ArticlePDF Available


This article counters recent suggestions that there was no such thing as a “Counter-Enlightenment” or “Counter-Enlightenments,” and that such terms ought thus to be abandoned. While acknowledging inevitable difficulties with the terms, the article argues that there can be no doubting the reality. European countries faced a variety of vehement and self-conscious movements that defined themselves precisely through their opposition to what they took to be the corrosive effects of the Enlightenment. In the process, they defined the main terms of an enduring vision of the world that we now associate with the Right.
Published by: Uopen Journals
Copyright: © The Author(s).
Content is licensed under a Creative Comm ons Attribution 4.0 International Licence
eISSN: 2 213 -0624
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 33
What is Counter-Enlightenment?
Darrin M. McMahon
HCM 5 (1): 33–46
DOI: 10.18352/hcm.508
This article counters recent suggestions that there was no such thing as
a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ or ‘Counter-Enlightenments’, and that such
terms ought thus to be abandoned. While acknowledging inevitable dif-
ficulties with the terms, the article argues that there can be no doubt-
ing the reality. European countries faced a variety of vehement and
self-conscious movements that defined themselves precisely through
their opposition to what they took to be the corrosive effects of the
Enlightenment. In the process, they defined the main terms of an endur-
ing vision of the world that we now associate with the right.
Keywords: Counter-Enlightenment, Enlightenment, religious
Enlightenment, right
What is Counter-Enlightenment? The question has been posed before,
but never, to my knowledge, was it posed in the eighteenth century.1
In the minds of some critics that would suggest that the Counter-
Enlightenment did not exist. ‘No one in the eighteenth century used the
term … [s]o why should we?’, the historian Jeremy Caradonna asks.2
Less dogmatically, the political philosopher James Schmidt, taking his
cue from the historian John Pocock, cautions that the concept is ‘inher-
ently ambiguous’ and so should be avoided.3
Of course, as both these critics appreciate, one could say precisely
the same thing about ‘the Enlightenment’, a term that was never used
34 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
in the eighteenth century as a substantive to describe a movement or
a time, and whose meaning has been argued about from its very first
appearance in the now more familiar sense.4 A similar observation
could be made about countless other labels employed by historians to
describe periods or processes that contemporaries themselves would
not have recognized, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the
Scientific Revolution.
Yet Caradonna’s complaint is not nominalist, but structural. The
term ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ he observes, rests upon a false ‘oppo-
sitional binary’ that reifies and distorts its other (the Enlightenment).
At the same time, he notes, the term is a ‘moving target’ that ‘has been
defined in such radically different ways that it casts doubt upon the
empirical basis of the category’, which is, it seems, ‘confused, unhelp-
ful, and arbitrary’ to say nothing of ‘simplistic’, and ‘superficial’, a kind
of ‘red herring’ and ‘political trick’.5 In short, Caradonna concludes,
‘there was no Counter-Enlightenment’.6
I confess that it is somewhat disconcerting to learn that a subject
on which I have devoted years of scholarly endeavour has ceased to
exist, or worse, never existed at all. I suspect that the contributors to
this special issue of the International Journal for History, Culture and
Modernity will be similarly perplexed. But in the end, I think, we need
not be concerned. If Caradonna and Schmidt are certainly right to cau-
tion against facile uses and abuses of the term, it would be wrong to
dispense with the historical reality that it seeks to capture. There was
a Counter-Enlightenment. Indeed there were many. The articles in this
issue, rest assured, are more than a mirage.
Yet, it cannot be denied – nor should it be – that Caradonna and
Schmidt have a point. The ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ has indeed been
used loosely, and rather sloppily, on many occasions since the term
was first coined in 1949 by the American philosopher William Barrett
and then popularized, more famously, by Isaiah Berlin in his landmark
essay ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’ and subsequent works.7 For Berlin,
the Counter-Enlightenment was primarily, though not exclusively, a
German affair, characterized by a militant reaction to the perceived
What is Counter-enlightenment?
