Monday, August 11, 2008

Reason: How humans dared to know by A. C. Grayling

How humans dared to know

  • 23 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • A. C. Grayling

Read about all the problems with reason in our special issue

"ENLIGHTENMENT," wrote Immanuel Kant, "is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own understanding! That is the motto of enlightenment."

This passage from Kant's 1784 essay "What Is Enlightenment?" was not intended to herald the arrival of an enlightened age, as Kant was keen to make clear, but only the beginnings of a process that might lead to one. Progressive thought in the 18th century was far in advance of the social and political realities of the time, but the thinkers in its vanguard were sure they were witnessing a new dawn in human affairs. The revolutions in America and France, and much that happened in western history since, has proved them right, even though fierce counter-Enlightenment movements have contested its principles at every step.

It is important to distinguish between "The Enlightenment" as a complex historical phenomenon, mainly of the 18th century, and more general talk of "Enlightenment values", where they are used to describe rationality, liberty, democracy, pluralism, human rights, the rule of law and the centrality of science to a proper understanding of the world.

Of course, these values are descended from those put forward by the 18th-century thinkers, but with the modifications one would expect from changed historical circumstances. For example, atheism was regarded with special abhorrence in the 18th century, so to announce oneself an atheist was impossible unless one was prepared to accept pariah status in society. Consequently, most agnostics and atheists described themselves as "Deists", who believed the world had been created by a deity who had since taken no further interest in it - and they limited their criticism of religion to criticism of the church.

As a historical phenomenon, however, the Enlightenment movement emphasised reliance on reason, sought to take a scientific approach to social and political questions, championed science, and opposed the clergy, the church and all forms of superstition as obstacles to progress. Enlightenment thinkers promoted the rights of man and, correlatively, opposed the tyranny of absolute monarchy and unjust social systems associated with it.

The flagship project of the Enlightenment was the compiling of a great encyclopedia, the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts), edited by the philosopher Denis Diderot and the mathematician Jean le Rond D'Alembert. It was published in multiple volumes between 1751 and 1772, and sought to unite all the best discoveries and thinking in the natural and social sciences, technology, the arts and crafts, and philosophy.

The original idea was to translate the English Chambers Cyclopaedia. Progressive thinkers in France, under the spell of John Locke and Isaac Newton, wanted to import the enlightened thinking of the former and the discoveries of the latter. But Diderot and his collaborators found the Chambers unsatisfactory and resolved to produce their own. They were conscious that their efforts would be opposed by traditionalists, not least because the compilers wished the new knowledge and ways of thinking to create a new social order, and even a new, freer human being, characterised by the ability to think for himself and the courage to act on his thought.

In his Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage, Diderot has Nature say to Mankind: "In vain... have you sought your happiness beyond the limits of the world I gave you... Examine the history of all peoples in all times and you will see that we humans have always been subject to one of three codes: that of nature, that of society, and that of religion - and that we have been obliged to transgress all three... because they could never be in harmony."

Because Enlightenment ideas challenged the vested interests of church and state, and because they continue to threaten those who, right or wrong, fear scientific rationality will undermine their cherished beliefs, there have always been vigorous counter-Enlightenment movements. Its critics blame it for the worst excesses of recent history, from the French Revolution's Reign of Terror (the period of exceptional violence thought to have been instigated by Robespierre) to 20th-century Nazism and Stalinism. They also blame it for toppling beauty, morality and faith from the pedestals they once stood upon, from whence they civilised humanity in a way scientific rationality, so its critics say, never can.

The first counter-Enlightenment activists were of two broad kinds: reactionaries, who defended the traditional powers of church and monarchy, and Romantics, for whom nature, emotion and imagination were far more important sources of authority than reason, which they saw as reductive and desiccating.

Reactionaries blamed Robespierre's excesses on the Enlightenment, choosing not to see the Terror as the opposite of an event promoting pluralism and individual liberty. Their spokesman, Edmund Burke, repudiated Enlightenment claims that ultimate political authority lies with the people. For Burke "the people" were nothing but an anarchic mob, and democracy nothing but mob rule.

The Romantics found the Enlightenment's emphasis on science not only reductive but mechanistic and even deterministic. They recoiled from it, elevated feeling over reason, extolled the passions as routes to truth, and applauded spontaneity and chance as superior to rigorous enquiry. No one would wish to deny the importance of feeling, but out of Romanticism also grew nationalism, theories about the spirit of a people or race, and a new religious enthusiasm.

After the atrocities of Nazism and Stalinism, new criticisms were advanced, notably by postmodern thinkers who had been part of the influential Frankfurt School of sociology. They argued that Enlightenment rationalism had soured into repressive notions of bureaucratic efficiency and control, that individuals had become enslaved to economic forces, and that science had bred scientism, a salvation myth falsely promising scientific solutions to all problems, replacing religion as a deceitful and malignant force.

This analysis is odd, not least because it ignores a key feature of the Enlightenment, namely that it specifically opposed the monolithic hegemonies of church, state and ideology, arguing instead for pluralism and individual freedom. Monolithic hegemonies demand that everyone believes the same thing: the tyrannies of Nazism and Stalinism were monolithic hegemonies in precisely this sense and were, therefore, as far from being descendants of the Enlightenment as could be. In fact, Nazism's roots lay in Romantic notions of race and its purity as the highest good. Stalinism was the same kind of juggernaut, using much the same kind of methods as the Inquisition in 16th-century Europe - terror, oppression, show trials and execution.

When people talk about "Enlightenment values" now, they tend to mean a modernised and somewhat idealised take on the 18th-century version. Enlightenment values today are commitments to individual autonomy, democracy, the rule of law, science, rationality, secularism, pluralism, a humanistic ethics, the importance of education, the promotion of human rights. These are not empty or abstract ideas. If one compares the lives of ordinary people 300 years ago with those we can enjoy now, the impact of the Enlightenment on the structure and practice of society can be fully appreciated - and admired.

Today's 'Enlightenment values' are not empty or abstract ideas

Read about all the problems with reason in our special issue

From issue 2666 of New Scientist magazine, 23 July 2008, page 42-43

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