From the dim ruins of the Enlightenment project

This is my review of The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden.

In the eighteenth century, conditions combined to create a demand for the right to think for oneself. Avoiding simple clear-cut definitions, Anthony Pagden deploys his encylopaedic knowledge to explore the factors which gave rise to the enlightenment, its complexity, strengths and weaknesses and why it is still relevant. A scholarly page-turner, which somehow manages to be engrossing yet flawed, this is a book to keep on one's shelf and revisit from time to time, as it includes too many ideas to grasp in a single reading.

Each chapter is like an encounter with a passionate expert thinking aloud as his mind flips back and forth, linking the ideas of respective "lumières" with extensive quotations and frequent little digressions and asides "(more of him later)". No philosopher or thinker is introduced without a few nuggets of potted history, which tends to be distracting. Despite the author's penchant for convoluted sentences, his approach is gripping and thought-provoking, but can create a kind of overstimulated mental fog. A reader with some prior knowledge of the main enlightenment thinkers is likely to cope best. I decided that the best course is to read this through once to get an overview and then study chapter by chapter to fix some key insights. I could have done with a chart to show the dates of the various philosophers to clarify exactly who was influencing whom, and to note their respective works, often with long and similar titles.

Some assertions seem open to question, but it is perhaps no bad thing to face the challenge of explaining why one questions a certain argument. The typos noted by other reviewers did make me wonder whether the proofreader(s) hadn't become too numbed by the spate of information and ideas to check the sense properly, but this is a minor point. The major criticism is that the book is somewhat chaotic in structure, repetitious and longer than it needs to be – but Pagden certainly conveys a sense of the enduring fascination of the subject matter.

I was looking forward to the "Conclusion: Enlightenment and its enemies", but Pagden seems to have run out of steam at the end, not dissecting "communitarianism" and the Catholic philosopher MacIntyre as forensically as he does the earlier anti-enlightenment thinkers and ending with a final confirmation of continued relevance which seems rather woolly, I suppose due to the sad fact that our enlightenment has not built on that of our visionary eighteenth century ancestors to the degree that they might reasonably have hoped.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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