The prize question of the Berlin Academy of Sciences for 1780, on the utility of deception, has attracted both controversy and scholarly interest. Yet very little attention has been dedicated to the question's peculiar beginnings in the correspondence between the philosopher and mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, in a discussion concerning the expulsion of the Jesuits from France. This correspondence not only reveals the prize question's complex genealogy in long-standing debates on the true ends of philosophy, but also helps revise conventional frameworks for understanding the relationship between philosophy and politics in Enlightenment Europe. Far from an adornment intended to boost the ‘Enlightened’ credentials of an absolutist king, d'Alembert held the momentum in this relationship, and recruited Frederick to his own campaign of promoting publicly useful philosophy. ‘Philosophy’ here amounted to a commitment to the truth and its public defence, rather than subscription to or belief in a specific set of ideas or political reforms. Placing pressure on rulers to disavow deceitful politics, the far-reaching implications of this conception of philosophy for political life were no less ambitious than the agendas espoused by protagonists of a supposed ‘radical Enlightenment’.
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