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VINE VOICEon 1 July 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Dr Padgen's thesis opens with a brief survey of some of the most influential thinkers, whose names are today in some way associated with the Enlightenment: Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Kant and the encyclopaedist philosophers D'Alembert and Diderot, amongst others. There follows a brief discussion of Scholasticism with a nod to Aquinas and the influence of his thought, before describing the demise of Scholasticism as a mode of higher learning at the hands of 17th and 18th century thinkers. This volume is therefore concerned with theology, philosophy and early scientific thought and their influence in changing society, both in Europe and elsewhere.

Dr Padgen then drafts a series of vignettes, virtually a blow-by-blow account of what the main protagonists were thinking, what was written and said, some of the difficulties they encountered. At times the detail is almost mind-numbing, yet given even a casual reading of this account, one is left in no doubt as to how we got from the end of the Thirty Years War to the present day, in philosophical, confessional, scientific and social terms.

If there can be said to be a defining moment in the unfolding of the Enlightenment drama, to borrow William Gibson's concept of `when it changed', that moment was almost certainly the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The last of the malignant wars of religion, the Thirty Years War, left much of Europe utterly devastated, perhaps even beyond the combined effects of WW1 and WW II, tens of millions died and the population of the parts of Europe affected fell by perhaps one third. In 1644 at the close of the war, the principal combatants and other interested parties, spent the next four years debating and arguing, before reaching an accord, the Peace of Westphalia. This accord sought to lay to rest confessional differences and hatreds, that had given rise to a long series of wars fought over religion and in simple terms it more or less guaranteed freedom of conscience and tolerance in matters of belief.

The change in the intellectual atmosphere occasioned by the Peace of Westphalia, virtually guaranteed that the claims of religion, the mode of understanding the natural world and a belief in an over-arching, supreme, being, or deity, resulted in both robust challenges and simple ridicule. Ironically one of the most important figures, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), a figure scarcely known today, was a major influence on several later commentators, both in the UK and on the Continent. Despite this, it seems that many, perhaps most proponents of emerging new ideas, were uncomfortable with a purely material universe, one notable exception being the Scottish philosopher, David Hume.

The new found freedom of enquiry came at a price: several thinkers were imprisoned, at least one went into exile and yet others had their published works burned by the public executioner at the instigation of sundry authorities, whereas David Hume was unable to secure a university post on account of disagreements regarding his opinions. Nor have such practices been allowed to fall into disuse: in the late 1940's the FBI seized and burned the works of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, and unless one enjoys a certain social or academic cachet, getting a letter either critical of the movement, or deemed an Enlightenment heresy, published in the Guardian or the Observer, never mind scientific journals, is a near impossibility. It is a sobering fact that there remain many parts of the world where to this day, such freedoms do not exist.

The author has chosen to allocate chapters to what he sees as the main themes of the Enlightenment, thus, after a preface and an introduction, both quite detailed, we have:

Chapter 1, `All Coherence Gone' describes the intellectual free for all which can be said to start with Hobbes and more or less ends with Kant, during the course of which, pretty much all received wisdom current up until c. 1650 was subject to searching critiques, though not necessarily for the first time.
Chapter 2, ` Bringing Pity Back In', treats of the debates about the nature of mans rights, the philosophical basis of the Enlightenment, showing links to the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics, as well as making comparisons with Scholasticism.
Chapter 3, `The Fatherless World' deals with the attacks on, and effective demolition of religious ideas and the introduction of a new, human based observational science, as a means of understanding the world.
Chapter 4, `The Science of Man', considers the nature of man, of how little man knew of himself, in contradistinction to the sciences, in which latter significant progress had been made in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The rise of humanism is covered, in the sense that most thinkers started from the assumption that all humans have certain things in common, regardless of race, culture, customs, beliefs and laws.
Chapter 5, `Discovering Man in Nature', is essentially concerned with what we now know as anthropology, the growing awareness of what was being lost in the burgeoning waves of colonial expansion, as other cultures were variously oppressed, enslaved and exterminated. The realisation too, that what was being reported by travellers was both partial and biased, being concerned to titillate a European readership rather than attempting honest reportage.
Chapter 6, `The Defence of Civilization' is perhaps more diffuse in it's focus, with the largest part being given over to Chinese civilization as seen from a European perspective and comparisons made, largely on the basis of ignorance and misinformation, between the culture of Europe and that of China.
Chapter 7, `The great Society of Mankind' is basically a survey of what constituted a civil society, reflections on the emergence of ideas of nationhood, liberty, democracy and an all-inclusive view of humanity.
Chapter 8, `The Vast Commonwealth of Nature', returns to the concepts of `sympathy' and `affectivity' which appear at various points in the text, qualities deemed to be universally embodied in human beings and seen to be the source or cause of various social groupings, from the clan to the nation or state and perceived in some quarters as a consequence of natural law. The common thread running through these reflections is the idea of the civitas maxima or Supreme State, widely acknowledged as a utopian chimera. Under this heading too are ruminations on war, revolution and related matters.
Chapter 9, `Conclusion: the Enlightenment and its Enemies.' This, the final chapter, continues in much the same vein as all of the foregoing, in that there is still much back referencing to what this or that earlier commentator said, and it is only with some difficulty that the author manages to detach himself from the 18th century, from Kant and Herder and finally arrive in the 21st century. I leave it to readers to decide whether or not the good doctor has succeeded in showing why the Enlightenment is still important.