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 35
rationalism, universalism, and materialism of the French Enlightenment,
and articulated by leading figures such as the philosophers and men
of letters J.G.A. Hamann, Friedrich Jacobi, and Herder. With fellow
travellers in the Francophone world such as Joseph de Maistre and
Louis de Bonald, and Italian predecessors such as Giambattista Vico,
the Counter-Enlightenment, in Berlin’s handling, was paradoxically a
wellspring both of modern pluralism and of modern fascism.
As has often been pointed out, Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment
relied on precisely the sort of binary against which Caradonna and
Schmidt caution, setting up an abstract and idealist construction of the
‘Enlightenment’ as a foil with which ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ partisans
could be made to do intellectual battle down through the ages.8 Uniting
otherwise disparate figures such as Vico, Herder, and Maistre, all of
whom lived in different places at different times, Berlin’s Counter-
Enlightenment stretched back to the ancient world and forward to the
present day, representing an enduring temptation in thought. It was, like
all of his work, stimulating and suggestive. But as an historical account
of opposition to the Enlightenment, Berlin’s presentation was less sat-
isfying. Critics have questioned his characterizations of the thought of
such figures as Hamann, Herder, and Jacobi as ‘irrational’, and asked
whether such individuals might better be placed in an Enlightenment
more broadly conceived than in a pantheon of its most implacable ene-
mies.9 Others have criticized the teleological assumptions imbedded in
Berlin’s work, discounting the view that the Counter-Enlightenment
must end with fascism or the Enlightenment with the Gulag. Arguably,
these portrayals tell us more about the period when the ‘Enlightenment’
and ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ came into widespread use as categories –
namely, the Cold War – than they do about the eighteenth century itself.
Such warnings about the pitfalls of teleology, a-historicism, and
false binaries, however, have not prevented scholars from falling deeply
into these traps, abusing the concept of ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ or
its German, French, or Dutch equivalents, Gegen-Aufklärung, Anti-
Lumières, or Antiverlichting. Perhaps the most egregious example is
the Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell’s Les Anti-Lumières, which man-
ages to commit, in a single volume, nearly every one of the princi-
pal shortcomings of an old-fashioned histoire des idées singled out by
Quentin Skinner in his seminal essay, ‘Meaning and Understanding
in the History of Ideas’.10 From ‘reification’ and the ‘mythology of
36 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
doctrines’ (Sternhell’s ‘Anti-Enlightenment’ comprises not only Burke
and Maistre, Barrès and Maurras, but Gertrude Himmelfarb and Isaiah
Berlin himself!) to misplaced ‘influence’ and teleology, the book takes
us from the eighteenth century to Stalinism, fascism, and beyond in
leaps and bounds, conducting an unwitting master-class on how to do
bad intellectual history.11 Constructed, moreover, against a shining and
monolithic ‘Enlightenment’ that stands for all that is good and true in the
world, it is a work, that gives some credence to Caradonna’s complaints.
In a similar manner, a collection such as Jochen Schmidt’s edited vol-
ume, Aufklärung und Gegen-Aufklärung in der europäischen Literatur,
Philosophie und Politik von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart strips the
category of ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ (as well as Enlightenment) of all
historicity whatsoever, reducing it to an abiding principle of the uni-
verse, “a kind of Yang to the Enlightenment’s Ying.”12
But if the term ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ can certainly be abused, it
does not follow that it should not be used at all. In the very same article,
in fact, that James Schmidt cites in support of his view that the term
ought to be avoided, John Pocock uses it repeatedly, without appar-
ent qualm.13 Pocock’s only objection seems to be that the term (like
philosophe) does not travel well from the Continent to England (an
assertion with which I would agree). But why there cannot be Counter-
Enlightenments, varieties of resistance to Enlightenment – or as Pocock
would have it, Enlightenments – is no more clear than why we should
dispense with such indispensable terms as Counter-Reformation(s) and
Indeed, the bogeyman of a reified Counter-Enlightenment is just
that, a bogeyman, conjured up in Caradonna’s essay to topple over
as if it were composed of nothing of more substance than words and
straw. Isaiah Berlin himself acknowledged that there were ‘counter-
movements’ to the Enlightenment, not just one, despite using the sin-
gular Counter-Enlightenment in the title of his famous essay.14 In my
own Enemies of the Enlightenment, devoted primarily to France, I made
a similar point, observing that the ‘Catholic Counter-Enlightenment
discussed in these pages is only one of a range of oppositional
responses to Enlightenment movements, spanning a broad, geographi-
cal spectrum of regional and confessional difference’, while stress-
ing that ‘these other Counter-Enlightenments await their historian’.15
Finally, Graeme Garrard has emphasized the point in his appropriately
What is Counter-enlightenment?
