Exploring Our Past to Better Understand Our Present

Sometimes to understand our current worldview, it is necessary to examine and understand the events of our past, at least according to Assistant Professor of French Valentina Denzel, whose area of research focuses on how the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical European movement during the 18th century, continues to shape our everyday life.

Denzel first became interested in how history affects our social and political climate when she began studying Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman and philosopher who contributed to the Age of Enlightenment.

As she continued to explore the topic, Denzel began working with Tracy Rutler, Assistant Professor of French and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, and Kristen Mapes, Digital Humanities Coordinator for MSU’s College of Arts & Letters. Together, the three women, along with two student researchers, invited various scholars to contribute to their project by building a database of teaching and research materials. They compiled content and ultimately launched the Legacies of the Enlightenment website, which explores the lasting effects of the Enlightenment.

The website specifically focuses on how the Enlightenment affects current social and political issues, including concerns such as climate change, racism, indigenous studies and more. The site compiles the work of various scholars throughout time, starting with the Enlightenment and ending in the 21st century, and assesses how our current situations are impacted by the Enlightenment, both positively and negatively.

MSU faculty at PSU
MSU faculty members met with PSU faculty members to discuss the project in May 2017.


In May, scholars from MSU traveled to Penn State to begin exploring the topic. Together the group came up with five main research topics to be explored on the website: climate, materialism, upheaval and catastrophe, the in-between, and disciplines. The website displays curated research, teaching materials, and events related to these five topics.

“Our question was ‘how does the Enlightenment shape our everyday life?’ and this was so big a question that two people could never answer it,” Denzel said. “It’s a bit of a provocative question, but we thought it was worth asking, so we assembled various scholars who would ask themselves the same question and try to come up with answers.”

Now that the website has launched, Denzel and Rutler can move on to phase two of their research plan. In October 2018, they will hold a workshop at MSU with graduate students and faculty to explore the same topics.

“I hope in the workshop we will be able to involve more graduate students and just have a vibrant and dynamic exchange with senior and junior colleagues who are invested in current trends in their field,” Denzel said.

The project has been sponsored by Humanities Without Walls, an initiative that aims to create new avenues for interdisciplinary collaborative research, teaching, and the production of scholarship in the humanities, forging and sustaining areas of inquiry that cannot be created or maintained without cross-institutional cooperation.

“This project shows that the humanities is more than poetry and analyzing literature,” Denzel said. “It’s understanding our past and using that to understand what is going on right now.”

For more information, visit the Legacies of the Enlightenment website.