This is a very considerable body of work, meticulously researched and a veritable vade mecum of all that anyone might reasonably wish to know of this historical Western social-philosophical project. Dr Pagden writes well and persuasively, yet despite this, it is a rather clever book that might be accessible to a far wider readership at half the number of pages, without necessarily losing the thread of it's historical evolution; indeed that thread might thereby become much easier to follow. Although not the fault of the author, the text would benefit enormously from the services of a competent proof-reader, not to say those of a sympathetic editor.

The Enlightenment project was, and to a large extent, remains the preserve of an elite, most of whom did not and do not have to deal with the fallout, the downside, the negative effects arising in consequence of the distorted realisation of utopian ideals. Horkheimer and Adorno's `Dialectic of the Enlightenment', mentioned briefly in the text, is an early, (1947), and powerful critique of those ideals.

The scope of this book is such, that any review is bound to fall short of doing the work full justice, so that the admittedly brief and telegraphic account given here is a reflection of that fact.
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I have edited my original review. This book is without doubt a superbly clear guide to the history of thought, with a focus on the "Enlightenment". Books that cover philosophical thought are often very hard going - this one isn't; and yet the coverage is quite deep and extraordinarily useful. I would buy this if I were taking A level or undergraduate studies.

Anthony Pagden is without doubt intensely passionate as well as, without question, extraordinarily knowledgeable. What is really good about this book is that, somehow, he has found the time to write, throughout, in a thoroughly engaging, clear and interesting style. I do some writing myself, and have come to the conclusion that many modern non fiction books are less good because the writer wasn't able to devote sufficient time to their writing. Pagden's book has no such weakness. Either the publisher properly reimbursed him, or he is simply passionate about his topic and communicating his passion and knowledge. Either way - this book is splendid, and splendidly useful.

One small negative - my own copy is an early printing, perhaps pre-publication, and has rather too many typos and errors - the editor I hope has corrected these for the latest edition.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 August 2013
To give some context, I am a general reader of history, and have a liberal social democratic view of the world...a view which, I am aware, I hold as a result of the enlightenment . With that in mind I wanted to learn more about the events and thinking which had created the secular, empirical, and cosmoplolitan values which matter to me.

Anthony Pagen has cetainly provided all of that in this generally interesting and informative book, and has also put forward strong arguments for why the values and lessons of the enlightenment are still important, and how they remain under threat from dogmatism, communiterianism, and from the holders of unexamined and unprovable- yet uncompromisingly held - beliefs about how we should live.

Howver, as a general reader I found the book - with the exception of the chapter ' The fatherless world' about life without religous belief - to be overly academic and at times confusing. There are so many characters here - Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Shaftesbury, Rousseau, Spinoza, Newton, Herder, and Hamman (to name but a few) - that who believed what can be a little tricky to follow, and I found myself reading pages over to make sure I was following the narrative properly.

