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French 240B: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature: The Enlightenment and its Enemies

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Course Description:
Immanuel Kant famously defined the enlightenment as the process and movement by which individuals and publics freed themselves from their self-imposed childish dependence on authority (monarchic, patriarchal, and religious) through the use of reason—by “daring to know.”

But others, from contemporaries to the works and events that have retrospectively come to be understood as the enlightenment to post-World War II thinkers like Adorno and Horkheimer or Isaiah Berlin, to critics writing today, have been less sanguine about reason and its uses. These criticisms have come from both the left and the right: Burke argued that enlightenment authors caused revolutionary violence (he was less impressed with the Revolution’s achievements like universal manhood suffrage); Adorno and Horkheimer claimed that reason was conceived and deployed as domination and thus led to the terror of twentieth-century fascism. Some scholars today argue that enlightenment universalism was an ingenious mask for slavery and colonialism. On the other hand, contemporary politicians regularly echo counter-enlightenment arguments in their assertion of “traditional values.”

In this seminar we will explore the contested world of enlightenment France itself by reading canonical eighteenth-century writers along with some of their now less-known enemies. We will also take on the major scholarly and critical debates about the enlightenment that have raged from Adorno and Horkheimer until today. Major topics will be secularization and toleration; slavery and colonialization; sexuality and the family. Primary readings will include works by Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, Raynal, Mably, and their interlocutors. Critical readings will include texts by Foucault, Derrida, Darnton, Habermas, Israel, and more.

Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes