Empty Enlightenment: an attempt at relevance.


To help me write, a friend has promised to monitor this blog. The rule: that something appears once a week, or I am not allowed to drink whisky. Expect a weekly writing, my darling nonexistent reader.


The last few weeks have seen several published calls to ‘return to the Enlightenment’. The reason for this recent surge? It seems several alt-right wingnuts have read a book or three, and some of these books overlap with the set of texts loved by ‘continental’ thinkers.

For my friends who do not bother with such things: there is a strange division in philosophy, one group is called the ‘anglo-americans’ or ‘analytics’ and the other are the ‘continentals’—the anglos are good at logic and wish they were good at science, the continentals are good at social theory and wish they were good at art; both are convinced that the opposing party is narrow minded, and neither are fun.

We have here a ‘guilt by associated reading lists’. Some of these fascists have read Adorno and Heidegger—some of them even quote Foucault and Derrida. So we are asked to believe (again) that reading the wrong thinkers leads to irrationalism. Steadier heads have argued not that Adorno leads to Auschwitz, but that the love of the wrong philosophers is symptomatic, and at the very least, won’t protect us from the irrational, (as philosophy is supposed to). The solution is clear: return to the 18th century project for social and scientific enlightenment. Or, at the very last, take up the ‘project’ or ‘direction’ of the 18th century. Obviously, what this project is, is determined by the narrow concerns of whoever happens to be writing the ‘Back to the Enlightenment’ article you find yourself reading.

I want to go on record as one of the foremost bloggers of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, and say: this is an incredibly stupid idea.

This donnish teshuvah movement has decided (again) that postmodernity (whatever that is) has cut us off from reason and human dignity. And we need this reason and dignity to defend us from barbarians.

There is not a single charge here that has not been laid at the door of Skepticism, which is more or less as old as philosophy itself. But for some reason Adorno and his friends endanger civilization, while Pyrrho is not a problem.

These articles unsurprisingly mirror the fascists they seek to attack. Both think that we have lost our way (an easy bet, and usually true). Both think there is a tradition we need to return to (no comment). And here we see an odd distinction: the Enlightenment crew are in one sense more conservative than the fascists, because they know which tradition we need to return to (the 18th century), where the alt-right kids and their political goons really just like the idea of tradition, any tradition. This is why we have the weird situation where ethno-nationalists in different nations can get along. You might expect animosity between American, Hungarian, Russian, Turkish and Israeli ethno-nationalists—each convinced that their tradition is the best. But, they can all agree to support each other, because they are liars: they don’t really believe in their own tradition; they don’t even have a tradition; what they say they  ‘believe in’ is just something they want—and they want a tradition, no matter what its contents. In this way the neo-traditionalists are really empty formalists. The Enlighteners are the conservatives: they know what they want, and they want it for us all.

I see at least two reasons why the call to return to the Enlightenment is ‘problematic’ (a polite word for ‘stupid’)

1) Yes, there are problems with ‘continental’ ‘postmodern’ or ‘critical’ philosophy, problems which should be addressed; especially now that it is the boiler plate for intellectual young people. People on the internet speak and think in Foucault and Derrida without reading the sources. This is what philosophy does: it becomes boiler plate. Most people don’t give much thought to philosophy, but whenever we think, we think in an older philosophy. We think in Aristotle, Plato, Freud, Nietzsche, Descartes, de Beauvoir, and so on. We use the machines built by these people, although without their sophistication and detail. The history of philosophy is different from every other type of history, because it doesn’t discover things about the past, so much as reaches back in time to tinker with old machines, machines still in use. To discover something about Spinoza, or to interpret his work differently, changes the way we think—not because Spinoza is an authority and we should do what he says, but because some of us already think in Spinoza. When the ‘Spinoza machine’ changes, the way we think changes.

When popular articles ask us to return to the Enlightenment, they are not asking us to engage the 18th century French philosophes—for most of them, the last time they opened an Enlightenment text was when they read Candide or D’Alembert’s Dream in an undergrad classroom—they are really asking us to return to an older, supposedly simpler, boiler plate. They are not asking us to see what we can learn from the Enlightenment, but to stop using thought developed after it. This sounds much like the mewling of the neo-traditionalists. (Part of the issue is that while the anglo-american crew now own the professional philosophy departments, the continental kids own the public boiler plate. No one seems happy with this arrangement, but it is the arrangement)

2) What is this Enlightenment that people want to return to? Here there is much to say, and I don’t plan on saying much of it. Certainly the Enlightenment is a complex entity, and asking us to return to a century is borderline insane—the Enlighteners are almost certainly asking us to return to a specific strand of the Enlightenent, one they have crafted in their own image. This is not a bad thing—it’s hard to see how we could learn from the past any other way.

