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thinking-about-the-enlightenment

The volume Thinking about the Enlightenment: Modernity and its Ramifications, edited by Martin L. Davies of Leicester University has now been published by Routledge.

My chapter,

Multiple Counter-Enlightenments: The Genealogy of a Polemics from the Eighteenth Century to the Present

the penultimate in a very diverse series of perspectives on the various dimensions of the relationship between Enlightenment and the present, takes up the issue of counter-enlightenment(s). It asks how various criticisms of ‘the’ Enlightenment gradually came to be viewed as constituting a singular tradition of thought, constitutive of Western reflection upon or own place in history.

[Edit: The text is now available online here.]

Volume Introduction

Thinking about the Enlightenment looks beyond the current parameters of studying the Enlightenment, to the issues that can be understood by reflecting on the period in a broader context. Each of the thirteen original chapters, by an international and interdisciplinary team of contributors, illustrates the problematic legacy of the Enlightenment and the continued ramifications of its thinking to consider whether modernity can see its roots in the intellectual revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Drawing from history, philosophy, literature and anthropology, this book enables students and academics alike to take a fresh look at the Enlightenment and its legacy.

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Some of my writing has been made available online through the Freidoks server at Freiburg University.

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On May 15th to 17th of next year, I will be attending a conference titled “Declines and Falls: Perspectives in European History and Historiography” organized at the Central European University in Budapest.

My presentation – which draws upon my dissertation research – will address the complex interrelations between the concepts of progress and decadence in the long eighteenth century. Often, these two concepts are understood as mutually exclusive counter-concepts, epitomizing a forward-looking ‘Enlightenment theory of progress’ on the one hand and the backward and ultimately futile ‘complaints’ of conservatives and reactionaries on the other.

A closer look at the semantic structure of debates about the development of civilization in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reveals, however, that to contemporaries, these concepts were not usually counter-concepts at all. Rather, they were regularly understood as linked, or even interdependent. To understand this paradox, my paper addresses the various ways in which ‘the culture/civilization as a whole’ was conceptualized in these discourses.

Joining the analysis of the semantic structure of contemporary narratives of cultural decline with their pragmatic interpretation as speech acts in public interaction, I identify three different types of interpretation of the ‘whole’ in which ostensibly monistic claims about civilization in toto were linked to a differentiated understanding of its plural nature. In this way, the common view of narratives of progress and decadence as mutually exclusive discourses – at worst resulting in a general narrative of modern intellectual history as an eternal struggle between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment – may make way for a more detailed understanding of the complexities of the debates about the character and development of civilization that have been so very important to public discourses of self-reflection in the modern age.

Update: a conference report has been published on the CEU website.

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My dissertation has been published as volume 18 of the series ‘Historische Semantik‘ by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

For more information, click here. For ordering from within Germany, click here.

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An article I wrote on the concept of Counter-Enlightenment has been published in the proceedings of a conference I attended last year in Bern, Switzerland.

My contribution takes its starting point from the observation that a large part of the debate about the meaning(s) of Enlightenment in the present is structured around a pair of mutually exclusive counter-concepts: Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. Tracing this opposition back to its most influential proponent, Isaiah Berlin, and ultimately to its emergence in the Eighteenth Century itself, I argue for a less schematic approach taking into account recent historical research especially in the field of historical semantics. Thus, a better understanding of the different meanings and uses of the concepts of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in the past may also shed light on our current debates about the relevance of the Enlightenment tradition to our own culture today.

The volume also includes interesting contributions by (among others) Claudia Honegger, Urs Stäheli, Hartmut Rosa and Andreas Langenohl. For more information, please click here and here.

Theo Jung, Gegenaufklärung. Ein Begriff zwischen Aufklärung und Gegenwart, in: Dietmar J. Wetzel (Hg.), Perspektiven der Aufklärung. Zwischen Mythos und Realität (= Laboratorium Aufklärung, Bd. 12), München 2012, S. 87–100.

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This winter semester, I will again be teaching two courses.

The Salon: a Form of Enlightened Sociability
The social life of the Ancien Régime has never lost its fascination. In many books and movies, a world is evoked in which beautifully dressed gentlemen and ladies cultivate a witty and light-footed conversation. The central and most famous form of this type of elitist sociability was, without a doubt, the salon. In this setting, an exquisite circle of guests of all sorts met under the gentle guidance of an elegant hostess. Drawing upon French and ‘German’ cases from the 18th and 19th centuries, this seminar studies the social, cultural and gender dimensions of this social form in their historical development. Its focus will lie on several questions which have been the subject of heated historiographical debate. Were these salons hatcheries of Enlightenment thought, of emerging civil society or of women’s emancipation, or did they rather represent a late – and ultimately dying – branch of aristocratic (court) culture? In the conversations that built the central element of any salon, what was the relationship between serious discussion and lighthearted amusement? Were the salons able to adjust to the new political environment after the French Revolution, or did the rise of bourgeois society spell their end?

Enlightenment and Revolution: Reading Course on French Sources
The French Revolution is often thought of as the birthplace of European modernity. Contemporaries were already very aware of its significance and debated about its various causes. Central among these was a diffuse set of phenomena that would gradually come to be subsumed under the title of ‘Enlightenment’. In this context, a controversial debate about the relationship between ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Revolution’ emerged that has not quieted down since. Reading French primary sources (pamphlets, theatre, speeches, lexicon articles, etc.), this course will trace the political dimension of the Enlightenment as it was understood before, during and after the French Revolution.

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Starting in Freiburg in the summer semester of 2011, I will be teaching two courses.

The Intellectual: Genesis of a Modern Social Type
The Dreyfus Affair is often viewed as the birth of the modern intellectual.  In fact, however, the origins of this important ‘persona’ are much older and reach into the Enlightenment period. Taking a series of case studies from France, England and the German lands as a starting point, this BA-Seminar from a comparative perspective traces the emergence and development of this figure during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Besides questions of social structure, finance, forms of communication and use of media, its focus will be on the problematic relation of the intellectual (and his locus naturalis, the public realm) with the political.

Zeitgeist: History and Impact of a Controversial Concept
The concept of ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘spirit of the age’ has all but disappeared from our vocabulary. If used at all it is usually employed in an ironic mode. Yet at one time, this was remarkably different. For a long time, zeitgeist was the central concept within Western discourses of historical reflexion. It expressed the reflexion upon the present as a changing form of life and thus built the center of a historical consciousness that emerged at the onset of the modern era. This reading course (Übung) will trace the history of this modern concept from its beginnings in the seventeenth up to his heyday in the first half of the nineteenth century. On the basis of source material (pamphlets, journal articles, poetry, theatre) from the German, French and English language areas several questions will be posed, i. e.: what meanings did the concept convey and how did these change over time? In what contexts and to what purposes was it used? How was it instrumentalized for political aims? Against which social background did it arise and how did it influence this in turn? Thus, on the basis of this example, general question are put forward about the history of concepts and its method.

More information about these courses may be found here.

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