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 37
entitled study Counter-Enlightenments, which treats the myriad ways
the Enlightenment has been constructed and attacked by its enemies
on both the right and the left.16 The point being that sophisticated treat-
ments of opposition to the Enlightenment have long recognized that
there was more than one such thing.
Religion and (Counter-) Enlightenment
Almost all of this opposition, however, at least in its eighteenth and
early nineteenth-century instantiations, was galvanized by religious
conviction. That conviction took different forms in different confes-
sions and faiths, and expressed itself with varying degrees of novelty
and sophistication. Yet collectively the religious energies harnessed
in resistance to movements of Enlightenment represented an unprec-
edented response to the perceived secularizing forces of modernity that
began to trouble Western observers in the long eighteenth century. This
phenomenon was new, neither an atavism of the past nor a holdover
from a world that was gone, but a modern reaction to conditions that
were inscribed in the modernizing process itself. In this respect, the
Counter-Enlightenment movements of the long eighteenth century ini-
tiated a cycle of militant cultural combat and a posture of embattled
defense that would prove a recurrent feature of European politics well
into the twentieth century. They also provide a precedent and a frame
of reference for thinking about the multiple reactions to the (multiple)
modernities that have played out in the non-Western world ever since,
and remain very much a feature of our own time.
But if religion was central to movements of Counter-Enlightenment
in the eighteenth century, it was also central to movements of
Enlightenment. This is a point on which scholars have insisted with good
reason in recent years, drawing attention to the many moderate reli-
gious reformers who saw the siècle des lumières as fully consonant with
Christian (or Jewish) civilization. To think of the Enlightenment primar-
ily as a movement conducted outside of religion rather than as a move-
ment carried on it within it, these scholars insist, is misplaced. Far from
being enemies of the Enlightenment, the representatives of what David
Sorkin has called the ‘Religious Enlightenment’ embraced it, seeking
to counter the more extreme materialist and atheist positions circulating
38 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
in the eighteenth century from the standpoint of reason deployed in the
public sphere.17 They, too, argued for toleration and respect for the indi-
vidual conscience, combating prejudice and fanaticism, while seeking
to reconcile reason and revolution. They, too, upheld free speech and
embraced the new science, promoting progress and advancement and
moderation. And they too adopted the scholarly practices of the age,
publishing books and journals in the republic of letters, participating
in essay contests and debates, and engaging in enlightened forms of
sociability in lodges, clubs, academies, and salons. Long overlooked,
these moderate theologians, clerics, and religious reformers were not
somehow peripheral to the mainstream Enlightenment, but arguably
constituted its core.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, the very first scholarly attempts to
define a historical Enlightenment in late nineteenth and early twentieth-
century Germany and America granted a central place to religion (and
especially Protestant Christianity) in their definitions.18 The recent
scholarship on the Religious Enlightenment, then, has (largely unwit-
tingly) had the effect of restoring an earlier sense of religion’s central-
ity to the Enlightenment that for different reasons was then occluded
for the better part of the twentieth century. Yet one may legitimately
ask whether the pendulum has swung back too far. Today, we not only
have Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Enlightenments, but enlightened
Benedictines, enlightened Jesuits, and enlightened Methodists, with
John Wesley presented as a model of the enlightened man who walks
with a torch!19 Mystics such as Swedenbourg and Saint-Martin can
now be placed in a category of ‘Super-Enlightenment’, and even Polish
Hasidim, it seems, are to be accorded a place.20 As the historian and lit-
erary scholar Dan Edelstein has complained, ‘there is a tendency today
to give everyone his own private Enlightenment’.21 It is enough to make
one wonder if Kant got it wrong. To judge by current scholarship, to ask
‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ is to conclude that the eighteenth century was
not only an age of Enlightenment, but that it was an Enlightened Age.
