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67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A slightly flawed master-piece, 4 Jan. 2005
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Paperback)
Most people, when they think of the Enlightenment, think first of 18th France, of Voltaire and of Diderot. The late Roy Porter, in his spirited Enlightenment (Penguin paperback) claimed that the roots of the Enlightenment were actually in England. Then we have recently had James Buchan's Capital of the Mind, which claims in its subtitle that the philosophers of Edinburgh "changed the world". Jonathan Israel says that these are all parochial approaches, and that the Enlightenment was a movement whose international character he intends to illustrate. He has indeed read prodigiously in international literature: his bibliography gives 26 pages of published primary sources and 31 of secondary literature, and these include titles in Latin, English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Danish.
Nevertheless, what emerges quite clearly from this book is that he places the origins of the Radical Enlightenment very firmly in 17th century Holland in general and in Spinoza in particular; and although one might perhaps expect this from a historian whose previous book was an equally massive work on the Dutch Republic (OUP), he makes a totally convincing case for this. In the course of it we learn much about many Dutch thinkers. Many of them are scarcely known in this country; and there are some, like Anthonie van Dale and Frederik van Leenhof, who according to Professor Israel are almost unknown even in Holland today.
True, it is a Frenchman, René Descartes, who could be said to have planted the seeds of what would become the Enlightenment, and there is a good deal about him in the book; but the principal theatre for the debate about Descartes is again shown to be Holland, where he had moved for safety in 1628, where the Discours de la Méthode was first published in 1637, and from where it later spread to other countries. Indeed, Spinoza's first published work was The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (1663). I think myself that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. It ought really to have been called Spinoza and the Enlightenment, since it is almost wholly devoted to his influence: all later Enlightenment thinkers of whatever nation are discussed almost exclusively in terms of the extent to which they were in agreement or disagreement with him.

That debate is described in exhaustive - I would say - exhausting - detail, since in fact the various arguments are repeated over and over again. There are principally three parties to this argument: thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment who follow Spinoza more or less all the way; those of the Moderate Enlightenment, who accept a broadly rational approach but stop short of denying a providential deity and the principal mysteries of the Christian faith; and the Conservatives or fideists who demand total acceptance of the traditional doctrines of the churches about such matters as miracles, the existence of Hell and of the Devil. Jonathan Israel patiently gives the arguments of this last group more space than most histories of the Enlightenment would do. Interestingly, many members of even the first group often denied that they were "Spinozists". That label was used by anti-rationalists, right up to eve of the French Revolution in a positively McCarthyist way to discredit even members of the second group, who themselves went out of their way to condemn Spinoza in the strongest terms. The true Spinozists often protected themselves by giving a full statement of the Spinozan positions and then following them with perfunctory or even deliberately feeble objections.
Despite its enormous length and the width of Israel's research, the book does remain rather narrowly focussed. The debates described in the book are largely about religion and about the challenges to deductive rationalism both from the churches and from the pragmatic schools. Such discussion as there is of Enlightenment political thought is again entirely related to the influence of or reaction against Spinoza's unfinished Tractatus Politicus. So, for instance, the debate in France between the thèse royale, the thèse nobiliaire, and democracy does not feature on its own terms. At the end there is an interesting short section on Diderot and his relationship to Spinozism; but there is nothing much of interest on Montesquieu, Voltaire, Helvétius or Holbach, all of whom are considerable figures in the history of the French Enlightenment. And there are just two references to Hume.
There are two other major criticisms: the book takes much previous knowledge for granted (for example, what exactly had been both the psychological and political teaching Thomas Hobbes). Although there are several references to Malebranche and Malebranchisme, there is nowhere a concise account of what that philosopher taught: the "Occasionalism" for which he is famous has just two references in the index, only one of which links that doctrine with him.
However, Professor Israel has undoubteldy written a most important book which significantly shifts the focus of Enlightenment studies. For that and for his immense scholarship he deserves the praise that reviewers have heaped upon his book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spinoza, Enlightenment, and the Love of Learning, 19 July 2012
Robin Friedman "Robin Friedman" (Washington, D.C. United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Paperback)
Jonathan Israel has written an erudite, extensive, and inspiring study on a seminal moment in Western thought, commonly known as the Age of Enlightenment.In short, the Enlightenment marks a change from a thought and society that was theologically focused to thought and society that were secular and scientific in character. This period and this transition has been much studied, but Israel has many new insights to offer. In addition, he writes a book filled with wonderful detail, with rare thinkers and books that make the reader yearn to learn more. It is an enlightening experience in itself to read this book.

