This evening, I finally finished reading Roy Porter’s Enlightenment. While it was an interesting and erudite enough read (it won the Wolfson prize in ’01), and the fact that it somehow managed the enviable trick of squeezing a survey of the British Enlightenment into <500 pages, it’s brevity and wide scope came at the cost of several costly omissions which ultimately prove fatal to its central thesis.
In brief, Porter argues that as far as we can define it, the British Enlightenment was an argument in print, fuelled by burgeoning print culture and racked by its early temporal position. By being the amongst the first to propose radical ideas, we suffered from being forced to both delineate and defend them concurrently. To back this up, we’re given small mini biographies of English and Scottish figures, whose works are mostly formed though argument with each other and their predecessors. The reason we’re not now a republic, argues Porter, is that our major thinkers were too busy arguing amongst themselves to push the nation in any unified direction.
The first issue here is that while delineating a national enlightenment in terms of print culture, Porter ignores the extent to which these debates were influenced by both European readings and European actions. If, as he implies, the reason we didn’t see revolution here is that we weren’t quite sure what we were arguing ourselves, then we would expect to see a unified French Enlightenment school of thought. This is clearly not the case. In addition to ignoring social and economic forces, the French revolution was a higgledy-piggeldy affair, unified more by the repression of the french court than any real ideological coherence.
This leads us nicely on to another flaw in Porter’s schema. ‘Enlightenment’s’ structure and content tends more to a history of ideas, which as Skinner argued persuasively, ignores the social and econoomic stratas and the extent to which non-aristocratic thought influenced the classics. In ignoring the bigger picture, Porter misses the extent to which, thanks to liberal press laws, English social society was permeated at all levels by news and print in a way that, thanks to court repression, France lacked. By silencing the voice of the masses, we ignore the extent to which literally every section of English society understood, responded and influenced 18th century public life.
Taking this in to account, and thinking of the way in which, pace Israel’s radical Enlightenment, there existed a quasi-european literary culture, if not per se a European Enlightenment, we get a picture of a public conversation informed by European news in place of a parochial disagreement centred on a simple rejection of staid Anglican Oxbridge Discourse.
In his haste to isolate a ‘British’ Enlightenment, then, Porter picks his case studies selectively. He isolates the biggest thinkers, talks about their influence in strictly national terms and then sets them on their merry way before strolling off to the next example. Though not committing the error of Jonathan Israel in claiming that there were such reified concepts as ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ enlightenments, (he does at least chart the extent to which political positions changed, radicals talked with moderates etc), he does commit the same sin, one that historiography should have grown out of a long time ago.