What Is Left of the Enlightenment?

An International Symposium, Lund University 5–6 October 2017

While critique of the Enlightenment is as old as the Enlightenment project itself, the past decades have experienced an intensified and more disparaging criticism in late modern academic trends such as poststructuralism, post-humanism, post-colonialism and post-secular theology. The burden of debt is placed on the modern project, which is traced back to the Enlightenment, accused of establishing the hubris of reason and science that paved the way for the twentieth century catastrophes.

The conference’s main purposes are 1) to discuss the validity of this criticism from several perspectives – historical, philosophical and theological; 2) to make intellectual room for a view of the Enlightenment legacy that keep the virtues of critique alive, but in a moderated and less excessive theoretical mood.
From a historical perspective, it makes sense to differ between a purely philosophical and a humanistic Enlightenment, a distinction made by Alfred N. Whitehead and Peter Gay. The Enlightenment philosophers were intellectuals, oriented towards the promotion of political freedom and justice for all citizens, based on everyday convictions and experiences. Epistemological scepticism was founded in practical sociability, as famously stated by David Hume: “be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” This sentence reflects a humanistic view of the Enlightenment, more representative than the reductionism of La Mettrie’s materialism. During the Enlightenment les philosophes sought to represent the general will rather than the view of particular interests and traditions.

A philosophical perspective might prompt us to change focus from providing specific theories to suggest new general guidelines adequate for our time. Such creative re-description that respects common sense implies that philosophy dismisses claims to have a privileged interpretative position. Philosophical theories grouped together as “postmodernism” share one salient feature, namely a repudiation of modernity, variously described in philosophical concepts such as rationalism, scientism, logocentrism and universalism. Included is a much broader assault on objective truth and historical progress. The rejection of universalism currently nurtures various forms of identity politics, which in their exaggerated forms risk undermining solidarity and human rights. During the Enlightenment, the critique came from the conservative right. Today the Enlightenment legacy is primarily attacked from the radical left, making liberal democracy responsible for the horrors of our time.

From a theological perspective, a critical historical analysis will reveal that the relation between the Enlightenment legacy and the religious traditions of Europe is more complex than the conventional image indicates. While parts of the Enlightenment took a clearly anti-clerical turn, this was not the case with the Enlightenment in general. To the contrary, especially in North-Western Europe, the relation can rather be described as an ongoing cultural negotiation between Protestant Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism, through which certain Protestant core values were incorporated in the Enlightenment project, while simultaneously the Protestant churches took impression of the new intellectual trends and redefined central doctrines in order to make them coherent with the new standards of rationality.

The complex patterns that emerge here prompt an array of questions. Can the Enlightenment legacy be rehabilitated despite the fierce criticism that has been launched from various academic camps in recent decades? Is this criticism, in actual fact, only another phase in the evolving self-criticism of the Enlightenment project itself? Can the Enlightenment’s powerful legacy of universalism and cosmopolitanism remain a valuable source of emancipatory thinking in an age of cultural pluralism och ethnic diversity? And what about the Enlightenment’s complex relationship to religion? If the Enlightenment legacy is revealed to be much more intertwined with religion than has often been recognized, what are the implications of the fact that the religion in question is not religion in general, but a specific form of Protestant Christianity? Despite being unmistakably rooted in a particular era of European history, can the Enlightenment legacy still inspire understanding and communication across cultural borders?
In brief – what is left of the Enlightenment in the 21st century?


Jonathan Israel, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton Brian Klug, Senior Research Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford Joanna Stalnaker, Associate Professor of French at Columbia University Richard Wolin, Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center The symposium is open to all and free of charge, but places are limited and must be booked in advance (by 15 September). To book, please email: victoria.hoogfil.luse.


Thursday 5 October

17.15   Registration in the lobby of the LUX-building, Helgonavägen 3
18.00   Welcome
(B336) Victoria Höög, Associate Professor Intellectual History, Lund University Jayne Svenungsson, Professor of Systematic Theology, Lund University
Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, Professor East and Central European Studies, Lund University
18.15   Richard Wolin: In Praise of Philosophie: On the Actuality of Radical Enlightenment. Chair: Jayne Svenungsson
19.45   Reception (C212)

Friday 6 October

09.30   Joanna Stalnaker: How Does Enlightenment End? (B336) Chair: Barbara Törnquist-Plewa
11.00   Coffee

Jonathan Israel: “All poststructuralist and postcolonialist criticism of the moderate mainstream Enlightenment is justified; none of the criticism of the Radical Enlightenment is at all justified; if you are not talking "Radical Enlightenment" then the basic question is entirely senseless.” Chair: Victoria Höög
13.00   Lunch

Brian Klug: Beyond Nathan the Wise: Dealing with Difference in the Twenty-First Century. (B336) Chair: Jayne Svenungsson
15.30   Coffee

16.00   Roundtable with all keynote speakers
. (B336) Chaired by Göran Rosenberg, writer and journalist.
17.30   Close
The symposium is sponsored by Erik and Gurli Hultengrens Foundation and The Centre for European Studies at Lund University.


Page Manager: hege_irene.markussenctr.luse | 2022-09-13