Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

The Counter-Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Critique of Reason

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Was there a counter-enlightenment? If so, when did it take place? In English the idea originated with Isaiah Berlin’s eponymous essay, widely promulgated by his many admiring followers. The usual story casts so-called counter-enlightenment figures—such as Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johann Georg Hamann, and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi—as somewhat villainous (even if original and imaginative) opponents of all that was sacred to the Enlightenment and its values: universalism, cosmopolitanism, and the pursuit of rational systematic order, both natural and socio-political. The argument goes that such thinkers opposed these values with a reactionary irrationalism grounded in the given, unmediated, sensuous and private, wedded to instinctual, vitalistic, and primordial forces. Subjective feeling, faith, conviction, and fanaticism triumph over the rational and objective. Thus, counter-enlightenment thinkers serve as originators and models for all subsequent enemies of liberal, secularized, democratic societies and ultimately function as fuel for all forms of 20th and 21st century nationalisms and fascisms. It’s a tidy narrative—but is it true? How can we understand the counter-enlightenment’s critique of reason? Are its implications necessarily reactionary? What, if anything, can we still learn from “counter-enlightenment” thought today?

In this class, we’ll try to reassess this narrative through careful reading of some emblematic texts of this period, such as Herder’s This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity, Hamann’s Crusades of the Philologist and Metacritique of the Purism of Reason, and Jacobi’s Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza and David Hume on Faith. Our guiding question will be whether we should understand these critiques of rationalism and scientism as indeed a historically disastrous attempt at demolitioning Enlightenment values, or rather as a largely sympathetic corrective to what they viewed as the latter’s “sterile rationalism” and its excesses, hypocrisies, and alienating and dehumanizing tendencies. We’ll consider the relationship of their views to those of their contemporary, mutual friend and sometime rival, Immanuel Kant, as well as the post-Kantians they seem to most directly inspire: the early Romantics like Novalis and Schlegel. What can these thinkers, and these late 18th-century debates, tell us about our own moment, riven as it is by both globalization and monumental scientific and technological advance on the one hand and increasing irrationalism on the other in the form of conspiracy theory, disinformation, parochialism and nationalism?

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
March 10 — March 31, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open