Friday, October 21, 2011

Enlightened by Jonathan Israel

Oxford University Press has just published the latest book in Jonathan Israel's impressive series on the intellectual history of the Enlightenment, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790. Needless to say, I've bought it, but I won't be reading it for a while because I have to read his earlier installments first, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford 2001) (which I've only just started reading) and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1750 (Oxford 2006).

Israel, who is Professor of Modern European  History at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, is an amazing scholar. His books are to intellectual history what William Cronon's books are to environmental history, though perhaps a bit more demanding of the reader. Ranging from 700-1000 pages each, Israel's tomes are monuments of erudition with references to so many major and minor scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is hard work keeping track. The books are not dry or especially difficult to read, but it is easy to get lost in the detail. This is not a criticism; arguably, authors should demand more of readers than they typically do. Israel's books represent the kind of meticulous and comprehensive scholarship that all scholars, myself included, wish we could write.

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