Everybody, it seems, is enlightened nowadays.
This ‘catholic’ attitude toward membership in the Enlightenment’s
apparently universal church has only been exacerbated by the further
tendency in Enlightenment scholarship to accord primacy of place, not
to ideas, but to social practices. According to this calculus, what mat-
ters for inclusion is less what people actually believed than the forms in
What is Counter-enlightenment?
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 39
which they expressed their beliefs, and the common ways in which they
did so. As Caradonna writes:
Lurking beneath the surface of intellectual dispute is often a deep well of
shared beliefs about where intellectual practices should take place, what
form they should and should not take, and why exchange is useful for
the broader public sphere. In short, cultural perspectives and the concept
of the public sphere offer a pathway out of the Enlightenment/Counter-
Enlightenment binary and allow us to recognize commonality beneath the
veneer of difference.22
By this reckoning, simply to publish a book in the eighteenth century
was to take part in the Enlightenment through participation in the pub-
lic sphere of the republic of letters. But surely that is far too low a
bar. Just because enemies of the Enlightenment made use of the most
modern methods and means at their disposal to broadcast their views
to the public (as they most certainly did), does not mean that they were
fellow travelers of the Enlightenment any more than the use of Twitter
and Facebook by the propagandists of ISIS means that they are propo-
nents of neo-liberalism, liberal democracy, or the global public sphere.
In such cases, the medium is emphatically not the message.
It is for these reasons – the elasticity of the category ‘Enlightenment’
and the tendency to discount ideas as opposed to scholarly practices –
that it is important to draw distinctions. But how, exactly, to draw them?
I admit that it is not always an easy task, as the lines of political and
intellectual division are often somewhat hazy at the edges. Mark Curran
has pointed out in a fine book dealing with what he calls the ‘Christian
Enlightenment’ that many of the religious authors who contributed to
the vast literature combatting the Baron d’Holbach and other outright
materialists were hardly ‘enemies of the Enlightenment’ themselves.23 I
agree. And I would also acknowledge that although, in my book of that
name, I self-consciously tried to focus on the most extreme of these
voices, while fully recognizing that there were many Catholics and
Protestants who were ‘enlightened’ themselves, I nevertheless made use
of the description ‘enemies’ too broadly at times, taking in people who
were in truth among the (religiously) Enlightened.24 But to conclude
from this, as Curran does, that the term ‘enemies of enlightenment’ is
‘unhelpful’, is to go too far, and at the extreme it would be naïve.25 For
40 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
despite a certain current historiographical tendency to obscure the fact,
not all Christians were Enlightened in the eighteenth century, and not
all of the religious participated in a Religious Enlightenment.
In short, there were enemies of the Enlightenment, militant and uncom-
promising enemies, who attacked the Radical Enlightenment and its
more moderate form with equal vehemence.26 These men and women
were implacably opposed to religious toleration; they believed that lib-
erty was license, and that human beings were equal only in the sense
that they were equal before God. They were convinced that to allow
freedom of speech was to give free rein to error; and they participated
in the public sphere only faute de mieux, publishing books and writing
articles not because they believed that truth would emerge from rational
discourse and reasoned debate, but because they believed that to do
otherwise was to bear culpable witness to evil. Just as enemies of liberal
freedoms have done ever since, that is, they made use of institutions –
free speech, the public sphere, mass printing, in time elections and
votes – that they detested and in which they had no faith. Distrusting
the power of reason, they emphasized human depravity, gullibility, and
the capacity for sin. They scoffed at the words ‘progress’ and ‘rights’,
speaking rather of duties and constraints, and the logic of history, cus-
tom, and prejudice. Finally, they scapegoated sinister plotters, whom
they charged repeatedly with conspiracies to undermine the common
good, and emphasized the need for discipline, order, and control.27
That there were those among the enlightened – whether Christian or
not – who shared one or other of these views was, of course, always the
case. Burke valued history and sang the virtues of prejudice; Voltaire
scoffed at ‘equality’; Hume pointed out the weakness of reason, while
chronicling human beings’ capacity to deceive themselves or to be
deceived. Classical republicans, for their part, like many enemies of the
Enlightenment, emphasized human beings’ propensity to corruption and
so the need to counter it with the manly virtues of upright men. Jean-
Jacques Rousseau, encyclopédiste and Diderot’s friend, denied the ‘pro-
gress’ of the age. Robespierre broke the bust of Helvétius and excoriated
those such as Voltaire whom he claimed (wrongly) acknowledged no God.
