In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Enlightenment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Journals
  • Enlightenment Critics and Reflections

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Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Atlantic History The Enlightenment
Mark Knights
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0074


The Enlightenment is a contested and often loosely defined term. It is sometimes taken to mean an intellectual movement underpinning many aspects of modernity; but the precise content of that movement, and its priorities, are fiercely disputed. Equally, the term is sometimes used to denote a period, beginning roughly in the mid-17th century and ending with the French Revolution. That “era” is often subdivided into an “early” Enlightenment, roughly ending in the 1740s, and a “high” or “late” Enlightenment, that followed it. In the last twenty years a further fracturing of the Enlightenment has occurred with two historiographical developments. The first is the claim that the Enlightenment has to be seen in national rather than inter- or supranational context. The second is the emergence of a cultural or social history of the Enlightenment, which has tended to expand the traditional remit of studies into realms such as print culture, the public sphere, and gender (and indeed makes a study of the Enlightenment part of 18th-century studies as a whole). The growth of the history of science has also influenced this turn. In short, the Enlightenment can mean a multitude of different things, depending on one’s approach and outlook; indeed, scholars often talk of “Enlightenments” rather than “the Enlightenment,” a fragmentation that also affects other historical terms such as the “Reformation” or “Renaissance.” The resulting literature is vast. This poses a difficulty for any bibliography and perhaps makes the General Overviews section particularly important for those who need to orientate themselves in the historiographical debates about scope, unity, and timing. The focus throughout will be on Europe, since other Oxford Bibliographies entriesdeal specifically with the Atlantic world. Nevertheless, many of the works listed also include a colonial and imperial dimension; and a section on the Atlantic Enlightenment points to works that are particularly important for their treatment of the Enlightenment in an Atlantic context.

General Overviews

By its nature, the Enlightenment lends itself to general treatments, so many of the works listed in other sections attempt to give overviews. Cassirer 2009, Gay 1995, and Gay 1996 were seminal texts in their day and are still worth reading for a “high” Enlightenment dominated by philosophical enquiry. More recent works (Fitzpatrick, et al. 2004, Kors 2003, Yolton 1991) have tended to include and stress the social, cultural, and scientific context of such texts. Indeed, their encyclopedic nature reflects the many different ways of approaching the Enlightenment, as well as echoing the Enlightenment’s most famous text. Israel 2001 is the most important recent attempt at synthesis and is excellent, but it has its own agenda about the importance of Spinoza. The first chapter in Robertson 2007 is one of the best historiographical overviews that sets out and engages with older and recent interpretative trends.

  • Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Translated by Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    Cassirer was himself a philosopher (investigating Kant, symbolic meanings, and totalitarian states) who wrote one of the first and most enduring treatments of 18th-century philosophy. This is an English translation of Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, first published in 1932.

  • Fitzpatrick, Martin, Peter Jones, Christa Knellwolf, and Iain McCalman, eds. The Enlightenment World. London, New York: Routledge, 2004.

    This text has informative essays on a wide range of Enlightenment topics. The volume reflects the social and cultural turn of Enlightenment studies, although there is also an opening section on “intellectual origins.”

  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation; The Rise of Modern Paganism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

    The first of two landmark volumes that set out an Enlightenment that was anticlerical and liberal, inspired by the classics and by scientific cosmopolitanism. Originally published in 1966 (New York: Knopf).

  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom. New York and London: Knopf, 1996.

    Provides a social history of the period and gives background on the philosophes. Originally published in 1969 (New York: Knopf).

  • Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Argues that Spinoza lay at the heart of early Enlightement radicalism. The second volume, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670–1752 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) continues the story into the first half of the 18th century.

  • Kors, Alan, ed. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Like Fitzpatrick, et al. 2004, this covers a wide variety of topics. More extensive than Fitzpatrick, et al., the treatment here is nevertheless similarly intellectual, social, scientific, and cultural in its treatment.

  • Robertson, John. The Case for Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 1680–1760. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    The introduction is a superb treatment of approaches to the Enlightenment and to the question of whether the Enlightenment as a term or concept has any meaning.

  • Yolton, John, Pat Rogers, Roy Porter, and Barbara Stafford, eds. The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

    A good collection of essays by leading scholars on a wide range of topics. These are intended for reference rather than interpretation, so the reader will find information about authors and subjects, useful for those starting out and needing more information about individuals or topics mentioned in other texts.

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