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Dr. Woell Offers General Honors Seminar on Enlightenment this Fall

Apr 3, 2009

This Fall, Dr. Edward Woell, Associate Professor of History, will offer a General Honors 301 Advanced Humanities Seminar on "The Enlightenment as Contested History: Searching for an Existence in the Eighteenth Century and a Meaning for Today." The class will meet on Monday evenings, from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m., in Morgan 302 and is open to all Honors students. Although this course will assume the Enlightenment's historical existence, it nonetheless will show students why historians today have great difficulty in defining the movement, characterizing its coherence, and explaining its contemporary significance.

Until relatively recently, scholars who studied the eighteenth-century intellectual and cultural movement called the Enlightenment understood it as the seedbed for not only the rationalism and secularism marking modern western culture, but also contemporary institutions and structures ranging from democratic states to free-market economies. This triumphal view of the Enlightenment gradually took the form of a narrative claiming that philosophes like the Baron de Montesquieu, Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith conceived of ideas in the eighteenth century that went on to influence the European elite, who in turn fostered a democratic and progressive global transformation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Over the past thirty years, however, more precise scholarship of the Enlightenment and its broader historical context has called into question many historical claims made in this narrative. By discovering more about who was reading in the eighteenth century and what was being read, some scholars concluded that both the Enlightenment's canon and readership were much more expansive than previously assumed. In studying those mostly left out of the traditional narrative (above all women), other scholars found it more proper to speak of several "enlightenments" taking place in the eighteenth century--among different social groups, in diverse geographic spaces, and over varying periods--thereby confirming a more nuanced view of the movement. Most recently, still other scholars have argued that in direct contradiction to the traditional narrative, religious belief and practices not only persisted during the Enlightenment but indeed were essential to its inspiration and diffusion. Collectively, such scholarship has forced many historians to rethink the Enlightenment, if not to question whether it was a coherent movement at all.

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