What is Counter-enlightenment?
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 41
Yet what characterized the men and women who participated in
movements of Counter-Enlightenment were not the individual tenets
of a plank, but their adoption of discourses that combined the tenets
and grouped them together in novel ways. This was done differently
in different countries, with varying actors adopting their own accents,
emphases, and preoccupations. Still, it is possible to speak of a Catholic
‘Counter-Enlightenment International’ that crossed boundaries and
oceans, as well as commonalities among the various confessions.28
What united them, however, was their tendency to engage in a process
of radical simplification and reification, presenting the social and politi-
cal order in Manichean, either/or terms. Those who sought to counter
the Enlightenment, that is, did so precisely by constructing a reductive
picture of what it is they were up against, so as to better express what is
was they were for. Lumping together the radical and moderate positions
of their enemies, they associated modern (Enlightenment) philosophy
with the worst excess of the age: atheism and materialism, relativism
and moral license, hedonism, self-interest, egalitarianism, political
upheaval, and subversion. This ‘Enlightenment’, its enemies believed,
was revolutionary in intent, aiming to topple thrones and overturn
altars. And so when, during the French Revolution, actual thrones and
altars were overthrown, enemies of the Enlightenment had no problem
transferring their opposition to the Revolution. In their view, the vio-
lence and upheaval of the Revolution was a direct consequence of the
perverse philosophy of the age.
That such visions of the Enlightenment were constructions – and
indeed most often perversions and simplifications of the actual aims and
positions of eighteenth-century actors – is a point on which I, like other
students of Counter-Enlightenment movements, have always insisted.
For the constructions are precisely the point. Not only did the most
vehement enemies succeed in defining an image of the Enlightenment
that would exert a powerful hold on future representations, but they
used it to put forth competing claims in terms that broached no compro-
mise with their enemies. It was a hallmark of the emergent right-wing
movements in Europe of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth
centuries, in fact, to think in black and white, either-or terms. For all
these movements (and others besides), the ‘Enlightenment’ was good to
think, providing an ‘other’ over and against which to define competing,
Counter-Enlightenment claims.
42 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
Thus, what Caradonna decries as the ‘superficial’ binaries of those
who use Counter-Enlightenment as a conceptual category are in truth
the actual, rhetorical binaries of historical actors who were all-too-ready
to carve the world in two – between us and them, right and wrong,
right and left. To dismiss the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, as he does, as
an invention and ‘political trick’ would thus be to render oneself will-
fully blind to the many political tricks played in the eighteenth century
and ever since by those seeking to use their simplifications and rei-
fications of ‘Enlightenment’ for political ends.29 Michel Foucault was
undoubtedly right that scholars should seek to escape the ‘blackmail of
the Enlightenment’, which aims to seduce its students to take sides for
or against.30 But that does not mean that we should pretend, somehow,
that agents of the past did not see the world in this way.
