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A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy [Hardcover]

Jonathan Israel
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Book Description

26 Oct 2009

Democracy, free thought and expression, religious tolerance, individual liberty, political self-determination of peoples, sexual and racial equality--these values have firmly entered the mainstream in the decades since they were enshrined in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. But if these ideals no longer seem radical today, their origin was very radical indeed--far more so than most historians have been willing to recognize. In A Revolution of the Mind, Jonathan Israel, one of the world's leading historians of the Enlightenment, traces the philosophical roots of these ideas to what were the least respectable strata of Enlightenment thought--what he calls the Radical Enlightenment.

Originating as a clandestine movement of ideas that was almost entirely hidden from public view during its earliest phase, the Radical Enlightenment matured in opposition to the moderate mainstream Enlightenment dominant in Europe and America in the eighteenth century. During the revolutionary decades of the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s, the Radical Enlightenment burst into the open, only to provoke a long and bitter backlash. A Revolution of the Mind shows that this vigorous opposition was mainly due to the powerful impulses in society to defend the principles of monarchy, aristocracy, empire, and racial hierarchy--principles linked to the upholding of censorship, church authority, social inequality, racial segregation, religious discrimination, and far-reaching privilege for ruling groups.

In telling this fascinating history, A Revolution of the Mind reveals the surprising origin of our most cherished values--and helps explain why in certain circles they are frequently disapproved of and attacked even today.



Product details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (26 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691142009
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691142005
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14.2 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 502,666 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Spinoza's radicalism was certainly frightening in its time, and Israel has valuably if aggressively opened the question of its influence on the Enlightenment and the era of revolution."--Samuel Moyn, Nation

"Israel is right to emphasize the importance of this intellectual movement, but since his is such a sweeping revision of so many generations of received ideas, his work raises the question of why the radical Enlightenment has been misunderstood or obscured for so long in favor of such colorful figures as Voltaire (in Israel's telling, a witty, snobbish sycophant). . . . We are lucky that a historian of Israel's caliber has taken these subjects on and lucky, too, that he has now produced a readable introduction to them."--Benjamin Moser, Harper's Magazine

"Israel's reasoned assertion for the influence of the Radical Enlightenment on democratic thought is certainly compelling, making this essential reading for students of the Enlightenment era as well as anyone interested in the foundations of modern democracy."--Library Journal

"Israel's new book is a breathtaking rethinking of the Enlightenment and its impact in the modern world."--Choice

"Perhaps no active scholar has shaped the conversation about the sources and meaning of the Enlightenment more than Jonathan Israel. . . . Almost miraculously, Israel manages to embody the greatest intellectual virtues and vices."--Christian Century

"Israel succeeds commendably in a great evaluation and dissemination of generally unknown texts from beyond the familiar territories of France, England, and America. In this respect, he broadens the common conception of where Enlightenment ideas were debated and implemented, unlike Isaiah Berlin, who failed to notice the American Enlightenment."--Rivka Weisberg and Carl Pletsch, 1650-1850

From the Inside Flap

"This book succeeds beautifully. Written with confidence and concision, it lays out Jonathan Israels central ideas about the Radical Enlightenment and its fundamental importance in shaping the values of democratic modernity. Those who already know his work will find a clear and bold statement of his principal arguments, as well as important elaborations and expansions. Those unfamiliar with his scholarship will get a masterful introduction to the work of one of the leading Enlightenment scholars in the world today."--Darrin M. McMahon, Florida State University

"Interesting, erudite, and provocative, this book provides readers with a succinct and clear introduction to Jonathan Israels wide-ranging work on the Radical Enlightenment. It should command a broad readership."--James Schmidt, Boston University


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Living Historian in English? 25 Dec 2009
Format:Hardcover
Professor Jonathan Israel's 'A Revolution of the Mind' may appear to be a mere (270 page) interlude to his massive trilogy on the Enlightenment, of which the first two volumes (800 and 900 pages) have already appeared. This graduate of Cambridge and Oxford points to the limitations of viewing the Enlightenment (and other historical periods) from an Anglophone perspective, and does so by exhaustively reviewing contemporaneous publications and manuscripts in at least eight languages.

