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The Enlightenment: v. 2: The Science of Freedom
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The Enlightenment: v. 2: The Science of Freedom (Paperback)
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Product Synopsis

This work completes the author's reinterpretation begun in The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism. It describes the programme of the philosophes and their views of society, with the aim of providing insights into the Enlightenment's critical method and its human and libertarian vision.

More books by Peter Gay

Customer Reviews

This volume rounds off Gay's magisterial history of the Enlightenment. I found the entire work a rather wearing, but also rewarding, read, as Gay is magnificently read in the period while taking rather a discursive approach to documenting it. The series, therefore, largely eschews a clear chronology while also not making a detailed technical analysis of the positions of the Enlightenment philosophes, ranging instead widely around the interactions of the key figures with each other and with wider society. Gay's Enlightenment is perhaps as well characterised by what it is not as by what it is. The rejection of system-building, of essentialism, of the Church, of pure reason and of authority all amount to negative definitions. The Enlightenment entailed a collective act of faith in the capabilities and perfectibility of humans, but it declined to prescribe any formal program for their application. It is, I judge, no coincidence that the relativism and factionalism that confound any attempt to drive a herd of liberals today has its roots in a period that gave rise to a republic guaranteeing only rights and an epistemology in which all knowledge is provisional. The precision of Newtonian physics drove the "recovery of nerve" and the ascent of the philosophes. and Newton was a towering figure in their transformational drive, yet this provisionalism and rejection of essentialism will seem to modern readers to revoke his legacy. Nothing could be father from the truth! Of the key figures addressed in this work - Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Lessing, Kant - many are key names in the development of scientific reason and political liberalism, all of which reject the absolute "systems" of Aristotle, of Scholasticism and of the Church. The triumph of freedom is the triumph of the provisional. While this has to stand as a cornerstone history of this crucial period in history and philosophy, I have to judge that it did not fulfil a key aim in my reading: To wit, to gain an understanding of the philosophical and political activity of American Enlightenment philosophes such as Jefferson and how this activity led to the foundation and form of the American Republic. I learned much about the relentlessly ebullient and optimistic Hume, and more about the combative and difficult Voltaire, but the sense of a unified, intellectual edifice such as could be embodied in a Constitution, or in the scientific method, failed to emerge.

- 06/05/2014 Report this Review
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