The French Enlightenment

Instructor: Dena Goodman
Institution: University of Michigan

This upper-division undergraduate course course has been designed around two new resources: The Enlightenment, published by Houghton-Mifflin in 2004; and a website: The Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project ( launched in 2002. Both resources provide important context for the classic Enlightenment texts that are the primary readings for the course and help students to engage critically with those texts. While the readings in the anthology introduce students to a variety of critical approaches to the Enlightenment, the articles from the Encyclopedia allow them to explore topics on their own, pursue questions raised by the assigned readings, and interrogate interpretations of the Enlightenment based on readings beyond the canon. Together, these new resources allow me to teach the French Enlightenment in an exciting new way.

1. Course Structure

This course is designed for a 14-week semester. The class meets twice a week for 90 minutes. In the first class each week I lecture on a topic that is relevant to the week’s readings. The second class is devoted to discussion of the readings. Preliminary to each discussion, five or six students write discussion papers on set or open topics related to the readings (see syllabus). These papers, which are available before class, are meant to stimulate discussion.

The course is organized thematically rather than narratively, although there is an effort to maintain a loose chronology. The weakness of this approach is that it is sometimes difficult to see how writers influenced each other or responded critically to others. The strength of the approach is that students do not come away with a narrative that leads (inevitably) to the French Revolution. Indeed, the structure of the course continually undermines the strong desire to see the Enlightenment as a cause of something else rather than as itself a phenomenon that needs to be understood in its own terms. The point of the class is in part to understand what those terms are and in part to consider the problematic relationship between the Enlightenment and modernity.

2. Making the Past Relevant Today

I use The Enlightenment, which I co-edited with Kathleen Wellman for Houghton-Mifflin’s “Problems in European History” series, to establish a critical framework for the course. The purpose of the series is to introduce students to significant topics in European history through historiographical debates about them. We thought this was a particularly appropriate format for an intellectual history course in which students have direct access to the phenomenon they are studying in the texts they read. Surprisingly, however, available textbooks tend not to take this approach, but to be in one of two forms: 1) a narrative synthesis such as Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge UP); or 2) a thematic anthology of readings from Enlightenment texts with brief introductions, such as The Portable Enlightenment. Jacobs, The Enlightenment (Bedford Books) combines the two approaches, as the subtitle suggests: “A Brief History with Documents.” These approaches did not seem appropriate for a course that is fundatmentally text-based. We wanted students to come to their own understanding of the Enlightenment based on their reading of Enlightenment texts, not to give them an interpretation of it. Nor did we want to limit their reading of Enlightenment texts to selections in an anthology. But we also believed that it was important for students to get beyond a “naive,” unmediated reading of the texts such as that offered in Great Books courses, in which texts are often presented as existing in a flat, universal present or in an idealized “dialogue across the centuries.” Houghton-Mifflin’s invitation to contribute a volume to their series gave us an opportunity to produce the kind of book that would help us to teach the Enlightenment in a way that retained the focus on Enlightenment texts while providing students with a variety of (conflicting) approaches to reading them, rather than a synthetic account of it.

We present the Enlightenment as a site of contestation on two levels – as a lively community that nurtured debate about its own practices and the world in which it operated; and as the controversial site today of contestation about the origins of modernity and its impact on the world in which we live. Four of the six sections of the volume open with very brief readings from Enlightenment writers in order to show how the central questions about the Enlightenment were raised by the philosophes themselves. These debates then move into the twentieth century in a series of readings ranging from classic to cutting edge interpretations.

The first two sections of the book (“What is the Enlightement” and “Who Were the Philosophes?) introduce students to debates about what the Enlightenment was and who participated in it. The answers constitute a dialogue among Enlightenment thinkers and between them and the twentieth-century historians who have tried to understand the Enlightenment as a phenomenon that has fundamentally shaped the modern world. Students can consider the extent to which the twentieth-century understandings have been shaped by or diverge from those of the participants in the Enlightenment, as well as how particular historians portray the Enlightenment as an extension of the vision of particular philosophes, or in the light of later events.

The next two sections focus on specific aspects of the practice of Enlightenment. The articles in Section III (“Institutions of Enlightenment) introduce students to the media of Enlightenment through the institutions of print culture and intellectual sociability that furthered its projects and constituted some of its most important innovations. At the same time, they raise questions about the social location of the Enlightenment, its inclusiveness, and, thereby, its meaning. Section IV (“Science and Enlightenment”) explores the connections between science and the Enlightenment. The philosophes consistently underscored their connections to science and the authority science conferred on them to challenge the established social and intellectual traditions, and modern critics have often pointed to the scientific claims to knowledge associated with the Enlightenment as the basis of its power. This section asks how the Enlightenment understood science, how the science of the Enlightenment has been understood, and what were the practices of science in the Enlightenment.

