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Lasting Light: Re-positioning the Legacy of the Enlightenment within Cultural Studies

Chinna, Nicholas (2013) Lasting Light: Re-positioning the Legacy of the Enlightenment within Cultural Studies. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This dissertation concerns a re-evaluation of the ‘Enlightenment’ and its historiography within cultural theory in relation to contemporary debates concerning the limits and possibilities of active and inclusive citizenship, participatory democracy and a pluralistic public sphere. I interrogate what the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment encompasses and how this period and its legacy have been understood in relevant areas of philosophy and social theory. My contention is that an overly reductionist and negative understanding of the Enlightenment has come to dominate cultural theory over the past thirty years owing partly to a simplified reading of theorists including Foucault and Derrida. Using the work of, among others, Jürgen Habermas, I hope to demonstrate that a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the Enlightenment and its legacy will aid contemporary social theory in formulating conceptions for a more just and equitable society. To this end, I show how contemporary figures within the Enlightenment, including Moses Mendelssohn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges, are relevant to current theoretical concerns. I identify with Habermas’s argument in favour of an ‘enlightened critique of the Enlightenment’ and his assertion that modernity represents an ‘unfinished project’ rather than a static model of social superiority. At a time when religious fundamentalism and ideological extremism are dominant forces in global relations, and nationalism and cultural essentialism inform much of the public discourse on citizenship and democracy, a considered affirmation of the precepts of the Enlightenment is necessary to the realisation of socially progressive theory.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Supervisor: McHoul, Alec and Cook, Ian
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