The Enlightenment: history, historiography, legacy

Course Description: 

As an epoch in the cultural and intellectual history of Europe and the global space with which it became entangled in the era itself, the Enlightenment is distinctive. The philosophical ideas and moral values, socio-cultural practices and institutions, and political agendas associated with it continue to serve as an indispensable frame of reference in the public domain, both for those who blame on it all the woes of modernity, and for those who regard it as a fountainhead of every achievement of modernity worth defending (and in need of defense today). However, the understanding of what is meant by this label and the corresponding and associated names in different languages is often impoverished and ahistorical. At the same time, historians disagree profoundly on virtually every aspect of the Enlightenment, from its scope and nature to its chronology and geography, and much beyond. These controversies will be addressed and assessed during the course, without the intention of taking sides in them. Nor is it an aim of the course to help resolve the complexity of the Enlightenment as a historical phenomenon into a finite number of old or new generalizations. Rather, it endeavors – via an exploration of major themes in eighteenth-century thought, and the testimonies of lived experience into which such thought was converted by contemporaries – to put it into relief as a series of debates about a largely shared set of questions, pursued with a shared spirit of critical inquiry (albeit with different approaches, methodologies and ideologies), in novel and specifically tailored cultural and institutional settings.

Learning Outcomes: 

Through engagement with primary sources and up-to-date secondary literature, students will develop a contextualized understanding of an era in cultural and intellectual history which has had a lasting impact on the formation of identities, sensibilities and allegiances. They will be equipped with a sharpened sense of the “presence of the past”, the broader stakes of inquiry into apparently remotes historical periods, and the consequent responsibility of the (intellectual and cultural) historian.


-          at least one “position paper” (a prepared, formal comment on the readings for the week, in c. 15 minutes, identifying central themes and attempting to set an agenda for discussion) – 10%

-          consistent work in class (regular and relevant contributions to discussion) – 50%

-          one written essay (c. 4,000 words; topic to be submitted to the instructor by Week 10; essay outline can be discussed with and commented by the instructor, but full draft not; submission deadline: 21 December) – 40%