Last updated

Commentators beginning in the mid 20th century have used the term Counter-Enlightenment to describe multiple strains of thought that arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in opposition to the 18th-century Enlightenment.


Though the first known use of the term in English was in 1949 and there were several uses of it, [1] including one by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Counter-Enlightenment is usually associated with Isaiah Berlin, who is often credited for re-inventing it. The starting point of discussion on this concept in English started with Isaiah Berlin's 1973 Essay, The Counter-Enlightenment [2] . He published widely about the Enlightenment and its challengers and did much to popularise the concept of a Counter-Enlightenment movement that he characterized as relativist, anti-rationalist, vitalist, and organic, [3] which he associated most closely with German Romanticism.

Development and significant people

Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre was one of the more prominent altar-and-throne counter-revolutionaries who vehemently opposed Enlightenment ideas. Jmaistre.jpg
Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre was one of the more prominent altar-and-throne counter-revolutionaries who vehemently opposed Enlightenment ideas.

Early stages

Despite criticism of the Enlightenment being a widely discussed topic in twentieth-century thought, the term 'Counter-Enlightenment' was underdeveloped. It was first mentioned briefly in English in William Barrett's 1949 article "Art, Aristocracy and Reason" in Partisan Review. He used the term again in his 1958 book on existentialism, Irrational Man; however, his comment on Enlightenment criticism was very limited. [2] In Germany, the expression "Gegen-Aufklärung" has a longer history. It was probably coined by Friedrich Nietzsche in "Nachgelassene Fragmente" in 1877. [4]

Lewis White Beck used this term in his Early German Philosophy (1969), a book about Counter-Enlightenment in Germany. Beck claims that there is a counter-movement arising in Germany in reaction to Frederick II's secular authoritarian state. On the other hand, Johann Georg Hamann and his fellow philosophers believe that a more organic conception of social and political life, a more vitalistic view of nature, and an appreciation for beauty and the spiritual life of man have been neglected by the eighteenth century. [2]

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin established this term's place in the history of ideas. He used it to refer to a movement that arose primarily in late 18th- and early 19th-century Germany against the rationalism, universalism and empiricism, which are commonly associated with the Enlightenment. Berlin's essay "The Counter-Enlightenment" was first published in 1973, and later reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current, in 1981. [5] The term has been more widely used since.

Isaiah Berlin traces the Counter-Enlightenment back to J. G. Hamann (shown). Johann Georg Hamann (1730 -1788).jpg
Isaiah Berlin traces the Counter-Enlightenment back to J. G. Hamann (shown).

Berlin argues that, while there were opponents of the Enlightenment outside of Germany (e.g. Joseph de Maistre) and before the 1770s (e.g. Giambattista Vico), Counter-Enlightenment thought did not start until the Germans 'rebelled against the dead hand of France in the realms of culture, art and philosophy, and avenged themselves by launching the great counter-attack against the Enlightenment.' This German reaction to the imperialistic universalism of the French Enlightenment and Revolution, which had been forced on them first by the francophile Frederick II of Prussia, then by the armies of Revolutionary France and finally by Napoleon, was crucial to the shift of consciousness that occurred in Europe at this time, leading eventually to Romanticism. The consequence of this revolt against the Enlightenment was pluralism. The opponents to the Enlightenment played a more crucial role than its proponents, some of whom were monists, whose political, intellectual and ideological offspring have been terreur and totalitarianism.

Darrin McMahon

In his book Enemies of the Enlightenment (2001), historian Darrin McMahon extends the Counter-Enlightenment back to pre-Revolutionary France and down to the level of 'Grub Street,' thereby marking a major advance on Berlin's intellectual and Germanocentric view. McMahon focuses on the early opponents to the Enlightenment in France, unearthing a long-forgotten 'Grub Street' literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries aimed at the philosophes . He delves into the obscure world of the 'low Counter-Enlightenment' that attacked the encyclopédistes and fought to prevent the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the second half of the century. Many people from earlier times attacked the Enlightenment for undermining religion and the social and political order. It later became a major theme of conservative criticism of the Enlightenment. After the French Revolution, it appeared to vindicate the warnings of the anti-philosophes in the decades prior to 1789.

Graeme Garrard

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment to Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (painted portrait).jpg
Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment to Rousseau.