This monumental scholarship is used to good purpose: the history of the Enlightenment is completely re-written in the context of a powerfully argued thesis that there were in fact two Enlightenments - a radical one emanating from the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century and especially Spinoza, and a moderate one, more deferential to intellectual and temporal authority. In this latest volume, the history reaches to the period preceding the French Revolution, where the inheritors of the radical tradition, Diderot and the baron d'Holbach are in fierce conflict with the moderates Voltaire and his friend Fredrick the Great, king of Prussia.

Professor Israel sticks very much to the topic at hand, but it is impossible not to see the profound implications of his scholarship for later periods and for intellectual history in general. Many of us are breathlessly awaiting the third volume of the trilogy, where he promises to discuss the place of the young Marx in the Enlightenment tradition. The new volume is an excellent introduction to Israel's Enlightenment scholarship, but is not a mere interlude, as it introduces new material almost completely, as usual, from original sources.

There has been no comparable scholarship in English, and none that so completely changes our view of the world since Joseph Needham's `Science and Civilization in China'.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moderation sucks 31 Jan 2010
Format:Hardcover
It is commonly known that Jonathan Israel, professor of Modern History at Princeton, is a man with a mission. In Radical Enlightenment (2002) and Enlightenment Contested (2006) he presented his remarkable views on the history of the Enlightenment. His foremost motivation to do this lay in the ill-informedharsh judgment bestowed on the Enlightenment at the end of the twentieth century by anti-enlightenment thinkers and, closely connected to this, the highly unsatifactorial state historical research about this crucial epoch had fallen.
Israels central thesis in both the first two parts of his Enlightenment-project as well as in A Revolution of the Mind stresses that a fundamental distinction has to be made between Radical Enlightenment on the one hand, and Moderate Enlightenment on the other. Radical Enlightenment embodied the, if necessary through revolutionary means, pursuit of freedom of opinion, equal rights for all and the principal separation of church and state; each of which are core democratic values. Moderate Enlightenment, on the other hand, kept adhering to the idea of Providence, either DeÔstic or religious and a strictly hierarchically structured society based on monarchal or aristocratic principles to which colonialism, economic exploitation and political suppression were inextricably linked. The changes these Moderates propagated would have to come about through gradual reform, leaving traditional structures as much untouched as possible; an approach with consequences not nearly as far reaching as that of their radical counterparts.
Jonathan Israel points out that there really was a revolution of the mind in the second half of the 18th century in Europe and Northern America.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars yes 18 Dec 2009
By John
Format:Hardcover
According to a previous reviewer 'A Revolution of the Mind'

"breeds the same intolerance of all forms of faith which was a hall-mark of some of the more radical Enlightenment figures Israel investigates".

I agree!

