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Let There Be Enlightenment: The Religious and Mystical Sources of Rationality

Date and Time: 
Friday, May 16, 2014. 08:00 AM - Saturday, May 17, 2014. 05:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Margaret Jacks Hall, Terrace Room
Meeting Description: 

The field of Enlightenment studies has recently undergone a series of debates regarding the role of religion in 18th-century thought, leading to reconsiderations of the supposed predominance of secular rationalism during this period. The traditional definition of “the Enlightenment” as a secular “Age of Reason” has been challenged by studies that have demonstrated the persistent importance of religious ideas. Such major revisions call for new explorations into the origins of the intellectual transformations of early-modern thought.

 The goal of this conference is twofold. First, it aims to explore the intellectual origins of the European Enlightenment by investigating the deployment of the terms “light” and “darkness” between the Reformation and the French Revolution. Many 18th-century thinkers believed that they lived in an enlightened age in which the rediscovery of ancient ideas and the progress of modern science brought humankind to an unprecedented apex of intellectual achievement that culminated in the propagation of the esprit philosophique across increasingly wider sections of society. By using this self-reflexive narrative, Enlightenment thinkers, and the philosophes in particular, sought to distinguish their enlightened period from what they described as an age of darkness and ignorance that preceded it. Despite this distinction, 18th-century intellectuals were heavily indebted to their predecessors not only for the actual content of their philosophical ideas but also for the very language with which they sought to differentiate themselves. The metaphor of bringing light and enlightenment to humankind that was nearly ubiquitous in the 18th century had theological origins and was intimately tied to religious mysticism and to the intense disputes of the Reformation. An analysis of the uses of these terms in the context of actual lived debates will thus shed light on how early-modern thinkers perceived the relationship between faith and reason.

 Second, the conference seeks to bring together scholars who focus on diverse chronological periods and geographical areas, in order to discover similarities and differences in the use of the terms “light” and “darkness” in a variety of contexts. It will expand the discussion to areas that have often not figured in studies of the Enlightenment (such as Eastern Europe, Spain, and the Americas) in order to offer a truly transnational perspective. This will both contribute to the debates about whether or not there were distinctive national Enlightenments and shed light on the common trends in European thought in the early-modern period

Conference organized by Dr. Anton Matysin and Professor Dan Edelstein. Co-sponsored by the French Culture Workshop, The Europe Center, Stanford Humanities Center, The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities, the Department of History, the Department of Philosophy, and the Department of Religious Studies.