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Enlightenment Interrupted: The Lost Moment of German Idealism and the Reactionary Present

Enlightenment Interrupted: The Lost Moment of German Idealism and the Reactionary Present (Paperback)

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For most of the eighteenth century the best minds in Europe took up the task of providing a foundation for human life and human society in which individual fulfillment was to be achieved within a rational public order. When it became apparent that this task was based on an illusionthe separation of self and worldand was thus doomed to failure, however, that insight and the consequent crisis were forgotten and repressed. After 1815 all parties, reactionary and liberal, chose to proceed as if we had achieved what we knew, somewhere, we could not carry off. To secure that false confidence the challenges of the late Enlightenment had to be silenced and its doubts swept under the carpet. This book concerns a founding act of bad faith and of willed blindness, the self-forgetting of the rootlessness and the falsity of the basic presuppositions of the modern world, that have haunted that world from its birth. Enlightenment Interrupted takes the metaphysical arguments of the idealists seriously. Its methodological foundation is the belief that in every era there are deep structures of thought and experience that define the range of theoretical and political possibilities available.

The great achievement of the post-Kantian generation was to critique and ultimately to move beyond the self-world dichotomy at the heart of Western thought. This can be seen as a continuation of the Enlightenment project of subjecting everything to the test of reason, but it was also part of a larger cultural movement that found expression in Romanticism, in an openness to Indian and other non-Western thought, and in the political and social experimentation of the French Revolution. What followed in the post-Revolutionary years was not a development of those tendencies to openness and egalitarian, common process but a retreat to the opposition of self and world and a drastic reduction in intellectual and social possibilities. This is one source of the collective impotence that sees the twenty-first century in a lockstep march to disaster.

Michael Steinberg writes on the roots of modernity, its faultlines between personal and social, and the insoluble problems that result. He lives in Rochester, NY.

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