‘I am’, said Voltaire, ‘like one of those little streams which are very clear because they are very shallow.’ He spoke for himself, but something similar has often been said about the whole band of eighteenth-century French thinkers who appropriated to themselves the title of les philosophes, and who, for the most part, revered him as their leader. In the nineteenth century such a view was common; so much so, indeed, that the only definition of ‘Enlightenment’ given by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary reads: ‘Shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition, etc.; applied esp. to the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c. 1865.’ And if more modern writers are rarely so hostile, they are often suspiciously silent. The index of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, for example, does not contain the names of Diderot or Condillac. Isaiah Berlin’s The Age of Enlightenment devotes well over two hundred pages to the British Enlightenment (mainly Locke, Berkeley and Hume), but barely a dozen to the French.
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.