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As Outram says in her introduction, it is most constructive to think of the Enlightenment as "a series of interlocking, and sometimes warring problems and debates." In short, Outram argues that the Enlightenment was not a single, monolithic, homogenous intellectual movement. It was complex, multi-faceted and often contradictory, to the extent that it may make more sense to speak of "Enlightenments" rather than a single "Enlightenment." Throughout the book, she synthesizes recent scholarship to show that many of the old interpretations of the Enlightenment failed to account for these complexities. To cite just one of many examples, she is highly critical of the old thesis, established by Peter Gay (among many others), that the Enlightenment marked a "rise of modern paganism," meaning that it is best characterized as an assault on revealed religion. She points out that thinking about religion was in fact highly contested, and although we usually associate the period with skeptics like Voltaire and the Baron D'Holbach, we should also recognize that the period gave rise to Pietism, Methodism, and other religious movements. Elsewhere, she reveals major fault lines among Enlightenment thinkers, and within the mainstream of Enlightenment thought itself, on issues like gender, race and slavery, and "cross-cultural contact." She examines the extent to which Enlightenment ideas circulated (probably not all that widely, according to many historians.) She also cites recent scholarship that has tended to distance Enlightenment thinking from the French Revolution. So to repeat, he view of the Enlightenment is that it was highly complex, extremely contested, and not necessarily connected to modern ideas of freedom in the teleological way that many historians have imagined. It was an eighteenth-century movement that was inextricably intertwined with eighteenth-century social forces around the world, not just in Europe.
Source: Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
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