For a New Social History of the Enlightenment: Authors, Readers, and Commercial Capitalism

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Despite the voluminous work devoted to the social history of Enlightenment ideas since the 1970s, surprisingly little has been done to integrate its findings into general interpretations of this moment in intellectual history. Attempts to understand the Enlightenment as a long-Term global phenomenon have made it difficult to situate it within any social context other than that of globalization. This essay makes the case for relating the Enlightenment, as it developed within Europe and European overseas possessions, to the advance of commercial capitalism. Drawing on recent work on the history of capitalism, it argues that a burgeoning market economy vastly expanded the opportunities for ordinary readers to participate in intellectual life, and that this change dramatically influenced the production of intellectual work, not only in its form and genre, but in the causes advanced by writers, whose work increasingly took the form of a great project for collective human self-improvement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-687
Number of pages25
JournalModern Intellectual History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


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