Burning Laws and Strangling Kings? Voltaire and Diderot on the Perils of Rationalism in Politics

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8 Scopus citations

Abstract

The thinkers of the French Enlightenment are frequently depicted as political rationalists, meaning that they advocated subjecting all laws, institutions, and practices to the withering light of reason, and discarding those found wanting by its standards. However, two of the most prominent philosophes, Voltaire and Diderot, were in fact opponents of the kind of political rationalism that they are often thought to have embraced. Both of these thinkers rejected the idea of a single “rational” political order, advocated gradual reform rather than wholesale change, and denied that the steady application of reason could produce inevitable or endless progress. In effect the Enlightenment was a “revolt against rationalism” (as Peter Gay has called it) not only in the epistemological, psychological, and ethical spheres, but also in the political one.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-104
Number of pages28
JournalReview of Politics
Volume73
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations

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