Enlightenment Interrupted

Enlightenment Interrupted

The Lost Moment of German Idealism and the Reactionary Present

Modernity isn't the realization of the Enlightenment but the forgetting of its culmination and self-critique, German idealism.


The modern world claims to inherit the values of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment Interrupted suggests a different genealogy. Instead of carrying on the Enlightenment it grew out of its suppression and forgetting, a founding act of bad faith and willed blindness that has haunted our world from its birth.
In this groundbreaking analysis Michael Steinberg restores German Idealism to its rightful place as the culmination of the Enlightenment critique. Its great achievement was to move beyond the self-world dichotomy at the heart of Western thought. In the work of Fichte, especially, the recognition that all human life is the product of collective human activity had revolutionary implications. After 1815, however, in the aftermath of a quarter century of revolution, philosophers and politicians alike swept such challenges under the carpet. Modernity was thus founded in reaction.
Lucidly written and accessible to non-specialists, Enlightenment Interrupted places the Idealists in the contexts of Romanticism, the brief contemporary openness to non-Western thought, and the political and social experimentation of the French Revolution. What followed was not a development of those tendencies but a retreat to the opposition of self and world and a drastic reduction in intellectual and social possibilities. This is one source of the collective impotence that sees the twenty-first century in a lockstep march to disaster


Steinberg (independent scholar) here gives a detailed account of why the expectations of the Enlightenment were not fulfilled, indeed, why they could not be fulfilled. For Steinberg, the Enlightenment tradition is broadly conceived to include "the philosophers and poets of the German idealist tradition, figures that are too often cast as enemies of the Enlightenment, even enemies of progress, or as Romantic irrationalists who set themselves against the proponents of reason who were the 'real' natural philosophers, philosophes and Aufklärer" (pp. 21–22). Steinberg’s tapestry is rich, weaving strands of German idealism, early German Romanticism, and the development of Marxist thought into a dramatic reading of the period. The volume is laudable for its sincerity and its attempt to draw attention to the relevance of the intellectual project offered by Kant, Fichte, Schlegel, Novalis, and Schelling. ~ E Millan, De Paul University, CHOICE

Michael Steinberg’s Enlightenment Interrupted is a master class and a rollercoaster ride, all at once. The pitfalls of abstract individualism have been pointed out since Hegel, and explaining them has been central to radical political thought for fifty years by now. But it’s never been easy to grasp concretely how that separation of self and world came about, and what the alternative to it could have been. The extraordinary achievement of Steinberg’s book is to give us a clear view of those horizons. He sets out the key moments of German idealism, and brings out their dramatic intensity by relating them to their own time and our present crisis. The argument is lucid, timely and beautifully composed, and the stakes could not be higher. ~ Andrew Nash, Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Cape Town

German idealist philosophers such as Kant, Fichte, and Hegel live on into the present, but they are confined in a cubbyhole visited only by academic philosophers, the occasional literary scholar or intellectual historian, and people looking to make jokes about unfathomable Germanic compound nouns. Steinberg’s book releases them from this place of enforced irrelevance and explains, with striking insight, how they came to be so belittled and ignored. He allows them to speak to us with all the richness of their vision of a connected, active, fulfilled humanity. In limpid, eloquent prose, he gives us the gift of their wisdom in confronting and changing the isolating effects of modernity. ~ Prof. Celia Applegate, William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair of History, Vanderbilt University

Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg Michael Steinberg is an independent scholar and practicing attorney with a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Rochester. He ...
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