The last two sections are meant to engage students with two of the most exciting debates that currently animate Enlightenment studies. Section V (“Did Women Have an Enlightenment?”) raises the question of the relationship between women and the Enlightenment. The final section of the volume (“Critiques of the Enlightenment”) is meant to engage students with the Enlightenment through the critiques currently mounted against it. These critiques are mounted from within the critical practice broadly understood as postmodernism and take on what they consider to be the legacy of the Enlightenment.

In our selection of readings and topics, we kept the American context of our students in mind by asking: What issues have been and continue to be critical to understanding the Enlightenment in America? How can we help American students to think about their own relationship to the Enlightenment – its values, practices, and legacies? In particular, the final section was meant to bring the Enlightenment alive by showing what continues to be at stake in it. By showing how the Enlightenment’s association with historical change and the modern world ushered in by it has made it a lightning rod for critics of all stripes, we ask students to think not just about the Enlightenment’s legacy, but about modernity itself and the Enlightenment’s relationship to it. By seeing how critiques of Enlightenment are critiques of modernity, students should come to see how and why the Enlightenment continues to matter today, whether or not they agree with the critiques. Whether students are more interested in evaluating the Enlightenment on its own terms or in light of the world that emerged from it, they should come away with an understanding of the complexity of the Enlightenment, the interpretations and uses of it, and of its historical and enduring significance.

3. Projects of Enlightenment

To get into the Enlightenment itself as an eighteenth-century project – or rather as a set of related projects – most weeks are organized around particular philosophes and their very different projects of Enlightenment: Diderot and d’Alembert’s great project of the Encyclopedia; Rousseau’s project of truth-telling and moral renewal; Voltaire’s project of social justice (Ecraser l’infâme); Graffigny’s project of defining the femme philosophe; Mercier’s project to portray the modern city; Raynal’s project to write a critical history of European colonialism. The focus on the Enlightenment as a set of related projects rather than a set of ideas allows students to think about what unifies the Enlightenment; that is, the design of the course follows that of the epistolary, dialogic, and encyclopedic texts of the Enlightenment by forcing the student to make the connections between the parts, rather than imposing a unifying narrative, interpretive, or ideological voice.

The most important of these projects was the Encyclopedia. If there is a thread that runs through the course, it is the Encyclopedia itself.
4. The Encyclopedia: A Collaborative Project Across the Centuries

Over the years historians have called the Encyclopedia the great “monument” of the Enlightenment, and even its “engine of war.” Contemporaries, and especially critics, simply called the philosophes “encyclopedists.” Diderot himself wrote that, if it succeeded, the Encyclopedia would “change the common way of thinking.” In this sense, I have always taken the Encyclopedia to be the epitome of the project of Enlightenment. This is why I was stunned a few years ago to discover that in this electronic age there was not a single article from the Encyclopedia available on the Web in English. To introduce undergraduate history students to this central text of the Enlightenment, I was forced to photocopy articles from two out of print editions of translated selections published in the 1960s. The only alternatives were a published translation of d’Alembert’s Preliminary Discourse and an abridged version of Diderot’s article “Encyclopedia,” also published in the 1960s. But these could not give students an entry into the richness and variety of the Encyclopedia itself, or a sense of it as a collective project. Nor could students explore the Encyclopedia on their own in the way it was meant to be read, with surprises awaiting the reader around every turn of the page.

In the spirit of the Encyclopedia, two colleagues and I started The Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, Its purpose is to make the Encyclopedia freely available to English readers. Designed and supported by the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Libraries, The CTP website is a collaborative effort of volunteer translators – professors, students, and what Diderot called “enlightened amateurs.” The articles published on the site reflect the interests and expertise of the translators and thus the diversity and breadth of the Encyclopedia. There has been no effort on the part of the directors of the project to identify the most important articles or privilege any topics or authors. The site can be browsed either by article title (English or French), or by subject (e.g., modern history, theology); the search feature allows students to conduct simple or more advanced boolean or proximity searches of the entire database. They can also search for articles by particular authors. Articles can be printed individually, easily, and without charge. With the cooperation of ARTFL (Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language, each article is linked directly to the French original. At the date of this posting (May 2005), there are more than 200 articles for students to search, browse, and read. New articles are published on the site each month.