Cardiff University professor Graeme Garrard claims that historian William R. Everdell was the first to situate Rousseau as the "founder of the Counter-Enlightenment" in his 1971 dissertation and in his 1987 book, Christian Apologetics in France, 1730–1790: The Roots of Romantic Religion. [6] In his 1996 article, "the Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity", in the American Political Science Review (Vol. 90, No. 2), Arthur M. Melzer corroborates Everdell's view in placing the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment in the religious writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, further showing Rousseau as the man who fired the first shot in the war between the Enlightenment and its opponents. [7] Graeme Garrard follows Melzer in his "Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment" (2003). This contradicts Berlin's depiction of Rousseau as a philosophe (albeit an erratic one) who shared the basic beliefs of his Enlightenment contemporaries. But similar to McMahon, Garrard traces the beginning of Counter-Enlightenment thought back to France and prior to the German Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s. Garrard's book Counter-Enlightenments (2006) broadens the term even further, arguing against Berlin that there was no single 'movement' called 'The Counter-Enlightenment'. Rather, there have been many Counter-Enlightenments, from the middle of the 18th century to 20th-century Enlightenment among critical theorists, postmodernists and feminists. The Enlightenment has opponents on all points of its ideological compass, from the far left to the far right, and all points in between. Each of the Enlightenment's challengers depicted it as they saw it or wanted others to see it, resulting in a vast range of portraits, many of which are not only different but incompatible.

James Schmidt

The idea of Counter-Enlightenment has evolved in the following years. The historian James Schmidt questioned the idea of 'Enlightenment' and therefore of the existence of a movement opposing it. As the conception of 'Enlightenment' has become more complex and difficult to maintain, so has the idea of the 'Counter-Enlightenment'. Advances in Enlightenment scholarship in the last quarter-century have challenged the stereotypical view of the 18th century as an 'Age of Reason', leading Schmidt to speculate on whether the Enlightenment might not actually be a creation of its opponents, but the other way round. The fact that the term 'Enlightenment' was first used in 1894 in English to refer to a historical period supports the argument that it was a late construction projected back onto the 18th century.

The French Revolution

Political thinker Edmund Burke opposed the French Revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edmund Burke by James Northcote.JPG
Political thinker Edmund Burke opposed the French Revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France .

By the mid-1790s, the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution fueled a major reaction against the Enlightenment. Many leaders of the French Revolution and their supporters made Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as Marquis de Condorcet's ideas of reason, progress, anti-clericalism, and emancipation central themes to their movement. It led to an unavoidable backlash to the Enlightenment as there were people opposed to the revolution. Many counter-revolutionary writers, such as Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre and Augustin Barruel, asserted an intrinsic link between the Enlightenment and the Revolution. [2] They blamed the Enlightenment for undermining traditional beliefs that sustained the ancien regime. As the Revolution became increasingly bloody, the idea of 'Enlightenment' was discredited, too. Hence, the French Revolution and its aftermath have attributed to the development of Counter-Enlightenment thought.[ citation needed ]

Edmund Burke was among the first of the Revolution's opponents to relate the philosophes to the instability in France in the 1790s. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) refers the Enlightenment as the principle cause of the French revolution. In Burke's opinion, the philosophes provided the revolutionary leaders with the theories on which their political schemes were based on.[ citation needed ]

Augustin Barruel's Counter-Enlightenment ideas were well developed before the revolution. He worked as an editor for the anti-philosophes literary journal, L'Année Littéraire . Barruel argues in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797) that the Revolution was the consequence of a conspiracy of philosophes and freemasons.[ citation needed ]

In Considerations on France (1797), Joseph de Maistre interprets the Revolution as divine punishment for the sins of the Enlightenment. According to him, "the revolutionary storm is an overwhelming force of nature unleashed on Europe by God that mocked human pretensions. [2] "


In the 1770s, the ' Sturm und Drang ' movement started in Germany. It questioned some key assumptions and implications of the Aufklärung and the term 'Romanticism' was first coined. Many early Romantic writers such as Chateaubriand, Federich von Hardenberg (Novalis) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge inherited the Counter-Revolutionary antipathy towards the philosophes. All three directly blamed the philosophes in France and the Aufklärer in Germany for devaluing beauty, spirit and history in favour of a view of man as a soulless machine and a view of the universe as a meaningless, disenchanted void lacking richness and beauty. One particular concern to early Romantic writers was the allegedly anti-religious nature of the Enlightenment since the philosophes and Aufklarer were generally deists, opposed to revealed religion. Some historians, such as Hamann, nevertheless contend that this view of the Enlightenment as an age hostile to religion is common ground between these Romantic writers and many of their conservative Counter-Revolutionary predecessors. However, not many have commented on the Enlightenment, except for Chateaubriand, Novalis, and Coleridge, since the term itself did not exist at the time and most of their contemporaries ignored it. [2]

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, c. 1797, 21.5 cm x 15 cm. One of the most famous prints of the Caprichos. Goya - Caprichos (43) - Sleep of Reason.jpg
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters , c. 1797, 21.5 cm × 15 cm. One of the most famous prints of the Caprichos .

