Culture & Civilization: The First English Translation of Mendelssohn’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?” (Part II)

As should be apparent by now, my collection of hobby horses includes an interest in old translations of now-familiar texts.1  The interest is not entirely idiosyncratic, nor is it entirely irrelevant to my labors in that open-ended field known as the “intellectual and/or “conceptual history.” Exploring how earlier translators wrestled with terms that we now take for granted opens a window the way in which new concepts migrate from one language into another. That this process is hardly simple becomes clearest when the noise in translations becomes apparent.

Moses Mendelssohn’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” is a particularly interesting example. As I discussed in the previous post in this series, he maintained that difficulties in answering the question that had been posed in the Berlinische Monatschrift could be traced to the fact that (1) the word Aufklärung was of relatively recent vintage and (2) could only be understood in the context of two other important new-comers: Bildung and Kultur. When Dan Dahlstrom, Bert Kögler, and I were doing our translations of Mendelssohn’s essay in the 1990s, we had a luxury that our anonymous and neglected nineteenth-century predecessor lacked: well-established conventions for dealing with these terms. Our only problem was what to do with Bildung — a term that we could easily have rendered as “culture” were it not for the need to use that word to translate Kultur. In contrast, our predecessor was confronted by a semantic field consisting of finely drawn distinctions between terms that are just beginning to be rendered into English.

The German Museum and its “Proprietors”

1800_The German MuseumSince the translation was published anonymously, there is no way of knowing whether the translator was (like Bert, but unlike Dan and me) a native German speaker, though given what we now know about the German Museum, I suspect that was likely. In the decade since I first worked on the German Museum, we have learned more about the editors of the journal and the broader context from which it emerged.2 In my article on the OED’s definition of “enlightenment,” I relied on Bayard Quincy Morgan and A. R. Hohfeld’s 1949 survey German Literature in British Magazine in crediting the editorship of the journal to “J. Beresford.”3 The current scholarship assigns editorial responsibility to Constantine Geisweiler, Peter Will, and Anton Willich.

There is a helpful discussion of the émigré bookseller and publisher Geisweiler (born Constantine de Giesworth) in a post on the Gothic Vault Facebook page. He seems to have arrived in London in the early 1790s and first enters the historical record when he married the German noblewoman Maria Countess Dowager of Schulenburg in 1799. Maria had already attained a measure of fame for her translations of various plays by August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue — who, at this point, was enjoying a measure of popularity in England (one of his plays turns up in Mansfield Park) — and the Geisweilers seem to have done their best to take advantage of the Kotzebue craze. But by 1806 Geisweiler had given up publishing and moved into the wine trade. Little is known about his later life except that Maria died in 1840 and, shortly afterwards, Constantine entered the Kensington House Lunatic Asylum, remaining there until his death in 1850.

Geisweiler had been aided in his publishing endeavors by Peter Will, an émigré clergyman who translated various Gothic novels into English (by now, it should be clear that we are dealing with interesting people).  After the collapse of the German Museum, he left London for New York (where he was a minister to a German congregation) and then moved on to Curacao (preaching to a Dutch congregation). Eventually, he moved back to southern Hesse, where he established his own publishing house in 1839.

The philosopher Willich was best known of the three — both among his contemporaries and (thanks to Rene Wellek’s account of his role introducing Kant into England) to later scholars.4 Willich attended Kant’s lectures from 1778-1781 before setting off to Edinburgh where he studied medicine in the early 1790s and supported himself by offering German lessons — his students included Walter Scott. He moved to London in 1798 and gained employment (and, according to rumors, protection from creditors) by taking up the position of physician to the Saxon ambassador. In addition to his brief stint with the German Museum, he was also an editor for the Medical and Physical Journal. Finally, he too, jumped on the Kotzebue bandwagon with a translation of a biography of the playwright.

The editors of the German Museum (or, as they called themselves on those rare occasions when they found it necessary to speak collectively to their readers, the “Proprietors” of the journal) did little to identify themselves or their translators. Geisweiler was listed on the front page as the journal’s “printer.” Willich’s name appeared on the articles he wrote. And the initials “P.W.” — presumably the hard-working Peter Will — can be found at the end of quite a few of the translations.5 But all that appears at the close of the Mendelssohn translation is the letter X.  Since I’ve not undertaken a systematic examination of the initials at the close of articles there is little point in trying to guess who might have done the translation. It may be enough to reflect on the challenges that X would have faced in attempting to put Mendelssohn into English.


Culture, Mental Illumination, and Civilization

Then, as now, the easiest term to translate would have been Kultur — a French loan-word that appeared in Mendelssohn’s original draft as Cultur. A glance at an Ngram for the two spellings indicates that the French C was quite tenacious (can this possibly be correct?!). It is not until the start of the twentieth century that the Germanized spelling becomes consistently more frequent.

Civ and Ziv

While Aufklärung would have presented greater problems in 1800, it is clear that the German Museum had a convention for translating it: “mental illumination.” A review of C. D. Vosz’s Das Jahrhundert der Aufklärung in the first volume referred to the book as “The Age of Mental Illumination” (I:435-436) and Georg Joachim Zollikofer’s “Der werth der grössern Aufklärung der Menschens” was translated as “An Estimation of the Advantages arising from the Program of Mental Illumination” (I: 396-403). A quick check of Volume II (the one volume that, to date, I have processed using OCR software) yields eight occurrences of the phrase “mental illumination” but none of “enlightenment” or “Enlightenment.”6 In contrast, “enlightening” used quite frequently (a total of twelve times, two of which occur in the text of the translation of the Mendelssohn essay). “To enlighten” occurs four times (“to enlighten the understanding of the multitude” (3), “to enlighten a whole nation by facts” (321), “a school to enlighten us” (343), and “endeavors to enlighten the nations” (477)). The translator strayed from the convention only slightly, preceding the words “enlightening the mind” with “intellectual improvement.”

Finally, confronted with problem of how to translate Bildung, the translator adopted for a solution that never occurred to me (and, I suspect, would not have occurred to either Dan or Burt): civilization. That it wouldn’t have occurred to us has at least something to do what happened after 1800.

A Brief History of Bildung

Bildung is a word with a complicated history.7 It turns up quite frequently in Pietist theology, which — reviving elements from late medieval mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Heinrich Seuse who had presented Christ as the ideal “image” (Urbild) for a union of the human and the divine — used Bildung to denote the process by which individuals form themselves into the image of Christ through the performance of good works.8 It was also been used in the natural philosophy of Paracelsus, Böhme, and Leibniz to denote the development or “unfolding” of certain potentialities within an organism.9 In Klopstock, Wieland, Herder, and especially Goethe, it came to denote the ideal of an “aesthetic individualism,” in which individuals viewed the cultivation of their personalities into harmonious wholes as something comparable to the creation of a work of art — an ideal which could find support in Shaftesbury’s notion of a unity between the morally good and the aesthetically beautiful.10 For members of the educated middle class who came to positions in the bureaucracy and the clergy by virtue of their talents and education, Bildung served as a social ideal that stressed the virtue of individual self-cultivation over the accident of noble birth.11

That Mendelssohn regarded Bildung — despite this rich and complicated history — as a new-comer might have had something to do with the publication, a decade earlier, of Herder’s Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit (1774). Ngrams for eighteenth-century texts are, of course, probably useless (if only because the sample of eighteenth-century that would have been sitting on library shelves when Google did its scanning can hardly have been representative of the corpus of texts published during the period) and the problems are even greater in the case of eighteenth-century German texts (e.g., what sorts of texts would North American and English libraries be collecting?). But it is, I suppose, of some interest that, among these alleged newcomers, Aufklärung seems to have been the last to catch on, with a slow ascent beginning in the middle of the 1760s and a sudden uptick around the time that Zöllner asked his famous question in the Berlinische Monatsschrift.

Bildung, Aufklärung, Kultur to 1800

More revealing, perhaps, is the trajectory of the three terms over the century and a half between Zöllner’s question and the advent of National Socialism.

Bildung, Aufklärung, Kultur to 1933

Bildung would seem to be the most successful of Mendelssohn’s three newcomers, with a rapid ascent during the two decades after his essay. Kultur exhibits a somewhat more modest climb, a sudden descent (as Bildung continues its rise), followed by a steady increase from 1860 onward. The lines for Bildung and Kultur join around the time of the cessation of hostilities in 1917. It would, of course, be necessary to spend some time poking around in the snippets to see what is taking place here, especially since a fair number of the occurrences of Bildung are likely to be the result of the emergence of pedagogy as a discipline and discussions of public education. But it bears remembering that Aufklärung, which consistently lags the other two terms also has close connections to pedagogical concerns.

Substituting Erziehung for Kultur yields the following:

Bildung, Erziehung, Aufklärung to 1933

This Ngram, even more than is usually the case, leaves us with more questions than answers. Among the more important is the question of how many of the uses of Bildung and of Aufklärung over this period are simply discussions of education in the more specific sense that is typically associated with the term Erziehung? But that question, however important, is not the one that concerns me here. My interest lies with X’s decision to translate Bildung as “Civilization.”

Culture, Civilization, and the “Destiny of Man”

There were at least two reasons why it would have never occurred to me to translate Bildung as “Civilization.” The first has something to be said in its favor. The other is more problematic.

The best reason for avoiding “Civilization” is that it is out of sync with the religious resonances associated with Bildung. While “Education” doesn’t do much to convey these resonances either, it at least has the relative virtue of not ruling them out. Since at least Locke, English speakers have had the resources for differentiating the civil from the ecclesiastical and, employing these resources, have been able to argue that civil interests do not include the care of souls. Bildung, in contrast, has quite a bit to do with the care of souls and those of us who tend, almost instinctively, to think like John Stuart Mill (even if we haven’t read him) tend to think that the sort of care of souls that goes under the rubric of “cultivating individuality” is something that is best conducted beyond the reach of the state. And as those of us who have actually read On Liberty know, a good deal of what Mill was doing in the book rested on the account of Bildung that Wilhelm von Humboldt had provided.12

That X was likely unaware of these resonances is in keeping with his handling of what may well be the most crucial — and as well as the most underdeveloped — concept in Mendelssohn’s essay: that of the “Bestimmung des Menschen.” Dan and Bert, perhaps thinking of the famous essay by Fichte that carried the same title, rendered this as “vocation of man.” I considered that option, but went with “destiny of man,” in part because I wanted to capture the way in which the German Bestimmung allowed Mendelssohn to suggest that the definition of humanity lies in its destiny: it is what it becomes.

