Events Calendar
Nov 22
15:00 - 17:00
The Enlightenment as 'Radical': A Dialectic Conceptual Approach
Philosophy Work in Progress
Dr Charles Devellenes (Politics and International Relations)

Abstract: Ever since the publication of Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment and the controversy it created, the intellectual history of the Enlightenment has been shaken to its very foundations. Israel argues that the Enlightenment can be grouped into two camps: the atheistic radicals, and the deistic moderates. While the supporters and detractors of Israel's thesis argue vehemently about whether particular thinkers are part of the moderate or radical wings of the Enlightenment, few have sought to dig deeper into the tradition of the radical in that time period. 

What do we understand by the term radical, and perhaps more importantly, how did was this term used in the Enlightenment? This paper will argue that there are three ways to conceptualise the 'radical', all of which help shed light on the Enlightenment period. In the first sense, the radical is calling for a series of fundamental, often revolutionary changes to social and political orders of their time. This has perhaps been the most criticised aspect of Israel's thesis, as many have sought to show that his radicals were often more moderate than he made them out to be. In the second sense, the radical is described as that which goes back to the root (from the Latinradix, root). This quest for roots, foundations, or building blocks for the new philosophies emerging in the period is intimately linked with the rejection of the previous modes of reasoning, and in particular the theological foundations of Western thought. Last but not least, the radical is also conceptualised as the philosophically radical – that which advances, through speculation or critical methods, new modes of thinking. This final aspect of Enlightenment radicalism is often ignored altogether by commentators, even though there were many new ways to philosophise emerging during the period.

To illustrate these three radicalisms, the paper draws on four thinkers: Jean Meslier for the political radicalism of his Memoirs, the baron d'Holbach for his quest to establish atheistic foundations for morality and politics, and finally Pierre Bayle and Denis Diderot as founders of new, radical modes of philosophising. These three very different radicalisms will be shown to fit within a larger understanding of what the concept of the radical means for us, by highlighting the dialectic nature of the concept. Only then will be able to see the potential for all three aspects of the radical to complement each other. 


Lecture Theatre 2,
Cornwallis South East (Octagon),
University of Kent,
United Kingdom


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