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What’s Wrong With The Enlightenment?

Not as much as some people think, says Phil Badger.

What is being referred to when we speak of ‘The Enlightenment’ is not always easy to pin down, but in broad terms, it can be considered as an intellectual movement having its origins in the eighteenth century which involved a radical change in the way that philosophers and others understood the role of reason. In simple terms, reason got promoted to a higher status than it had hitherto enjoyed, and for some it came to replace faith as the basis of understanding both the physical and moral worlds. Many figures could be taken to embody the core themes of Enlightenment thought, but one, Immanuel Kant did so to such an extent that his ideas have become synonymous with it. In his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784) Kant helpfully summed up the basic idea thus:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”

For Kant, Enlightenment is the capacity and courage to think for ourselves, and to resist tradition, convention or authority as sources of wisdom and knowledge. This idea has been, and continues to be, one of the most inspiring and also controversial in the history of philosophy. At its foundation is the notion that the world is comprehensible to the human mind. It also heralded a new understanding of the significance of the individual, who could now be seen as equipped to decide matters of both empirical fact and moral value for himself (‘herself’ came a bit later).

The historical roots of this new individualism are to be found in the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century, which among other things involved the demand that conscience and inner light, rather than the Roman Catholic Church, might guide the life of a person. Demands for tolerance were quite limited, and many new religious groups were themselves intolerant in the extreme, but it was these debates, coupled with the work of Copernicus, Galileo and others, that let the Enlightenment genie out of the bottle.

Almost immediately, intellectual battle lines began to be drawn up between those who championed the new ideas, and those who saw them as ill-conceived and dangerous. Early flash points included Edmund Burke’s denunciation of what he saw as the hubris of reason leading to the horror of the Terror during the French revolution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke championed ‘prejudice’ over ‘naked reason’, on the grounds that prejudice contained the ‘latent wisdom’ of tradition and well-established habits . In so doing, Burke laid one of the foundation-stones of modern political conservatism. Reason alone, so his argument goes, is an unreliable basis for moral action and has a tendency to be easily perverted. In other words, anything may be rationalised, and plausible reasoning might lead us down a slippery slope which ends at the guillotine.

The subsequent two and a quarter centuries have witnessed variations upon the same arguments, proposed from a bewilderingly diverse range of perspectives. Over that time, ‘The Enlightenment’ has been accused of having its hand in every baleful moment of human history: it has been indicted as the destroyer of morality; the harbinger of selfish individualism; as a thief robbing human life of meaning; as being a form of cultural imperialism, and as being directly or indirectly responsible for everything from the Holocaust to global warming.

Either Too Successful, Or Not Successful Enough

For the uninitiated, these charges are liable to sound odd and even absurd. It is strange indeed to think of an injunction to think for ourselves as the source of so much trouble, and tempting to mount a defence of it which is polemical and facetious. However, this is a temptation worth resisting, because, it turns out, there is much clarity to be gained from treating the critics of the Enlightenment with due respect.

In fact, despite their differences, the critics of Enlightenment philosophy share a common distrust of its core idea of the individual. As their story goes, the individual is not an a-cultural and a-historical entity who can stand apart from his/her time and place to appraise how well that context realizes abstract universal notions of rationality. Rather, what constitutes good reason is the product of particular cultural and historical circumstances. In the brilliant metaphor of one of my own students, Rhianwen Lowry-Thomas, “culture is a river you can’t just climb out of to decide if you like the way that things are flowing.”

This thinking is to be found in the work of, amongst others, Michael Sandel, the liberal-conservative John Gray (his self-styled position takes some coming to terms with), and various ‘Communitarian’ philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre (although he might prefer to call himself a neo-Aristotelian). Oddly, similar claims have been made by the neo-Marxists of the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’, and by postmodernists such as Michel Foucault. These philosophers have little in common, but all share a view of knowledge, agency and rationality which takes the Enlightenment view as fundamentally mistaken.

