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Happy New Year. Reason anybody? Bit of Enlightenment?

January 1, 2017


What is Enlightenment?

This question, so memorable asked by Immanuel Kant in 1784, has never been more relevant.  The culture wars of the twenty first century suggest that concepts such as “European Enlightenment” and “Western Enlightenment” are challenged and defended with an urgency that seems unprecedented in our lifetimes.  Whether or not “Enlightenment” represents a legacy of civilisation or subjugation (or both, to varying and contested degrees) is integral to the project of a harmonious Europe.  Are there certain values of (apparently) free thought and critical autonomy that are central to the modern European project?  Are these values truly “universal” or do they represent an ethnocentric or even imperialist imposition on both non-Europeans and Europeans of non-European origin?   These issues are not merely scholarly or historical.  Lives are at stake.

This proposal intends to use the networking facilities of ISECS (the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies) – a confederation of national societies devoted to the study of the Enlightenment period, in order to sponsor time and travel required for scholars to not only explore the meaning of the concept of “Enlightenment” but also to publicise the issue in ways that will impact not only on media discourse and democratic debate, but which will also influence public policy.  The question of whether “rights” belong to individuals or to communities, as well as whether the very concept of “the individual” is generally understood in culturally specific ways, has implications for criminal law, education policy, freedom of speech legislation as well as race relations.

If liberalism, secularism and freedom of inquiry are truly the eighteenth-century legacy to Europe and the wider world and if this legacy is truly threatened by forces of fanaticism and intolerance, then the nature of the Enlightenment needs to be reclaimed on a more secure and informed footing.  “Defending the Enlightenment” cannot be allowed to be a slogan casually deployed by entrenched interests and powerful elites – it must become – in a democratic Europe – the basis for well-informed public discussion.

The International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies liaises with Enlightenment Studies scholars from across Europe and the wider world.  It is in a position to nominate institutions, universities, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions who can in turn nominate scholars eligible for Marie Curie RISE participation.

The eventual outcome of this funding would be a well-established, well-respected clearing house for informed discussion of “The Enlightenment” – a first choice electronic site where the most recent research into the meaning of “The Enlightenment” could be referenced.  It is anticipated that not only the media, but also policy makers across Europe (and beyond) would refer to the “What is Enlightenment?” project whenever seeking to invoke, defend of challenge so-called European Enlightenment values.  The complexity and the contradictions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment legacy, as well as its substantive achievements can be made available in the context of a more honest and sensitive debate about the future of Europe.


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