But even in the purified anglo-centric Enlightenment, one purged of Pascal and Rousseau, I do not think that the notion of human dignity the Enlighteners want is found there.

Why would I say this? One of the hardest problems when teaching is also very simple: the same word means different things at different times, in different contexts, and in different mouths. This simple fact opens up a near infinite set of difficulties—and they can be exhausting. Undergraduates have a hard time with this, and often turn to anger when you explain to them that their reading of Mary Wollstonecraft doesn’t work, because when she uses the word ‘virtue’ she means ‘power’ and not ‘being nice to puppies’. Their anger is understandable: after wading through a difficult work, they find something familiar, something that makes them feel close to the author, and you have snatched it from them. When our contemporary Enlighteners look to the Enlightenment for human dignity and freedom, they are making the same mistake: because when Enlightenment thinkers use the words ‘freedom’ or ‘dignity’, they don’t mean the same thing as we do.

My evidence is simple, perhaps too simple: yes, the Enlightenment was varied, yes it was powerful, and yes, more or less all Enlightenment thinkers were fine with owning slaves. There are many ways to downplay this, and almost all of them have been used.

The most well-meaning response is to accuse the Enlighteners of hypocrisy, or opportunism, and insist that if they had ‘applied their principles consistently,’ they would reach our position and renounce slavery. This response is not crazy, but it is, I believe, wrong. The  Enlightenment thinkers we are asked to return to are, generally, a pretty consistent lot—if you’re going to accuse Hume of inconsistency, you have a lot of work ahead of you.

Here I think Whitehead takes the correct tactic: bite the bullet. There are background metaphysics, assumed cosmologies, that function in every age—a set of assumptions that most of us share. What are the implications of this obvious claim? If you want to figure out what we think, you can’t just look at what we argue, or what we say—because we don’t discuss, or argue about, things we hold in common. This is part of the reason common sense is so hard to articulate (as discussed in the last post). Most debates take place on a ‘secondary’ level, outside of the world we all take for granted.  And for almost all of human history, slavery was taken for granted. So, when more or less any thinker, from Plato to Hume, discusses human freedom, they don’t mean what we mean by that word. Whitehead: “Slavery was the presupposition of political theorists then; Freedom is the presupposition of political theorists now”.

To return to the Enlightenment—in the way we are being asked to return—would mean to return to Enlightenment values and presuppositions; at least in some sense, to use the word freedom in the way they used it. Granted, words like ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’ are usually empty—but sometimes they are not. And when they are not, we must try to figure out exactly what they mean. Here the prospects for those who want to return to the Enlightenment are grim.

Now, I have no idea what my beloved 3rd Earl thought about slavery—I am not a Shaftesbury scholar; I am deliberately not studying him, to keep this blog fun for me an my lovely non-readers.  I would of course like to think he felt the same way I did. I know that the 7th Earl was an abolitionist, and I would love to project this spirit back onto his great-great grandfather. But I can’t do this. After all, the 10th Earl was a hedonist who married a prostitute who ended up killing him and dumping his body in the French Alps—say hello to a future post—and I am not about to project that backwards. I am stuck not seeing anything on slavery one way or another. And that means I must look to the background assumptions, and note that he (in this book at least) never speaks against it.

So, what to do? I have no idea. Really I’m just writing this so I’m allowed to keep drinking Whisky. It should be obvious that I have affection for the Enlightenment– even my sympathy for some anti-Enlightenment thinkers is rooted in my desire to develop the Enlightenment itself. And, I have no sympathy for anyone who has, in the last century, called themselves anti-Enlightenment (especially not those who consider such a position ‘radical’). But I think most calls to return to the Enlightenment are themselves anti-Enlightenment, macho, and rooted in resentment, a form of conservatism only a few shades less empty than the neo-fascism it tries to counter.Old_Winery_Woodcut.gif

Written by Dustin Atlas


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