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Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment

Light in Germany: Scenes from the Unknown Enlightenment
T.J. Reed
Chicago University Press
304 pp £28

Recent overviews of the Enlightenment have been pitched as correctives and as having contemporary currency. Ours is a time, so the story goes, in which we need reminding about what the Enlightenment really was and, in the words of Anthony Pagden’s 2013 study, why it still matters. For Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940s (the founders of German critical theory) the Enlightenment lost its self-awareness as it became entwined with nascent industrial capitalism. The risk of strong conviction in scientific enquiry, for Adorno and Horkheimer, was that it could actually assume a mythical status as scientism, thereby reducing its critical reflection on itself. Tolerance today may seem to stem less from reason and more from a reluctance to judge others, for fear of resultant totalitarianism. Light in Germany defends a canon of Enlightenment thought against a perceived antiEnlightenment prejudice. Reed’s lead character is Kant, who is read alongside major German contemporaries, such as Lessing, Goethe, Schiller and Forster.

Light in Germany is one of the best historical introductions to late 18th-century German literature and thought that I have read in a long time. Kant’s notoriously difficult ideas are clarified as having emerged in a context that explored the physical world as well as the mind: comparisons between Kant in Prussia and Forster’s Pacific adventures are particularly illuminating. If it is surprising to call discussions of these famous figures Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment, the subtitle makes sense for two reasons. First, German literary and scientific writers are seldom mentioned in general English-language works on the Enlightenment, so that the Anglo-American world tends only to engage with Kant and a handful of other philosophers. Second, the task of explaining Kant has all too often been left to specialist analytic philosophers. Reed’s, by contrast, will be comprehensible to general, non German-speaking readers.

Reed writes in a matter- of-fact and, for the most part, well-balanced way. His description of Frederick the Great is especially fair and he acknowledges the ethical limits of geographical discovery in the period, without distracting digressions into post-colonial theory. Reed’s subscription to learning worn lightly is what makes his engagement with Kant so accessible. Unsubstantiated passing comments raise questions, however. Reed refers to Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi as an orthodox – that is, anti-Enlightenment – thinker, yet recent German-language scholars have controversially attempted to read Jacobi more sympathetically and intellectually, as offering an ‘alternative’ Enlightenment to the traditional canon Reed defends. Further, how can Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris be the first feminist play since Sophocles’ Antigone? Also perplexing is Reed’s assertion that Hegel’s conception of Reason ‘lacks intellectual underpinning’.

When Christoph Martin Wieland responded to ‘What is Enlightenment?’, he emphasised the metaphorical distinction between light and darkness. Enlightenment thought categorises in a reasoned way. Yet a commitment to this ideal can also slip up and unreasonably discriminate. Reed is right that Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment essay is disproportionately and inappropriately applied in historical scholarship on the German Enlightenment, a trend in need of correction. But does he really need to write that arguing with them is ‘as pointless as arguing with flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers’? Adorno and Horkheimer cannot be criticised for their lack of historical examples of Enlightenment, because their essay is about an abstract concept – like Wieland’s or, in fact, Kant’s definitions of Enlightenment. The goal, like Reed’s, is to rescue Enlightenment thinking. Theirs is not a discourse of intellectual history, though, but of historically significant intellectualism in its own right. At points such as this, and with Hegel, Light in Germany reads as a preferential polemic intended to divide the torch-bearers from the Sophists. 

Leaving aside Reed’s stark preferences and occasional overly pithy sentences, his study is otherwise remarkably generous to the writers who are under its spotlight. Erudite in its exposition of them, it is a helpful, timely and, not least, a punchy book, all of which make it well worth reading.

Seán M. Williams is a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow in Germanic Studies at the University of Sheffield

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