The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, by Vincenzo Ferrone

Separating the past from philosophy is the key to understanding the period, learns Caroline Warman

May 21, 2015

This feisty, argumentative, lordly book surveys all the ways in which commentators on the Enlightenment have got it wrong, from Hegel onwards. Yes, says Vincenzo Ferrone, this misinterpretation is all Hegel’s fault, and it has given rise to what is excitingly called “the paradigm of the centaur”. Warning: do not start imagining wise creatures of noble mien gazing into the heavens with their human eyes and pawing the ground with their equine hoofs, and then start trying to work out what their “paradigm” might be, setting in motion the vaguely alluring fiction of Hegel as a melancholy stargazer. No: “centaur” in this context means an impossible creature of irreconcilable halves, a sort of absurdity; in the original Italian, an ircocervo, or “goat-stag”, a hypothetical animal with a philosophical inheritance going back to Aristotle.

The goat-stag to which Ferrone alludes is Hegel’s meshing of history and philosophy, a mesh that is now, in his view, just a mess. He wants history to be separated from philosophy, and for the 18th century, particularly the late 18th century, to be considered on its own terms. This will require a further disentangling, which is the late 18th century from the French Revolution, the events and consequences of which provoked Hegel’s initial association of history with philosophy – and off we go again.

The circular knottiness of these issues is well known. Ferrone’s solution is not to set them aside and just get on with doing some history in order to prove his thesis, but instead to give chronological accounts, first of the philosophical theories, and then of the historiography. First, therefore, we gallop through Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault, a debate staged in Davos in 1929 between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, and finally, the efforts of Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, to recuperate the Enlightenment for Catholicism. This last is staggering enough, and involves Ratzinger first appropriating Adorno and Horkheimer’s presentation of the Enlightenment as the mechanisation and dehumanisation of man, and second using the language of rights to argue that only Catholicism can protect those rights, thus producing, in Ferrone’s view, a textbook case of the “paradigm of the centaur”.

We get a similar rehearsal of the greats of Enlightenment historiography, including among others Tocqueville, Marc Bloch, Daniel Mornet, Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton, not omitting that most recent target of polemic, Jonathan Israel. Ferrone is never dry, and he always relates the different methodologies and paradigms of the historians and philosophers to each other and to other conceptual shifts in the field of knowledge: his polemicised mastery of all this is most impressive, and only sometimes a bit like being hit with a brickbat.

The historian he presents as a model of erudition and profound insight is his own teacher, the great Franco Venturi, whose 1969 Trevelyan Lectures were published in 1971 as Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment, and whose work on the latter part of the 18th century he wishes to see taken forward. The only other historian whose research he considers to be doing this properly is Darnton, who, in Ferrone’s view, nonetheless fails to confront or rethink the big chronological (and teleological) labels that his actual work has already shown to be unhelpful.

We could never accuse Ferrone himself of failing to confront anything. But has someone who so consistently talks about “the Enlightenment” doing this and that, as if it were an entity and had agency, and who so pervasively uses the flawed term “Ancien Régime”, immediately giving it a teleological relationship with the Revolution, really done any rethinking? Perhaps that’ll be for the next book. I hope so.

The Enlightenment: History of an Idea

By Vincenzo Ferrone
Translated by Elisabetta Tarantino
Princeton University Press, 232pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691161457 and 9781400865833 (e-book)
Published 27 May 2015

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