Jonathan Israel

Jonathan Irvine Israel FBA (born 26 January 1946) is a British writer on Dutch history, the Age of Enlightenment and European Jews. Israel was appointed as Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, in January 2001.[1] He was previously Professor of Dutch History and Institutions at the University of London.

In recent years, Israel has focused his attention on a multi-volume history of the Age of Enlightenment. He contrasts two camps. The "radical Enlightenment" founded on a rationalist materialism first articulated by Spinoza. Standing in opposition was a "moderate Enlightenment" which he sees as profoundly weakened by its belief in God. In Israel’s highly controversial interpretation, the radical Enlightenment is the main source of the modern idea of freedom. He contends that the moderate Enlightenment, including Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, made no real contribution to the campaign against superstition and ignorance.[2]


Israel's career until 2001 unfolded in UK academia. He did his undergraduate studies at Queens' College, Cambridge and his graduate work at University of Oxford and the El Colegio de México, Mexico City, receiving his D.Phil. from Oxford in 1972. He was named Sir James Knott Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1970, and in 1972 he moved to the University of Hull where he was first an assistant lecturer then a lecturer in Early Modern Europe. In 1974 he became a lecturer in Early Modern European History at University College London, progressing to become a reader in Modern History in 1981, then to become Professor of Dutch History and Institutions in 1984. In January 2001, Israel became a professor of modern European history in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA.[3] In 2007, the 375th anniversary of the birth of Spinoza, he held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.[4]


Israel has defined what he considers to be the "Radical Enlightenment," arguing it originated with Spinoza. He argues in great detail that Spinoza "and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland", and that the Radical Enlightenment, leaning towards religious skepticism and republican government, leads on to the modern liberal-democratic state.[5][6]

Israel is sharply critical of Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre for repudiating the true values of the Radical Enlightenment and grossly distorting the French Revolution. He argues, "Jacobin ideology and culture under Robespierre was an obsessive Rousseauste moral Puritanism steeped in authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia," and it repudiated free expression, basic human rights, and democracy."[7]

Honors and awards

He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1992, Corresponding Fellow of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) in 1994,[8] won the American Historical Association’s Leo Gershoy Award in 2001, and was made Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 2004. In 2008, he won the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for history, medicine, environmental studies and cognitive science.[9]

In 2010 he was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) for his outstanding contribution to Enlightenment scholarship.[10]


In response to Israel's series on the Enlightenment, writes Johnson Kent Wright, there appeared ...

a series of in-depth critiques, from leading practitioners of every stripe, including Theo Verbeek, Harvey Chisick, Anthony La Vopa, Antoine Lilti, Samuel Moyn, and Dan Edelstein. Though all expressed admiration for the breadth of Israel's reading and display of sheer scholarly stamina, they also reached a strikingly unanimous verdict. In the eyes of his critics, Israel's interpretation of the Enlightenment is a kind of academic juggernaut, careening destructively through the discipline, in the service of a false idol—Spinoza, supposed demiurge of modernity—and an unsustainable principle—the idea of an umbilical connection between metaphysical monism and political radicalism.[11]

A Marxist defense of Israel against one critic (Professor Samuel Moyn) appeared in 2010 on the World Socialist Web Site, particularly in the article The Nation, Jonathan Israel, and the Enlightenment. The two defenders also criticize Israel, saying:

There are problems in his argument. The dichotomy between a radical and moderate Enlightenment, however suggestive and stimulating, tends at times to overly simplify complex and contradictory processes in the development of philosophical thought. It is not always the case, as Professor Israel seems to suggest, that the most significant advances in philosophical thought were made by individuals who held the most politically radical views.[12]

In 2004, in response to a Historisch Nieuwsblad survey, which asked members of the Royal Netherlands Historical Society what were the classic works about Dutch history, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806 came in second place.[13]


(Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and Democratic Enlightenment (2011) constitute a monumental trilogy on the history of the Radical Enlightenment and the intellectual origins of modern democracy. A Revolution of the Mind (2009) is a shorter work on the same theme.) The list above is complete as of November 2013.

See also


  1. "Jonathan Israel". Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 5 December 2014. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  2. Jeremy Popkin, review of Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre H-France Review online June 2015; Israel's rebuttal online
  3. "Jonathan Israel Appointed to Faculty of Institute for Advanced Study". Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 17 January 2001. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  5. Israel, J. (2001). Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. vi. ISBN 0-19-820608-9.
  6. Chamberlain, Lesley (8 December 2006). "When freedom fought faith". The Independent. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  7. Israel, Jonathan (2014). Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 521. ISBN 978-0-691-15172-4.
  8. "Jonathan Israel" (in Dutch). Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  9. "Jonathan Israel (biographical details)". Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  10. "Jonathan Israel Awarded 2010 Benjamin Franklin Medal". Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 24 November 2010. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  11. Wright, Johnson Kent. "Review essay" (PDF). H-France Forum. 9 (1): 1. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
  12. Talbot, Ann; North, David (9 June 2010). "The Nation, Jonathan Israel, and the Enlightenment". World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
  13. "De vijftien klassieke werken over de Nederlandse geschiedenis". Retrieved 2015-06-10.
  14. "Review: Banishing the dark". The Economist. 30 November 2006. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  15. Moyn, Samuel (12 May 2010). "Review: Mind the Enlightenment". The Nation. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  16. Bell, David A. (8 February 2012). "Review: Where Do We Come From?". The New Republic. Retrieved 19 February 2012.

External links

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