Spalding_155x216The term itself had been popularized by the clergyman Johann Joachim Spalding’s Bestimmung des Menschen (1748). Like Mendelssohn, Spalding was a member of the Berlin “Wednesday Society,” a secret society (known, privately, as the “Friends of Enlightenment) whose membership included the important figures in the Prussian bureaucracy, the Berlin clergy, and leading figures in Berlin intellectual life like Mendelssohn and Friedrich Nicolai.13 There is much to be said about Spalding’s book and, fortunately, Michael Printy has written a superb article on it, which appeared about a year ago in the Journal of the History of Ideas.14 Go read it. (I’ll wait).

As Mendelssohn saw it, Bildung was composed of a theoretical side (which he termed “enlightenment”) and a practical side — “culture”). The goal towards which Bildung was oriented was defined by the Bestimmung des Menschen. It was the telos that the process of Bildung sought to attain and, in order to achieve that goal, it was necessary to bring the contrasting imperatives of Aufklärung and Kultur into harmony. Here is how I translated the paragraph where most of the work gets done (I must confess that a wince a bit when I see Bildung translated as “education,” but — as I explained in the earlier post — it strikes me as the best of a set of bad options).

The more the social conditions of a people are brought, through art and industry, into harmony with the destiny of man, the more education this people has.

Education is composed of culture and enlightenment. Culture appears to be more oriented towards practical matters: (objectively) toward goodness, refinement, and beauty in the arts and social mores; (subjectively) towards facility, diligence, and dexterity in the arts, and inclinations, dispositions, and habits in social mores. The more these correspond in a people with the destiny of man, the more culture will be attributed to them, just as a piece of land is said to be more cultured and cultivated, the more it is brought, through the industry of men, to the state where it produces things that are useful to men. Enlightenment, in contrast, seems to be more related to theoretical matters: to (objective) rational knowledge and to (subjective) facility in rational reflection about matters of human life, according to their importance and influence on the destiny of man.

I posit, at all times, the destiny of man as the measure and goal of all our striving and efforts, as a point on which we must set our eyes, if we do not wish to lose our way.

Perhaps the most striking feature of X’s translation is that it doesn’t quite know what to do with Bestimmung des Menschen X opted for “condition of man” as a translation, turning a term denoting a goal that must be achieved into a state that one has. This is coupled with a tendency to emphasize the political connotations associated with the term “civilization.” For example, the first paragraph of the passage quoted above was rendered (the complete translation can be found in an earlier post):

The more the state of society of any nation is made to harmonize through art and industry with the respective conditions of men, to so much greater degree of civilization has that nation attained.

What we have lost here is any sense that the goal that Bildung attempts to achieve transcends public life, a point that is essential if we are to understand the tensions that will later surface in Mendelssohn’s essay when he explores the way in which the destinies of “man as man” — that is, people as human beings — and “man as citizen” — human beings as members of political societies. The goal of Bildung is emphatically not simply to improve the “state of society of any nation” — it is to improve society. To understand the normative force of that word for eighteenth-century thinkers it might be worth recalling how Mendelssohn’s friend Lessing understood the true mission of the Masonic movement: to undo the divisions that civil society had introduced among human beings by bringing them together into a society that encompassed all.

But while I think “civilization” doesn’t work as a translation for Bildung there is something about the choice that makes me reluctant to be too hard on X. This reluctance is bound up with my second, and less definable, reason why it would never have occurred to me to translate Bildung as “civilization.” Long before I knew about Spalding — indeed, long before I knew about Mendelssohn’s essay — I was already convinced that Bildung was a uniquely German word and “civilization” was, of course, French. Having read Thomas Mann, I knew that, in the run-up to the slaughter that began at the end of the summer of 1914, Kultur and Zivilisation had become opposing principles: Germans use the former, French use the latter, and the no-man’s land between them would be filled with rotting corpses.

While X’s choice of “civilization” as a translation for Bildung may have missed the particular nuances of Mendelssohn’s argument, there is something about it that gets to the heart of what Mendelssohn was attempting to do. The “Jewish Socrates” found a concept in the work of his Christian colleague that might be put to use in defining the tasks of enlightenment. That sort of bridging of divisions was also the goal of the Wednesday Society, whose rules forbad its members from calling each other by any titles they might hold and from talking about those topics which were tied too closely to their vocations. The goal was to meet as human beings and talk about matters of common concern, a goal that — as Margaret Jacob puts it in her great study of the Masonic movement — amounted to attempting to live the enlightenment.

X’s search for an English word that might serve as a translation for the German Bildung was, in its own way, a small part of that same project. And so, of course, was the larger project of the German Museum: to enlighten English speakers about the efforts that German speakers were making to enlighten themselves. Even if the European Enlightenment had regional variations, it attempted to speak a common language, a language that might permit people from different nations to become members of that cosmopolitan community of readers and writers that would be sketched in that other famous answer to Zöllner’s question. Measured against that effort, perhaps X’s difficulties with Bildung hardly matter.

Courcelette, October 1916

Courcelette, October 1916


  1. The earliest public manifestation of this interest was a somewhat idiosyncratic article that was a great deal of fun to write: “A Raven with a Halo: The Translation of Aristotle’s Politics,” History of Political Thought, VII:2, (1986) 295-319 
  2. For what follows, I am indebted to two articles by Barry Murnane, “Radical Translations:  Dubious Anglo-German Cultural Transfers in the 1790s,” in (Re-) Writing the Radical:  Enlightenment, Revolution and Cultural Transfer in 1790s Germany, Britain and France, ed. Maike Oergel, Spectrum Literaturwissenschaft/spectrum Literature 32 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 44–60 and “Gothic Translation: Germany, 1760-1830,” in The Gothic World, ed. Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend, Routledge Worlds (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 231–42 and to the discussions in John R. Davis, The Victorians and Germany (Lang 2007) 54, R. Murhs, J. Paulmann, W. Steinmetz, eds. Aneignung und Abwehr. Interkultureller Transfer zwischen Deutschland und Grossbritannien im 19. Jahrhundert (Bodenheim, 1998).
  3. Bayard Quincy Morgan and A. R. Hohlfeld, editors, German Literature in British Magazines 1750-1860 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1949) 47-49.
  4. René Wellek, Immanuel Kant in England 1793-1838 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1931) 11-15. There are passing citations of the German Museum on 15 and 18, the fruits, presumably, of Wellek’s encounter with the copy in the Houghton Library that I would read some seven decades later.
  5. In Volume II (currently the only volume that I’ve run OCR software on), there are at least ten articles credited to “P. W.” (while the text is clean enough to yield a fairly good OCR layer, I doubt it catches everything). In contrast, two very short pieces are signed “M. G.” (presumably Maria Geisweiler, the married name of Countess Maria von Schulenburg, though there is also one M. S., which could conceivably also be by her). None are signed A. W. or C. G.
  6. I’m in process of converting the other two volumes and would be happy to share the finished products (to the extent that Google’s copyright claims permit) with anyone who would be interested in working with them (what is currently available on Google consists of image files only).
  7. The standard discussions include Rudolf Vierhaus, “Bildung” in O. Brunner, W. Conze, R. Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe I, 508-551, Hans Weil, Die Entstehung des deutschen Bildungsprinzip (Bonn: Bouvier, 1930), and W. H. Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: ‘Bildung’ from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
  8. See E.L. Stahl, Die Religiose und die Humanitätsphilosophische Bildungsidee (Bern, 1934), 97-101 and Hans Sperber, “Der Einfluss des Pietismus auf die Sprache des 18 Jahrhunderts,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, VIII (1930), 508-9.
  9. Vierhaus, 510
  10. See David Sorkin’s wide-ranging discussion in “Wilhelm Von Humboldt: The Theory and Practice of Self-Formation (Bildung), 1791-1810,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44:1 ( 1983): 55-73 and his shorter account in The Transformation of German Jewry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 16-7.
  11. Hans Rosenberg, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy 182-6 and Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) 8-12, 15-25, 86-90. For a discussion of the transformation of the concept within German neo-humanism in the two decades after Mendelssohn’s essay, see Anthony J. La Vopa, Grace, Talent, and Merit 264-78
  12. What we (or, at least what I) don’t know is how much of Mill’s acquaintance with German philosophy may have had something to do with his contact with Sarah Austin, the sister of Harriet Taylor (the object of Mill’s affections) and the wife of John Austin (the great English jurist). I’ve said a few things about her in an earlier post, but someone should spend more time working on this interesting woman.
  13. I’ve written about them in a variety of places, including the introduction to my collection What is Enlightenment?.
  14. Michael Printy, “The Determination of Man: Johann Joachim Spalding and the Protestant Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 74:2 (2013): 189–212.
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Review of Samuel Fleischacker, What is Enlightenment?

My review of Samuel Fleischacker’s What is Enlightenment? (Routledge, 2013) has now been published on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.  Readers of this blog will likely find Fleischacker’s work of interest and my comments on it somewhat predictable.  I can only hope that, like Tristram Shandy, “my hobby-horse … is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him.” And I trust that everyone is properly grateful for the existence of  Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, a peerless demonstration of what academic publishing might become in the age of digital reproducibility.


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Moses Mendelssohn, “On Enlightening the Mind”

The text that follows is the first English translation of Moses Mendelssohn’s 1784 response to the question “What is enlightenment?” The anonymous translation appeared in 1800 in the second volume of The German Museum, a short-lived journal edited by the London-based German emigres Constantin Geisweiler, Peter Will, and Anton Willich. The transcription that follows retains the original spelling (including the rendering of Mendelssohn’s name in the title) and pagination. For a discussion of the translator’s choices and  possible implications, see the accompanying posts on this blog.


[39] THE terms intellectual improvement, or enlightening the mind, cultivation, and civilization1, are as yet scarcely naturalized in the German language. Their use is almost confined to books. By the majority of mankind they are scarcely known or understood: but can this be considered as a proof that the objects these words represent are new or foreign to us? Certainly not. It is said of a certain nation, that they have no words for virtue and superstition, and yet no small portion of each may justly be ascribed to them.

Common usage, however, although it apparently tends to establish a distinction between these nearly synonymous words, has not yet had time to fix the boundaries of each.

Civilization, cultivation, and intellect, are modifications of social life, the result of the industry and exertions of mankind to improve the general happiness.

The more the state of society of any nation is made to harmonize through art and industry with the respective conditions of men, to so much greater degree of civilization has that nation attained.

Civilization may be divided into cultivation and enlightening the public mind, the former of which seems to be chiefly practical, and to consist of refinement, beauty, and perfection in mechanics, in the arts, and in the manners of society of talents and industry in the arts, and of moral inclinations and propensities. The more these agree with the condition of men, the more cultivation may they be said to have acquired, as a piece of land is said to be better cultivated, the more industry has been bestowed on it, so as to produce things useful to mankind; but on the other hand, enlightening seems to relate principally to theory or rational knowledge, and a facility to reason on the affairs of life according to their importance and influence on the condition of men.

