Secularization and Selfhood (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a late-spring 2009 seminar led by Phyllis Mack.

It is a historical commonplace that a process of secularization accompanies the transition from pre-modern to modern societies: a growing indifference to religion among elite and educated classes, a separation of piety and ritual from the worlds of politics and the marketplace, and a gendering of religious practice. This seminar analyzed that process in terms of ideas about selfhood in the long eighteenth century. Participants explored how individuals in England and America understood the seismic shift from the religious culture of the early modern period to the so-called “disenchantment of the world” that developed in the wake of the Enlightenment. How did individuals reconcile theological doctrines about the attainment of spiritual knowledge with scientific theories about the relation between mind and body? Or Protestant ideas about human depravity with Enlightenment ideas about human potential? How did Enlightenment ideas about agency and autonomous selfhood shape the popular religious imagination, and how did religious ideas of self-transcendence create identities that, by the end of the century, are recognizably modern? Selected primary texts from the long eighteenth century addressed these and other questions, focusing on the themes of gender, epistemology, the meaning of health and illness, ideas about agency and passivity, emotional self-fashioning, and the individual’s relationship to the public sphere.

Director: Phyllis Mack is Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Rutgers University. In addition to her book, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (1992), she has published widely in the field of gender and religious studies. Her newest book, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (2008).