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In recent years, Israel has focused his attention on a multi-volume history of the Age of Enlightenment. He contrasts two camps. The "radical Enlightenment" was founded on a rationalist materialism first articulated by Spinoza. Standing in opposition was a "moderate Enlightenment" which he sees as weakened by its belief in God. In Israel's controversial interpretation, the radical Enlightenment is the main source of the modern idea of freedom. He contends that the moderate Enlightenment, including Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, made no real contribution to the campaign against superstition and ignorance.
Israel has defined what he considers to be the "Radical Enlightenment," arguing it originated with Spinoza. He argues in great detail that Spinoza "and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland", and that the Radical Enlightenment, leaning towards religious skepticism and republican government, leads on to the modern liberal-democratic state.
Israel is sharply critical of Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre for repudiating the true values of the Radical Enlightenment and grossly distorting the French Revolution. He argues, "Jacobin ideology and culture under Robespierre was an obsessive Rousseauiste moral Puritanism steeped in authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia, "and it repudiated free expression, basic human rights, and democracy."
In response to Israel's series on the Enlightenment, writes Johnson Kent Wright, there appeared ...
a series of in-depth critiques, from leading practitioners of every stripe, including Theo Verbeek, Harvey Chisick, Anthony La Vopa, Antoine Lilti, Samuel Moyn, and Dan Edelstein. Though all expressed admiration for the breadth of Israel's reading and display of sheer scholarly stamina, they also reached a strikingly unanimous verdict. In the eyes of his critics, Israel's interpretation of the Enlightenment is a kind of academic juggernaut, careening destructively through the discipline, in the service of a false idol--Spinoza, supposed demiurge of modernity--and an unsustainable principle--the idea of an umbilical connection between metaphysical monism and political radicalism.
A Marxist defense of Israel against one critic (Professor Samuel Moyn) appeared in 2010 on the World Socialist Web Site, particularly in the article The Nation, Jonathan Israel, and the Enlightenment. The two defenders also criticize Israel, saying:
There are problems in his argument. The dichotomy between a radical and moderate Enlightenment, however suggestive and stimulating, tends at times to overly simplify complex and contradictory processes in the development of philosophical thought. It is not always the case, as Professor Israel seems to suggest, that the most significant advances in philosophical thought were made by individuals who held the most politically radical views.
In 2004, in response to a Historisch Nieuwsblad survey, which asked members of the Royal Netherlands Historical Society what were the classic works about Dutch history, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806 came in second place.
Race, Class and Politics in Colonial Mexico, 1610-70. Oxford Historical Monographs. 1975. ISBN0-19-821860-5 HB.
Conflicts of Empires: Spain, the Low Countries and the Struggle for World Supremacy, 1585-1713. 1997. ISBN1-85285-161-9 HB.
Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. 2001. ISBN0-19-820608-9 HB; ISBN0-199-25456-7 PB. Emphasizes the role of 17th century Holland, and Spinoza in particular, in the Enlightenment.
Diasporas Within a Diaspora: Jews, Crypto-Jews and the World of Maritime Empires (1540-1740). Brill's Series in Jewish Studies. 2002. ISBN90-04-12765-8 HB.
Dutch Jewry: Its History and Secular Culture (1500-2000). Brill's Series in Jewish Studies. 2002. (co-editor) ISBN90-04-12436-5 HB.
Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. 2014. ISBN978-0-691-15172-4 HB.
The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848. 2017. ISBN978-0-691-17660-4 HB.
The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830. 2019. ISBN978-0-198-73840-4 HB.
(Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and Democratic Enlightenment (2011) constitute a monumental trilogy on the history of the Radical Enlightenment and the intellectual origins of modern democracy. A Revolution of the Mind (2009) is a shorter work on the same theme.)
Comments by Margaret Jacob in "Spinoza Got It", London Review of Books (8 November 2012): 26-27. Israel used the title (but not subtitle) of her book, "The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans", paperback, 2006 (first edition 1981). Also by Jacob: "The Radical Enlightenment and Freemasonry: Where we are now", Philosophica 88 (2013) pp. 13-29.
^"Jonathan Israel". Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 5 December 2014. Retrieved 2011.
^Israel, Jonathan (2014). Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 521. ISBN978-0-691-15172-4.
^"Jonathan Israel" (in Dutch). Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2015.