And that's why I'm giving it five stars.
Was this review helpful to you?
12 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Readers beware 3 Dec 2009
By mbr
Format:Hardcover
In Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752, Jonathan Israel argued that the roots of modern democracy lie in the philosophy of the late seventeenth century Dutch philosopher, Spinoza. He did this by taking from Spinoza certain ideas which he deemed to be central, creating a system out of those ideas, and then locating parts of that system in apparently disparate thinkers throughout the period he investigates. In these works, Israel's scope is breathtaking. As my second sentence should indicate, his judgement was not. This has been the central, and now widespread account (mingling praise of his scope with doubt over the synthesis) of most of Israel's fellow intellectual historians. Now, with much of the academic world against him, Israel has sought to take his account to a popular audience. The result is a work of sensationalist propagandising. His previous work claimed to be a radical departure from the orthodox account. It was in fact a massive embrace of the Whig historiography of the Enlightenment, which modern scholarship has shown to be a construction of liberal hagiography. A popularising of this approach can only succeed in reinforcing a naive, and utterly false, view of the early modern period as the slow triumph of reason over incredulity, and breeds the same intolerance of all forms of faith which was a hall-mark of some of the more radical Enlightenment figures Israel investigates.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moderation sucks 5 Jan 2010
By Bart van den Bosch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It is commonly known that Jonathan Israel, professor of Modern History at Princeton, is a man with a mission. In Radical Enlightenment (2002) and Enlightenment Contested (2006) he presented his remarkable views on the history of the Enlightenment. His foremost motivation to do this lay in the ill-informedharsh judgment bestowed on the Enlightenment at the end of the twentieth century by anti-enlightenment thinkers and, closely connected to this, the highly unsatifactorial state historical research about this crucial epoch had fallen.
Israels central thesis in both the first two parts of his Enlightenment-project as well as in A Revolution of the Mind stresses that a fundamental distinction has to be made between Radical Enlightenment on the one hand, and Moderate Enlightenment on the other. Radical Enlightenment embodied the, if necessary through revolutionary means, pursuit of freedom of opinion, equal rights for all and the principal separation of church and state; each of which are core democratic values. Moderate Enlightenment, on the other hand, kept adhering to the idea of Providence, either DeÔstic or religious and a strictly hierarchically structured society based on monarchal or aristocratic principles to which colonialism, economic exploitation and political suppression were inextricably linked. The changes these Moderates propagated would have to come about through gradual reform, leaving traditional structures as much untouched as possible; an approach with consequences not nearly as far reaching as that of their radical counterparts.
Jonathan Israel points out that there really was a revolution of the mind in the second half of the 18th century in Europe and Northern America. Numerous people became increasingly disenchanted with the Ancien Régime and the long term, reformist solutions the moderates offered. Not just in France the cry for a general revolution along radical lines was heeded. The American revolution of 1776 and the Dutch democratic Patriotten-movement (1779-1795) provide ample evidence that a new radical mentality was on the rise. The transition to this political active radical frame of mind is convincingly illustrated through a number of public controversies. Israel succeeds in showing the unbridgable gap between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment using public debates between members of both sides. An interesting and important by-product of this methodology, is that in this way the overwhelming similarities between the radical agenda and 21st century democratic values are made clear for all to see.
Post-modern and other anti-Enlightenment theorists, that say rationality is just one among many discourses without special claims to validity or that denounce Enlightenment ideas based either on some Revealed Providence or some non-explicated feeling or emotion are unrelentlessly confronted by Israel, who politely points out the logical inconsistencies of their opinions based on their downright untenable pseudo-historical analyses.
The legitimate criticisms that are made against a number of supposedly basic Enlightenment principles, rangeing from Robespierres Terror to the technocratic rationality of the Holocaust, are ably warded off by Israel. In so far as these excesses are traceable to the Enlightenment at all, they are rooted in the heritage of the Moderate, not the Radical Enlightenment. After all, it was the Moderate Enlightenment that couldn't or wouldn't rid itself of its persistent ideas about hierarchical man and society, which cherished irrationalia such as Divine Providence or Invisible Hands in its core beliefs and which stubbornly clung to the political and social inequality of men.
The reputations of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, those archetypal representatives of Enlightenment thinking, suffer heavily at the hands of Israel. Both are firmly linked to the Moderate Enlightenment (Voltaire) or identified as a philosophical loose cannon (Rousseau). Voltaire is shown to be an elitist, would-be aristocrat whose democratic opinions are questionably to say the least. Rousseau comes out even worse. After distancing himself from his one-time radical kindred spirits Diderot, d'Holbach and Helvetius, he develops his theory of the General Will and People's sovereignty, both of which could only thrive when dissenting opinions were systematically suppressed. This, of course, was totally at odds with the emancipatorian outlook of the Radical Enlightenment. To make matters worse, Israel points out that the ideological justification of the Jacobins Terror (1793-1794) can for a large part be attributed to Rousseau's (who died some fifteen years earlier) legacy. It is no coincidence that Rousseau was practically deified by Robespierre c.s. and that many Radical enlighteners had their lives drastically shortened by means of the guillotine.
In A Revolution of the Mind Jonathan Israel anticipates the final part of his pioneering study in search of the roots of the Enlightenment and through that our 21st century democratic values. His fundamental distinction between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment functions as Ockhams razor. This enables him to link political, economic and social disasters that have plagued humanity since the late 18th century to the Moderate Enlightenment or to anti-Enlightenment forces he succeeds in rescueing those values which are now - nominally if not always practically - considered to be the very foundation of democracy; equal rights for all men, without regard to race, creed, nationality, gender or sexual preference; toleration for dissenting opinion and the principal separation between church and state.
Where Enlightenment historians had lost themselves in a comminution of the universal appeal of its original radical ideas in favor of petty nationalistic interpretations, Israels controversionalistic approach shows which public 17th and 18th century debates contributed to the formation of a universally appealing, new and revolutionary mentality, which remarkably enough forms the foundation of our current democratic values. It's impossible to overstate the importance of this stupendous enterprise.
39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the most decisive shifts in history? 1 Mar 2010
By Jay C. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The publication of A Revolution of the Mind is most welcome, if only because it should make Jonathan Israel's ideas about Enlightenment thought more accessible to a broad reading public. His previous two volumes (Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested) total over 1700 pages of dense scholarship, more than enough to intimidate even stalwart generalist readers. Now in only about 250 pages he reviews his principal themes and gives us a précis of what apparently will be the substance of his planned longer third volume, focusing on the latter half of the eighteenth century.