[40] I consider the condition of man as the grand measure and end of all our exertions and labours, and as a point which we must constantly keep in view, if we would avoid losing ourselves in conjecture and speculation.

A language becomes enlightened by means of the sciences, and it becomes cultivated or polished by means of social converse, poetry, and eloquence. By the former it becomes more adapted to objects of theory, and by the latter to those of practice. Both together give a language that quality which is denominated civilization.

The highest degree of cultivation is called refinement. Happy is the nation whose refinement is the effect of cultivation, and of an enlightened state of the public mind, whose external lustre and polish arises from an internal solid basis of truth and virtue.

An enlightened state of mind is to cultivation what theory generally is to practice, knowledge to morality, and criticism to taste. Considered in themselves, they stand in the nearest relation to each other, although they very often appear totally distinct.

It may be said that the inhabitants of Nuremberg and of France are more cultivated, those of Berlin and of England more enlightened, while the Chinese are highly cultivated, but very unenlightened: the Greeks possessed both these qualities. They were a highly civilized and polished nation, as their language is a highly civilized and polished language. In general the language of a nation is the best measure and criterion of their civilization, as well as of the more or less enlightened state of the national mind, and of the expansion of that mind as well as of its strength.

Farther, the actual condition of men may be divided into, 1. the condition of men considered as men, and, 2. the condition of men considered as citizens.

In considering the subject of cultivation these objects coincide, as the value of all practical perfections depends alone on their influence on social life, and must accord with the actual condition of men as members of society. Men as men require no cultivation, but even in this point of view they require much enlightening.

From the rank and profession of men in civil life arise certain duties and rights, and therefore in proportion to these require various talents and abilities, habits and inclinations, manners and customs, and degrees of cultivation and refinement; and the more these accord with the various ranks and professions of men, that is with their respective conditions as [41] members of society, the more cultivation that nation may be said to have attained.

To each individual, different theoretical knowledge, different abilities to acquire that knowledge, and different degrees of enlightened instruction, are necessary according to their various ranks and professions; but that species of improvement which regards men as men, is generally independent of the distinction of ranks, while that which regards men as citizens, is modified according to their ranks and professions in life. The condition of men, therefore, is here the measure and the end of their exertions.

According to these rules the enlightening the public mind of any nation will he regulated, 1st, by the degree of knowledge they possess; 2d, by the importance of that knowledge, that is, relatively to the actual state and condition of men as men and as citizens; 3d, by its extension through the various ranks and classes of society; 4th, by the nature of their professions and vocations: and were the degree of this enlightening of a nation to be measured by a fourfold compound ratio, the component parts thereof separately taken, would be found to be themselves composed of other more simple ratioes.

The enlightening of the man may not always accord with that of the citizen. Many truths there are, which, however useful to men as men, may sometimes prove injurious to them as citizens. Here we must weigh the consequences. A collision may also arise between the essential or the accidental condition of the man, and the essential or accidental condition of the citizen. Were men deprived of their essential condition as men they would sink into brutes; deprived of their accidental condition, they would not be the elevated beings they now appear. Without their essential condition as citizens, the political constitution of society would cease to exist; without their accidental condition, society would no longer retain its due subordination.

Unhappy is that country where the essential condition of the man does not harmonize with the essential condition of the citizen; where the degree of information which is indispensably necessary to men, cannot be extended through every class without danger to the political constitution.

But when the accidental condition of the man comes in competition with the essential or accidental condition of the citizen, rules must be established, according to which exceptions may be made, and competitions may be decided.

When the essential condition of men is unfortunately brought into a state of opposition with their accidental condition, when men dare not explain certain useful and [42] ornamental truths to mankind at large, without undermining the foundations of religion and morality, the instructor of his fellow-citizens who has a due regard to virtue, will act with caution and prudence, and rather permit prejudice to continue, than banish truths with which it is so intimately united. This maxim, however, has certainly proved the strongest bulwark of priestcraft, and we are indebted to it for many centuries of barbarism and superstition. As often as men were willing to destroy this evil, it took refuge in the sanctuary; and yet the friends of mankind will, even in the most enlightened periods, obey this maxim.

The more excellent any thing may be when perfect, says a Hebrew writer, the more prejudicial is it when corrupted and depraved. A rotten piece of wood is not so unpleasant as a corrupted flower; nor is this so disgusting as the putrid body of an animal; and this again is less horrible than a human corpse in a state of corruption. Thus it is with cultivation, and the enlightening the mind. The more valuable they may be at their first breaking forth, the more are they to be dreaded when in a state of corruption and destruction.

The abuse of this enlightened state of mind weakens the-moral sense, leads to insensibility, egotism, irreligion, and anarchy. The abuse of cultivation gives birth to licentiousness, hypocrisy, effeminacy, superstition, and slavery.

Where the enlightening and cultivation of mankind advance with equal pace, they become to each other the best security against corruption, and that civilization of any nation, which, according to the above definitions, consists of cultivation and an enlightened state of the public mind, is therefore the least liable to corruption.

A civilized nation has no other internal danger to fear than the excess of its national happiness, which, like the most perfect health of the human body, may be called either in itself a disease, or at least a passage to it. A nation which has through civilization attained the highest pinnacle of national happiness, is for that very reason in danger of falling; whereas it cannot rise higher: but this would lead us too far from the question before us.

  1. Aufklärung, Kultur, Bildung [footnote in original]
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The First English Translation of Moses Mendelssohn’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?”: Part I

Last summer I wrote a series of posts on the choices involved in translating Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” into English. Attempting something similar for Moses Mendelssohn’s answer to the same question, which appeared three months before Kant’s in the same journal, would be a less promising undertaking. In what turned out to be a massive duplication of efforts, Daniel Dahlstrom, Hans-Herbert Kögler, and I all produced translations of the essay in the late 1990s and, while they differ on a few points, there is not a lot to be learned from comparing them.1 As we labored away on what each of us assumed would be the first translation of Mendelssohn’s essay into English, none of us was aware that, almost two centuries earlier, an anonymous translation of the essay had been published in the second volume on an obscure British called the The German Museum.2 That translation turns out, as we shall see, to be very interesting.

The German Museum

The German Museum was a short-lived publication (two volumes appeared in 1800 and a third in 1801) with the ambitious agenda of trying to convince an Anglophone audience of the virtues eighteenth-century German literature and philosophy at a time when British opponents of the French Revolution were busy constructing an image of Germans intellectual as atheist Jacobins Hell-bent bent on destroy all that good Englishmen cherished. As the Anti-Jacobin Review warned its readers,

such a scene of corruption as Germany now exhibits, an English mind shudders to contemplate. The young women, even of rank, uncontrolled by that natural diffidence, unchecked by that innate modesty, which at once heighten the allurements of, and serve as a protection to, beauty, but which have been destroyed by the fatal infusion of philosophical principles, consider the age of puberty as the period of exemption from every social restraint, and sacrifice their virtue to the first candidate for their favour, who has the means either of captivating their fancy, or gratifying their avarice; while the dreadful number of abortions serves to proclaim the frequency and extent of their crime!  …  In short, the boundaries which separate virtue from vice appear to be entirely removed, and the beset cement of society is consequently dissolved (Anti-Jacobin Review IV (August-December 1799, xii-xiii)

I first became interested in the journal early in 2001, altered to its existence by a passing discussion in Bayard Quincy Morgan and A. R. Hohlfeld’s 1949 survey of German literature in British periodicals.3 At that point, copies of it were hard to find, with WorldCat listing fewer than a dozen sets in existence. Fortunately for me, one of them was located just across the river in the Houghton library at Harvard. It took several days for the staff at Houghton to figure out where the volumes had been shelved (while waiting for them to show up, I amused myself with the Anti-Jacobin Review) and when the three large volumes were finally rolled over to the table where I was working, I discovered a few call slips identifying what seems to have been the last person to have requested them: René Wellek. As I began my reading I wondered whether I was the first person to turn these pages since Wellek did the research that produced Immanuel Kant In England, 1793-1838 seven decades earlier.

Copies of The German Museum are no longer difficult to find: Google scanned the set that now resides in the New York Public Library, a set that was previously owned by H. G. Fiedler, the editor of the Oxford Book of German Verse (1938), a collection that would serve as my introduction to world of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin. Fiedler’s copy of the German Museum now resides on my iPad, which allows me to browse the pages of a publication from the dawn of the nineteenth century during my morning commute. Jonathan Richman was right: the modern world is not so bad.

Translating Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s text does not present the translator with the sort of difficulties Kant’s posed. Contemporaries praised Mendelssohn’s style for its elegance and clarity, and he avoided those paradoxical formulations (e.g., “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit”) figure so centrally in Kant’s account. But the essay does pose at least one significant challenge and, as is the case in the Kant essay, it arrives at the very start. Here’s Mendelssohn’s opening paragraph:

Die Worte Aufklärung, Kultur, Bildung sind in unsrer Sprache noch neue Ankömmlinge. Sie gehören vor der Hand bloss zur Büchersprache. Der gemeine Haufe verstehet sie kaum. Sollte dieses ein Beweis sein, dass auch die Sache bei uns noch neu sei? Ich glaube nicht. Man sagt von einem gewissen Volke, dass es kein bestimmtes Wort für Tugend, keines für Aberglauben habe; ob man ihm gleich ein nicht geringes Maass von beiden mit Recht zuschreiben darf.

Here’s how I translated it:

The words “enlightenment”, “culture”, and “education” are newcomers to our language. They currently belong only to literary discourse. The masses scarcely understand them. Does this prove that these things are also new to us? I believe not. One says of a certain people that they have no specific word for “virtue”, or none for “superstition”, and yet one may justly attribute a not insignificant measure of both to them.

The problem that confronts any translator is what to do with the last of the trio of words that appear in the first sentence. The difficulty is not that Bildung defies translation into English: there are any number of words that will work and, in contexts such as this, “culture” will usually do quite nicely.

But Mendelssohn takes that option of the table by juxtaposing Bildung and Kultur, with Kultur denoting the “practical” aspect of Bildung (i.e., the improvement of mores and customs) and Aufklärung designating the “theoretical” side (i.e., the spread of scientific and technical knowledge). Since Kultur will, inevitably, be translated as “culture,” the translator is left with nothing but bad choices when it comes to translating Bildung. Both Dahlstrom and I opted for “education” — which (as I went on to explain in an apologetic footnote) doesn’t quite work in this context.   Kögeler decided to leave it untranslated and explained the range of possible meanings in a footnote.

