In The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, Vincenzo Ferrone, a professor of modern history at the University of Turin, challenges the conventional interpretation of the Enlightenment. He contends that we have inherited a distorted interpretation of the Enlightenment, a philosophers’ Enlightenment, an Enlightenment that is little more than a moment in the history of thought. He calls this version of the Enlightenment the ‘paradigm of the centaur’, a mythical creature, half history and half philosophy. And this, he argues, is a problem. It has led to the effacement of the historical realities of the Enlightenment, obscuring the massive experimentalism of the period. The spiked review spoke to Ferrone about the problem of the philosophical ‘centaur’ (or ‘ircocervo’) that has dominated our understanding of the Enlightenment and asked him how this most inspiring of historical periods ought to be approached.
spiked review: Why do you view Hegel as the ‘father of the Enlightenment’, and why has his philosophical-historical, centaur-like concept of the Enlightenment been such an obstacle to understanding it?
Vincenzo Ferrone: Hegel has dominated philosophical thought in Germany and in Europe for centuries. He blends history with philosophy, and it is through his philosophical history of humankind that he constructed the idea of the Enlightenment – an unhappy liberation of spirit or consciousness from tradition – which is an idea that still prevails in Western culture today. It is a powerful idea. In contrast to Kant’s positive evaluation of the Enlightenment, Hegel criticises it because of its philosophical limitations. He argues that the Enlightenment is always to be considered in dialectical terms, as an important movement in the phenomenology of the spirit, with its negative elements (self-estrangement, for instance) to be overcome when a new synthesis is in sight.
From this, there arose the incredible and fascinating representation of the Enlightenment as a sort of ircocervo, a centaur, a mythical animal with a double nature, in which history and philosophy, which are very different, always intersect. This represented a dangerous obstacle to the ‘historical’ understanding of the Enlightenment because the Hegelian interpretations of the dialectic of the Enlightenment dominated public discussion, influencing every debate and every piece of historical research into the actual 18th-century events that constitute the Enlightenment. This construction of the Enlightenment as a historico-philosophical idea ended up giving a twisted and often false view of the actual historical Enlightenment.
It is necessary, however, to make a further clarification: the cornerstone of The Enlightenment is a polemic against this still dominant historical-philosophical idea of the Enlightenment, and, in particular, the lack of epistemological awareness that historians themselves show when considering the importance and autonomy of historical research and knowledge. This argument has a long history, deriving from a specific Italian historical tradition that arose in the course of the 20th century in the work of eminent scholars such as Arnaldo Momigliano, Eugenio Garin, Paolo Rossi and Franco Venturi. As I put it in The Enlightenment (p156), this tradition was characterised ‘by a steady awareness of the fundamental distinction between history and historiography, between Res gestae (the events themselves) and Historia Rerum Gestarum (the narrative relating those events); in other words, between a view of history as essentially a question to be addressed in philological and epistemological terms, and a methodology-driven view based on various intriguing but misleading forms of the philosophy of history’.
review: You provide a fascinating characterisation of Friedrich Nietzsche as a key figure in the development of the ‘paradigm of the centaur’. Why was his work so pivotal in the philosophical understanding of the Enlightenment, and how did it open up the way for postmodern positions on the Enlightenment?
The idea that the French Revolution is the telos of the Enlightenment is a contemporary ideological and political construct
Ferrone: Nietzsche is unquestionably a formidable exponent of the paradigm of the Hegelian ‘centaur’. On the one hand, he takes up the idea of the Enlightenment as a moment in the history of philosophy; but, on the other, he criticises the rational metaphysical system that characterises Hegelian thought. Of course, Nietzsche’s criticism of Hegel is part of his denunciation of the history of Western philosophy, which he accuses of obscuring the true face of human nature through reason and rationality. Nietzsche certainly re-evaluates the Enlightenment, pitting his beloved Voltaire against Rousseau. But he reinterprets the Enlightenment, too, criticising it for elevating reason, before reducing the claims of reason to little more than an expression of man’s will to power.
It must be said, too, that Nietzsche opened the way for postmodern readings of the Enlightenment by fuelling and nurturing scepticism towards the idea of ‘truth’, painting it as a mere representation and interpretation of reality.