This new work is based on lectures the author delivered at Oxford in 2008 commemorating Isaiah Berlin. Possibly aided by the fact that it was originally prepared to be spoken, it is clear, concise, and digestible.

For those not already familiar with one or both of the previous volumes, Israel has proposed that there was an opposition between "Radical" and "Moderate" Enlightenments. The foundation for the radicals was laid by Spinoza. Numerous others, perhaps most notably Bayle, carried the radical tradition forward, in large part through a clandestine literature, emerging later in the thought of men such as Diderot, d'Holbach, Helvétius, Condorcet, Paine, Priestly, Lessing, and Herder. The moderates in this later period included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot, several Scots (such as Ferguson, Hume, Smith, Kames, and Reid), and Kant, to name just some of those more prominent. The radicals' conception of progress was democratic and materialist-determinist (or, alternatively, Christian-Unitarian), Israel holds, versus the moderates' providential religious or Deist views (Hume excepted) and preferences for monarchical-aristocratic order.

The current book distills the relevant ideas of the key figures and illuminates the nature of the opposition between the two camps. Israel insightfully describes how radicals and moderates thought differently about the essence of tyranny, militarism, equality, and morality, for example. He boldly asserts that there was a "revolution of the mind" in the 1760s and 1770s based on the ideas of the radicals, and that "it was plainly one of the greatest and most decisive shifts in the entire history of humanity."

The Radical Enlightenment is the most important factor in properly understanding why the French Revolution developed as it did, Israel contends. He credits the more positive phases to ideas of the radicals, but the darker Terror in large measure to the views of Rousseau, whom he treats primarily as an anti-philosophe. His analysis here is relatively brief and sure to be controversial with many readers.

So too, he presents several other intriguing observations that he leaves dangling without a great deal of support or elaboration. I will mention just a few. He stresses the international character of the radical ideas -- notably encompassing not only France, but Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and North America -- but he acknowledges that Scottish Common Sense philosophy (in opposition to the radical ideas) continued to reign well into the nineteenth century in Britain and North America. Doesn't this dampen his assertion of the triumph of the Radical Enlightenment, at least in these nations?

He points out that the radicals were skeptical of direct democracy and tended to favor representative systems. Diderot and d'Holbach, for example, thought there were certain citizens best prepared to rule, persons of superior education and wisdom. Israel calls this the "Achilles heel of the radical program," but he stops there without saying much more about it.

Israel offers many other challenges to certain popular interpretations of the Enlightenment and to the historiography of the French Revolution. It would be unreasonable to expect full development of all his views to be encapsulated in the few lectures reflected here. Readers with further interest in such matters can look forward to his forthcoming longer volume, which undoubtedly will fill in many supporting details and, one hopes, tie up many of the loose ends.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent Synopsis 16 April 2010
By L. M. Plas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a short hand introduction to the state of mind of the European radical reformers of the late 18th century. Besides well known authors, ignored writings such as those of the Dutch politician Pieter Paulus are presented here. In this problem oriented form, in search of the essence of the radical mind, this type of introduction to 18th century radical political thinking was not available up to now. Ealier research reflects too often the general cultural mistrust surrounding thinkers who in their mind dared too turn their factual, hierachical structured 18th century world upside down. This in contrast to the thinkers of the so called Moderate Enlighenment, who while reformers, remained obliged to King, Gentry and the existing religious establishment. This book displays a fresh appreciation of the revolutionary mentality, with due respect to more conservative strands of thinking.

