S.J. Barnett
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The ‘public sphere’ and the hidden life of ideas

This chapter discusses the significance of ‘misreadings’. Eighteenth-century participants and constituencies of interest could – wittingly or unwittingly – ‘misread’ the publications and events of the period, contributing to the origins of modern myths about the eighteenth century. The main discussion here, however, focuses on the role of public opinion in intellectual change on core Enlightenment topics such as toleration. The dominance of the top-down model of intellectual change has prevented due recognition of the role of the wider public in the formation of the idea of religious toleration. It is also asked whether it is appropriate for modern (or postmodern) historians to place modern definitions of religious toleration upon the shoulders of eighteenth-century thinkers. By doing so, historians invite anachronistic comparisons with the twenty-first century. Only by broadening the scope of Enlightenment studies beyond the traditional canon can one hope to grasp and investigate the intellectual dynamic of the Enlightenment.

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The Enlightenment and religion

The myths of modernity


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