Of all the many ideological divisions within modernity one of the most persistent, troubling, and divisive is the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment. Often held to be the cornerstone, crucible, or laboratory of Western modernity, the Enlightenment stands at the threshold of the modern age. Celebrated for its unparalleled commitment to human betterment, its achievements included the commitment to experimental science and the practical application of technological knowledge in the alleviation of suffering. This implied a natural, not theological, understanding of the human and the study of both human universality and particularity. It required a developing understanding of sentiment and a re-evaluation of the nature of human sociability. In politics its achievements included establishing the progressive and democratic function of the state, secularisation, religious toleration, and the foundation of human rights. However the Enlightenment is also reviled. Its commitment to reason and in the possibility of human perfectibility let to totalitarianism, first in the French Revolution, then in both Fascist and Communist authoritarianism. At the same time the Enlightenment’s commitment to liberal rights led to the vicious individualism that has destroyed the shared basis of community. The ‘science of man’ served only to universalise the experience of white European men and so was both racist and sexist. The Enlightenment justified colonialism, imperialism, and capitalist exploitation.

The cultural and political battles that have been fought over the last few centuries for and against the Enlightenment have been of an exceptionally intense and passionate character. The Enlightenment has become the touchstone for highly emotional—often contradictory—articulations of contemporary western values. We of the ‘West’ may proudly claim it as our heritage; we may also blame it for our contemporary woes.

It is from within this context that I will ask: What is it to rethink the Enlightenment? This paper will, first, trace the emergence of the contemporary form of the Enlightenment with a view to showing the différend that has formed between the Historian’s and the Philosopher’s Enlightenments. Second, seeking to move beyond this impasse by drawing inspiration from R.G. Collingwood’s attempted rapprochement between history and philosophy, this paper will consider the study of the Enlightenment as the move towards a critical self-understanding of contemporary ‘Western’ modernity.

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