Nonetheless it was well worth making the effort - I learned a great deal, and enjoyed the book, despite it being a little heavy going at times
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on 22 April 2014
Thank 'heavens' for the Enlightenment - not that the 'heavens' have anything to do with it - otherwise Church on Sunday would be obligatory along with burnings, excommunication, the Inquisition, bible reading and so much else that was accepted as 'God Given' in the Middle Ages before rational ideas and judgement that became the Enlightenment replaced prejudice and dogma. The progress of the Enlightenment is admirably depicted through the works of it principal proponents, the great Philosophers, Political scientists and Economists who paved the way for the scientific revolution that followed, as well as the stagnation of other great cultures and civilisations strangled by dogma and fossilized bureaucracies. We get a grisly view of what life without the Enlightenment would likely have been, and a fascinating 20th century counter argument to the Enlightenment.
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VINE VOICEon 16 July 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
We are, in the west, children of the enlightenment, and in his scholarly appraisal of this movement which has shaped the Western world perhaps more than anything else in the last 500 years, Anthony Pagden proves himself an expert analytical guide. He manages to make much of the philosophical complexities involved, understandable for the layman, and in this does a great service. The essential historical event - The Peace of Westphalia - which occurred at the end of the 30 years war, in one fell swoop, separated church and state in contemporary Europe, and this is a legacy we live with today. The Islamic East has chosen a different path, and, as the present troubles in Egypt make clear, such a separation of religion and politics is not yet high on the agenda. Will they perhaps go through a similar philosophical struggle in years to come? Who knows.

In any event, Anthony Pagden is an expert guide throught the philosophers and philosophies which made up the enlightenment, and his book is extremely timely given the existing conflicts between East and West. Prescribed reading for anyone who wants an historical perspective on politics today and a deeper understanding of the causes of the present conflicts therein.

I recommend this book very highly.
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on 13 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Anthony Pagden has written a very necessary, important, yet still somehow unsatisfying book. He has a high aim-to rescue the reputation of the 18th-century Enlightenment from those who blame it for the development of the 20th-century totalitarianisms and the decay of morality due to the Enlightenment's denial of organised religion and spirituality.

These are ambitious goals and the book partially succeeds in achieving them. There is much to engage with and to relish about this book which is written with style, polish and remarkable clarity as it succinctly condenses an enormous body of knowledge into just over 300 pages. The introduction is highly lucid in stating the aims of the book, and the first chapter provides a highly effective overview of the origins of the Enlightenment, the collapse of mediaeval scholasticism, and the rise of scepticism is the product of the Reformation. Pagden is impressively even-handed in his treatment of his material, refusing to condemn mediaeval scholasticism and theology with knee-jerk mockery.

Individual philosophers seem to dominate specific chapters, with the first chapter reflecting on Hobbes, and the second dominated Hume for me, ch 3 "The Fatherless World" which discusses the impact of Enlightenment thought on attitudes to organised religion was the central chapter of the book, a subtle and wholly necessary discretion which would go a long way to improving the quality of the rather lame religion/science debate that has dominated popular consciousness in the last few years.

Also fascinating are Ch. 4 which deals with the growth of the study of mankind itself, Ch. 5 with the whole concept of the "Natural Man" which was brought into close view by European contact with indigenous peoples in the Pacific and America's; and chapter 6 which deals topically with Enlightenment attitudes to Chinese civilisation. The author defends the Enlightenment stoutly, yet does not dodge being unflinchingly honest about Enlightenment statutes to non-European races and cultures.

Pagden makes an impressive intellectual argument and does the Enlightenment a great service by praising its achievements and separating popular criticism from what the Enlightenment was and aimed to be. He recovers much lost territory - but for this reader, it's hard to escape the conclusion that this book is something like the Enlightenment itself: polished, urbane, and a highly compelling narrative-but which leaves you with the uncomfortable and undeniable feeling that as an explanation of the human experience, it is important, but still only partial.
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on 31 May 2016
This book provides a perspective on the Enlightenment that while prioritising 'Cosmopolitanism' over 'Rationality' still provides a range of sources that deepen both understanding and support for these endangered concepts.
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on 16 May 2014
An excellent, insightful book, well written by an erudite author who is master of his craft and subject. His review of the Enlightenment and what is stands for, especially in defence against its critics, is most welcome and well presented. In addition he provides a thoughtful account of its historical development, especially stressing the role and place of some of today's more forgotten figures, e.g. Francis Hutcheson. And his defence of Enlightenment values in the face of modern (unjust) critiques is most welcome. This is a book not just for the academic specialist but also accessible to the educated layman and a pleasure to read. It sits alongside Isaiah Berlin.
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on 13 April 2015
I found this enjoyable to read but gradually less and less intellectually convincing - though the history is fascinating.

