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The Redescription of Enlightenment

Isaiah Berlin Lecture, delivered by Professor John Pocock FBA, on 30 October 2003.

The lecturer is engaged in a multi-volume study of the eighteenth-century historical writing, Gibbon's Decline and Fall as its centre. This has led him to scrutinise the concept of "The Enlightenment" as it exists in our minds, in the light partly of his own enquiries but also of changing interpretations in the last thirty years, when "Enlightenment" has come to mean intellectual developments, often more Protestant that Catholic, which have shown them to be more closely involved than we used to think with the theology they aimed to set aside. The question has arisen whether any one concept of Enlightenment covers all that may be known by that name, and consequently whether it is appropriate to speak of "The Enlightenment" any longer.

The Study of Enlightened historiography has also led to a re-examination of Isaiah Berlin's antithesis between an "Enlightenment" reducing all knowledge to the rational study of nature and a "Counter-Enlightenment " presenting all human phenomena as creation of the human spirit in the course of history. This antitheses can certainly be found, but seems distanced from the thought of Enlightened historians, who knew that what happened in civil history was often unlike what human nature would have produced if left to itself. What becomes of Berlin's antithesis once we realise that the history of historiography is unlike the history of the philosophy of history?

Speaker: Professor John Pocock FBA, The Johns Hopkins University.

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