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The Greatest Living Historian in English?,
This review is from: A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (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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