More on the Enlightenment and Its Critics

An essay by Damon Linker at The Week.

(I’ve seen Linker’s work on various website for years; he’s an interesting commentator, though one perhaps without any consistent philosophy; he seems to enjoy playing the contrarian role.)

The Enlightenment’s legacy is under siege. Defend it.

The Enlightenment legacy can be seen all around us: individualism, international commerce and trade, moral cosmopolitanism, freedom of the press and a culture of publicity, technological modernity, the valorization of expertise, and on and on.

Linker summarizes the various critics of the Enlightenment…

The first and possibly greatest of these critics was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who became notorious in the 1760s and ’70s for claiming that a highly educated, civilized, and “enlightened” world would be filled with profoundly alienated and unhappy people who felt deeply divided against themselves, longing for a lost sense of wholeness and fulfillment that remained forever beyond their grasp.

And then Johann Gottfried Herder —

Human beings are naturally social, Herder claimed, and they depend on and thrive most fully within linguistic-cultural wholes that form a unified context of meaning and purpose.

And later Nietzsche and Heidegger — who briefly supported Hitler as a solution to this existential problem.

These views were seemed outdated by the late 20th century, with (Francis Fukuyama’s) ‘end of history’ — before 9/11, ISIS, the refugee crisis, and so on. Now one of Heidegger’s admirers has links to the alt-right, namely white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Linker concludes,

The point of rehearsing this history isn’t to bring the counter-Enlightenment tradition up on the charge of thought-crime, or to engage in an act of guilt by (Nazi) association. The point is, rather, the opposite: to emphasize how vitally important it is for those who wish to defend the Enlightenment and its legacy — along with its vision of human life, both individually and collectively — to engage deeply and thoughtfully with its most challenging, resourceful, and resilient critics. The fact that these ideas have come roaring back so forcefully after so many years in eclipse is a powerful indication that they can’t be dismissed as glibly as some of the Enlightenment’s side of the debate would like.

My fascination with this is how these old ideas are being re-framed — and confirmed — by recent science. In particular, again reading E.O. Wilson, with his recent commitment to the idea of group selection v. individual selection (in the evolution of the human species), the struggle within human nature between allegiance to groups and allegiance to oneself (virtue v. sin), that implies that the idea that greater knowledge, accurate perception of the real world, is not necessary, maybe antithetical, to human happiness, which instead relies on tribal values and group thinking. What possible solution is there to this quandary? Is human understanding of reality a privileged, individual view? That should be kept private?

I’ve seen other examples of how pre-Enlightenment writers, in particular Montaigne (who lived in the 16th century), perceived elements of human nature that are only recently being objectively catalogued. I read several of Montaigne’s essays last year, and have meant to compile my thoughts of them.

And, with respect to science fiction, there has been a tradition of utopian thinking, by authors like Arthur C. Clarke and media like Star Trek: the Next Generation, that must be reconsidered in light of more recent understanding of human nature — how could their visions possibly exist?

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