New interpretation of the Englightment

Dorinda Outram says her interpretation of the Enlightenment is a “new” one. In what way does she make a new interpretation? What is she paying attention to that previous scholars, like Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, neglected?

Cassirer bounded the period by the lives of two philosophers, Leibniz and Kant, implying that the period was “a-political” while contemporary interpretations go beyond the works of leading thinkers of the time and closer to general history (3). Cassier’s views were “to a large extent reproduced” by Gay “in the leading synthesis of the postwar period” (3). He classifies the first period of the Enlightenment as that of Voltaire, the second as that of Dennis Diderot, D’Alembert, and Rousseau, and the last as that of Lessing and Kant. Outram’s interpretation of the Enlightenment incorporates the relationship between the Enlightenment and the creation of a global world. Globalization is “the study of the history of the factors which, with accelerating speed since the Enlightenment, have come together to make the world a single system… A world drama” (8-9). Outram points out that very few historians have tried to “integrate the creation of a unified world within the structures of Enlightenment thought” (9). As a result, instead of understanding the Enlightenment has ultimately a unitary phenomenon, Outram argues that another way of thinking about it is as “a series of interlocking, and sometimes warring problems and debates” (2). This new interpretation sees the movement as “a group of capsules or flashpoints where intellectual projects change society and government on a worldwide basis” (2).

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

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