The Enlightenment was, as Ritchie Robertson argues, “the seedbed in which many of [our current] values germinated”. Our very tendency to critique and condemn ourselves is its legacy. But what Robertson perhaps insufficiently emphasizes is how much the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own demise. “Sensibility” is both civilizing and naturalizing; it cuts both ways. In asserting that “the beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men”, Hume was not just conferring dignity onto animals; he was also exposing humans’ unacknowledged reliance on instinct and their essential animality – an exposure that would generate Darwinism and Freudianism in the nineteenth century, and the denial of the mind in the twentieth. In the Enlightenment, we seemed to reach the apex of Reason, and, as a result, realized that we aren’t as rational, or as capable of dispassionate judgement, as we had thought.
Simultaneously, it exemplifies an aspect of 18th-century discourse that is often overlooked in more sober studies: that wit and entertainment value might be as valued as scholarship and learning. Accounts of dinners hosted by the Baron d’Holbach, a Franco-German philosopher notorious for his atheism, “make clear, first, that their purpose was intellectual conversation, not social chit-chat; second, that they were fun”. The Baron d’Holbach has long since gone to meet his maker, but readers wishing to simulate the experience of attending his dinners could do very much worse than curl up with Robertson’s book.
In a brilliant chapter, Robertson encompasses Adam Smith’s demonstration that even human commercial exchange rests on imagination (for if we are to trade, then I must be able to conceive how my goods may be of interest to you, and you how I may use your goods for my own benefit); Hume’s great ‘science of man’, intended to be a unified and general account of human life in all its major aspects; Diderot’s idea of universal sensibility underlying all individual action; and the growing preoccupation of German thinkers with anthropology, culminating in Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters, in which the balance in human nature is held not by reason or sensibility but by the distinctively human capacity for play.