The writer gives a good account of how Western philosophers and historians from the eighteenth century onwards have thought of the Enlightenment. But, until the conclusion, he does not give his own answer to the question which he poses in the title of the introductory chapter, 'What is Enlightenment?' (where he argues that there were many ‘Enlightenments’). For Pagden, the answer rests ultimately with Kant and his premise that ‘the only truly human world is one which every individual would choose to create for him- or herself if they did not know beforehand what position they would occupy within it’ (p344), or in Kant’s own words, ‘Act that your principle of action might safely be made a law for the whole world.’ This gives the secular basis for universal morals and laws.

The core assumption is that a human being can ‘achieve’ a perfectly objective perspective from within her or himself. However, (quite apart from any religious perspective) modern science, notably quantum mechanics, shows that everything is interconnected and that it is impossible to stand outside, to be separate from that which is observed. Therefore, truly objective judgement (about how to act), free from ‘external’ influence and solely from within our conscious, rational mind, is impossible. Everything is provisional and belief in an autonomous ‘self’ is deeply mistaken: our sense of self is an illusory and changing mix of genes, history, the subconscious, the environment and mystery. The mystery is that we nevertheless experience our existence as part of a whole. In his own way, Kant was as blinkered as the conservative and superstitious form of religion which he sought to sweep away – because he put the human being on a pedestal of potentially ‘pure reason’, in the place of a desiccated ‘blind watch-keeper’ notion of ‘God’.

Pagden himself tells us that Johann Hamann, one of Kant’s most perceptive contemporary critics, wrote that Kant’s entire work was mistaken since there could be no such, objective thing as ‘pure reason’, because ‘the entire faculty of thought is founded upon language’ which is shaped by its own past (p321). Later, Herder criticised Kantian cosmopolitanism (which is at the heart of Pagden’s view of the Enlightenment) as a false attempt to unite peoples whose cultures, in his view, were hermetic (and static) by nature, and therefore unable to find common ground. Postmodernists such as Heidegger have disavowed the Enlightenment as ‘cold, toneless, monotonous’ (p327), replacing ‘passion with politeness’ leaving only ‘the endlessly barren plains of the cosmopolitan world and the insatiable demands of “the empire of reason”. In the twentieth century, Richard Rorty, echoing Hamann, wrote that ‘Truth …cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist … The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.’

However, in my view, Kant, Hamann, Herder, Rorty and Pagden et al give far too much importance to cerebral Western philosophy and historical-philosophical interpretation – which is not to say that these things are not useful within their limitations. But they are mistaken in downgrading the deep (pre-knowing) understanding that comes in profoundly lived experience. In other words, at moments, any ordinary human being with a considerable degree of selflessness and openness can intuitively see through falsities of attitude confronting her or himself in the concrete world, with a wider sense of meaning and relevance than comes from philosophical thinking. The key is balanced compassion based not on a personal judgement but on an impersonal perspective free of likes and dislikes, ie a profound and practical connectedness, which has to be worked at every minute of the day – which has nothing to do with the historical Enlightenment.

Pagden emphasises that the ‘Enlightenment quite simply created the modern world’ by ‘insisting on the changing, unfinished nature of all human action’ (p345). While his precept is true, it is not unique to ‘Enlightenment’ thought. All religions – and all wise people - have at their core a sense of the unknowable mystery of existence (though too many priests have failed to remember this).

And yet, to paraphrase Aquinas, God (or reality) is infinitely knowable. Therefore - contrary to what the Enlightenment’s hidebound religious opponents believed - the scientific search for knowledge is part of what humanity should be doing, both from a religious and a scientific point of view. However, an open mind is essential. Once a scientist (or a theologian) thinks that any aspect of reality has been defined for all time, the basic test of science has been failed, which is to be ready for new evidence or theories which go beyond the old understanding. It is ironic that some of the most famous contemporary prophets of the new secular age have claimed the same absolutist knowledge which they (rightly) disparage amongst theologians. For example Stephen Hawkins has claimed that humanity is on the verge of discovering laws of physics which will definitively describe all reality; Francis Fukuyama wrote that Western liberal democracy signalled the endpoint of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution (in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man); and Richard Dawkins endlessly proclaims that Darwinian evolution explains everything (not that I am doubting current evolutionary theory, just that I don’t believe that the next thousand years will not see some radical new thinking).