Of course, such Manichean splicing can be found on all sides of
the political divide, where the creation of an ‘other’ is a common, and
often effective, means to political mobilization. But while negative
depictions of the Enlightenment have sometimes served political activ-
ists on the left, most often they have been used by movements on the
right. It is for that reason, as Pocock correctly observed, that Counter-
Enlightenment discourse has proved a less consistent feature of Anglo-
American political culture, where an anti-liberal ‘right’ in the proper
sense has never taken hold to the same degree as on the Continent.31
If there were undoubtedly conservative enemies of the Enlightenment
throughout the British isles and the erstwhile colonies in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, echoing the claims of continental actors in
as widely dispersed places as Edinburgh and New Haven, they did
not acquire the same traction as they did in political cultures on the
Continent and Latin America, where authoritarian right-wing move-
ments found more fertile ground.32 It was above all in this soil that
opposition to the Enlightenment flourished in the nineteenth and twen-
tieth centuries, with energies that have not been entirely dispelled.
Might we adopt a better term to capture this varied opposition?
Maybe, and perhaps it is also possible that Counter-Enlightenment
scholars will go the way of students of the Enlightenment itself, contin-
uing to argue in sophisticated, if somewhat pedantic, debates about the
use and definition of the term in the singular or the plural, or the need
for appropriate qualifiers and demarcations to allow us to distinguish
the High Counter-Enlightenment from the Low, the Radical from the
What is Counter-enlightenment?
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 43
Moderate, the Jewish from the Catholic, the German from the Dutch.
Be that as it may, no amount of quibbling about labels can deny the
existence of movements self-consciously organized around opposition
to the values and principles they associated with the ‘Enlightenment’.
To do so would be to willfully turn a blind eye to an essential aspect of
modern European history that has too often been ignored by scholars.
Whether we choose to recognize them or not, ‘Counter-Enlightenments’
are artifacts of the past, whose further study can only help clarify the
genesis and difficult reception of Enlightened values, whose triumph
has never been assured.
1 See, for example, Mark Lilla, ‘What is Counter-Enlightenment’, in Joseph
Mali and Robert Wokler (ed.), Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment
(Philadelphia, 2003) 113, as well as my article, ‘The Real Counter-
Enlightenment: The Case of France’, in Mali and Wokler, Isaiah Berlin’s
Counter-Enlightenment, 91105.
2 Jeremy L. Caradonna, ‘There Was No Counter-Enlightenment’, Eighteenth-
Century Studies 49:1 (2015) 5169, 51. This is the lead article to a round-
table discussion on the subject of the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, to which
James Schmidt, Graeme Garrard, and Eva Piirimäe also contributed
3 James Schmidt, ‘The Counter-Enlightenment: Historical Notes on a
Concept Historians Should Avoid’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 49:1 (2015)
8386, 83.
4 The pathbreaking work on the subject is, in fact, Schmidt’s article
‘Inventing the Enlightenment: Anti-Jacobins, British Hegelians and the
Oxford English Dictionary’, Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003)
421423. As Schmidt has also shown, and as Sonja Assal discusses in her
contribution to this special issue, the term ‘Gegen-Aufklärung’ was used in
the eighteenth century, showing up in the Deutsche Monatschrift in 1790,
and employed earlier by the man of letters and court physician to Frederick
the Great, Johann Georg Zimmermann. See Schmidt’s article ‘Light, Truth,
and Counter-Enlightenment’, forthcoming in Anton Matytsin and Dan
Edelstein (eds), Let There Be Enlightenment (Baltimore, 2017).
5 See Caradonna’s ‘Roundtable Discussion Conclusion’, Eighteenth-Century
Studies 49:1 (2015) 8788.
44 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
6 In addition to what follows, Graeme Garrard offers a robust theoretical
critique to Caradonna in his article ‘Tilting at Counter-Enlightenment
Windmills’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 49:1 (2015) 7781.
7 Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’, in Henry Hardy (ed.), Against
the Current, intr. Roger Hausheer (Princeton, 2011) 124. Berlin’s essay
was first published in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York,
196873). On the history of the term ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, see James
Schmidt, ‘Inventing a Counter-Enlightenment: Liberalism, Nihilism, and
Totalitarianism’, paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American
Historical Association in Boston, January 6, 2006, available at http://
pdf, and Graham Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth
Century to the Present (London/New York, 2006) 23.