Our anonymous nineteenth-century predecessor had a very different approach:

The terms intellectual improvement, or enlightening the mind, cultivation, and civilization, are as yet scarcely naturalized in the German language. Their use is almost confined to books. By the majority of mankind they are scarcely known or understood: but can this be considered as a proof that the objects these words represent are new or foreign to us? Certainly not. It is said of a certain nation, that they have no words for virtue and superstition, and yet no small portion of each may justly be ascribed to them.

The German Museum’s translator was content to insert an asterisk after the word “civilization” and, at the bottom of the page, placed a footnote that simply lists the three German words, without explanation or apology.

When I first came upon this translation I didn’t take much notice of the use of “civilization” as a translation for Bildung. But, coming back to it after a decade and a half, that choice strikes me as an object lesson in what we can learn from looking at old translations.

Enlightening the Mind and Cultivating Morality

In 2001, what caught my attention was the prolix translation of Aufklärung “intellectual improvement, or enlightening the mind” — six English words to translate one German term. The translator’s avoidance of the (to us) obvious choice of “enlightenment” was in keeping with the early nineteenth-century practices, which favored the use of “enlightening” (which, as I discussed in a previous post, had been used in Richardson’s translation of Kant’s answer to the question) or “illumination” (which was the term employed, among other places, in the Anti-Jacobin Review).

The general practice in the German Museum was to render Aufklärung as “mental illumination.” A search of the scanned text on Google books turns up no appearances of “enlightenment,” but 38 uses of the phrase “mental illumination” (23 of them in first volume) and 17 occurrences of “enlightening,” usually coupled with “the mind” but sometimes standing on its own (five of the uses of the word are in the Mendelssohn translation). In contrast, “culture” turns up less frequently: five times in the first volume, eight in the second (though three of the uses have to do with agriculture), and five in the third.

The German Museum’s affection for “mental illumination” and “enlightening the mind” was somewhat idiosyncratic. Plotting the two terms against “culture” over the first two decades of the nineteenth century yields the following:

Mental Illum,Enlightening,Culture

About the only surprise here is that the use of “culture” seems to be dropping. But a look at what happened to “culture” across the entire century provides a different picture:

Culture nineteenth century

We can get a better sense of the career of “mental illumination” and “enlightening the mind” if we can take “culture” out of search (and make the search case-insensitive):

Illum and Enl nineteenth century

Again, what we find here is not entirely surprising: terms favored of the German Museum decline over the course of the century. The only thing that is unexpected is that the terms survived as long as they did, but a glance at the text samples suggests that in the last third of the century both terms are being kept in circulation chiefly in religious works.

As is usually the case, we learn a bit more from looking at the text snippets that Google provides. They show that “mental illumination” was turning up in such publications as The Monthly Magazine (“the King of Prussia and his amiable Queen rival with each other in displaying their laudable zeal for the promotion of mental illumination”), the London Medical and Physical Journal (“Greece, in her brightest day of mental illumination, would have deified the discoverer of the circulation of the blood”), and the English translation of Condorcet’s Outlines of the Historical Progress of the Human Mind (“a more general diffusion of the philosophical ideas of justice and equality, and lastly by the slow but sure effect of the progress of mental illumination”). The phrase “enlightening the mind” turns up in Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, editions of the works of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Miller’s Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803), a “sketch of the revolutions and improvements in science, arts, and literature,” written by a New York Presbyterian minister with connections to the American Philosophical Society and the History Society of Massachusetts. It would appear, then, that “mental illumination” and “enlightening the mind” did more or less the same work that would subsequently be done, more economically, by the word “enlightenment.”

Mendelssohn on Language and Concepts

By now it should be apparent that I have a certain weakness for staring at graphs of infrequently used words and savoring the peculiar text snippets that Google provides. In the present case, however, this peculiar habit is not without a certain justification. Mendelssohn, after all, began his answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” not, as Kant did, by defining the term, but instead with a claim about language use and, in the second paragraph of his answer, he offers the following suggestion about the relationship between language usage and concepts formation. Here’s how the 1800 translation renders it:

Common usage, however, although it apparently tends to establish a distinction between these nearly synonimous words, has not yet had time to fix the boundaries of each.

By the time Mendelssohn got around to answering the question “What is enlightenment?” he had been thinking about the relationship between words and concepts for close to three decades.4

As early as 1756 he included a discussion of the origin of language in the commentary he appended to his translation of Rousseau Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.5 Three years later he wrote an extensive review of Johann David Michaelis’s prize-winning response to the Berlin Academy’s question for 1759, “What is the reciprocal influence of the opinions of a people on language and of language on opinions?” for Nicolai’s Letters Concerning the Latest Literature and at about the same period wrote a manuscript on the development of language and its relation to thought.6

Mendelssohn maintained that progress in reasoning both fosters and is made possible by the development of “arbitrary signs” that allow for more complex and subtle understandings of relationships than is possible through the use of either “natural signs” (which are the direct effect of natural causes, for example smoke as a sign of fire) or “imitative signs” (sounds that mimic natural objects, either through verbal interjections or hieroglyphics). “The more men develop themselves [sich bilden],” he argued, “the more logical and abstract their ideas become, the more withdrawn their language is from the sensual expression of nature” (6/2:11). The possession of signs that are no longer tied to the materiality of objects fosters a process of abstraction and comparison that is “enlightening” (6/2:11).

Nowhere is Mendelssohn’s conviction that there is an intimate relationship between the development of language and the clarification of concepts more evident than in his discussions on the development of moral philosophy. At the start of Jerusalem, he observed that the “ingenious errors” of Thomas Hobbes — like those of Spinoza in the area of metaphysics — prompted efforts to clarify the relationship between right, duty, power, and obligation. The fruits of those efforts at clarification “have become so intimately fused with our language” that today the refutation of Hobbes “seems to be a matter of common sense” that is accomplished “by language itself” (8:106). It was this conviction that the development of conceptual distinctions was bound up with the development of language goes a long way to explaining why he argued, in his essay on enlightenment,

A language becomes enlightened by means of the sciences, and it becomes cultivated or polished by means of social converse, poetry, and eloquence. By the former it becomes more adapted to objects of theory, and by the latter to those of practice. Both together give a language that quality which is denominated civilization [Bildung].

I have, once again, quoted from the 1800 translation. But when I was doing my translation of Mendelssohn’s article, it never have occurred to me to translate Bildung as “civilization.” I suspect that this tells us something about the difference between the world in which Dahlstrom, Koegeler, and I live and that of our nineteenth-century predecessor. I will discuss that in the second part of this post.

In the meantime, for those who might be interested in reading the German Museum‘s translation, I have posted a copy of it here.

1800_The German Museum

  1. See Hans-Herbert Koegeler, “Reason, Tradition, and Critique:  Mendelssohn’s Essay on Enlightenment,” Public Culture 6 (1993): 201–217, James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), and Moses Mendelssohn, Philosophical Writings, ed. Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  2. Moses Mendelsohn [sic]. “On Enlightening the Mind,” German Museum II (1800) 39-42
  3. Bayard Quincy Morgan and A. R. Hohlfeld, editors, German Literature in British Magazines 1750-1860 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1949).
  4. I’m much indebted to Leah Hochman’s discussion of these matters in her 1999 doctoral dissertation Sign, Art, and Ritual: Aspects of Moses Mendelssohn’s Theory of Language (Boston University).
  5. Mendelssohn, “Sendschreiben an den Herrn Magister Lessing in Leipzig”, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe 2:107-9
  6. The review of Michaelis appeared in Literaturbriefe 72-5 (December 1759); see Mendelssohn, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe 5/1:105-118. For the essays on language from the same period see “Über die Sprache” and “Notizen zu Ursprung der Sprach” in Mendelssohn, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe 6/1:3-28
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Tracking the Reception of Kant’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?”

As Dan Edelstein once observed, scholars have gotten into the habit of using Kant’s 1784 to the question “What is enlightenment?” as a convenient “one-stop shop for defining the Enlightenment.”1 There is a tendency to assume that because Kant was obviously an important eighteenth-century thinker, his attempt to explain just what was taking place at the close of the eighteenth century played a significant role in how the period was understood. Since I am as guilty of that tendency as the next person, I was somewhat taken aback when I first read Gisbert Beyehaus’ 1921 article on Kant’s “program of enlightenment” and came across his complaint that previous scholars had tended to treat Kant’s answer in a “step-motherly” fashion.2 At the time, I wrote this off to the tendency that scholars have to make it seem as if they are breaking new ground, even in those cases when they are moving down well-trodden paths (and, in any case, there was enough in Beyerhaus’ article that was new to me to get me interested in the context of Kant’s answer).

Recently it occurred to me that the Google Ngram might provide a quick (albeit dirty) way of exploring the reception of Kant’s essay. Matters are made somewhat easier by the fact that the famous opening paragraph of Kant’s contains a combination of words that is unlikely to occur in any other text unless it is quoting or discussing Kant’s article: the famously paradoxical formulation “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit” (I’ve discussed the problems of translating this phrase in an earlier post). Further, Kant places this phrase at the very start of the essay, in a paragraph that has tended to be the most frequently quoted part of the essay. So, I figured, plugging selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit into the Ngram Viewer might provide a rough sketch of the reception of Kant’s essay. Here are the results:

Screenshot 2014-02-23 18.01.23

Readers who are familiar with the peculiarities of the Ngram may notice that I’ve left Google’s default smoothing on. Turning off the smoothing results in a somewhat different — and I suspect more accurate — picture of the discussion of Kant’s essay, with intermittent, but relatively intense, interest in the essay in certain years (note the peaks at 1799 and 1839):

Screenshot 2014-02-23 18.04.28

Looking at the samples Google provides confirms that most of the texts are, indeed, quoting the opening of Kant’s essay (in other words, “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit” is not a term that turns up very frequently in contexts other than a discussion of Kant). But it also indicates that the peaks we are seeing in 1799 and 1839 are, in part, being driven by editions of Kant’s works, as opposed to actual discussions of Kant’s essay. Since I’m more interested in the latter than the former, it would be useful to screen out the occurrences of the phrase that occur in republications of Kant’s essay. Fortunately, the Ngram provides a way of doing this.