In simple (indeed, over-simple) terms, the conservatives and communitarians tend to see the Enlightenment as having been too successful, at least as a cultural force, while for the neo-Marxists and post-modernists, the Enlightenment is the story of unfulfilled potential. For example, Adorno and Horkheimer, the founders of the Frankfurt School, saw a ‘dialectic’ or contradiction at the heart of Enlightenment thinking. On the one hand, the Enlightenment delivered the goods in terms of our technical understanding of the world and our capacity to manipulate it. However, it failed spectacularly to provide us with the moral understanding to avoid replicating the barbarity of less technological ages on ever-more-grotesque scales. In Hume’s prophetic phrase, Reason remained the “slave of the passions”, and for Adorno and Horkheimer, this servitude was made all the more alarming by their acceptance of Freudian notions about the irrationality and viciousness of our ultimate motivations. The id is no child of reason, and reason was just not up to the philosophical job of doing anything else than rationalising and excusing its petulance. For Burke, the hubris of reason had led to the guillotine; but for Adorno, the Enlightenment journey led to Auschwitz and its gas chambers.

Similarly, the postmodernist charge, originating in Nietzsche’s critique of Kant, was that the Enlightenment’s criticism of all assumptions was unfinished and self-excepting. For Nietzsche, and later, his postmodernist disciples, the failure of the Enlightenment was a failure of philosophical courage. Once it had undermined the pretensions of earlier dogmatic beliefs, the field should have been open for a liberation of thought and morality from the notion of certainty itself. However, philosophers such as Kant failed to go the extra mile, instead constructing systems which would replace old repressive certainties with new ones, this time sanctified by reason rather than faith or the authority of the ancients. In time, these new systems of thought themselves became ossified myths (in postmodernist terms, ‘metanarratives’) acting to restrict the capacities of human beings to define their own identities and realities.

Freedom or Justice?

The apparent inability of reason to provide solid foundations for morality, an inability postmodernists tend to see as liberating, has been depressing for conservatives and communitarians alike. The idea of the individual using his or her own reason to seek out moral truth, perhaps aided by like-minded people, is for such thinkers dangerously misguided. According to Gray in Two Faces of Liberalism, (2000), at best reason can lead us only to a ‘modus vivendi’ – a kind of agreement to differ amongst people with incommensurable values – rather than to the kind of consensus of values dreamt of by liberals such as John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1972).

As the most prominent liberal philosopher of the twentieth century, Rawls has been a perennial target of both conservative and communitarian criticism. His classic thought experiment, the ‘original position’, in which we are to imagine individuals cut off from any knowledge of their specific identities and talents by a ‘veil of ignorance’ while attempting to define the nature of a just society, has come in for particularly negative attention. For Rawls, the ‘veil of ignorance’ was an essential element of any attempt to understand the demands of justice as distinct from the demands of self or sectional interest. Put bluntly, he thought that if denied knowledge of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or other aspects of identity, nobody would wish the establishment of a state in which sexism, racism or other discrimination might be tolerated, because they might become its victim.

The problem with this, from the standpoint of both conservatives and communitarians, is that once we have abstracted out all the particular or culturally-specific features of an individual, we’re not left with a disinterested and objective seeker of justice, but with no individual at all. From this point of view, these particulars constitute the individual and are not merely contingent, as Rawls assumed. If so, moral reasoning can only validly take place against the background of particular cultural practices and traditions. The often-made accusation is that liberalism, especially in its neo-Kantian/Rawlsian form, leads to some form of moral relativism in which the individual is cast adrift from any cultural resource which might enable him or her to participate in a shared ethical conversation with others. Morality is reduced to a consumer choice, in which each individual finds their own path in more or less splendid isolation.

This charge is explicitly levelled by MacIntyre in his book After Virtue (1984), where he calls for a return to a morality in which virtue, defined by shared cultural norms, is the guiding ideal of human life. This aspect of MacIntyre’s thought can be considered deeply conservative, and remarkably similar to elements of Gray’s, despite their differences. However, not content with effectively accusing liberalism of nihilistic individualism, both writers also claim that it is guilty of a pernicious cultural imperialism. This is made explicit in MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), and is also implicit in Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism.

