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Sparks of Reason. Urban Culture, Vernacular Rationalism and New Perspectives on the Enlightenment

Final Report Summary - SPARKS OF REASON (Sparks of Reason. Urban Culture, Vernacular Rationalism and New Perspectives on the Enlightenment.)

The project “Sparks of Reason” aimed to unearth the various trajectories along which ideas on human reason, knowledge and human control could develop in Netherlandish vernacular culture. The late medieval and early modern periods witnessed the advance of regional vernaculars in many parts of Europe. Increasingly, vernacular languages became accepted counterparts of Latin in administrative, artisanal-artistic, religious, and intellectual matters, thus creating an increasingly strong basis for mature vernacular cultures. In the Low Countries, as elsewhere, the vernacular was increasingly validated as an instrument for the production and transmission of knowledge. In this context, the late medieval and early modern periods produced a wide range of vernacular authors that worked to disseminate ideas on reason and the cultivation of a rational attitude toward life to a growing audience of (mainly urban) laymen. A special focus in the project was on the 16th century, as the period in which a true “Vernacular Rationalism” was developed by a number of authors, poets, and translators. After establishing this 16th-century Vernacular Rationalism in the Low Countries, the project studied two perspectives:
1. The Dutch Golden Age. Connecting the early, radical stages of the Enlightenment in the Dutch Republic (1660s) to a much older tradition of urban and rationalistic thought and practice, the project enhanced our understanding of the Enlightenment, its roots, its rise and its influence on European identity and culture. It enabled us to see the Enlightenment as an expression of and response to early modern urban culture, thereby enabling us to assess, refine and correct ‘the Enlightenment’ as a historiographic notion. In doing so, the project’s research into the philosophical and historical links between 16th-century Vernacular Rationalism and 17th-century Dutch thought and culture provides useful new perspectives relevant to European intellectual history in general and the history of the Enlightenment in particular.
2. The various trajectories along which this 16th century Vernacular Rationalism in the Low Countries could develop. This covered the history of philosophical writing in the vernacular from the first Dutch authors (Jacob van Maerlant) through the 16th century. The focus was on reason as a means to control the passions, one’s personal and societal situation, and the world at large. In doing so, the research also, more broadly, highlighted the role and function of lay philosophy in the intellectual, scientific, and cultural developments in the Low Countries.

The project “Sparks of Reason” has yielded a number of conclusions and insights. Through the analytical and historical comparison of the moral philosophy of one of the main figures of 16th-century Vernacular Rationalism (D.V. Coornhert) and the work of one radical rationalist in the 1660s (Pieter Balling, a very close friend of Spinoza), new light has been shed on the deep connection between the (Dutch) Radical Enlightenment and the Radical Reformation. This observation led to a more refined view on the early, radical stages of the Enlightenment. The Radical Enlightenment, as it developed in the Netherlands, was firmly rooted in radicalizing trends within 17th century Spiritualism. In addition, the project was able to highlight the religious orientation of most critiques of Christian tradition (even the more radical “Spinozistic” ones) during the early stages of the Radical Enlightenment in the Netherlands. The early phase of the Radical Enlightenment is rooted in a far broader and older tradition of radical religious reformation, that sprang from the need to remove all sacramental, dogmatic, and hierarchical ballast imposed on salvation over many centuries, thus opening the way for individuals—be it by spiritual, mystical, intellectual, or rational means—to directly connect with God, truth, salvation, and happiness. Dutch radical thought in this period was in full motion and found inspiration in a broad variety of (mostly heterodox) sources and traditions. The project has made this visible by articulating an indigenous tradition of rationalism in Dutch vernacular culture, which was a part of the radical strain of sixteenth-century Reformational currents in North-West Europe and became a part of the radical strain of enlightened thought in the seventeenth century. Another result is the recognition of a close connection of Netherlandish rhetorician culture (which played a key role in opinion making in 15th and 16th-century Netherlandish culture) with the rise and spread of new approaches to human reason, knowledge, and science in the Low Countries.

During the outgoing phase (Los Angeles, USA), researcher attended relevant workshops, seminars and conferences organized by UCLA-based institutions (most notably the History Dept, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS), the Early Modern Research Group (EMRG), the Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies (linked to the W.A. Clark Library)) as well as UCLA-related institutions such as the Getty Museum and the Huntington Research Library & Art Collection. This offered a multidisciplinary setting that enabled him to meet a variety of scholars, expand his academic network and discuss his ideas and findings.
In addition, researcher has set up a research group on “Radicalism, Spiritualism, and Anabaptism in the Netherlands (1500-1700),” with participants from Canada (University of New Brunswick, Brock Univ (Ontario)), the Netherlands (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), and the USA (e.g. Kennesaw State Univ, Augustana College); in this capacity, he was involved in the founding of (and is currently editor of) the journal “Persecution, Tolerance, and Coexistence”. Also, researcher is part of the international “Performative Literature Culture” research group, in which capacity he presented a paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference; the resulting article is due to be published with other contributions of this group in a special issue of the peer reviewed journal Exemplaria.
In the Netherlands, researcher has been part of the “Colloquium History of Premodern Science” (UU’s Descartes Center/ The Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands) and is a member of the Coornhert Foundation. He also has been involved in the development of “The Global Knowledge Society,” a research project initiated and supported by the Descartes Centre, Huygens ING, and the Max Planck Institut (Berlin).