Mission and Overview of Research
As a program and a practice, and as the era shaped by these, the Enlightenment brought about new approaches in European history, which were to play a truly extensive foundational role, theoretically and well as in practice, initially in western societies and ultimately well beyond.
The loss of validity of the orders of knowledge, belief, and action in the 18th century opened up unprecedented free spaces for human ambitions to assess and design the world, which were often accompanied by the characteristically enlightened combative claims to independent thought, criticism of authority, and self-determination.
For the first time, the conviction spread that man could know the world beyond the traditional ideas and conventional patterns and could shape it according to his normative insights. Also new was the fact that those claims applied to basically every man, regardless of their difference in status, sex and intellectual capacities. Even when the success of this impulse was relative, when it stretched the limits, or when it inextricably fell into contradictions, the present and the future seemed open for practical dispositions thanks to truer perception and better norms, the world appeared to be comprehensively thinkable, the rational feasible.
This opening also brought about new challenges: as the commitment of the traditional orders to the self-evident was lost, man, who was in this way made free, had to consistently give new accounts of his identity as well as of the scope of his reason, the validity of his faith, the authenticity of his feelings, the goals and consequences of his actions, and the institutions created by him, from state and church to science and arts. This newly acquired autonomy, which has to be acknowledged, generated therefore an ambivalent freedom, a freedom to act autonomously, but also a duty to act autonomously. Semantics, orders of knowledge, practices, and institutions, which acted as new models of guidance, reacted to this chance, but also to this “coercion” to freedom with sometimes even higher claims to authority, new definitions and new distinctions between social or ethnic groups, between genders, between reason and emotion, etc. In their ambivalence, as they made freedom possible while at the same time demanding a definition of it, these new models were not only constitutive of the Enlightenment as a historical process, but also had multiple effects which last to this present day.
Historical Roots and Current Connections
The research of the IZEA is based on the idea that the historical accomplishments as well as problems of the era of the Enlightenment are also useful for the understanding of current issues. This is not because of a supposed timelessness of enlightened ideals, but rather because this period was decisive in shaping western modernity. As the Enlightenment’s efforts at reorganization encompassed all aspects of life, a sufficiently complex picture of these processes can only be achieved through an interdisciplinary network. This can be seen in the interdisciplinary foundations of Enlightenment studies, as represented in the various societies for the study of the Enlightenment (DGEJ, ASECS) and scientific journals dedicated to this theme (Das 18. Jahrhundert, Aufklärung, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Dix-huitième Siècle). The IZEA benefits from a remarkably broad outlook, thanks to the participation of scholars from the fields of philosophy, theology and history, German, Romance, and English philology, musicology, religious studies, and history of law (among both the board of directors and the staff). The newly established Alexander von Humboldt Chair of Modern Written Culture and European Knowledge Transfer Alexander von Humboldt-Professur für Neuzeitliche Schriftkultur und Europäischen Wissenstransfer is integrated into the structure of the IZEA. The IZEA also has ongoing work partnerships within the MLU on the Study of Pietism as well as the History of Medicine.
The international orientation of the IZEA is also a consequence of its historical object of study. The IZEA’s research theme specifically addresses the European Enlightenment. This does not imply a Eurocentric limitation of perspective, but rather an extension of the theme beyond national cultural traditions. The transnational nature of the Enlightenment is based first of all on a common European Christian heritage as well as scholarly and noble culture. The program of the Enlightenment as a historical process thus encompassed the idea of quantitative dissemination across borders, as well as of qualitative improvement through mutual learning from one another. The Humboldt Chair of Modern Written Culture and European Knowledge Transfer Humboldt-Professur für Neuzeitliche Schriftkultur und Europäischen Wissenstransfer, among others, examines this dimension. Accordingly, the “European” of the Enlightenment studied at the IZEA denotes not only the possible geographical diversification of topics of study, but also the moments of translation, transfer, or hybridization, which resonate in every manifestation of the Enlightenment. Thus, the spaces of resonance to be studied here reach out well beyond Europe where appropriate. The goal of this is not to dismiss the national or regional specificities (as identified by the research) or the corresponding claims of uniqueness (of the agents at the time); rather, these are studied as stepping stones – and not only as opposition – to the European dimension of the Enlightenment, as they constitute an indispensable component for its study. At the level of research, such European dimension of our topic will be investigated through international contacts and cooperation.
Research Network in Central Germany
A third essential aspect of the work undertaken at the IZEA anchors the place at the heart of one of the most productive areas of the European Enlightenment. In fact, the beginnings of the German Enlightenment can be traced back to the region of Central Germany (today roughly encompassing the Federal States of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony, and Thuringia). The University of Halle was founded there in 1694 as the first reform-oriented Enlightenment University. Not far from Halle, the city of Leipzig was an important hub for the later Eudemonistic “bourgeois” Enlightenment and its intellectual and publishing activities. In the late Enlightenment, the Princes of Dessau conducted exceptionally consistent and lasting reform politics with the establishment of the still fascinating Dessau gardens. In philosophical and literary terms, Weimar and Jena acted as first-class centres with international radiance. To this should be added the presence in Central Germany of a wide range of active authors and institutions, who were the first to make possible the exceptional abundance and density of outstanding achievements over the course of “the long 18th century”. Today, the area offers significant historical venues which are extremely important for research, as they dispose of very rich archives, libraries, and art collections, on site or in the area. In addition, the IZEA can cooperate with a series of neighbouring cultural institutions, some of which with national or international outreach (Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Kulturstiftung DessauWörlitz, Franckesche Stiftungen), others with regional importance, which provide greater public visibility to the heritage of the Enlightenment.