It is possible to construct an Ngram that subtracts the occurrences of one phrase from another and plots the result. The trick, of course, is to come up with another phrase in the essay that, while unlikely to occur in  texts from the period other than Kant’s essay, will probably not be turning up on the Ngram unless Kant’s entire essay is being reprinted. After playing around with a few possible contenders and checking to make sure that they weren’t phrases that were likely to turn up in contexts other than editions of Kant’s essay, I came up with “Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen” (which appears at the point where Kant introduces his distinction between public and private uses of reason, but is not an interesting enough passage to stand on its own as a quotation).   Here is the result:

Screenshot 2014-02-23 18.21.15

Since it may be easier to make sense of this by actually looking at the Ngram itself (where Google gives you the ability to highlight different lines on the graph), it would be worth opening this link in a separate window and playing around with it as you read what follows (obviously, this is easier if you have a really big monitor). The green line shows us the result for all of the uses of “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit” that occur in texts that do not also include the phrase “Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen.” It is my suspicion that this provides us with discussions of Kant’s essay, as opposed to editions of Kant’s essay. One way of appreciating the differences between editions and discussions is to go to the Ngram itself and move the cursor between the graph for “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit” and the one for “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit – Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen.” Notice how the subtraction of the term dampens the peaks at 1799 and 1840? What is being eliminated here are Kant editions.

I am perplexed by the negative result on the “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit – Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen” line right before 1800. If it is accurate (and I doubt it is), this would indicate that there are more occurrences of “Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen” than of “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit,” hence the tipping of the line into negative territory. While I suppose it could have been the case that was a flurry of discussion of Kant’s public/private distinction, I doubt it. What is more likely, I suppose, is that we probably should not trust what we are seeing for the 1799 results at all. If we simply limit ourselves to the post 1801 data, what we see is a discussion of Kant’s essay that is more or less dormant until shortly before the peak at 1840, has a lesser peak at 1870, and then begins a persistent rise around the beginning of the twentieth century. That rise around 1900 conforms rather nicely with what we’ve seen in earlier discussions of the gradual fading of the various pejoratives that once preceded the work Aufklärung, a fading that I’ve suggested might mark the point when Aufklärung stopped being a contested term denoting a process that could be explained in a variety of ways and began to be used to denote a (no less contested) historical period.

Of course, nothing that I have said here speaks to Beyerhaus’ complaint that, prior his essay, scholars had treated Kant’s essay in a “step-motherly” fashion.  But it does cast some light on a more basic question:  just when did scholars begin to deal with Kant’s essay at all.

  1. Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (University Of Chicago Press, 2010) 117.
  2. Gisbert Beyerhaus, “Kants Programm der Aufklärung aus dem Jahre 1784,” Kant-Studien 26 (1921) 2-16, 2.
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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.
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Isaiah Berlin & the “Counter-Enlightenment”: A Reassessment (Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Conclusion)

Since the middle of October I have been attempting to trace the history of the concept “counter-Enlightenment.” I set out on this venture convinced that Zeev Sternhell’s account of the history was wrong and confident that the sketch that I had offered a few years ago in a paper delivered at the meetings of the American Historical Association captured enough of the story to need only relatively minor adjustments. My agenda in commencing these posts was to figure out just what those adjustments might be. But one of the peculiar features of carrying out this exercise (an exercise that, as Hegel somewhat snidely described his friend Schelling’s early publications, amounts to “conducting one’s education in public”) is that it sometimes leads in unexpected directions.  While I have already run into quite a few surprises along the way (e.g., the diversity of German uses of the term, the unexpected appearances of the term in English during the first half of the twentieth century, and so on), the biggest one came at the end.

Like most people who have written on the topic, I blithely assumed that Isaiah Berlin would loom large in the account I was constructing.  While it has been obvious for some time that Berlin did not actually invent the term, he is generally viewed as having played a central role — if not the central role — in popularizing it. On that point, both his admirers (e.g., Joseph Mali and Robbie Wokler) and his critics (e.g. Zeev Sternhell) could agree.1

However, as my survey of uses of the term has come closer to Berlin’s first employment of the term in his 1973 entry on the topic in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, I have begun to suspect that this way of thinking about Berlin’s role rests on a false premise: namely, that his use of the term marked a significant change in the way in which the concept was being used.  After working my way through the myriad uses of the term by American historians, literary critics, and social critics during the 1950s and 1960s, I have found myself wondering whether it makes sense to assume that the appearance of Berlin’s entry in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas had much impact on the use of a term that, by 1973, was by no means unfamiliar.  There are good reasons for continuing to see Berlin as closely associated with the concept.  But I think that there is little reason to see him as having had a significant influence on the way in which the term was being used.

An Overview of Usage 1950-1974

If we look at an Ngram of occurrences of the term “counter-Enlightenment” during the last half of the twentieth century what is perhaps most striking is that Berlin’s article in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas does not appear to have made much of an impact on the frequency with which the word was used.

Counter-Enlightenment 1950-2000

It appears that, when Berlin wrote his article on the concept, he was discussing a term that had been used, off and on, throughout mid-1950s (working my way through the various texts that used the concept prior to Berlin’s famous article has been one of the main reasons why this series of posts have taken so long to complete).

Which, if any, of these uses of the term he might have known about remains, and probably will remain, an open question. He had been in contact with Trilling from 1952 and the two kept up a lengthy (albeit, rather uninteresting) correspondence until Trilling’s death in 1975, but there is no solid evidence that he was aware of the exchanges between Trilling and Barrett in Partisan Review. It is hard to see how he could have avoided coming across the termGegenaufklärung in the course of his reading of German histories of philosophy, but I have not done a systematic search of the texts he cites to see whether the term in there. At this point, all that can be said with any confidence is that when he wrote his article on “Counter-Enlightenment” for the Dictionary of the History of Ideas he took up a term that had been used by scholars working in a number of different disciplines.  He was the first to write an extended discussion of the concept, but he was far from the first to employ the term.

Further, it would appear that his initial use of the term had little or no immediate impact on the subsequent popularity of the term. The major uptick in usage came in the wake of the publication of Against the Current, though the peak usage of the term would not arrive until around 1995. Isaiah Berlin was an early adopter of a term that, for reasons unrelated to his use of it, was already in the process of entering into a broader usage.

To appreciate this point, it might be useful to contrast the Ngram for “counter-Enlightenment” with that of a term that would enter into general usage over the next few decades:


This is what it looks like when someone invents a term that catches on and is taken up by others. Unlike “counter-Enlightenment”, the trajectory of “deconstruction” resembles the pattern of usage for those words that are used to designate things that needed to be invented before we could name them.


In contrast, “counter-Enlightenment” was a term that was employed to designate traditions of thought for which we already had a variety of names (e.g., “enemies of the Enlightenment,” “critics of the Enlightenment,” “Romantics,” etc.).

The idea that “counter-Enlightenment” was term that had only recently been coined was implicit in the question Ramin Jahanbegloo posed to Berlin in a 1991 interview: “Who invented the word ‘counter-Enlightenment?”  It is worth noting that Berlin seems (rightly, I think) to have been taken aback by the question:

An American wrote a book on “Counter-Renaissance”. I don’t know who invented the concept of “Counter-Enlightenment.” Someone must have said it. Could it be myself? I should be somewhat surprised. Perhaps I did. I really have no idea.2

Berlin had every reason to have been confused. “Counter-Enlightenment” is not the sort of term that needed to be “invented.” The pieces from which it could be constructed had been lying around since the close of the eighteenth century and the terms “counter-Reformation” and “counter-revolution” served as readily available paradigms for showing how it could be assembled.

Counter Rev and Ref

That Berlin began his puzzled response by recalling Hiram Haydn’s 1950 book on The Counter-Renaissance suggests that he was aware of the ubiquity of such constructions.3

It could, nevertheless, be argued that though Berlin’s 1973 entry in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas may not have popularized a term that already enjoyed a limited usage among specialists, the republication of the article in Against the Current marked the point at which the term began to enter into a broader usage. This interpretation has some support in the Ngram for the term (especially if we assume that it might have taken some time for Berlin’s discussion of the term to reach a broader audience.  But it is essential to know whether those who were making use of the term after 1980 were actually influenced by Berlin, rather than continuing to draw on earlier patterns of usage.

Dan Edelstein recently called my attention to the uses to which the data visualization tools now available on JSTOR can be put. While I’m not entirely confident in the results I’ve gotten from playing around with them, they allow us to distinguish articles that use the term “counter-Enlightenment” from articles that employ both the terms “counter-Enlightenment” and “Isaiah Berlin.” The rationale for drawing such a distinction is that, just as early article that employed the term “deconstruction” would have been likely to mention Jacques Derrida at some point, so too an article that invoked the “counter-Enlightenment” — were it, in fact, a term that had entered into general usage because of Berlin’s discussion of it — might be expected to mention Isaiah Berlin at some point. But this does not appear to be the case.

Here are plots of the number of articles using the term “counter-Enlightenment” (or its variants: JSTOR searches are case-insensitive) and those in which both the terms “Isaiah Berlin” and “counter-Enlightenment” occur.4

Counter-Enlightenment JSTOR


Berlin & Counter-Enlightenment

Berlin & Counter-Enlightenment

The main point to take away from this is that while the “counter-Enlightenment” turns up with some regularity in articles archived JSTOR over the last quarter of the twentieth century, there are only five years in which Isaiah Berlin’s name appears in more than a third of the articles in which the term “counter-Enlightenment” appears: 1974 (66%), 1981 (33%), 1983 (39%), 1994 (36%), and 1996 (32%). Some of these results are easy to explain: 1974 (which saw a paltry three uses of the term) was the year after the publication of the Dictionary and two of those uses of “counter-Enlightenment” mention Berlin. The 1981 results were likely influenced by the appearance of Against the Current, which was widely reviewed. The Magus of the North was published in 1993, which may explain the results from 1994, while the figures from 1996 may have something to do with the publication of the collection The Sense of Reality and John Gray’s study of Berlin (which included a chapter on “Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment”), a combination that provided an opportunity for a series of articles offering a general assessment of Berlin’s career. I have no idea what explains what is going on in 1983.

None of this, of course, rules out the possibility that Berlin’s work may, in ways too subtle to document, have inspired others to take up the term. But it does suggest that those who were using the term felt little need to credit him for a concept that he had allegedly popularized.

Having spent more than enough time attempting to assess Berlin’s alleged role in popularizing the concept, it may be useful to explore some of the ways in which the term “counter-Enlightenment” was being used prior to 1973, particularly in the wake of what was assumed (prior to Henry Hardy’s recent inventory of uses of the term) to have been its first appearance in English: the use by William Barrett in the Partisan Review. JSTOR turns up 15 article that used the term between 1949 and 1973.  A considerably less reliable search on Google Books lists 58 items using the word during the same period, though this figure is inflated by the usual combination of bad metadata, repetition of items, and texts that cannot be accessed to confirm that there is actually anything present.5 Still, we have more than enough examples from this period to suggest that the term was being used, in slightly different ways, by a number of scholars (some of them with clear connections to each other) working in three areas: 1) literary criticism, 2) intellectual history, and 3) social theory. So let’s stop counting texts and start reading them.

