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13 November 2009 @ 02:02 pm
The Enlightenment  
My mother, noting my attempts to educate myself on the 18th century, suggested that instead of buying books I should probably borrow some of my father's, since he has a more than passing interest in the Enlightenment. Last time I went home she pointed me in the direction of the bookshelf and suggested I help myself. This was a little daunting since, although I want to know more, I don't particularly want to read a whole bookshelf's worth of information on the topic. In the end I rather tentatively picked out three books.

The Enlightenment: An Evaluation of its Assumptions, Attitudes and Values by Norman Hampson seemed like a good place to start. It is (or was, at any rate) published under the Penguin History banner and was clearly pitched as a moderately serious history textbook aimed at the layman. I was obscurely disappointed by it for reasons which, I suspect, are not really Hampson's fault. Though I do think a book on the Enlightenment that makes you decide that Voltaire probably isn't worth the effort is getting something wrong somewhere.

As I've stated before, part of my interest stems from an interest in the History of Science and Technology and Hampson is far more interested in the Enlightenment as part of the history of ideas. From the point of view of this book Newton and Descartes have already happened and nothing of great scientific interest is going to happen again until the 19th century, although it does touch upon the discovery of fossils and developments in geology but it is primarily interested in these from the perspective of how they challenged pre-existing notions of the age of the Earth. Technological developments are hardly mentioned.

Instead it primarily focuses on the philosophy of the period: Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, Kant and beyond a passing regret that when I studied Oxford's triumvirate of Locke, Berkeley and Hume that study was not better placed in a historical context, I tended to find my attention wandering. I found I was more interested in the chapters that discussed the impact of the Enlightenment on everyday life, such as the dramatic reduction in witchcraft trials, but in some ways these chapters only emphasised the numerous other forces in play, such as the development of government bureaucracies and related taxation burdens. And I think that is the crux of my problem which, as I said, was largely outside Hampson's control. Broadly speaking it is the 18th Century I am interested in, not the Enlightenment per se, which now seems like only a small, if important, part of a very rich tapestry.
Elaine of Astolatladyofastolat on November 13th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
I've been (very slowly, in between novel-reading) reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror or science, by Richard Holmes, which won the Royal Society's popular science prize this year. It reminded me a bit of The Lunar Men, but with less machinery and a generation on. You might find it worth a look, if you haven't read it already.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on November 13th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
Oooh! That does sound interesting and shiny!

*makes a note*