Philosophy and Revolution in the late 18th Century: a Reinterpretation

8 and 9 November 2010
Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a.M. / Campus Westend / Hörsaalzentrum / HZ3

Montag, 8 November 2010, 19 pm

Lecture I: The late 18th century's Curious Idea that Philosophy caused the French Revolution


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Tuesday, 9 November 2010, 19 pm

Lecture II: The Enlightenment's Quarrel over Basic Human Rights


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Plakat Frankfurt Lectures IVAlthough it seems strange to us today, it was common in the years around 1790 for philosophers sympathetic to the French Revolution to speak of it as the realization of ' modern philosophy'. When examined, this perception can be seen to possess appreciable cultural and political significance. What was meant was that modern philosophy, considered in all its aspects implied a vast mobilization of intellectual and cultural impulses and these could be seen as having provided the mental apparatus that engineered the vast transformation political, social and legal that Europe and the entire world was undergoing. ' Die französische Revolution das Werk der Philosophie, aber was für ein Sprung von dem cogito, ergo sum bis zum ersten Erschallen des à la Bastille im Palais Royal. ' Given Lichtenberg's approach to scientific and philosophical questions, we may presume that he meant by this that it needed a shift to a systematically rational view of reality on many levels for human ideals and needs to come to be expressed and legislated for in the way that transpired in 1789. Thinking in terms of basic human rights was obviously one such dimension; another was the virtual destruction of confessional and theological differences as a meaningful divide between humans. But the most important change was the idea that the state exists to promote the interests of the majority conceived as equals. 'What a development! ', exclaimed Wekhrlin, in 1791: the torch of philosophy has finally been taken up in society and the 'rights of reason and of Man' transferred to the sphere of reality. 'The true principles of society have been researched and aufgeklärt', and the public understanding has been brought to grasp 'the general good'. In short, the century of the Enlightenment was one in which human life had ceased to be the plaything of politics and religion!' With the public sphere, freedom of the press and the Revolution, humanity had become, or so it briefly seemed, the sphere of 'reason'.

Jonathan Israel

Jonathan Israel worked in the early part of his career mainly on Spanish, Spanish American and Dutch history. From 1985 to 2000 he held the chair in Dutch History at University College London. Since 1993, he has devoted his efforts mainly to the study of the European Enlightenment in its intellectual context and in relation to social and political developments. Since January 2001 he has been professor fo Modern History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His most recent book is A Revolution of the Mind. Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, 2010).




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