In many ways, we live enmeshed in Enlightenment values: societies can be asked to alter their behaviours on the basis of science to alleviate the spread of a virus, the consequences of which many will not have seen at first hand; complex protocols can be agreed to mitigate climate change, the science behind which has to be taken on trust by most. And yet such examples also show the limitations of reason: scientists themselves differ on what to do in response to the coronavirus, and beyond them lies a vast penumbra of misinformation masquerading as knowledge. The ability to decode such misinformation is beyond many citizens.
It is perhaps because we still live in the shadow of the Enlightenment that its ideas have in recent years given rise to a greater number of what we might call ‘doorstop books’ aimed at the general public than any intellectual movement in a comparable era has. Enter Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, with the boldly titled The Enlightenment. Robertson does not want to stake a claim for the immediate ‘relevance’ of the Enlightenment as a set of ideas prescribing how we should act today.