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The Roads to Modernity: How much of the modern world do we owe to the French Enlightenment?

Darrin M. McMahon

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Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Ever since Immanuel Kant posed his famous question in 1784--"What is Enlightenment?"--critics and commentators have searched for an answer, and they still do. For it is to the Enlightenment--a particular set of 18th-century ideas--that many thinkers trace the political and intellectual origins of the modern world. To pose Kant's question is to ask nothing less than who we are.

The respected historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is the latest critic to take up this challenge. But she gives the question a plural form, asking "What are Enlightenments?" Surveying the experiences of England, France and America, she follows three different "roads to modernity."

Ms. Himmelfarb understands that the paths have sometimes crossed. A "respect for reason and liberty, science and industry, justice and welfare" were among the values embraced on both sides of the Atlantic and either side of the Channel. Yet she notes that these ideas "took significantly different forms and were pursued in different ways in each country." In Ms. Himmelfarb's reckoning, not all Enlightenments are equal.

Read the entire article on the Wall Street Opinion Journal website.

Posted: 9/2/04



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