Pagden also says that the Enlightenment matters because it gave birth to the possibility of cosmopolitan, universal ideals – from which sprung liberal democracy and the whole panoply of human rights which he implies we all aspire to now (though many Chinese might disagree). He claims that the belief in a common humanity and the awareness of belonging to a world larger than our conscious community derive from the Enlightenment. But this is not so: these two egalitarian perspectives arose millennia earlier in Buddhism and Christianity and are fundamental to their appeal (both Judaism and Hinduism have explicit ethnic limits; I am not sure about Islam’s universalist claims). It is the non-self, other-giving nature of compassion which unites us all, which has nothing to do with rationality except inasmuch as reason is an excellent tool for working out implications. Evolution purports to give an answer (we care about other humans because this helps our very broad–based gene pool to survive), but (to my mind) this fails convincingly to explain individual self-sacrifice.

The list of ‘admittedly somewhat ramshackle’ cosmopolitan institutions which Pagden notes in his last pages (the UN, the International Court of Justice etc) as evidence of the continuing power of the Enlightenment is distinctly unimpressive as a clincher to his argument. There is no place in his thinking for ecology nor thought of the bleakly consumerist, dehumanised wasteland which characterises much of Western, urban life.

The Enlightenment did of course profoundly change things, often in positive ways. It got rid of some but not all bad religion (which re-surfaced as racist nationalism, Marxism and Western Christian fundamentalism). It helped to kill off blinkered popular belief in clerical authority and deference to aristocracy, but other forces were also at work (and these attitudes are not yet gone). It helped to rebuild respect for universal ideals of human rights – though, arguably, improvements in the rights of the weak and in implementing egalitarian justice have come about largely through the efforts of individual Christians and/or the legacy-perspective of unacknowledged Christian ideals. The Enlightenment helped open the way to technological and notably medical advances which have significantly reduced suffering, though its drive to professional specialisation has also distanced individuals from empowerment and self-responsibility. On the negative side, in promoting the individual as the supreme arbiter of right and wrong, the Enlightenment deeply undermined the sense of human community and the concomitant satisfaction of shared ways of living and belonging.

The Enlightenment was ultimately as much a child of its time as any other cultural movement – it was patronising, mechanistic, idolatrous (of the self) and largely limited to a particular cultural-geographic region. It was at least partially necessary, given where monarchical and clerical power had got to in the eighteenth century, but it became a tool for Eurocentric, nationalist invention and world domination. ‘Advanced’ north-western Europe (and its American outpost) was the first to get rid of absurd clerical shibboleths and reverence for a white-male aristocratic order – in order to focus on ruthless, technological self-advancement at the expense of all those classes and cultures which did not have the same mindset.

The Enlightenment was the necessary self-shearing precursor to turning ourselves into factory-deadened cogs in a giant exploitative machine which still marches on. The old monster – localised, clerical-aristocratic oppression - was replaced by a Western, capitalist Leviathan which crushes all relationships except those dictated by market forces, forging a powerful unity at the expense of diversity and humanity. We sweat and strain towards materialist and celebrity carrots, ever-fearful of losing securities and comforts which will never be enough. Cultures and societies which stand in the way are brutally swept aside and exploited in the name of a materialist ‘progress’ which forces acceptance of both life-enhancing and life-denying aspects..

In the end, Pagden's perspective is old-fashioned in the limitations of its comfortable, Whiggish and Eurocentric, intellectual scope – given the big questions it aims at. Further, his polemic, albeit engaged and engaging, is insufficiently aware even on its own terms of the radical philosophical implications of quantum mechanics - in which reality exists but cannot be defined and where it is impossible to be a neutral observer. These new scientific truths fatally undermine the perspective of the Enlightenment. Like many, he is also oblivious of an open-ended, evolutionary and mystical theology which does not present answers but a compassionate perspective.
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on 2 December 2015
Excellent review. Unlike some others it does not seek to oversimplify but instead makes clear the complexities and contradictions in the Enlightenment (or just Enlightenment, or Enlightenments!). Not easy reading but worthwhile.
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