Language and Enlightenment: book discussion

The launch discussion of Dr. Avi Lifschitz’s Language and Enlightenment: The Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century was attended by Dr. Lifschitz himself, Prof. Axel Körner, Prof. Christopher Clark (Cambridge), and Prof. Nicholas Cronk (Oxford) – all of whose names are certainly not foreign to anyone interested in the history of the long eighteenth century. At a quick scan of the audience later, one would also spot other scholars such as John Robertson, perhaps best known among history undergraduates as the author of The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760, and Joanna Innes, author of Inferior Politics: Social Problems and Social Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain.

After Prof. Körner’s introduction came comments from Prof. Christopher Clark, whose contributions audience members would surely be hard pressed to forget. Declaring himself to be speaking with the “passion and enthusiasm of the ingénu,” Prof. Clark soon proved his contributions were anything but an ingénu’s as he combined his delightful sense of humour with penetrating insights on historical debates on the origin of language. He pointed out that these enquiries were central to Enlightenment thought, for they provided a linguistic metaphor for the political questions of the time. Prof. Nicholas Cronk then continued the discussion from a different angle, approaching Language and Enlightenment from the position of a specialist in French literature. Dr. Lifschitz responded more than adequately to the issues raised by the other discussants, tying up the most hilarious of loose ends when he clarified that Friedrich Wilhelm I had in fact appointed university professors as court fools, who were then appointed presidents of his Academy – something which drew much laughter from the academic crowd.

Panel and audience then mingled in the post-discussion reception. I myself had the great privilege of discussing Voltaire’s correspondence with Catherine II with Prof. Nicholas Cronk, the general editor of Voltaire’s complete works. This was proof that events such as this present a wonderful opportunity for us ingénus to speak with and be inspired by those responsible for much of the scholarship that we now depend on. Indeed, for anyone keen on eighteenth-century history, room 106 in Gordon House on Monday evening was certainly the place to be.

Shiru Lim

BA History student (3rd Year)

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