Synopsis

In 1995 a book appeared with the sensational title of Hitler as Philosophe: Remnants of the Enlightenment in National Socialism (Westport, Connecticut: Prager). The author, Lawrence Briggen, claims that Adolf Hitler was an intelligent thinker within the Enlightenment tradition. In the same way as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Briggen maintains, Hitler constructed a full-fledged system of thought. The book is an extraordinarily poor and unprofessional piece of intellectual history. In the preface Briggen concedes that he developed his interest in the field of the history of ideas as late as 1989, when he was assigned by Ball State University to teach a course on modern German history. Barely six years later he considered himself qualified to provide a full assessment not only of Hitler, but also of Freud, Marx and the entire German intellectual tra dition. In addition, he felt capable of placing this tradition within the wider framework of the European Enlightenment. Meager and confused as his references to Marx and Freud may be, his allusions to the French thinkers normally called the philosophes are even scantier. Voltaire is mentioned only once... Of Rousseau we are told only that he mistrusted the bourgeois family just as much as Hitler did; Diderot, Condillac and Condorcet are not mentioned at all.

It goes without saying that the book is exceptional for its poor quality. Nevertheless, in a number of ways its approach to the Enlightenment is a caricature of many of today’s rather capricious depictions of that tradition. Since the 1980s or even earlier, it has been fashionable to hold many of these eighteenth-century ideas responsible for the failures and disasters of the twentieth century — from inhuman city planning to deification of technology, super-rationalism, pollution, totalitarianism and racism. This type of criticism is often regarded as characteristic of Postmodernism, and it cannot be denied that some of the leading postmodernist thinkers have vehemently criticized the so-called Enlightenment Project. Of course, their contributions are on another level entirely than those made by Briggen in his book on Hitler. However, the debate between Lyotard (as well as, to a lesser extent, Foucault) and J(rgen Habermas, the most vehement defender of the Enlightenment Project, reveals one rather startling feature. Both sides employ historical arguments in an attempt to buttress their fundamentally incompatible views. But the core of the debate concerns the contemporary world, and neither side attempts to explore its adversary’s historical assumptions. In this sense, the discussion of the Enlightenment and Postmodernism is remarkably ahistorical.

This volume is motivated partly by a desire to address this historical vacuum in a discussion that has engaged not only philosophers, but also historians, critics, journalists and many others. All of the papers, with the exception of two, were presented at a symposium entitled The Enlightenment and Postmodernism held in Gothenburg, Sweden on April 24-26, 1995. Each presentation was followed by a lively discussion. However, these discussions are not included here, for the simple reason that, however keen and intelligent such exchanges may be, they are bound to a place and time that cannot be recreated in print. Attempts to do so usually result in material that remains unread or unappreciated. However, in this case the follow-up discussions had an important long-term effect: they caused the participants in the symposium to rework their presentations, so that the papers in this volume often differ significantly from the original ones.

The contributions span a wide range in terms of both scope and perspective. Some of them focus on historical analyses of specific texts and lines of thought. Others cover a long period of time. A third category consists primarily of philosophical analyses of the concepts involved in the Enlightenment, Modernism and Postmodernism. Nevertheless, each of the articles contains all of these elements to one extent or another. The contributors are all either philosophers or historians of ideas; the philosophers have an expressed interest in intellectual history, the historians of ideas in philosophy. At the Gothenburg symposium we had no difficulty understanding each other.

The contributors come from several different countries. In addition to the four Swedes connected to the Department of the History of Ideas and Science at the University of Gothenburg, one participant is French, one Austrian, one Hungarian, one Polish, one American and one British.

Sven-Eric Liedman (excerpts from the Introduction)