Literature & the Counter-Enlightenment

One of the earliest uses of the term by a literary critic was directly inspired by the 1949 exchanges between Barrett, Chase, and Trilling inPartisan Review: William Van O’Connor’s 1950 discussion of Lionel Trilling’s Critical Realism” in the Sewanee Review.6 O’Connor had worked with Trilling in the late 1940s and received his doctorate in 1948. His article took the publication of Trilling’s Liberal Imagination as the “occasion for a general examination of Trilling’s critical position” (482).

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

O’Conner began this examination by reiterating the parallel Trilling himself had drawn (in the brief introduction to The Liberal Imagination) between his position and that of John Stuart Mill and proceeded to flesh out Trilling’s analogy with a series of quotations from the Partisan Review exchanges (since the article contained no citations, the provenance of the quotations would have escaped most readers):

Matthew Arnold, himself an ardent liberal, took it upon himself to criticize the liberal mind. Lionel Trilling, our best student of Arnold and one of our most astute critics, has devoted himself both in fiction and criticism to examining those assumptions of the liberal mind that are themselves serious threats against a democratic liberal order.

Many liberals tend to think themselves morally, politically, and philosophically above their fellows; but Trilling has reminded them that even they, “the residuary legatees of the Enlightenment,” are subject to error, that in its pride liberalism will “unless purged and enlightened by a critical effort of great seriousness inevitably corrupt and betray itself into the very opposite of its avowed intention of liberation.” (482).

O’Conner returned to the Partisan Review exchanges a few pages later, noting, “One of Mr. Trilling’s most significant points is that the Enlightenment is merely one aspect of our intellectual heritage” and going on to quote Trilling’s charge that “contemporary liberalism seems incapable of responding to the realistic values of Romanticism which, equally with the idealistic values of the Enlightenment, are properly part of its heritage.”7

To the extent that O’Connor had much to say about the Enlightenment, his characterization amounted to the usual set of clichés: e.g., “Another of our inheritances from the Enlightenment is the assumption that knowledge is only that which can be tested and labeled genuine in a scientist’s laboratory” (489). Somewhat predictably, he saw the Enlightenment as narrowly “rationalistic,” which enabled him to follow Trilling in presenting the counter-Enlightenment as a necessary corrective: it is “a movement that does not destroy but that qualifies and modifies our rationalistic tradition” (490).

These same moves were repeated, some two decades later, in Francis Russell Hart’s account of the English Gothic novel.8

Seen from our perspective, the Gothic signals a counter-enlightenment, climaxing an era naive in the fervor of its scientific naturalism, its rationalism, its benevolism, its commitment to the norms of “common sense.” The Gothic novelist, still “enlightened” but imperfect in his skepticism, gave to fiction a post-Enlightenment preoccupation with the preternatural, the irrational, the primordial, the abnormal, and (tending to include the rest) the demonic. (86)

Hart went on to argue that, while the function of the Gothic was to “rehabilitate” the “extra-rational,” this might best understood as an attempt to extend rather than reject the Enlightenment by “adopting and complicating” its “most representative literary invention, the novel” (86). This sets the stage for the claim that the Gothic novel represents

the reflection in fiction of the counter-enlightenment premise John Stuart Mill located in the Germano-Coleridgians: the Enlightenment had erred from a totally inadequate conception of human nature (88).

It is difficult to avoid the impression that, in discussions such as this, the author is working from a manual written by Trilling, checking off each move as he proceeds.9

Similar tropes can be found in the emerging field of American Studies, where a counter-Enlightenment was being assembled from some of the same figures who had been discussed in the studies by Chase that sparked the Partisan Review exchanges in the first place. For example, Leo Marx, in a discussion of the methodology of American studies that dates from shortly after the publication of his influential Machine in the Garden (1964), noted,

Writers like Thoreau and Melville,on the other hand, whose intellectual affinities were with the romantic turned the device [i.e., the image of the "machine in the garden"] into a dark counter-Enlightenment metaphor of contradiction.10

It should also be noted that Daniel Aaron, who had played a role in shaping this field,  (as I discussed in the previous installment in this series) had already employed the term a decade earlier in his 1954 American Quarterly article “Conservatism, Old and New.”

Finally, the term appeared in a 1961 article on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus by Joseph Frank, who would later gain fame as a Dostoevsky scholar. Frank’s early career had included studies at University of Wisconsin, a stint as a reporter in Washington during

Joseph Frank

Joseph Frank

World War II, a doctorate from Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and occasional articles for Partisan Review. What is perhaps most striking about his piece on Doctor Faustus is its stress on a “counter-Enlightenment” that includes considerably more troubling thinkers than the assortment “Germano-Coleridgians” and Romantic poets typically invoked by those who followed Trilling’s lead.

Far from treating the counter-Enlightenment as a useful corrective to the “rationalist” excesses of the Enlightenment, Frank reminded his readers of its more problematic role in recent history.

After the defeat of Germany in the first World War, German culture was inundated by a flood of doctrines and attitudes exemplified by such names as Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Bachofen, Ernst Junger, Stefan George and tutti quanti. All these novelists, philosophers and, poets, Mann noted in an important article on Freud (1929), stress “the impotence of spirit and reason while … by contrast contrast the powers of the lower regions, the dynamic of of passion, the irrational, the unconscious, is exhibited with bellicose piety.” Whether or not, the writings of these men served as the intellectual and spiritual precursors of Nazism; Thomas Mann, who felt this whole movement as a perversion of his own deepest values, recommended Freud as an antidote in the courageous struggle he waged both as publicist and artist against this movement.11

The article to which Frank referred was Mann’s 1929 lecture Die Stellung Freuds in der modernen Geistesgeschichte, which had been originally delivered in May 1929 before the Munich Democratic Students’ Club and which sought to counter the National Socialist valorization of myth by situating Freud’s work in the context of a struggle between the Aufklärung and the Gegenauklärung that stretched back into the nineteenth century.12

Thomas_Mann_Freud_in_der_modernen_Geistesgeschichte_1929Unlike “Freud and the Future” — Mann’s later, and more famous, discussion of Freud — the Munich lecture was never translated into English, which meant that Mann’s discussion of the Gegenaufklärung would remain unknown to his Anglophone audience. The peculiar task that Mann set for himself, at a time when (as Anthony Kauders has documented in a useful article) Freud’s alleged “rationalism” was routinely denounced by Weimar psychologists who took their lead from Klages, Heidegger, and others who judged Freud insufficiently appreciative of the nurturing powers of mythos, was to defend psychoanalysis as “the only form of modern anti-rationalism which does not invite reactionary abuse.”13 In developing this argument, Mann took his point of departure from Nietzsche’s own complex stance towards the Enlightenment, which Mann characterized as an effort to press the forces of reaction into the service of a new Enlightenment. Mann, as Frank explained, was abundantly aware that things had not worked out as Nietzsche had hoped:

… while Nietzsche saw himself as carrying forward the banner of Enlightenment inscribed with the names of Petrarch, Erasmus and Voltaire, there is a little doubt that his own work had given a mighty impulse to the counter-Enlightenment holding the field in the Twenties. “Following in Nietzsche’s footsteps” Mann writes, “whose battle against Socrates’s enmity to instinct so pleases our prophets of the unconscious … following in his footsteps all the anti-rational tendencies of the 19th century have continued to our own day; In the more extreme cases, of course, not so much in his footsteps as over his body” (23).

While there is much here that needs to be sorted out (including a further discussion of just what Nietzsche might have been doing with Aufklärung and Gegenaufklärung in the peculiar sketch discussed in the opening post in this series) for now it may be enough to note that the relationship between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment that Mann was articulating in this lecture was far removed from the way in which it was understood by those admirers of Trilling whose understanding of the Enlightenment seems to have been limited to the set of cliches circulating among admirers of English Romantics for at least the last century. Nowhere is the disjuncture between Frank’s discussion and Trilling’s clearer than in the passing comments on Freud’s 1929 lecture that appear in the chapter on “Freud and Literature” in The Liberal Imagination.

The chapter originated in a 1940 contribution to a Kenyon Review symposium on Freud’s legacy.14 Though the absence of references of any sort makes it difficult to be sure, it would seem that Trilling’s comments on Mann’s “first essay on Freud” are directed at the Munich lecture (it does not help that it is unclear whether Trilling’s German was good enough for him to be able to follow Mann’s argument). Trilling takes Mann to task for failing to appreciate the degree to which Freud’s position was “militantly rationalistic” and “positivistic”:

If Freud discovered the darkness for science he never endorses it. On the contrary, he makes attendant upon his rationalism all the ideas of Enlightenment that have traditionally gone along with it and that give no validity to myth or religion; he holds to a simple materialism, a simple determinism, to atheism, to a rather limited sort of epistemology (41).15

While Trilling grants that this “rationalistic positivism” was the source of “much of Freud’s strength and what weakness he has,” it quickly becomes clear that Trilling’s chief concern lies with Freud’s weaknesses:

The strength is the fine clear tenacity of his positive aims, the goal of therapy,the desire to bring to men a decent measure of earthly happiness. But upon the rationalism must also be placed the blame for the often naïve scientific principles which characterize his early thought — they were later much modified — which consist largely in theories for his theories a perfect correspondence with an external reality, a position which, for those who admire Freud and especially for those who take seriously his views on art, is troublesome in the extreme (41-42).

What is perhaps most striking here is Trilling’s failure to comprehend either the political context in Mann was working or the relationship between progress and reaction that he would go on to develop in Doctor Faustus. But to understand any of this, Trilling would have had to appreciate that “the counter-Enlightenment” was populated by nastier figures than Mill’s clubby Coleridgians and that the Enlightenment was neither as rationalist nor as narrow as he assumed.

History & the Counter-Enlightenment

The term also appears quite frequently in works written by historians during the 1950s and 1960s and, in most cases, serves as a way of designating the period that follows — and is populated by thinkers who are opposed to — the Enlightenment. Indeed, the usage seems to be so well-established and consistent that I suspect that it is likely that the term was a commonplace among historians well before Berlin’s article in the Dictionary.

