The trouble with the Enlightenment
Arguments about the Age of Reason have become stale. Can a new book transform the debate
This is a fascinating review, and I would hope to read/review the book in question. And one could devote ten posts to the issues here. But it might be helpful to start by noting that if the Enlightenment is being defended by Dawkins and Hitchens we are about to lose it. The presumption of these two that they speak for the enlightenment is destructive, especially with Dawkins whose superficial views are highly influential.
Let me note that Darwin’s theory of evolution came well after the enlightenment, and that a cruicial figure such as Kant could hardly hve been a Darwinian reductionist.
Like all good liberal intellectuals of the last century, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog spent a great deal of time agonising over the legacy of the Enlightenment. Cuckolded and divorced, Herzog seeks to make sense of himself, his country, and his century by writing unsent letters to philosophers and politicians, alive and dead. He laments the “liberal-bourgeois illusion of perfection, the poison of hope,” and demands that President Eisenhower “make it all clear to me in a few words.” Instead, he learns the brutal truth from his friend Sandor Himmelstein. “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick,” Sandor tells Herzog. “You guys can’t answer your own questions… What good are these effing eggheads! It takes an ignorant bastard like me to fight liberal causes.”
In the last decade or so, defenders of the Enlightenment have shunned Herzog’s anxieties about liberal modernity in favour of Sandor’s belligerence. In the wake of 9/11 and the perceived threats of Islamic fundamentalism, a brotherhood of articulate, no-bullshit philosophes, led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, dragged debates about the Enlightenment’s legacy out of the academy and into the public sphere. They traced all that was worth defending in the modern western world to the 18th century, when rationality, science, secularism and democracy took hold of the European mind.
The issue of the enlightenment is elusive, and part of the problem is to take it in isolation. But in fact it is part of the unity of the early modern starting with the Reformation, the Copernican, then the Scientific Revolutions, indeed, the massive first phase of the enlightenment in the seventeenth century, and then the climax during the eighteenth century with a crescendo just near the French Revolution, the spectacular phase of German Classical philosophy getting underway at this time.
We see that the issue is more than the enlightenment: it is a question of the modern transition as a whole. There is a dialectical totality that is hard to grapple with. The term ‘reason’ has downshifted in the age of scientism, and the views of Dakwins reflect that, via Bertrand Russell, and others.
But ‘Reason’ was key idea in Kant, and in Hegel, and secular humanists would find it hard to recognize the term. Reason as a faculty is problematical in Kant, but a key to his analysis of ethical judgment, where the question of free will becomes central. All of that is lost in the world of Dawkins’ darwinian scientism, which is reductionism by the book. And Hegel’s take on Reason would strike the reductionist crowd as extravagant. But the depth of Hegel’s insight was marred by the fluid muddle that animated his post-Kantian resolution. The whole enlightenment is beyond the ken of most of us now. And the postmodern take, while inevitable in a way, has further confused the issues. But that critique was appropriate, and even as the postmodern fad passes, the disparate insights of that movement will add to the discussion.
I recommend looking at the larger context of world history via the chronicle in World History and the Eonic Effect, where we see something stunning, spectacular: the non-random character of the modern transition, thence the Enlightenment which appears with uncanny timing near the so-called ‘Divide’. We can see both Kant and Hegel sensing the modern transition, but still too immersed in its action.
Here is the link to the passage on the enlightenment, but the whole chapter is better, and then the larger context.
Hegel’s historicism is a problem, but once you read WHEE you see that he was trying to grapple with the dynamics of history, caught between science or naturalism, and a design argument.
Focus on the enlightenment was to become a confusingly narrow exercise. And it gets worse as the New Atheists seem to claim the enlightenment was a exercise by atheists. Certainly atheism begins to surface in an environment of tolerance, and the attack on Xtianity, at a climax in the French Revolution, gives us a misleading impression the enlightenment was cult of atheists. The larger reality of the modern transition shows that to be misleading.
Those who discuss the enlightenment often miss the synchronous or slightly later appearance of the Romantic movement. This crucial aspect of a larger dialectical whole is just the beginning of the real complexity. The term ‘secular’ has lost its earlier meaning, again as the humanists and new atheists, for example equate it with anti-religion, therefore atheism. The deeper reality is that Hegel seems to be an atheist and yet is promoting a near cult of Geist. What is his meaning? The term ‘secular’ in reality refers to a coming of a new ‘secular’ age period, one that is no longer the theocracy of Christendom: such as Luther are secularists but not atheists.
It is a mistake to equate secular modernity with philosophic definitions, because its ‘dialectic’ engages synchronous opposites, viz. the Romantic counterpoint.
A good example of something always missed is the way that the New Age movement begins in the dead center of the later enlightenment just around the time of Kant and Herder (and the British entry into India): within decades the world of Buddhism, for example, begins to rush into the ‘secular’ mix. If you study the life and work of Schopenhauer you see how deeply he studied the Indian texts, as the legacy of Kant so suddenly moves to receive the Upanishadic legacy of India in a fruitful exchange. The mysterious Schopenhauer, written out of most accounts, almost does a better job modernizing Upanishadic psychology than the sources. Note that this happens before the later ‘New Age’ movements after the coming of the confusing and highly irrational Blavatsky (who requires a careful study of another kind).
There are dozens of such complexifying issues, viz. the strong contact with China, and the cult of things Chinese in the seventeenth century. A trans-European effect is at work from the beginning.
The question of religion and the enlightenment needs another post. But the challenge to Xtianity is misleding: the enlightenment is companion to a possible rebirth of religion in the future, not under that category perhaps.
It is a problem talking about the enlightenment: discussion could go on forever. But we must stop here, to catch our breath. We can continue this another day.
I recommend a look at WHEE: at history-and-evolution.com. The larger context of world history solves a number of the riddles, and we see the Enlightenment like a recursion (as Peter Gay noted) of that shown by the Greeks (and Indians/Chinese) during the Axial Age.