The Enlightenment Index

It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book that has understanding for me, . . . surely I do not need to trouble myself. —Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question ‘What is Enlightenment?’”

The main figures that populate our historical accounts of the Enlightenment are human—be they enemies of Enlightenment, such as the priest or the tyrant, or defenders like the philosophe or Aufklärer. But in Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), the first figure, identified ahead of the pastor “who has a conscience for me” and the “doctor who judges my diet for me,” is the book [das Buch]: “it is so easy to be immature if I have a book that has understanding for me [das für mich Verstand hat].” Compare Kant’s formulation to a similarly odd formulation from Thomas Reid, in the second epigraph that begins this essay. Writing in Scotland the year after the publication of Kant’s essay, Reid claims that an author’s train of thought is originally “printed, so to speak, in his mind.” Composition by an author, insists Reid, precedes composition (the setting of type) by a compositor, and yet Reid’s assertion of authorial precedence is still informed by the vocabulary of printing.

Although much has been written on the subject, “print culture” remains a puzzling hybrid term, difficult to analyze into its cultural and technological components. For both Kant and Reid, print posed a first threat to the process of enlightenment. It was an enemy of Enlightenment culture. Books and other personified forms of print threatened to dispossess humans of their rational capacities. If Reid warns against taking the book as a hypostatization of knowledge and reason, Kant identifies the book, as Bruno Latour might put it, as an historical actor.7 Both eighteenth-century philosophers exhort their readers— paradoxically, in print—to assert themselves against the book, suggesting that the failure to emerge from “self-incurred immaturity” is not only a philosophical problem but also a bibliographical one.


In so reading Kant and Reid, this essay imagines an exercise that would follow all the links from title to author and back again in order to establish the bibliographical scene. It is a short trip, for example, from Kant to Reid: in his Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik (1783), Kant criticizes Reid’s “Common Sense” critique of David Hume before going on to rebuke those read- ers who have skimmed his own books and not thought through his (or Hume’s) arguments.9 Marking such cross-references, shifting between Kant’s notion of the book and Reid’s assertions of the priority of an author’s train of thought, our essay sketches a history of the Enlightenment media environment. We assemble a limited collection of citation and reference in order to understand the historical conditions in which Reid’s metaphor and Kant’s oddly formulated concern— that books have “understanding for us”—were meaningful.

We see books and other objects of print constituting what one interlocutor in Novalis’s “Dialogues” (1798) described as the Enlightenment’s Bildungskette (in which the Great Chain of Being is figured as a Great Chain of Books with each book as a Glied or link). Heuristically we name this presumed comprehensive structure of print the “Enlightenment Index.” Although “index” is often nar- rowly defined as an alphabetical guide to the contents of a single text, we use the term to refer to an increasingly interrelated web of citations and links. And while contemporary historians debate the nationality of “the Enlightenment,” whether it was headquartered in Paris, had continental or British origins, or if multiple Enlightenments were located in competing locations, we refer the question of Enlightenment literally—to the printed page.

[Brad Pasanek and Chad Wellmon, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. 56:3 (2015): 357-380, see Enlightenment Index, PDF proof]

chad wellmon

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