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Next semester, I will have te opportunity to teach a seminar on the concept of Enlightenment to students of the University of Bielefeld. This is a translation of the text published in the syllabus.

Dimensions of Enlightenment: Self-Understanding, Descriptions, Historiography

The most famous characterization of the essence of Enlightenment stems from the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He defined the concept as the “departure of man from his self-inflicted minority” and tied this to the motto “Sapere aude!”: “Have the courage, to use your own understanding!”

The question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ is not only at the centre of the historical study of Enlightenment. The age that we now know under that name asked herself the same question. Furthermore, it has up until the present played a major part in debates about the self-understanding of modern culture.

The aim of this seminar is to consider the concept of Enlightenment in all its many dimensions. Accordingly, the question mentioned is examined from three perspectives:

1. What is Enlightenment in Historiography?

With reference to the example of Enlightenment historiography general questions are posed about problems of historical periodization (when was Enlightenment?), terminology (what does Enlightenment mean?) theory and method (how does one study Enlightenment?). Several ways in which this field has been studied will be compared with regard to their particular understanding of the subject.

2. What was Enlightenment in the Enlightenment?

In the course of the Eighteenth Century a group of authors emerged that closely tied their self-understanding to the historical mission of ”enlightening’ the world. On the other hand, others viewed this group as ridiculous posers in the best case, a world-wide conspiracy against throne and altar in the worst. What Enlightenment meant was highly controversial. It was negotiated in a long discursive process. On the basis of selected sources, such debates will be analyzed. The focus will be both on strategies of (linguistic and visual) self-presentation as well as on the hostile depictions by enemies of the Enlightenment.

3. What is Enlightenment now?

Most strongly in France and in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but also in Germany, Enlightenment plays a significant role in debates about the cultural self-understanding of modernity. The question is posed, if we live in enlightened times – or at least in an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ today. Is Enlightenment obsolete? Has she in the course of the Twentieth Century, as Horkheimer and Adorno thought, proven to be dialectical? Or does she still shape the present? What does this mean in the confrontation with non-Western, ‘unenlightened’ cultures?

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I’ve been invited to speak at the conference Perspektiven der Aufklärung (Enlightenment Perspectives) to be held in Bern on September 16th and 17th of this year. The event is organized by Dietmar Wetzel and Aleksander Zieliński, both from the University of Bern. Other participants include Sabine Maasen (Basel), Evelyn Gröbl-Steinbach (Linz), Claudia Honegger (Bern), Urs Stäheli (Hamburg) and Hartmut Rosa (Jena).

Most of these are sociologists, so that I’ll  have the opportunity to discuss a few of my more wide ranging hypotheses with a group of people specifically trained to grapple with general questions and models. Since many historians are – to say the least – less inclined to leave their sources behind to address more theoretical and abstract questions, I am confident this will be a very useful experience.

The program can be found here, and the call for papers (with a description of the themes under discussion) here.

My topic will be one that I have spoken about before, in Wolfenbüttel last year: the concept of Counter-Enlightenment. More specifically, I will address three questions.

  • In what way and to what purpose was the concept of Counter-Enlightenment (anti-philosophie) used in the Age of Enlightenment?
  • What role did the concept play in historiographical traditions about the Enlightenment?
  • And finally: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the concept of Counter-Enlightenment as an analytical tool to understand the Enlightenment both as a historical phenomenon and as a general characteristic of modernity?

My specific goal is to address the links between the concept of Counter-Enlightenment as an analytical tool and as a historical concept used in historical contexts.

In my opinion it is too easy to just declare a clean break between the source language and the analytical framework, between the tools of the historian and his object. Whereas this can certainly be a viable goal, it will never be fully attainable. The reason for this lies in the fact that the language we use as historians to write about, but also to understand our source material as well as the world at large, is itself historically determined. The very same linguistic structures that are the subject of historical semantics still shape the semantical horizon within which this study is carried out. Therefore, self-reflection has to be an integral part of any study within the field of discourse analysis. This is all the more true in the case of the study of Enlightenment, the period in which our modern consciousness took shape.

Later this year, I will address these same questions in a seminar at the University of Bielefeld.

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September 28-29, I attended and presented my current project at a graduate course organized by the German Society for the Investigation of the Eighteenth Century (DGEJ) at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel. The course was organized and lead by Prof. Dr. Gerhard Sauder (Universität des Saarlandes). Under the title “Late Enlightenment – Counter-Enlightenment” the concept of Enlightenment, its limits and boundaries, both in contemporary debates and in historical research, were discussed.

Now, a short report I wrote about the course – outlining its main questions and results as well as its place in current Enlightenment research – has appeared in the Journal of the society, Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert.

‘Spätaufklärung – Gegenaufklärung. Graduiertenkurs der DGEJ an der Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, 28. und 29. Sept. 2009’ Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert 33, Nr. 2 (2009) 169-170.

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