In a sense, ‘cultural imperialism’ is an easier accusation to understand than that of moral scepticism and relativism. After all, the aim of Rawls, and, before him, Kant, was to come up with universally valid conclusions about justice which would receive the assent of all rational people, regardless of their culture. Thus only one kind of society could be seen as just, and others were automatically to be judged as nearer or further from this ideal. The consequence of this thinking was to empower Western imperialism to continue its repressive and destructive ways, underpinned by an apparently liberal ideology of individual rights. Yet ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ give us carte blanche to ride roughshod over the traditions, customs and political institutions of any group not deemed to live up to our standards. Similar charges have been made by Adorno and Horkheimer, and we might acknowledge, perhaps with a degree of amusement, that these Marxists share this view with not only Gray and MacIntyre, but also with one of the twentieth century’s arch-liberals, Isaiah Berlin.

Berlin argued in Two Concepts of Liberty (1951) that there were, in effect, two kinds of liberalism. One form, which was not really worthy of the name, aspired to establish a shared moral truth on the grounds of rational consensus between autonomous individuals. This is the ‘liberalism’ of Kant. Yet this is impossible, for reasons we have already rehearsed. What is rational is not a universal resource, but is a culturally-defined one. By contrast, the proper basis for liberalism was to be found in the recognition that there is only a messy kaleidoscope of disparate and incongruent ways of being, which would forever resist the urge to bring about consensus. Thus great ideals of progress and perfectibility in human institutions have to be given up in the face of real human lives and the impossibility of establishing the superior rationality of any one set of incommensurable values.

The Horrors of Relativism

Let’s take stock of the story so far. The Enlightenment and its ideological child, liberalism, stand accused of both a corrosive moral scepticism and a tendency to absolutism. We have seen how these charges have curiously similar origins. The pride of reason ripped the individual away from the ‘unconsidered life’ which gave him certainty, leaving him with a kind of maniacal confidence from which have sprung the multiple delusions of rationality he has seen fit to impose on others. The treatment for this pathology is to become modest again: to see that there is no overarching truth, but only local agreements between like-minded people who have no business poking their noses into the business of others down the road. We need to look to our own cultural resources to bind ourselves to one another, as we did in the past.

This is at best an illusion, and at worst a recipe for utter horror. The illusion comes from the fact that to see any past moment as one of unanimity and social peace is to have no knowledge of history (Gray makes this point himself in his critique of communitarian philosophy). By their natures, societies are characterised by sectional interests and conflicts. As both Marxists and postmodernists realise, power gives certain groups the ability to define reality and life for everyone else. The idea of an idyllic kind of shared way of life is no more than a balm, poorly covering repeated eruptions of conflict and repression. The horror kicks in because without some overarching notion of justice, it’s difficult to articulate any defence of those who are on the receiving end of the repression. Thus we can see that the charge of relativism, long levelled at liberals, is actually true of their accusers. The difference is about where relativism starts and ends. For communitarians and conservatives, relativism is only dubious when individuals make individual moral decisions. By contrast, they are relaxed about a relativism at the level of cultures because, for them, there can be no source of moral truth which might authoritatively call a culture’s assumptions into question.

Tolerate the Individual

The issue of the proper relationship between the group and the individual is the central question of political philosophy. Liberals of every stripe are apt to favour the individual. Individuals are the kinds of things that are capable of suffering, and this fact seems pretty important to some of us. By contrast, groups are often rather dubious things, which have a tendency to turn on some of their members, and to be especially negative about those who don’t belong at all. This is one reason why liberals are less positive than communitarians and conservatives about the role of ‘intermediate groups’ in civil society. Churches, community organisations and so on are all very well, but their help is often conditional on beneficiaries accepting particular values or passing certain tests. Sometimes, as the USA has found in respect of the issue of race, the state has to actively protect the individual from the community. It might be argued that groups are comprised of individuals, but the findings of social psychology, especially those concerning obedience or ‘out-group’ behaviour might make us suspicious of the uncritical acceptance of group norms. This is why the charge that Enlightenment-style ‘thinking for yourself’ is responsible for collective crimes seems to be a perverse one to many liberals.