8 See, for example, Darrin M. McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The
French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (New York/
Oxford, 2011) 910, and McMahon, ‘The Real Counter-Enlightenment’,
9 See, for example, Frederick Beiser, ‘Berlin and the German Counter-
Enlightenment’, in Mali and Wokler, Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-
Enlightenment, 105117.
10 Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’,
History and Theory 8:1 (1969) 353.
11 For a more detailed critique of this book, see my review of the English
edition, The Anti-Enlightenment-Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New
Haven, 2010) in The Journal of Modern History 83:1 (2011) 145147.
12 Jochen Schmidt (ed.), Aufklärung und Gegen-Aufklärung in der
europäischen Literatur, Philosophie und Politik von der Antike bis zur
Gegenwart (Darmstadt, 1989).
13 J. G. A. Pocock, ‘Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, Revolution
and Counter-Revolution’, History of Political Thought 20:1 (1999) 125139.
14 Berlin, ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, 24. See, also, the discussion in Garrard,
‘Tilting at Counter-Enlightenment Windmills’, 78.
15 McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment, 10.
16 Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments, 110.
17 David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and
Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton/Oxford, 2008).
18 Darrin M. McMahon, ‘Religious Enlightenment: A Useful Category of
Research?’, The European Journal 14:1 (2013) 13, available at http://
What is Counter-enlightenment?
HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1 45
19 See, for example, Ulrich Lehner, Enlightened Monks: German Benedictines,
17401803 (New York/ Oxford, 2011); Jeffrey Burson, The Rise and Fall
of Theological Enlightenment: Jean-Martin de Prades and Ideological
Polarization in Eighteenth-Century France (Notre Dame, 2010); and
Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and
American Enlightenments (New York, 2005).
20 See Dan Edelstein (ed.), The Super-Enlightenment: Daring to Know too
Much (Oxford, 2010), as well as the Super-Enlightenment Project at http:// Also in this
vein, see John C. Fleming’s learned The Dark Side of the Enlightenment:
Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason (New
York, 2013).
21 Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010) 17.
22 Caradonna, ‘There Was No Counter-Enlightenment’, 57.
23 Mark Curran, Atheism, Religion, and Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary
Europe (Woodbrige, 2012). In a related vein, see Didier Masseau, Les Ennemis
des philosophes: l’Anti-philosophie au temps de lumières (Paris, 2000).
24 McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment, 810. I framed my own study,
in fact, against Robert R. Palmer’s excellent Catholics and Unbelievers
in Eighteenth-Century France (Princeton, NJ, 1939), a work which
consciously avoided the more extreme enemies of the Enlightenment
on whom I focused in favour of a concentration on those we would now
associate with the Catholic Enlightenment.
25 Curran, Atheism, Religion, and Enlightenment, 164. Curran, who is
objecting primarily to the use of the term ‘enemies of the enlightenment’
in reference to those he considers part of the ‘Christian Enlightenment’
would, I suspect, agree with my points here and below.
26 This is a point that Jonathan Israel has clearly recognized. Though he
distinguishes between the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ and an enlightened
Christian ‘anti-philosophie’, he sees the former as exercising a powerful
presence in eighteenth-century culture, eventually crowding out the
Moderate Christian Enlightenment towards the end of the Old Regime,
which was assailed by the Radical Enlightenment from the left and the
Counter-Enlightenment from the right. See, for example, Jonathan Israel,
Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation
of Man 16701752 (New York/Oxford, 2006) esp. 3839 and Democratic
Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights (New York/
Oxford, 2011) 1516, and ch. 6.
46 HCM 2017, VOL. 5, NO. 1
27 McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment, ch. 1.
28 On the ‘Counter-Enlightenment International’, see McMahon, Enemies of
the Enlightenment, 106115 and McMahon, ‘Seeing the Century of Lights
as a Time of Darkness’, in Florence Lotterie and Darrin M. McMahon (eds),
Les Lumières européennes dans leurs relations avec les autres grandes
cultures et religions (Paris, 2002) 81104 (esp. 92103).
