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Review

Review from previous edition 'Brilliantly presented and dense with learning.' (- Simon Blackburn, THES)

'An enormously impressive piece of scholarship. The breadth and depth of the author's reading are breathtaking and Enlightenment Contested is set to become the definitive work for philosophers as well as historians on this extraordinary period.' (- Keith Richmond, Tribune)

'Mr Israel's groundbreaking interpretation looks set to establish itself as the one to beat.' (- The Economist)

'Evocative and compelling.' (- John Dunn, Literary Review)

'Enlightenment Contested is full of wonderful things' (- John Dunn, Literary Review)

About the Author

Jonathan Israel is Professor of Modern European History, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

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Amazon.com: 8 reviews
45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
Not for the casual reader 16 Feb. 2009
By Jay C. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752
This is the second volume of Israel's planned three-volume intellectual history of the Enlightenment. It follows his Radical Enlightenment (2001). These are works aimed primarily at specialists and will hold the attention of lay readers only if they have a strong interest in the subject matter plus hearty endurance.

It doesn't help that Israel is not a good stylist and that the editors apparently were lenient. Lengthy sentences composed of murky subordinate clauses populate nearly every page. Those who do not read French, Latin, Dutch, or German will have to guess the meaning of substantial paragraph-length (or longer) quotations that are not translated from the source language.

Nevertheless, Enlightenment Contested, like its predecessor volume, is rich both in its thesis and in its impressive offering of expansive, indeed overwhelming, supporting detail. The bibliography of this volume alone covers 180 small-print pages.

Israel proposes that a set of "radical" core ideas drove the intellectual conversation in Europe in this period, with Spinoza as the central figure and with Bayle, Diderot, and others later assuming key roles. Against the radicals stood the "moderates," notably including Locke, Newton, Hume, Montesquieu, Turgot, and Kant. These are just a few of the major players in Israel's cast of dozens (even hundreds) of thinkers engaged in the contest of European ideas in this period.

Israel concludes that the radical party ultimately won out. Their core ideas, nearly all of which can be traced to Spinoza in some form, included, for example, one-substance materialism (versus Cartesian mind-body dualism); the adoption of philosophical reason as the exclusive criterion of what is true; a rejection of the supernatural, tending toward atheism (as opposed to Deism or theism); secular "universalism" in ethics; religious and political tolerance; and democratic republicanism in politics.

One of Israel's most important contributions is his exhaustive documentation of who read whom when, and of how they reacted. He convincingly demonstrates how ideas were disseminated and why certain ideas either did or did not take hold. This is how good intellectual history should work.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating 28 April 2007
By Riley Haas - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Actually, I would give it 4.5/5 but Amazon won't let me. Overall it's a fascinating book. The highlights for me are Israel's comments about Locke and Newton. Certainly in my education, Locke has always been presented as, if not the absolute originator of our liberal notion of tolerance, at least its more important forerunner, and Israel arues convincingly something fellow students and I couldn't articulate well enough: that there is a lot lacking from Locke's notion of toleration. The Newtonian dominance at the time and subsequently; especially when one learns of a thinker developing what sounds like the genesis of the theory of relativity only to be forgotten for 200 years. It's a shame that, at least in Canadian universities, we tend to not even think about Spinoza in terms of political theory, to pick just one example of how Israel shows we have missed a lot of what actually went on. His research seems very thorough and though he repeats himself on a number of occasions (in particular with regard to Spinoza and Balye, whom he seems to adore), the argument is significant and definitely worth your time if you're interested in the history of ideas, like I am. My one problem with the book is a matter of personal politics, as I believe that the 'moderate mainstream' wasn't wholly out to lunch. In any case, it is something that is well worth your time and it would be nice if this argument would have some affect on the odd department.
27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
A stunning work 13 Sept. 2007
By J. H. Wright - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
No number of stars is enough for this book. The scholarship is amazing, the narrative clear and fascinating from start to finish, the topic more relevant than ever. This book and its predecessor (Radical Enlightenment) are two of the best books I have read in many years, and by far the best on this subject. I am very seldom so enthusiastic about any product. So many books come with the lure of an interesting title or an impressive review, and yet disappoint. Not this one. This was an extremely enjoyable and rewarding read, and a book I shall return to, many times.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Impressive book - not quite awesome after all 12 Feb. 2012
By S. Matthews - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
[interim review, since I have not finished yet]

This is an awesome book - it covers an incredible amount of ground, and it is a pleasure to engage with. it is not, however, a pleasure to read; it is a slog to read. Huge sentences are structured so that you read half way along before you know what he is talking about, and then you have to go back again to the start. You suddenly realise that whole paragraphs have slipped by in a haze and you have to go back and read them again. Given that the main text is eight hundred large dense pages, this is a problem (hey, the next volume, which I plan, for some weird masochistic reason, to read next, is even bigger).

You would think that British enlightenment historiography, which is often held up as the best english prose ever, would have had some sort of an influence, but alas not. Just a month or so ago I read History and the Enlightenment by Hugh Trevor-Roper, more precisely, I _inhaled_ History and the Enlightenment by Hugh Trevor-Roper. It was an unadulterated delight to read. I suspect that Israel has strong, and not terribly favourable, opinions about Trevor-Roper, but people who previously had no interest in the influence of Montesquieu on Edward Gibbon will happily learn about it from Trevor-Roper just for the sake of it. Nobody is ever going to read Jonathan Israel just for the sake of it; reading Jonathan Israel is a slog; the only audience he is ever going to have is graduate students who are held down and force-fed him by their professors, and that is a shame.

[finished it now]

I think I probably retract the 'awsome' that I originally wrote in the title to this review. Impressive, yes; awesome, not quite. I was left with too many reservations at the end, e.g. about Israel's teleological perspective and his 'a few good men' theory of history (with Benedict Spinoza and Pierre Bayle as Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer). But it's still a five star book, and worth the (considerable) effort. The problem is that it is also 870 large pages long, and I have neither room nor time nor - really - enthusiasm, to construct an appropriate response just for an amazon review (if the NYRB is interested, they should feel free to get in touch). But I shall certainly read Democratic Enlightenment sometime fairly soon, and in the face of a prospective thousand pages or so of logorrheic, narcosis-inducing, careless prose, that has got to be saying something positive.
Four Stars 1 May 2015
By John E. Banks - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great book. Profound and thourough, it stimulates much thought.
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