For example, as early as 1955 it turns up in a Stanford University doctoral dissertation on Feuerbach, where it functions as the title of the opening chapter, which sketches the intellectual climate to which Feuerbach was reacting.16  The historian Henry May used it the next year in an article which, summarizing an unpublished 1952 lecture by Henry Nash Smith (who, like Daniel Aaron and Leo Marx was a pioneer in the field of American Studies), explained that Smith contrasted

two diametrically opposite points of view which … have divided our culture since 1910. One he calls the realistic-progressive view and the other the counter-enlightenment; the one takes for its standards measurable welfare and humanitarian progress and equality; the other values only the individual imagination, nourished on tradition, holding out desperately against a mechanized culture, and accepting if necessary alienation and despair as the price of its survival.17

It turns up again, though in a somewhat different sense, in a review of a book on the development of the concept of academic freedom in the United States:

The Enlightenment liberated the academic mind, as it did others, but it also produced a counter-Enlightenment, an incredible proliferation of sectarian colleges. By 1860 the 182 widely scattered American colleges were, by European standards, provincial colleges. Its professors were generally regarded, and all too often regarded themselves, as paid purveyors of tradition, not as free men with the professional right and professional function to discover and teach new truth.18

Two years later, a reviewer of Maurice Crouzet’s L’Epoque Contemporaine: A La Recherche D’une Civilisation Nouvelle offered a few reflections that echoed Daniel Aaron’s characterization of American universities as awash in a “counter-enlightenment.”

One wonders, as one goes along, is it merely one’s North American touchiness,or are the strictures on the United States not rather more conventional and barbed than any of the comments about the Stalin era? Will time and distance justify characterization of American intellectual and university circles as now enjoying “a counter-enlightenment,” while the Soviet scene is dismissed obliquely as being the product of “the special conditions in which the Soviet Union has existed since 1917″?19

By the 1960’s the term was being used in ways that suggest that it had become a device for characterizing periods that, in some cases, were rather far removed from the immediate context of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. For example, readers of the 1964 textbook An Age of Controversy: Discussion Problems in Twentieth-Century European History would have encountered the following:

Among the descriptive labels that have been proposed for the twentieth century is “the Counter-Enlightenment.” The phrase suggests a total reversal of that mood of optimism and hope, the confidence in man’s ability to understand and improve himself through reason, that marked the thought of so many eighteenth-century philosophes.20

It turns up again in a review of The Icon and the Axe, James Billington’s study of Russian culture.

A great virtue of the book is the detail it encompasses. Three notable examples are the onset of the schism under Alexis, the varied western influences that flourished under Catherine II, and an identification of the precise counter-enlightenment features at the beginning of the nineteenth century.21

Richard Clogg’s 1969 discussion of Greek Orthodox resistance to French Revolutionary propoganda contained the following sketch of Athanasios of Smyrna:

He was perhaps the most virulent and prolific of the numerous Orthodox antagonists of Western thought,who make what may perhaps be termed the Greek ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ such an interesting phenomenon. In his Antifonisis or answer to the absurd fervour of the ‘philosophers’ coming from Europe, demonstrating that the harm which they do to our nation is vain and nonsensical, and teaching what is in fact the real and true philosophy. To which is added a most beneficial exhortation to those sending their sons to Europe for education . . . (Trieste, 1802) he sought to warn parents of the grave spiritual dangers their children underwent in seeking an education in Europe, which was none other than “a chaos of corruption the very brink of Hades.” Those who studied in the West ran the risk of losing their senses or of sinking into Popery. For good measure,he denounced Plato as “woman-obsessed, a pederast and a parasite.”22

And, to round out this list, in 1971 R. R. Palmer drew a parallel between the polemics of the “Counter-revolution” and those of the “Counter-Enlightenment” in his World of the French Revolution.23

Social Theorists

Finally, the term can also be found, from time to time, in works written during this period by social theorists. The concept played a prominent role in a 1956 Dissent article by the Brandeis political scientist (and, later, Boston University sociologist) E. V. Walter that explored the concepts of “the elite and the masses.”24  Like Aaron, Walter characterized the current period as a time in which a “counter-Enlightenment” was on the ascent:

The men of the Progressive movement thought of themselves as children of the Enlightenment, armed with instrumentalism and the scientific method, fated to conquer ignorance, break the tyranny of vested interests and usher in the shining future. Now that Progressivism has run its course and reached its time of troubles, it is no wonder that the specter of the counter-Enlightenment should return to haunt it, and that the ghosts of Burke, Maistre and company should be conjured up to mock it. In response, embattled liberals exhume their own departed heroes, and the air is filled with the noise of shades locked in combat, the wail of ghostly polemics, the rattle of old bones.25

Walter argued that the polemics from an earlier age that had now been revived included Burke’s image of the masses as a “swinish multitude.”

Today, this image of the masses-as-barbarians is a negative vision, formed in reaction to the Progressive vision of an emancipated and omnipotent People marching inexorably Forward. The involution of this image, made popular by writers as similar in mind and diverse in talent as Ortega y Gasset, Walter Lippmann and Peter Viereck, is based on an aristocratic conception of political life that sees humanity as divided into two species: the primitive formless mass, and the élite, which is evolved, refined and purified from the mass and, presumably, restrained by inner controls.

Where the Enlightenment had located the sources of social evil in the rule of “corrupt élites,” the revived “counter-Enlightenment” saw the source of the pathology as residing with the “revolt of the masses.”

Walter was willing to grant that there might be a certain plausibility to the arguments of the counter-Enlightenment, but he also noted that the argument was not without a certain irony:

The insistence on the “imperfectability” of man, dinned into our ears lately, contains a staggering irony if one considers that it is educators, professors, journalists and other professional moralists who are writing in this vein and consequently declaring that their function in society is entirely useless. There is no reason for their existence if it is true that men, or even the masses, are unchangeable. He who denies human “perfectibility” is an immoral moralist because he prevents it from becoming real.

He concluded by noting that

the revival of counter-Enlightenment images has many special causes and functions. In a highly industrialized society, where solidarity is largely created by impersonal and mechanical bonds, the myth of the good Public or its involution, the bad Masses, is an abstraction that creates a false social unity.

The “masses” are not savages or beasts to be restrained by institutional devices, but human persons whose nature is social, who are capable of evil as well as good, who may be harried, intimidated and provoked into abnormality and delinquency, but who will find happiness only in the good. In a climate of distrust and fear, any individual and any group is a potential menace, but when these conditions are removed, people will respond with changes of “nature” that are incredible and profound.

What I find most intriguing about Walter’s use of the term (aside from having known him but not having realized that he was among the early users of the term that Isaiah Berlin didn’t invent) is the ways in which, like Mann (and, like Freud and Nietzsche as read by Mann) he sought to turn the arguments of the counter-Enlightenment against it and use them in the service of the hopes that had once been nourished by the Enlightenment. In that effort, he was keeping faith with the project that Theodor Adorno sketched in Minima Moralia: “Not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” It is likely that he was aware of the ways in which his efforts were linked to this tradition: his Brandeis colleagues included Herbert Marcuse.

This interest in the possibility that reaction and revolution might be more closely intertwined than it is sometimes assumed can also be found in a book on Georges Sorel by the sociologist and critic Irving Louis. It began by noting,

Sorel was more akin to the Counter-Enlightenment critiques that wafted out of German through the writings of Herder and Hamann, than to the French romanticism of Zola and Hugo, which through all its broodings about the agonizing alienation of modern man kept faith with the principles of progress and liberty.26

Finally, at the close of the 1960s, the journal Salmagundi published a translation of Jürgen Habermas’ discussion of Ernst Bloch.

Utopia, realized, would be “different.” This awareness of a limit certainly does not suspend its consciousness, nor would it justify a renunciation of utopian by the militants of the counter-enlightenment. The propaganda against the Jacobin results utopian beginnings may lead to, the hypocritical preachments against the terror of morality only increase the dangers to which they blind us.27

This translation, awkward though it may be, is significant not just because it is one of the first of Habermas’ texts to appear in English. Unless I have missed something (which is always a possibility in this sort of work) it marks the first translation of the German Gegenaufklärung into English.

Conclusion: Isaiah Berlin & the Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Towards the end of Zeev Sternhell’s discussion of Isaiah Berlin’s thought it becomes clear that Sternhell not only views Berlin’s account of the relationship between the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment as flawed (a judgment that, it might be noted, is not unique to Sternhell) but also sees Berlin as one of the Enlightenment’s craftier, and more effective, enemies (a judgment that may well be unique to Sternhell).

It was precisely because Berlin was always able to position himself at the heart of the liberal establishment that there are few men who did more harm to the tradition of the Enlightenment than he did. Relativism is inherent to anti-Enlightenment thought, and despite his attempts to show otherwise, Isaiah Berlin, like Herder, was a relativist who refused to declare himself (418).

In Sternhell’s account, what attracted Berlin to the counter-Enlightenment was its rejection of the idea that it was possible to provide a single answer to what constitutes a “good life.”  While others might have been confused enough (or, perhaps, corrupted enough?) to think that the possibility that individuals may have rather different conceptions of the nature of a good life but, nevertheless, find ways of living together peacefully is one of the central premises on which liberalism rests, Sternhell would appear to view Berlin’s pretensions to liberalism as a charade. And that opinion, he notes, was shared by at least one other critic:

Berlin’s relativism did not escape the notice of Leo Strauss. Strauss was the only one of the great figures of the period not to have hesitated, at the time of its appearance, to reveal the reality behind the inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” … He immediately understood the significance and political purpose of the … lecture, and was not swept off his feet by what Berlin had done. One should not hide the fact, he said in 1961, that this formula ‘is very helpful for a political purpose — for the purpose of an ‘anti-Communist manifesto designed to rally all anti-Communists.’ In other words, Strauss saw this text as simply a pamphlet of the cold war. … Finally, said Strauss, ‘Berlin’s statement seems to me to be a characteristic document of the crisis of liberalism — of a crisis due to the fact that liberalism has abandoned its absolutist basis and is trying to become entirely relativistic.’ (417-418)

It is unfortunate — or perhaps, as Sternhell likes to say, “it comes as no surprise” — that Sternhell shows little interest in tracing Strauss’s own views on the contribution of the Enlightenment to the shaping of modern liberalism back to the spring of 1941 when this (then chastened?) defender of “fascist, authoritarian, and imperial principles”  who had proudly refused to “crawl to the cross of liberalism” gave a lecture at the New School for Social Research that, in the fashion of the day, explained how National Socialism had been the result of the nihilism spread by the Enlightenment.28

mDfuHJ0-BvAm6TlaokgC9xQIntent on documenting the Cold War roots of Berlin’s account of the Enlightenment (a project that is nowhere near as questionable as his book sometimes makes it seem), Sternhell devotes little attention to Berlin’s article on “the Counter-Enlightenment.” It is as if, having assumed that Berlin was a friend of the enemies of the Enlightenment, it would be “no accident” for him to have contributed an article on their behalf to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

What has long puzzled me about Berlin’s article is the question of how it wound up in the Dictionary in the first place. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, there would seem to be at least two possibilities:

  1. Berlin was invited to write it by the editors of the work.
  2. Berlin proposed the idea for such an entry and the editors accepted it.

