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Leo Damrosch – The Enlightenment and the Invention of the Modern Self

Title: The Enlightenment and the Invention of the Modern Self
Lecturer: Leo Damrosch
The Teaching Company
Duration: 24 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

This relatively short series of lectures covers, as the title implies, the Enlightenment in Europe and the changing perception of the self. The lecturer is Leo Damrosch, previously unknown to me, and his method is to approach the changing ways of interpreting the human mind through various books, mostly autobiographies, and see how these reflect the society in which they were written. In doing so, we also get a glimpse of the history, politics and culture of the time, since it is of course impossible to untangle the invention of the modern self from the other strands of human history making up what we call the Enlightenment.

I am not overjoyed by this series of lectures, mostly because I think the overall goal is very vague. After finished the series, I am still not sure what the lecturer wanted to say or what the series was about. I got a lot of separate pictures from various books, but I did not get a feeling of invention or evolution. Also, I am not convinced that approaching history and relying so much on fiction and autobiographies is a good idea. There might be no better way, but the problems it creates are serious. For instance, most of this series is spent on explaining what happens in various books, which further adds to the feeling of isolated pictures, disconnected from the larger scenery. I would have liked to have much more on more general issues. Perhaps it is telling that I thought the last two lectures were the most interesting ones, namely those on William Blake, spelling the death of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism

As is usually the case, the lecturer is still not bad in himself, although I might not approve of his strategy or of the subject itself. However, he is far from as entertaining and pedagogically brilliant as some other of the professors behind series from The Teaching Company (Patrick N. Allit, Ashton Nichols and Gary W. Gallagher come to mind). I will not stop listening to lecture series like this one, but I will not recommend this particular one to anybody else, except if you happen to be very interested in the books and authors presented in the course.

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