Anthony Pagden’s ambitious new study sets out to reconstruct the core ‘project’ of the Enlightenment with a view to ascertaining its legacy. Its central claim is that this legacy has been momentous, bequeathing to modernity the central values of the West. The book concludes with a counterfactual account of what European history might have looked like if the Enlightenment had not occurred, painting a picture of an introverted, superstitious culture, reminiscent of the Ottomans in their decline.
The suggestion here is that the Enlightenment made possible forms of social and scientific innovation without which the societies of early modern Europe would have remained trapped inside a static and dogmatic world-view. His virtual narrative might be no more than an ‘implausible flight of fantasy’, Pagden concedes. And yet,