This collection of essays is lively written and accessible not just to experts, but to any intellectual interested in the roots of our modernity. I can advise it to students and to a more general public. There are also some surprises in these texts, that should appeal to the specialists in the field.

L.M. Plas.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, absolutely first-rate, but don't get the Kindle edition 20 Jan 2011
By Alex F Stop - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is the first of Israel's books I've read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a good overview of the subject, presenting the two warring camps of the Enlightenment at their best (and worst). I understand this is basically a summary of his earlier books, and my next step is to move on to them.
I absolutely do NOT recommend the Kindle edition. Not only is it full of weird formatting errors (hyphenated words in the middle of a line, extraneous spaces mid-word, missing spaces between words, missing hyphens in date ranges, etc.), but the footnote numbers are not clickable: they don't take you to the footnote. That is really, really annoying, to say the least. Considering how easy it is to turn a Word file into a Kindle book that suffers from none of these faults (I know because I have done it, using free software), I am amazed that the publisher (Princeton) managed to do such an awful job.
Another complaint about the Kindle version: there is no hyphenation, so line spacing is sometimes truly ugly. A little Quality Assurance would have uncovered all these faults. The publisher would never have published a such an awful print version but apparently thinks that if they charge a few dollars less for the Kindle version, they are absolved of having to do a quality job. You're wrong, guys.
In the end, I ended up buying the print edition. I just couldn't struggle through the Kindle edition. very clever marketing, Princeton. I paid twice for the same book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Intro to the Duality of the Enlightenment 22 Dec 2011
By M. C. McG - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I picked this book up out of curiosity regarding Israel's thesis, which in essence states that there were two separate and incompatible enlightenments during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Moderate and Radical. Having learned the basics of the Enlightenment in college, I was eager to learn about this schism and how it related to the ensuing French and American revolutions.

Israel's book is very engaging, with flowing and voiceful prose that makes it easy to read. In fact, I really only have to criticisms of the writing. One is that Israel occasionally forgets that we don't all speak French, and so some direct quotations are left hanging without translation. While usually simple to decipher, it creates a break in concentration that I found frustrating. Also (and perhaps this is because the book is based on spoken word lectures) Israel has a few passages that are awfully confusing in syntax. For example on page 69:

"Admittedly, in Germany the network of princely courts, imperial and ecclesiastical tribunals, and ecclesiastical authorities--along with a thick overlay of overlapping jurisdictions, legal mechanisms, and customary law--staffed by jurists and officials turned out in awesome quantity by an academic machine of over thirty universities prioritizing theology, law, and scholastic versions of Wolffian philosophy looked denser and more intractable than anywhere else."

I'm pretty sure my old English professor would have had my head for writing a sentence as disjointed as that one. Style qualms aside, the content of Israel's argument is both controversial and intriguing. He is fairly dismissive of Rousseau and Voltaire, categorizing them as moderates who are generally supportive of the monarchical status quo. I learned quite a bit about lesser known figures like d'Holbach, Price, Priestly, and Weishaupt--in fact, d'Holbach's "System of Nature" will be my next read, as Israel cites that work extensively and seems to portray it in an excellent light.

Given the short nature of the book, there are a few arguments that Israel briefly mentions before moving on, which I think deserved more investigation (e.g. Bayle and Spinoza's contributions to Radical thought, which are mentioned briefly in the Conclusion and left me wanting more).

Finally, the book is beautifully bound in black fabric and is printed in Minion Pro, which I find to be a really pleasing and readable typeface. The craft of printing isn't much appreciated these days, but I find it important nonetheless.

All in all, I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it.
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