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The Enlightenment

A Genealogy

What was the Enlightenment? Though many scholars have attempted to solve this riddle, none has made as much use of contemporary answers as Dan Edelstein does here. In seeking to recover where, when, and how the concept of “the Enlightenment” first emerged, Edelstein departs from genealogies that trace it back to political and philosophical developments in England and the Dutch Republic. According to Edelstein, by the 1720s scholars and authors in France were already employing a constellation of terms—such as l’esprit philosophique—to describe what we would today call the Enlightenment. But Edelstein argues that it was within the French Academies, and in the context of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, that the key definition, concepts, and historical narratives of the Enlightenment were crafted.

A necessary corrective to many of our contemporary ideas about the Enlightenment, Edelstein’s book turns conventional thinking about the period on its head. Concise, clear, and contrarian, The Enlightenment will be welcomed by all teachers and students of the period.

Author Information

Dan Edelstein isassociate professor of French at Stanford University and author of The Terror of the Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution.


“This study articulates a resolutely innovative argument for a narrative as opposed to a epistemological understanding of the Enlightenment.Edelstein’s careful attention to how the Enlightenment itself imagined its origins and objectives clears away layers of obfuscating accretions. User-friendly and eminently well informed, this critical synthesis becomes a manifesto reorienting Enlightenment studies in new and provocative directions. Those who would understand what the Enlightenment was and is could not find a better guide.”

— Thomas M. Kavanagh, Yale University

“Dan Edelstein’s incisive book argues that before we define the Enlightenment as an historical period or debate it as a philosophical project we need to appreciate it as a story told by a set of self-conscious French moderns about the emergence of new social forms shaped by the methods and mentality of scientific reason. Reconstructing the chapters of this story in his own vivid style, Edelstein sets students on a sure path through the thicket of scholarly commentary while challenging specialists to re-examine their own understanding of this key episode in intellectual history.”

— Patrick Coleman, University of California, Los Angeles

“Dan Edelstein, one of the very best contemporary scholars of eighteenth-century French culture, has produced another tour-de-force of a book with this brilliant, provocative study of how, when, and where the Enlightenment was first defined.”

— David A. Bell, Princeton University

“Edelstein provides both novice and expert readers with an accomplished work, recapitulating the encyclopedic ambitions of the philosophes, and giving peripheral attention to foreign reactions, such as the Scottish and Italian Enlightenments….Highly recommended.”

— Choice

“This book is few in pages, and its author is comparatively few in years. But it possesses more force than far weightier tomes and more learning and intelligence than most can muster in a career. Put simply, Dan Edelstein’s The Enlightenment: A Genealogy is a daring and provocative work. . . . Unlike so many of Nietzsche and Foucault’s world-be literary acolytes, Edelstein is deeply versed in the past. When coupled with his no less impressive erudition in literary studies, that deep historical and historiographical knowledge allows him to make a contribution of great importance. The Enlightenment Project, Edelstein contends, was first and foremost a ‘story’ that eighteenth-century men and women told about themselves. . . . Edelstein’s book . . . should sit, in good company, on the shelves of all students, regardless of discipline, who are interested in the period.”
— Journal of Modern History

Audience: Professional and scholarly;