5. Integrating the Encyclopedia into the French Enlightenment Course

My first goal here is to give students an understanding of the Encyclopedia as a project and its place in the Enlightenment. To this end, I give lectures on this topic in weeks 3 (on the project itself) and 8 (on the opposition to it and the dramatic story of how it went underground and was completed clandestinely). In week 3students read the article “Encyclopedia,” which has been translated in its entirety for the CTP. At the same time, they read a variety of other short articles that I have selected from the CTP website that address one of the main themes of the Enlightenment: tolerance and intolerance. From these selections, students are able to think about and discuss the meaning and parameters of toleration in the Enlightenment. Students who prepare discussion papers this week are asked to select one of these Encyclopedia articles and explain how it fulfills the mission of the project as outlined in the article “Encyclopedia.” (We return to the topic of tolerance later in week 9 with Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance.)

In subsequent weeks, relevant articles from the Encyclopedia will be paired with the other Enlightenment texts we read. For example: d’Alembert’s article “Geneva” with Rousseau’s response to it in the Letter to d’Alembert; the articles “Wife” and “Woman (morality)” with Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman; articles on the New World with Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage; articles on slavery with relevant sections of Raynal’s History of the Two Indies. These pairings are meant to provide different “Enlightenment” perspectives while expanding students’ vision of the Encyclopedia and its riches. Over the course of several weeks they will also become comfortable with the CTP website, as preparation for their use of it as a database of Enlightement texts for the term paper.

6. Written Assignments

Discussion papers: Each week several students prepare discussion papers of 500-1000 words each. These papers address specific questions about the readings and are posted on a course website for the whole class to read in advance. They are meant to kick off discussion and to make sure that students who are unlikely to jump into discussion will have an opportunity to have their ideas heard and discussed a couple of times during the semester.

Term paper: The term paper assignment requires students to identify and explore a topic in the Encyclopedia on their own. Students search and browse the CTP website to find at least ten articles that address or are relevant to a theme or topic in the Encyclopedia. They then write a research paper that has three parts:

1. A methodological introduction in which the student explains how and why s/he chose the topic, and the approach and tools s/he used to locate relevant articles within the database.

2. The main body of the paper, in which the student discusses the treatment of his or her topic in the Encyclopedia and how well it fulfills the promise of the project set forth by Diderot in the article “Encyclopedia.”

3. A conclusion in which the student situates the analysis of the topic in the Encyclopedia within the larger context of the Enlightenment with reference to other readings in the course, either Enlightenment texts or critical ones.

This assignment not only shows me how well students have come to understand the Enlightenment, but, more importantly, provides them an entry into the Encyclopedia and a way to create their own path through it, as well as an opportunity to reflect on both the Enlightenment and its central project.

Take-Home Final Exam: The final exam asks students to draw upon the full range of readings for the course both to critique the Enlightenment and to defend the Enlightenment against one of the critiques posed in the last week.

7. Extra-curricular Activity

A visit to Special Collections in the Graduate Library allows interested students to see and handle the books they are reading and to reflect on the variety of print media and their uses, from multi-volume expensive folios like the Enyclopedia to essays such as Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. They also have a chance to look at images such as the maps in Raynal’s History of the Two Indies, scientific illustrations in Diderot’s Letter on the Blind, and, of course, the plates in the Encyclopedia.

8. Course Syllabus

Course description

The Enlightenment was the predominant cultural and intellectual movement of the eighteenth century. In this class we will explore the Enlightenment as a site of contestation on two levels: as a lively community that developed in France in the eighteenth century and thrived on debate about its own practices and about the world in which it operated; and as the very controversial site of current debates on the origins of modernity and its influence on the world in which we live. While this is a course primarily in the intellectual history of eighteenth-century France, it is set in the context of two cultures and societies on which the Enlightenment sheds light: that of France before the French Revolution and our own. Through primary source readings, discussions, and lectures, students will gain an understanding of the French Enlightenment as part of and a critical response to French society, politics, and culture before the French Revolution, including education, social order, the family, gender relations, colonialism, and consumer society. Through readings in secondary sources they will be introduced to current debates about the Enlightenment. Students will be asked to think about the ways in which the Enlightenment shapes the modern world and the contribution of the Enlightenment to their own way of thinking.

Questions we will explore include:
$ Who participated in the Enlightenment and what were the social and intellectual practices in which they engaged?

$ How did the Enlightenment respond to the political culture and questions of its day? What were the objects and shape of Enlightenment critique? How has that critique shaped society, culture and politics since the Enlightenment? How does it remain relevant or useful today?

$ What roles did women play in the Old Regime and Enlightenment? How were issues of gender addressed?

$ How has the Enlightenment shaped the way in which we think about our world? What are the limits of Enlightenment and the problems it raises?

