Anthony Pagden on the Enlightenment

I read Anthony Pagden’s book, “The Enlightenment, and why it still matters”. While finding nothing substantial with which to disagree, I found myself wondering what he was going on about.

The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden

Thanks to a review by Edward Feser, who takes sharper issue with Pagden than I was able, I am now able to say what was the matter with Pagden’s book.

For Pagden shows, albeit inadvertently, how little the rhetoric of Enlightenment owed—and owes today—to intellectual substance, and how much to attitude, posturing, and sheer bluff. The Enlightenment matters insofar it is perceived to matter. To a very great extent, what was true in it wasn’t new and what was new wasn’t true.

If you dislike Feser’s attitude that nothing true has been written since Thomas Aquinas, a more modern criticism of Pagden’s book can be found in Stuart Kelly’s review in the Guardian from July of last year.

The upshot is that while Pagden provides a survey of the thought of the 18th century, which is a recommendation in itself, he does not tie it all together in a way that critics from left or right are pleased with. For my part, I made my way through it dutifully, but cannot pretend to have enjoyed it for insight, controversy, or a refreshing attitude:  like eating a plate of well-cooked broccoli, it was nutritious but unappetizing.

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