Enlightenment Now

Steve Fuller, Frederik Stjernfelt and c:o/re are hosting this one-day workshop April 21st 2022
Enlightenment Now

In this seminar, we’d like to draw a line between recent intense research into the intellectual history of the Enlightenment and our present situation. What would Radical Enlightenment mean today? How would a 17-18th century Enlightenment view on our present predicament look like? – given pressing issues of academia today, the fate of the universities, the development of AI, tech, the new West-East cold war, populism, globalization, post/trans humanism, the future of humanity?

To attend online please register with events[at]khk.rwth-aachen.de



Free Speech and Enlightenment: Lessons from the World’s First Full Press Freedom

Frederik Stjernfelt (RWTH Aachen/ University of Aalborg Copenhagen)

September 14 1770, full press freedom was suddenly declared in Denmark-Norway by king Christian VII and his German favorite, the radical enlightener doctor J.F. Struensee. That signaled the beginning of the dramatic three-year Press Freedom period, effectively kickstarting modern debate in the double kingdom. In the middle of the period, there was a coup, Struensee was decapitated after a mock trial, and Press Freedom was slowly smothered. What can be learned from this strange event of the High Enlightenment?


Condorcet’s Predicament- can the democratic republic work?

Jonathan Israel (Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton)

Those late Enlightenment figures such as Condorcet, Destutt de Tracy, Paine, Palmer and Barlow and others who had reason to feel profound disappointment and pessimism at the defeat of their plans during the 1790s and opening years of the nineteenth century, apparently nevertheless refused to give up hope of eventual success. But they could hardly avoid a lot of soul-searching and especially asking themselves what are the minimum requirements needed to ensure the stability, viability and survival of a modern democracy. Significantly, all of these tended to see the solution in restructuring, in fact revolutionizing education.

12:00 – 12:15

Coffee Break


In Favor of Patterns: Reviving an Enlightenment Ideal

Rens Bod (University of Amsterdam)

There are two opposing traditions in the longue durée history of the humanities: one which searches for patterns and regularities (in texts, languages, art, music and the past) and one which rejects any notion of pattern and focuses on the unique and the exceptional. This opposition is found already in 250 BCE between the Analogist school of Alexandria and the Anomalist school of Pergamon and has not disappeared ever since. And yet, there have been periods when the search for patterns, regularities and underlying principles was dominant. The golden period of pattern-seeking was the Enlightenment: patterns were discerned in history by Vico, Condorcet and others, patterns were found in music to build musical grammars by Rameau and Koch among others, and principles were found to underlie languages (De Laet, Hemsterhuis), art (Bellori, Winckelmann) and literature (Boileau, Gottsched), not to speak about the search for patterns and principles in the natural world that has become dominant ever since. Very few of the Enlightenment patterns found in the cultural world have stood the test of time though, but the endeavor to try to understand the world by patterns and underlying principles remains a major feat of the Enlightenment. The opposition between patterns and the exceptional flared up again in the 19th century and arrived at a zenith after WWII with the advent of the Frankfurt School and the postmodern turn. And yet the search for patterns has recently shown a revival in the humanities with the appearance of new disciplines such as digital history, comparative global humanities, environmental humanities and digital humanities. I will show that the return to pattern-searching has also influenced the more traditional humanities disciplines, from philology to art history, and has resulted in a myriad of new discoveries in art, music, literature and history. I will argue that the revival of the Enlightenment ideal of pattern seeking may arguably be the only way for the humanities to survive.


Lunch Break


Kant Between Swedenborg and Linnaeus: A Fork in the Road to the Enlightenment’s Legacy
Steve Fuller (c:o/re RWTH Aachen/ University of Warwick)

I am currently writing a play about a possible but fictional event that would have Kant travel from Königsberg to visit Carolus Linnaeus and Emanuel Swedenborg, who made their reputations in Uppsala. The lives of the three significantly overlapped in time, and Kant was significantly influenced by the two Swedes – to be sure, more positively by Linnaeus than by Swedenborg. However, the three never met. Even Linnaeus and Swedenborg are known to have only met once, namely, when Linnaeus turned over his Stockholm flat to Swedenborg in 1741. Nevertheless, the fictional encounter is significant for marking a fork in the road of the Enlightenment’s legacy, which becomes clearer in the later, ‘critical’ phase of Kant’s career, on which his own reputation as the foundational figure of modern philosophy is based.

My play takes place in 1756, the year after the famous Lisbon earthquake that inspired Voltaire to write Candide and provoked a wide-ranging discussion of theodicy across Europe, epitomized by the question: Do we live in a just world? In that year, Kant was 32, Linnaeus 49 and Swedenborg 68 – each belonging to a different generation. For Kant, Linnaeus was someone who understood the empirical limitations of the ape-like nature of the human condition better than Swedenborg, even though Swedenborg’s more adventurous speculations about the powers of the human mind were often based on a remarkably prescient understanding of the brain’s workings. Kant’s first book, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766) was a comprehensive takedown of Swedenborg, which anticipated his later scepticism about ‘pure reason’.

The play is very much a work in progress, and I plan to discuss the various considerations that the two Swedes might try to bring to bear on Kant, who himself reaches a kind of divided judgement on the matter, which is reflected in his later strong distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘practical’ reason, which effectively has noumenon do double duty in the epistemological and ethical realms.

16:00 – 16:15

Coffee Break


The Enlightenment Now: The Human Skeuomorph://Public-Private

Cheryce von Xylander (Leuphana University Lüneburg)

Respondent: Steve Fuller (c:o/re RWTH Aachen/ University of Warwick)

This talk about the deep, taken for granted legacy of the Enlightenment, is based on the technological capabilities that were unleashed and largely celebrated in the eighteenth century. Social platforms have migrated discursively from purveyor of a utopian future that would unite users in egalitarian online activity to public enemy that threatens to wreck the democratic cultural order. This trajectory from paragon to pariah has much to teach us about human self-fashioning in the advanced capitalist, neoliberal dreamscape. It should give pause that a service sector that arose from the defence arsenal of the military-industrial complex ever inspired blind faith in its potential to better the human condition. An epistemic prosthetic as powerful as the vast knowledge repository that is the internet will rework cognition. The online industry is forever aggregating digital traces of enacted rationality. This smart techno-habitat systematically conceals what it emphatically re-enacts, namely figuration of the modern user as an aesthetic contrivance conjured in the eighteenth century. I propose to call this enabling latency the human skeuomorph. Skeuomorphism is a concept used by archaeologists to describe aesthetic attributes that outlast their utility in tool evolution. Like other tools in the archaeological record, the human skeuomorph has been subject to material transformations, yet persists as a semiotic undercurrent. The retooling of this apparition in new media will hinge on future interpretations of its Enlightenment past.

17:15 – 17:45

Closing Discussion