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January 31, 2009, 2:30 PM


Participants: Akeel Bilgrami (moderator), Jonathan Israel, Steven Nadler, Joel Whitebook, Catherine Wilson

As a result of recent scholarship, it is becoming more and more apparent that there was more than one Enlightenment, and that it was Spinoza and those intellectually and politically influenced by him who were measurably more responsible than Locke, Voltaire, or Kant for the challenge in the modern period to the orthodoxies of the pre-Enlightenment era. Spinoza's philosophy was vital in the struggle to achieve free expression against intolerance and religious authority, and to undermine the idea that social hierarchies were ordained for human life on earth. This roundtable will explore what it is about Spinoza's philosophy that helped to produce these changes. Panelists will examine the extent to which the ideals of the "Radical Enlightenment," which Spinoza's ideas inspired, have lapsed in the more constricting liberal orthodoxies of our own time, and how the tradition of the Radical Enlightenment might still speak to our social and political concerns and needs.

Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and the Director of The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. He is also a member of Columbia's Committee on Global Thought. He joined Columbia University in 1985 after spending two years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His publications include the books Belief and Meaning and Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Politics and The Moral Psychology of Identity and What is a Muslim? will appear in 2008. He has published over 60 articles in Philosophy of Mind as well as in Political and Moral Psychology. Some of his articles on these latter subjects speak to issues of current politics in their relation to broader social and cultural issues.

Jonathan Israel has been Professor of Modern History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, since January 2001. Before that he taught for thirty years in British universities, mostly at University College London. Although he has worked on Spanish, Spanish American, Jewish and Dutch history, in recent years his research and writing have mainly revolved around issues relating to the Enlightenment, especially the Radical Enlightenment, that is, the movement of thought that first gave rise to our modern conceptions of equality, democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression and the press, and separation of church and state. His books include European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550-1750; The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806; Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750; and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752.

Steven Nadler is William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Max and Frieda Weinstein/Bascom Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is also chair of the Department of Philosophy. His books include Spinoza: A Life (winner of the 2000 Koret Jewish Book Award), Spinoza's Heresy, Rembrandt's Jews (named a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction), Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction, and The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, Good, and Evil.

Joel Whitebook is a philosopher and practicing psychoanalyst. He is on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and, beginning in fall of 2010, he will be Director of the Psychoanalytic Studies Program in Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is writing an intellectual biography of Freud for Cambridge University Press and his book, Der gefesselte Odysseus: Studien zur Kritischen Theorie und Psychoanalyse is coming out with Campus Verlag this month.

Catherine Wilson is currently Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a Visiting Professor at Princeton University. She has recently been appointed to a Chair in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She specializes in the history and philosophy of 17th and 18th century science and its relationship to metaphysics and moral philosophy, and has written extensively on Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant. Her most recent book is Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity.


Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Anthony DeSantis says:
Three questions for panelist Jonathan Israel:
1) One of the issues that the round table panel is slated to discuss, according to the blurb advertising this event on the Philoctetes web site, is 'the extent to which the ideals of the "Radical Enlightenment," which Spinoza's ideas inspired, have lapsed in the more constricting liberal orthodoxies of our own time". Could you give concrete and specific examples of this AND 'how the tradition of the Radical Enlightenment might still speak to our social and political concerns and needs' today?
2) Given what has developed in science, philosophy, and the humanities since the Radical Enlightenment (I'm referring to the well-known and widely accepted arguments made by various skeptics and also of postmodern critics of the Enlightenment), what specific "traditions of the Radical Enlightenment" are agreed upon by the academy today?
3) What can historians contribute (if at all) to resolving some of the issues in the modernist-postmodernist debate?
Thank you,
Anthony DeSantis
Barrett Pashak says:
Has anyone investigated the work of Constantin Brunner? In his essay "Spinoza contra Kant" – http://www.archive.org/details/SpinozaContraKant –, Brunner (1862-1937) posits a fundamental polarity between philosophy and folk thought, with Spinoza representing the summit of the former and Kant the latter. He describes this polarity with special reference to the development of German thought.
Philoctetes says:
Answer to Anthony De Santis

1) I think there is a significant sense in which the ideals of the Radical Enlightenment have been seriously constricted by the dominant ‘liberal orthodoxies’ of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially perhaps insofar as these considered it a good, rather than a bad, thing, to allow competing churches to gain as strong a position in education, welfare and media as they could, and to exert as strong an internal discipline and authority over their own communities as they can. Here ideology of multiculturalism that replaced other ideologies to a considerable extent in 1980s and 1990s can be seen as being a continuation, or further development, of a certain kind of liberal tradition. The philosophical legacy of Locke, greatly venerated of course in America and Britain, particularly lends itself to this kind of liberalism – let the churches grow as strong as they can.
Equally, liberal orthodoxies encouraged a stress on the allegedly overriding value and legitimacy of free market forces in the economic sphere which encouraged new forms of informal inequality and social hierarchy. Radical enlightenment with its stress on the universality of true human values, especially equality, individual liberty and free expression, and the principle of democracy, was from its outset in Spinoza far more suspicious, it seems to me, of the competing power of churches over their own membership and much more hostile to strategies of informal aristocracy in a democracy, a tendency taken much further in the late Diderot. Radical Enlightenment, I believe, still speaks to our needs today insofar as we need a universalist secular morality that applies equally to all and gives equal opportunity and freedom of expression to all, insofar as we need to avoid (or minimize, at least) the tyranny of churches, sects and family heads using religious authority over those under their tutelage, and insofar as we need to limit the influence of theological authorities over education, the media and society generally. Equally, there would appear to be a clear need to counter the unrestricted sway of free market forces with regulations imposed by society so as to enforce clear rules with regard to equity, social ethics and fairness.

2) Postmodernism did reject and denounce the Enlightenment. But today, in the academy it is definitely a receding force. What remains is a general commitment to equality racial and sexual, to democracy, to individual liberty and to freedom of thought, research (less intact in science than the humanities), expression and the press.

3) There is much historians can do to help people grasp what is at stake in the modernist/postmodernist debate by showing how relevant the Enlightenment remains to the contemporary discussion, how unhistorical and inaccurate the postmodernist account of modernity is, and how serious are the consequences of Postmodernism and multiculturalism for equality, individual liberty and democracy.

-Jonathan Israel
Ralph Dumain says:
It's too bad I could not be privy to such a fascinating roundtable. I wonder, do you plan to publish the proceedings or make an audio or video available on this site?

Re Prof. Israel's allusion to the "late Diderot": could you point us to specific relevant writings?
Philoctetes says:
Please use video link above for this event.

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