The first is the normal way in which articles turn up in reference works: editors solicit articles from authors and authors deliver what was solicited (hopefully at a price that makes the exercise worthwhile). If, as it was once believed, “counter-Enlightenment” was a term that had little, if any, usage in English prior to Berlin’s “invention” or “popularization” of it, it would be difficult to understand why anyone would be soliciting  an article on it from him (an article on “Romanticism” or “Liberty” perhaps, but an article on “Counter-Enlightenment”? Unlikely.)

The second option has one thing in its favor: Isaiah Berlin was not simply a contributor to the Dictionary, he was also on its editorial committee. This would have provided him with opportunities not normally available to contributors, including the possibility of suggesting a topic on which he wanted to write. But there is no reason to suppose that he was granted a carte banche and it is hard to see how the other editors of the Dictionary could have accepted a contribution on a topic that did not enjoy a certain currency.

I am inclined to think that it was Berlin who proposed the topic, but the survey I’ve provided supports either possibility. Having been engaged in research of a group of thinkers that might not easily fit into the existing topics that the Dictionary would be surveying, he may have proposed writing an article on “Counter-Enlightenment.” That the editors did not regard this proposal with the blank state that they would have regarded a proposal for an article on the topic “Deconstruction” is easily explained: there is every reason to believe that this would have been a term that, by 1973, was reasonably familiar to them.

The examples I have present here could also support the first possibility: reviewing the topics to be covered in the Dictionary, the idea of an entry on “Counter-Enlightenment” might have been proposed and Berlin, who had done work on those thinkers who were associated with it, was invited to write it. This explanation, like its alternative, presupposes that “Counter-Enlightenment” was hardly an unknown term. And, on the basis of the evidence I have presented here, there is every reason to assume that, by 1973, was quite familiar.

Further evidence that “Counter-Enlightenment” was not an neologism can be seen in the response of reviewers of the volume. Reviewing the volumes for the Journal of the History of Ideas, F.E. L. Priestley seamlessly added the term to the titles of a series of other entries noting

Periodization itself gets illustrated and further analyzed in the Idea of Renaissance Humanism in Italy, Renaissance Humanism, Renaissance Literature and Historiography, Enlightenment, and the Counter-Enlightenment.”29

Likewise, the first reviewers of Against the Current found nothing peculiar about the term, even when they expressed reservations about Berlin’s account of it. Russell Jacoby’s critique in Salmagundi had not difficulty finding previous discussions of the topic to which Berlin’s might be contrasted:

It may be unfair to make comparisons, but one cannot help feeling that, on almost any subject, Berlin’s inquiries are less strenuous than others that come readily to mind. Compare Karl Mannheim’s “Conservative Thought” with Berlin’s “The Counter-Enlightenment”; or Franz Neumann’s “Montesquieu” with Berlin’s treatment.30

And the philosopher Stanley Rosen, reviewing the book for the Journal of Modern History, argued,

This failure to engage Nietzsche, together with the superficial treatment of Fichte and Hegel, is one of the two decisive weaknesses of this volume, which undertakes to discuss the dialectic of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, if not systematically, surely as a defense of freedom and liberalism.31

Rosen’s characterization of the book is significant for one further reason and, with a brief consideration of it, I can at last bring this series of posts to a close.

It is likely Rosen was not alone in sensing that the article on “Counter-Enlightenment,” which — understandably — opened the volume (where else could it go?), laid out the overarching concerns that informed the other essays in the volume.  It provided readers with a way of understanding how Berlin’s previously uncollected contributions to the history of ideas might be related to his more familiar work in political philosophy. From this emerged the now-familiar image of Berlin as a defender of liberalism who drew on the intellectual resources of the so-called “counter-Enlightenment” to curb the totalitarian tendencies that had plagued Enlightenment thought. Once this connection had been made it was hardly surprising that “Isaiah Berlin” and “the Counter-Enlightenment” would come to be closely associated.

For this reason, the important question about the relationship between Isaiah Berlin and the concept of “the Counter-Enlightenment” turns out not the one that Ramin Jahabegloo asked and which a few of us have been trying to answer. Rather than determining “Who invented the “Counter-Enlightenment,” it might be more important to ask “Who did the Counter-Enlightenment invent?”   That, I suspect, is a question that has a clear answer: “the author known as ‘Isaiah Berlin’.”


  1. Joseph Mali and Robert Wokler, eds., “Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 93, no. 5, New Series (2003). Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
  2. Isaiah Berlin and Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (New York: Scribners, 1991) 69-70
  3. Hiram Collins Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance. (New York Scribner, 1950). As Baird W. Whitlock notes, the origins of this term can be traced back to the 1930s. See “The Counter-Renaissance,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 20:2 (1958): 434–449.
  4. Obviously, the first plot contains all of the articles that are turning up in the second plot.
  5. To take but one example: Google’s list includes Georges Arnaud’s Sweet Confession (1959), which it lists as somehow “related” to Darrin McMahon’s Enemies of the Enlightenment
  6. William Van O’Connor, “Lionel Trilling’s Critical Realism,” The Sewanee Review 58:3 (1950): 482–494.
  7. The Trilling quote comes from Trilling’s “Rejoinder to Mr. Barrett,” in Partisan Review XVI:6 (1949) 654.
  8. “The Experience of Character in the English Gothic Novel”, in Roy Harvey Pearce, ed. Experience in the Novel: Selected Papers from the English Institute, Columbia University Press, 1968
  9. For more of the same, see the characterization of Sir Walter Scott at the start of Francis Russell Hart, Scott’s Novels : “he was of the counter-enlightenment. It is as misleading to call him anti- Romantic as it is to call him Romantic,” (4) an interpretation that was praised by Geoffrey Hartman in a 1966 survey of recent works on nineteenth-century literature: “It is one of the virtues of Francis R. Hart’s Scott’s Novels … that he refuses to submerge practical criticism in the debate over whether Scott is Romantic or anti-Romantic. He calls him, neatly, of the “counter-enlightenment,” and in this matter, as in all others, refuses to “essentialize” and reduce the novelist to one orthodoxy. He is tireless in making distinctions against the simplifiers, and tireless, not to say faithful, in writing about the entire canon of Scott’s novels. He mentions that the conservatism of Scott may be close to that of Burke and Coleridge, but immediately quotes Lukacs on how profoundly he differed from such “antirevolutionary pseudohistoricists” as Burke and Joseph De Maistre”, “Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6:4 (1966): 767.
  10. Leo Marx, “American Studies. A Defense of an Unscientific Method,” New Literary History 1:1 (1969) 87. While Machine in the Garden mentions “the Enlightenment” several times, the term “counter-Enlightenment” is absent.
  11. Joseph Frank, “Reaction as Progress: Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr. Faustus,’” Chicago Review 15:2 (1961): 22.
  12. Thomas Mann, “Die Stellung Freuds in der moderne Geistesgeschichte,” Psychoanalytische Bewegung 1929 (reprinted in Mann, Die Forderung des Tages: Reden und Aufsätze aus der Jahren 1925-1929 (Berlin:Fischer, 1930) 196-224. 
  13. See Anthony D. Kauders, “The Mind of a Rationalist: German Reactions to Psychoanalysis in the Weimar Republic and beyond,” History of Psychology 8:3 (August 2005): 255–270. On the broader issue of the attraction of myth during this period, see especially Theodore Ziolkowski, “The Hunger for Myth,” in Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) 147-173
  14. Alexander Reid Martin, Lionel Trilling, and Eliseo Vivas, “The Legacy of Sigmund Freud: An Appraisal: Therapeutic, Literary and Aesthetic, Philosophical,” The Kenyon Review 2:2 (1940): 135–185. Trilling revised the contribution and, prior to its incorporation in The Liberal Imagination republished it in Horizon in 1947.
  15. In The Kenyon Review Trilling specifies Freud’s epistemological failings as involving a commitment to “a correspondence-theory of knowledge — a position which, for those who admire Freud and especially for those who would take seriouslyhis viewson art, is troublesome in the extreme.” 
  16. Melvin Cherno, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Intellectual Basis of Nineteenth Century Radicalism, Graduate Honors Program in Humanities, Department of History, Stanford University, 1955.
  17. Henry F. May, “Shifting Perspectives on the 1920’s,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43: 3 ( 1956): 405–427, 426. May cites the lecture as follows: “The Reconstruction of Literary Values in the United States, 1900-1950 (unpublished manuscript,1952).”
  18. Arthur Mann, “Review of Gerald M. Craig; Walter P. Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States ,” The William and Mary Quarterly 13:4 (1956): 599–601.
  19. John C. Cairns, “Review,” The American Historical Review 63:2 (1958): 364–365.
  20. Gordon Wright and Arthur Mejia, An Age of Controversy: Discussion Problems in Twentieth-Century European History (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1964) 486.
  21. Lionel Kochan, “Review,” The English Historical Review 83:327 (1968): 387–388.
  22. Richard Clogg, “The ‘Dhidhaskalia Patriki’ (1798): An Orthodox Reaction to French Revolutionary Propaganda,” Middle Eastern Studies 5:2 (1969): 87–115, 95.
  23. R. R. Palmer, The World of the French Revolution (New York, Harper & Row, 1971) 254.
  24. Three years later he employed the term again in a related discussion, “Power, Civilization and the Psychology of Conscience,” The American Political Science Review 53:3 (1959): 641–661.
  25. I cite this article from the version reprinted in Voices of Dissent (New York: Grove Press, 1958) 69.
  26. Irving Louis Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason: the Social Theories of Georges Sorel. (New York: Humanities Press, 1961) 14.
  27. Jürgen Habermas, “Ernst Bloch—A Marxist Romantic,” Salmagundi 10/11 (1969): 311–325, 324.
  28. The defense of fascist principles can be found in Strauss’ now-infamous letter to Karl Löwith of May 19, 1933, the 1941 lecture on “German Nihilism” is available in Interpretation 26:3 (1999): 353–378, and — as might be expected — Strauss’ disciples have been busy over the last decade and a half with attempts to the extract the secret message hidden in passages that no-one else has managed to decode.
  29. F. E. L. Priestley, “Mapping the World of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 35:3 (July 1, 1974): 527–537
  30. Russell Jacoby, “Isaiah Berlin: With The Current,” Salmagundi no. 55 (1982): 232–241, 238-239.
  31. Stanley Rosen, “Review,” The Journal of Modern History 53:2 (1981): 309–311.
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