Course requirements

Attendance at lectures and participation in discussions based on readings
1 term paper (10-12 pages)
1 take-home final essay exam (5 pages)
Preparation for discussions, including 2 discussion papers posted on coursetools site

Books available for purchase:

Goodman and Wellman, The Enlightenment (Houghton-Mifflin)
Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman (MLA Texts and Translations)
Mercier, Panorama of Paris, ed. Popkin (Penn State Press)
Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (Hackett)
Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theatre (Cornell UP)
Voltaire, Treatise on Tolerance and Other Writings (Cambridge)

Readings marked (eCR) are available through electronic course reserves

Find articles from the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert (marked ED) at:


Week 1 Lecture: France in the 18th Century
Reading: ED: “France”

Week 2 Lecture: What is the Enlightenment?
Reading: Goodman & Wellman, chap. 1: “What is the Enlightenment?”
Week 3 Lecture: The Encyclopedic Enlightenment
Reading: ED: “Encyclopedia,” “Intolerance,” “Jew,” “Lesbian,” “Paternal Authority,” “Prejudice,” “Scandalous,” “Virginity”

Week 4 Lecture: Men of Letters, Philosophes, Intellectuals?
Reading: Goodman & Wellman, chap. 2: “Who were the Philosophes?”

Week 5 Lecture: Enlightenment Science and Epistemology
Reading: Goodman and Wellman, chap. 4: “Science and Enlightement” (omit Shapin and Porter); Diderot, Letter on the Blind (eCR); ED: “Science”

Week 6 Lecture: Enlightenment Paris
Reading: Goodman & Wellman, chap. 3: “Institutions of Enlightenment;” Mercier, Panorama of Paris

Week 7 Lecture: Rousseau’s Enlightenment
Reading: Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality

Week 8 Lecture: Rousseau vs. the Philosophes
Reading: ED: “Geneva,” “Luxury;” Rousseau, Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater

Week 9 Lecture: Voltaire’s Enlightenment: Ecrasez l’infâme!
Reading: Voltaire, Treatise on Tolerance

Week 10 Lecture: Travel and the Enlightenment Imagination
Reading: Diderot, Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (eCR); ED: “California,” “Canada,” “Canadians,” “Hurons”

Week 11 Lecture: Graffigny’s Enlightenment
Reading: Letters of a Peruvian Woman; ED: “Wife,” “Woman (morality)”

Week 12 Lecture: Did Women Have an Enlightenment?
Reading: Goodman & Wellman, chap. 5: “Did Women Have an Enlightenment?”

Week 13 Lecture: Enlightenment and Slavery
Reading: Raynal, History of the Two Indies; ED: “Africa,” “Angola,” “Congo,” “Negro,” and “Negroes”

Week 14 Reading: Goodman & Wellman, chap. 6: “Critiques of the Enlightenment”

Optional Fieldtrip: Visit to Special Collections for hands-on presentation of Enlightenment books, including first editions of the Encyclopedia and Raynal’s History of the Two Indies.
Written Assignments

$ Term paper: 10-12 page essay on a theme or topic in the Encyclopedia.
$ Take-Home final: 5-page essay on assigned topic based on course readings
$ 2 Coursetools discussion postings of 500-1000 words each

Discussion Paper Topics

Week 3: select one of the Encyclopedia articles (besides the article “Encyclopedia”) and explain how it fulfills the mission of the project as outlined in the article “Encyclopedia.”

Week 5: Diderot got thrown into jail for writing this book. What is so dangerous about it? What and whom does it challenge? Do you thing it would still be considered threatening by anyone today?

Week 6: It seems that it is necessary to impose order on the great city that is Paris, but Mercier is not always in favor of the way that order is achieved. How is order maintained in the big city? What are the sources of disorder? How does Mercier, through his writing, both criticize the forces of order and himself impose order upon the abundance of life that he observes?

Week 7: Is Rousseau a man of the Enlightenment or its greatest opponent?

Week 8: What is the most important point of disagreement between Rousseau and d’Alembert?

Week 9: Pose a question that you would like to have discussed by the class and suggest your own answer to it.

Week 10: Many critics have called Diderot’s Tahiti a “utopia.” I would call it a fantasy. How would you characterize it?

Week 11: Many eighteenth-century readers found the ending of this novel unsatisfactory. Why doesn’t Zilia marry Deterville? Should she have? Why do you think Graffigny chooses to end the novel the way she does?

Week 12: How does the debate on women’s role in the Enlightenment contribute to your understanding of the Enlightenment itself? What difference does it make?

Week 13: Pose a question that you would like to have discussed by the class and suggest your own answer to it.

Week 14: Select the critique that you consider the most powerful or valid and explain why.