29 Caradonna, ‘There Was No Counter-Enlightenment’, 52.
30 Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, in P. Rabinow (ed.), The
Foucault Reader (New York, 1984) 3250; Caradonna, ‘There Was No
Counter-Enlightenment’, 54.
31 Pocock, ‘Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, esp. 13133. For an
introduction to the complicated history of right-wing movements, see Jean-
Francois Sirinelli, Histoire des droites en France, 3 vols. (Paris, 2006).
32 For the British case, see James J. Sack, From Jacobite to Conservative
(Cambridge, 2004). On the resonance of the French Counter-Enlightenment
in New Haven and the New World more generally, see McMahon, Enemies,
About the Author
Darrin M. McMahon is the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor at
Dartmouth College. He is the author of Enemies of the Enlightenment: The
French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford
University Press, 2001); Happiness: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press,
2006), and Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic Books, 2013).
McMahon is also the editor, with Ryan Hanley, of The Enlightenment:
Critical Concepts in Historical Studies, 5 vols. (Routledge, 2009); with
Samuel Moyn, of Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History
(Oxford University Press, 2014); and with Joyce Chaplin of Genealogies
of Genius (Palgrave, 2015). He is currently working on a history of the
idea of equality and a study of light and lighting practices in the age of
Enlightenment. E-mail:
Full-text available
Although there is little historical evidence for a clear-cut dichotomy between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment as two coherent and unchanging traditions, it still makes sense to talk about Enlightened as well as Counter-Enlightened currents in modern thought. Much of the extant literature has been devoted to the Counter-Enlightenment’s European context. We now draw attention to the global dimensions of Counter-Enlightened thought. Did a ‘Counter-Enlightened inter- national’ exist? Can we draw parallels between manifestations of a Counter-Enlightenment in different parts of the world?
This essay serves as the opening comment in a discussion on the concept of the Counter-Enlightenment. The author argues that the Counter-Enlightenment is an ambiguous concept with a flimsy historical foundation. He also argues that the Counter-Enlightenment creates a binary that would not have been recognized by eighteenth-century thinkers. He draws on archival research from academic prize contests to deconstruct the binary and argue for a more complex view of the Enlightenment.
The abstract for this document is available on CSA Illumina.To view the Abstract, click the Abstract button above the document title.
As part of a programme of disintegrating and re-assembling the concept or concepts of ‘Europe’, there is offered (1) a revision of Franco Venturi's exceptionalist account of England's place in Enlightenment, (2) an alternative to Isaiah Berlin's account of the movement through Enlightenment to historicism. The objective is to enhance the British and English role in European intellectual history, while showing that we must rewrite the concept of ‘Europe’ in order to do so. There persists the ‘Eurosceptical enquiry’ whether ‘Europe’ is interested in history at all.
The Enlightenment and its legacy are still actively debated, with the Enlightenment acting as a key organizing concept in philosophy, social theory and the history of ideas. Counter-Enlightenments is the first full-length study to deal with the history and development of counter-enlightenment thought from its inception in the eighteenth century right through to the present. Engaging in a critical dialogue with Isaiah Berlin's work, this book analyzes the concept of counter-enlightenment and some of the most important issues and problems it raises. Graeme Garrard explores the diverse forms of thought in this field, with a wide-ranging review of the principle figures of the past two hundred and fifty years, and an incisive assessment of the persuasiveness of the most common and important criticisms of the Enlightenment.
Graeme Garrard offers a robust theoretical critique to Caradonna in his article 'Tilting at Counter-Enlightenment Windmills
In addition to what follows, Graeme Garrard offers a robust theoretical critique to Caradonna in his article 'Tilting at Counter-Enlightenment Windmills', Eighteenth-Century Studies 49:1 (2015) 77-81.
For a more detailed critique of this book, see my review of the English edition
For a more detailed critique of this book, see my review of the English edition, The Anti-Enlightenment-Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New Haven, 2010) in The Journal of Modern History 83:1 (2011) 145-147.