The historian Jacques Barzun argues that Romanticism has its roots in the Enlightenment. It was not anti-rational, but rather balanced rationality against the competing claims of intuition and the sense of justice. This view is expressed in Goya's Sleep of Reason, in which the nightmarish owl offers the dozing social critic of Los Caprichos, a piece of drawing chalk. Even the rational critic is inspired by irrational dream-content under the gaze of the sharp-eyed lynx. [8] Marshall Brown makes much the same argument as Barzun in Romanticism and Enlightenment, questioning the stark opposition between these two periods.

By the middle of the 19th century, the memory of the French Revolution was fading and so was the influence of Romanticism. In this optimistic age of science and industry, there were few critics of the Enlightenment, and few explicit defenders. Friedrich Nietzsche is a notable and highly influential exception. After an initial defence of the Enlightenment in his so-called 'middle period' (late-1870s to early 1880s), Nietzsche turned vehemently against it.


In the intellectual discourse of the mid-20th century, two concepts emerged simultaneously in the West: enlightenment and totalitarianism. After World War II, the former re-emerged as a key organizing concept in social and political thought and the history of ideas. The Counter-Enlightenment literature blaming the 18th-century trust in reason for 20th-century totalitarianism also resurged along with it. The locus classicus of this view is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), which traces the degeneration of the general concept of enlightenment from ancient Greece (epitomized by the cunning 'bourgeois' hero Odysseus) to 20th-century fascism. They mentioned little about Soviet communism, only referring to it as a regressive totalitarianism that "clung all too desperately to the heritage of bourgeois philosophy". [9]

The authors take 'enlightenment' as their target including its 18th-century form – which we now call 'The Enlightenment'. They claim it is epitomized by the Marquis de Sade. However, there were philosophers rejecting Adorno and Horkheimer's claim that Sade's moral skepticism is actually coherent, or that it reflects Enlightenment thought. [10]

Many postmodern writers and feminists (e.g. Jane Flax) have made similar arguments. They regard the Enlightenment conception of reason as totalitarian, and as not having been enlightened enough since. For Adorno and Horkheimer, though it banishes myth it falls back into a further myth, that of individualism and formal (or mythic) equality under instrumental reason.

Michel Foucault, for example, argued that attitudes towards the "insane" during the late-18th and early 19th centuries show that supposedly enlightened notions of humane treatment were not universally adhered to, but instead, the Age of Reason had to construct an image of "Unreason" against which to take an opposing stand. Berlin himself, although no postmodernist, argues that the Enlightenment's legacy in the 20th century has been monism (which he claims favours political authoritarianism), whereas the legacy of the Counter-Enlightenment has been pluralism (associates with liberalism). These are two of the 'strange reversals' of modern intellectual history.

See also


  1. Listed by Henry Hardy in the second edition of Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Princeton University Press, 2013), p. xxv, note 1.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 1965-, Garrard, Graeme (2006). Counter-enlightenments : from the eighteenth century to the present. Abingdon [England]: Routledge. ISBN   0203645669. OCLC   62895765.
  3. Aspects noted by Darrin M. McMahon, "The Counter-Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France" Past and Present No. 159 (May 1998:77–112) p. 79 note 7.
  4. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1877). Werke: Kristische Gesamtausgabe. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. p. 478.
  6. Garrard, Graeme (2003), Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, State University of New York Press, To my knowledge, the first explicit identification of Rousseau as "founder of the "Counter-Enlightenment" appears in William Everdell's study of Christian apologetics in eighteenth-century France.
  7. Melzer, Arthur M. (1996). "The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity". The American Political Science Review. 90 (2): 344–360. doi:10.2307/2082889. JSTOR   2082889.
  8. Linda Simon, The Sleep of Reason
  9. Adorno & Horkeimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947, pp. 32–33
  10. Geoffrey Roche, "Much Sense the Starkest Madness: de Sade’s Moral Scepticism." Angelaki Volume 15, Issue 1 April 2010, pages 45 – 59. Retrieved 12 December 2010. .
  11. It is difficult to label Carlyle's thought, but his famous conception on the "Hero Worship" and traditionalism, as well as his, somehow, critical analysis on the French Revolution (in one of his classic books), links him close to the Counter-Enlightenment

Related Research Articles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Genevan philosopher, writer and composer

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic and educational thought.

Romanticism Period of artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that started in 18th century Europe

Romanticism was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850. Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. It was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature—all components of modernity. It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but had a major impact on historiography, education, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. It had a significant and complex effect on politics, with romantic thinkers influencing liberalism, radicalism, conservatism and nationalism.

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th to 19th century.

Isaiah Berlin Russo-British Jewish social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas

Sir Isaiah Berlin was a British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas. Although increasingly averse to writing for publication, his improvised lectures and talks were sometimes recorded and transcribed, and many of his spoken words were converted into published essays and books, both by himself and by others, especially his principal editor from 1974, Henry Hardy.

