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Defending the Enlightenment
David Brin   Jan 28, 2010   Contrary Brin  

Associating the Enlightenment with abstract reasoning runs smack up against what should be considered the Enlightenment’s greatest insight—that humans are inherently delusional beings, able to talk ourselves into anything at all.

See a fascinating review of The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition by Zeev Sternhell, in which the Israeili philosopher covers a vital topic, resonant with many things I’ve been saying about how the progressive Enlightenment is under frenetic attack, by those scheming to restore older, oppressive ways…

... only with an important difference that prompts me to offer up an observation and a cavil. For, when I speak of the “Enlightenment” I am referring to something much more modern and ongoing that what campus academics refer-to, when they use that word.  To me, it stands for the great experiment of Western Civilization, the sole time that any post-agricultural society discovered a viable alternative to the age-old human attractor state, the standard pattern that dominated perhaps 99% of cultures since history began—rule by inherited oligarchy.  

Yes, our current experiment evolved out of the French Enlightenment of Voltaire And Rousseau.  But what we have today—and must defend against concerted assault—is only related to that drawing room debating society, as a child is to its grandparent.  

Indeed, had the Enlightenment depended only upon its French-Idealist wing, whose love of abstraction sometimes borders on the mystical, the movement would long ago have foundered.  It is the Anglo-Scot-American offshoot, with its emphasis on pragmatism, reductionist science, “otherness” inclusionism and material progress in the physical world, that truly changed the world. It is this wing that kept the Enlightenment alive, by powerfully resisting and then quelling the fascist and Stalinist empires. It also was responsible for spreading both practical advancement and modernist ideals to all corners of the globe,  

This is an important distinction.  For, while the French and American branches of the Enlightenment share many values—a belief in progress, in human improvability, in divided and accountable power, in free argument and in the value of the individual—the more abstract French wing turns about and partakes in a kind of madness that is rooted in bad old habits that stretch all the way back in Plato—the notion that one can logically derive important conclusions about reality, via  words alone.  Given that Plato turned out to be just about the most anti-enlightenment philosopher of all time, an implacable enemy of democracy and science, this descent of reason should be troubling.

Indeed, the obsession of scholars, associating the Enlightenment with abstract reasoning, runs smack up against what should be considered the Enlightenment’s greatest insight—that humans are inherently delusional beings, able to talk ourselves into anything at all.  The French Idealist branch acknowledged this problem—and replied that the answer would be found in better reasoning.  A well-meaning, but inherently untrustworthy prescription.  One that is, in fact, delusional in its own right.

By contrast, the pragmatic-scientific wing said: “Everybody will be deluded, as a matter of basic human nature, and we are terrible at spotting our own errors. Rationality can be just another method for incantatory justification and rationalization. But there is another answer.  If we cannot spot our own mistakes, we can often notice each others!  Through well-run competitive systems, like democracy, markets, and science, the give and take of reciprocal accountability can edge us ever forward toward the truth.”

Oh, sure, these competitive systems are very hard to set up and maintain.  As one of the earliest leaders of the Anglo-American wing, Adam Smith, described, it is hard to arrange circumstance under which competition delivers all its benfits—creativity, innovation, vigor, accountability and error detection—without soon drawing in its own worst enemy, cheaters. As both Smith and Karl Marx pointed out, Capitalism and Democracy can turn into their own worst enemies.  These pragmatic tools require endless fine-tuning, a gritty chore that often makes people tempted to turn back to simplistic dogmatism.  (e.g. our present “culture war.”)

Still, the Enlightenment needed path away from the trap of essentialism, in which Rousseau and Hobbes railed at one another over flawed, overly simple descriptions of human nature. It was John Locke, founder of the Anglo-American branch, who said: Wait, you are both right and both wrong.  Man is both noble and corrupt. We are complex, and we need systems that can harness that complexity, rewarding the noble traits and binding the corrupt ones.  Toward this end, abstractions may inspire, they may lift our hearts… but they do not get the job done.

Hence, my conclusion to a garrulous aside.  It is wrong for well-meaning scholars like Sternhell  to continue calling the abstract-idealist branch of the Enlightenment its defining center. Not when most of the movement’s greatest continuing achievements were attained by the other, pragmatist/materialist branch.  Not only does this ignore the Enlightenment’s greatest strengths, at a time when it is under siege by deadly foes, but this old-fashioned fixation seems obdurate, scholastic, and even rather quaint.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


Agreed, good post.  I always thought empiricism was the hallmark of the enlightenment, not necessarily abstract rationality.  It is reason tempered by empirical evidence and bound by systems larger than just one single human mind/perspective which gave us our rapid advances as a society.

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