. I am greatly indebted to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München for providing me with a scan of this text, which is catalogued as Bor. 207e. The complete passage reads, “Sie sind also das Gegengift der Aufklärung, womit Mirabeau anizt die preüssische Monarchie durch ein grosses noch nicht bekanntes Werk bedrohet.”

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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