At the heart of Berlin’s as well as Gray’s critique of Enlightenment ideals seems to me to be a kind of category mistake. They charge that a liberal ideal of perfection drives a kind of intolerance of difference. Their mistake is in thinking that the liberal ideal is applicable to individuals rather than legal frameworks or constitutions. Liberal ‘cultural imperialism’ is not about telling this or that individual that the choices he or she makes are wrong or inappropriate, but about challenging the institutions which make such choices impossible, wherever they are. We ought to be intolerant of intolerant regimes and cultures, while promoting the rights of individuals to make varied and contradictory choices for themselves. Value pluralism only really works at the level of the individual, because accepting intolerant values at the level of the group means accepting that some of the individuals in the group are going to be discriminated against. One wonders for example how Gray might respond to the execution of homosexuals in Iran. Enlightenment liberals have no difficulty in holding a regime to an ideal standard of tolerance, but for Gray and communitarians such as MacIntyre, there are no such standards to apply. In effect we are back to Burke’s ‘local prejudice’, and that does not sound like a good place to start if we want to stop the hanging of gay people. (To pre-empt the charge of Islamaphobia, I’m more than willing to accept that there are plenty of fundamentalist Christians who might be partial to a spot of gay-lynching.) The central problem remains that of finding a perspective from which to make judgements about social, political and cultural institutions that is more than a vantage point from within them. To contradict my student, we need to be able to “get out of the river.” She was right to say that this is strictly impossible, for all the reasons we have rehearsed already, and yet we need to be able to create a critical distance in order to assess particular local arrangements.

Three possible ways forward suggest themselves. Firstly, there is the old Kantian/Rawlsian approach based on principles of justice discoverable by universal reason. We have already largely ruled this out. Another option involves the Aristotelian notion that human life has an ultimate purpose or telos. Institutions and practices which restrict the ability of the individual to function in or move towards this telos could be deemed illegitimate. The problem with this option is that it doesn’t do much for the cause of tolerance we have been discussing. Aristotle had a pretty limited idea of what the ideal human life should be like, and adopting such notions as our yardstick is likely to result in some pretty authoritarian conclusions.

The third option, proposed by the great English liberal John Stuart Mill, is a kind of revised Aristotelian position, in which individuals are still supposed to have a telos, but one specific to them rather than one general to human beings. On this idea, human life has meaning in respect of the individual’s ability to “grow according to the inner forces that make it a living thing” (On Liberty, 1859). Thus, for Mill there was no one ideal of human development, only ways of being particular to each of us. However – and here is the space for critical perspective – political and cultural institutions can be judged on the extent that they are cognisant of this pluralism. Thus, individuals don’t have to approach any identikit form of perfection, but societies and political institutions are more or less good to the extent to which they allow us to individually flourish.

In his Two Faces of Liberalism, Gray argues that a variety of political and social arrangements can favour a tolerance towards what Mill called ‘experiments in living’. Perhaps so; but certainly none favours tolerance to the extent that liberalism does. For this reason, we ought to value liberalism as approaching the ideal more closely than any other. Liberalism is not necessarily, and, for me, should not be, about promoting a minimal state, so much as attempting to remove those barriers to the full flourishing of the individual which cripple so many lives in our grossly unequal societies.

My liberalism, then, is what is usually referred to as ‘progressive’; but that’s an issue for a different time. For now, the central point is that the meaning of our lives, however informed by social practice, custom, and so on, sometimes transcends such contexts. For liberals, what we are and what we choose to be are things which states, communities and institutions have no business regulating, save to the extent that our choices and natures impinge on others. Mill called this a ‘simple principle’, and, of course, it is anything but. However, it is a principle we must return to and reaffirm any time the lives of individuals are afflicted by the overwhelming power of the group.

So what’s wrong with the Enlightenment? Not as much as some might think!

© Phil Badger 2010

Phil Badger teaches social science and philosophy in Sheffield.

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