The book begins with the philosophy of Descartes which is widely regarded as overthrowing the philosophy of scholasticism and initiating the modern period. Descartes developed a dualism with a mechanistic philosophy of nature and a spiritual philosophy of mind. It was the first of many attempts to reconcile theology with the newly developed scientific outlook.

But the focus of Professor Israel's study is on Spinoza (1632-1677.) Spinoza rejected Cartesian dualism and developed his philosophy equating God and Nature. He rejected a transcendental God, providence, miracles, revelation, and transcendental bases for human ethics. Spinoza developed his ideas in his Ethics while in his earlier and almost equally important Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza developed the basis for modern Bible criticism.

Professor Israel argues that Spinoza's thought constitutes the basis for what he terms "radical enlightmentment", which rejected theology and revealed religion in favor of a philosophy of mechanism and determinism. Radical enlightenment proved to be a potent weapon in rejecting the divine right of kings and other forms of privilege, in promoting democracy and the rights of women, in encouraging free speech and free thought, and in allowing people to pursue happiness, in particular sexual fulfillment, in this world without fear of hells and punishments in the next world. Spinoza influenced many scholars and thinkers and also, Israel points out, had substantial influence on unlettered people of his time.

Professor Israel contrasts the Radical Enlightenment emanating from Spinoza with "moderate enlightenment". Moderate enlightenment sought to reconcile mechanism and science with traditional religious faith, to the extent possible. Professor Israel identifies three separate strains of moderate enlightenment: Cartesianism, the monadic philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff, and the deism and empiricism of Locke and Newton. Most of the book is about Radical Enlightenment and its impact and about the interplay between Radical Enlightenment on the one hand and Moderate Enlightenment and traditionalism on the other hand.

The book includes a good basic exposition of the thought of Spinoza. (The exposition of Descartes thought and of the teachings of scholasticism is less thorough.) The major theme of the book is that Spinoza's ideas were not simply those of an isolated recluse; rather, his ideas became widely known and disseminated even during his lifetime, and became the basis for much of the secular, modern thought and life we have today.

Israel discusses a plethora of sources, some well-known some highly obscure in which various thinkers from throughout Europe (another theme of Israel's book is that Enlightenment was European in character and shared essentially the same features in all European countries) adopted and promulgated Spinozistic doctrines. The books and individuals are fascinating, as are the conflicts many of them encountered with civil and religous authorities. He discusses how many writers had to try to present their teachings covertly (i.e. by appearing to criticize Spinozism while in fact advocating it.) in order to attempt to avoid conflict. There are also extended treatments of Leibniz and Locke and their interactions with Radical Enlightenment.

For the most part, Professor Israel avoids explicit comment on the philosophical merits of the many ideas and thinkers he explores. The reader is left to think through the issues on the basis of his descriptions and from the words of the thinkers themselves. It is a fascinating study.

I have long been a student of Spinoza and came away from this book awed by the wealth of learning displayed in this book and by the scope and influence of Radical Enlightenment in the years following Spinoza's death. Philosophically, I came away from this book with a new appreciation of the virtues of Western secularism and with a renewed understanding of the dear price that has been paid for the intellectual liberation of the mind and heart. It is a journey that every person must undertake for him or herself, and many people may reach results that differ from those reached during the age of Radical Enlightenment. Spinoza's goal (shared with the religious thinkers whom he rejected) was to find the path to human blessedness, enlightenment, and happiness by freeing the mind. I got a good sense of the value of this search through reading this masterful book.

Robin Friedman
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Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750
Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan I. Israel (Paperback - 18 July 2002)
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