Reflections on Enlightenment Pluralization and the Notion of Theological Enlightenment as Process

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French History




Scholars now quite regularly speak of the Radical Enlightenment, the Atlantic Enlightenment, the Super Enlightenment, the Religious Enlightenment, and any number of different national and religious variants of Enlightenment in addition to that of the French. Though much is to be gained from this proliferation, John Robertson is quite prescient in reminding scholars of the possibility that the very concept of an eighteenth-century Enlightenment in France or in the Euro-Atlantic world more generally is at risk of becoming contradictory and specialized to a degree that makes research and pedagogy increasingly cumbersome. While it is true that, as Robert Darnton has noted, making of the Enlightenment everything is in effect to make of it nothing, the dilemma of the pluralized Enlightenment is not so easily dismissed. Even with the best of intentions, attempts to construct a unitary Enlightenment often result in the writing of contrary perspectives out of the Enlightenment, even where such perspectives ought to have their place. The focus of this article proposes another possible configuration of Enlightenment as plurality within an unfolding continuum, as process rather than atomistic, reified, hypostatic Enlightenments. It proposes a process whereby religious and secular, radical, moderate, and conservative discourses, inflected into their national milieu, mutually constitute one another. This article provisionally charts a course for an alternative paradigm for studying the French Enlightenment which might avoid the extremes of balkanization on the one hand and the attractions of an elegant but unrepresentative unity on the other.