19th-century philosophy philosophy-related events during the 19th century

In the 19th century, the philosophies of the Enlightenment began to have a dramatic effect, the landmark works of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau influencing new generations of thinkers. In the late 18th century a movement known as Romanticism began; it is strong emotion as an authentic not of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe. Key ideas that sparked changes in philosophy were the fast progress of science; evolution, as postulated by Vanini, Diderot, Lord Monboddo, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Goethe, and Charles Darwin; and what might now be called emergent order, such as the free market of Adam Smith within nation states. Pressures for egalitarianism, and more rapid change culminated in a period of revolution and turbulence that would see philosophy change as well.

Joseph de Maistre Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer, and diplomat

Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre was a Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer and diplomat who advocated social hierarchy and monarchy in the period immediately following the French Revolution. Despite his close personal and intellectual ties with France, Maistre was throughout his life a subject of the King of Sardinia, whom he served as member of the Savoy Senate (1787–1792), ambassador to Russia (1803–1817) and minister of state to the court in Turin (1817–1821).

Johann Georg Hamann German philosopher

Johann Georg Hamann was a German Lutheran philosopher from Königsberg known as the “the Wizard of the North” who was one of the leader figures of post Kantian philosophy. His work was used by his student J. G. Herder as the main support of the Sturm und Drang movement, and is associated with the Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism.

The philosophes were the intellectuals of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Few were primarily philosophers; rather, philosophes were public intellectuals who applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics, and social issues. They had a critical eye and looked for weaknesses and failures that needed improvement. They promoted a "republic of letters" that crossed national boundaries and allowed intellectuals to freely exchange books and ideas. Most philosophes were men, but some were women.

General will

In political philosophy, the general will is the will of the people as a whole. The term was made famous by 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

18th-century French literature literature-related events in France during the 18th century

18th-century French literature is French literature written between 1715, the year of the death of King Louis XIV of France, and 1798, the year of the coup d'État of Bonaparte which brought the Consulate to power, concluded the French Revolution, and began the modern era of French history. This century of enormous economic, social, intellectual and political transformation produced two important literary and philosophical movements: during what became known as the Age of Enlightenment, the Philosophes questioned all existing institutions, including the church and state, and applied rationalism and scientific analysis to society; and a very different movement, which emerged in reaction to the first movement; the beginnings of Romanticism, which exalted the role of emotion in art and life.


The Lumières was a cultural, philosophical, literary and intellectual movement of the second half of the 18th century, originating in France and spreading throughout Europe. It included philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Pierre Bayle and Isaac Newton. Over time it came to mean the Siècle des Lumières, in English the Age of Enlightenment.

19th-century science was greatly influenced by Romanticism, an intellectual movement that originated in Western Europe as a counter-movement to the late-18th-century Enlightenment. Romanticism incorporated many fields of study, including politics, the arts, and the humanities.

<i>Three Critics of the Enlightenment</i> book by Isaiah Berlin

Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder is a collection of essays in the history of philosophy by 20th century philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Edited by Henry Hardy and released posthumously in 2000, the collection comprises the previously published works Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (1976) – an essay on Counter-Enlightenment thinkers Giambattista Vico and Johann Gottfried Herder – and The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism (1993), concerning irrationalist Johann Georg Hamann.

Marquis de Sade French novelist and philosopher

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer famous for his libertine sexuality. His works include novels, short stories, plays, dialogues, and political tracts. In his lifetime some of these were published under his own name while others, which Sade denied having written, appeared anonymously. Sade is best known for his erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, suffering, criminality and blasphemy against Christianity. He became infamous for his numerous sexual crimes and abuse against young men, women and children. He claimed to be a proponent of absolute freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion or law. The words sadism and sadist are derived from his name.

<i>Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism</i>

Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism is a book by Abbé Augustin Barruel, a French Jesuit priest. It was written and published in French in 1797–98, and translated into English in 1799.

This article focuses on Grub Street in France.

Irreligion and atheism have a long history and a large demographic constitution in France, with the advancement of atheism and the deprecation of theistic religion dating back as far as the French Revolution. In 2015, according to estimates, at least 29% of the country's population identifies as atheists and 63% identifies as non-religious.

Jacob Vernes Genevan Protestant minister

Jacob Vernes was a Genevan theologian and Protestant pastor in Geneva, famous for his correspondence with Voltaire and Rousseau.

<i>Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas</i> book by Isaiah Berlin

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (1979) is a collection of essays by 20th century philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin.

<i>Le Mondain</i> poem by Voltaire

Le Mondain is a philosophical poem written by French enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire in 1736. It satirises Christian imagery, including the story of Adam and Eve, to defend a way of life focused on worldly pleasure rather than the promised pleasure of a religion's afterlife. It opposes religious morality and especially the teaching of original sin. Its points echo Voltaire's prose works Lettres philosophiques and Remarques sur Pascal. Voltaire noted a trend against using poetic forms to make philosophical arguments, and wrote Le Mondain in deliberate opposition to this trend.