What can we learn from The Enlightenment?

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, Level G StudioWhat can we learn from...?

One battleground in the contemporary culture wars is over the legacy of The Enlightenment. The title of Steven Pinker’s 2018 bestseller, Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress, seemed expressly designed to take a stand for scientific enlightenment and against supposed threats to science and reason. In contrast, in progressive circles it is commonplace to ridicule ‘old white men’ who are supposedly in thrall to a bad faith obsession with ‘freeze peach’ or ‘The Facts’ at the expense of questions of justice. In other words, key Enlightenment concepts like progress, reason, individualism and science are hotly contested today.

But do today’s cultural battles bear much resemblance to the actual trajectory of the Enlightenment? Invited to characterise what the Enlightenment meant, Immanuel Kant famously avoided such concepts and settled instead on ‘Sapere Audere!’ (Dare to know!) suggesting that it was less about agreeing with particular ideas than it was an attitude of discovery and openness.

Nonetheless, the Enlightenment was not a single coherent intellectual project or a political ideology. As the historian of ideas Jonathan Israel points out, not only were there distinct stages of the Enlightenment throughout the eighteenth century, there was also substantial distinction between the ‘moderate enlightenment’ of Locke and Montesquieu and the ‘radical enlightenment’ of Spinoza and others. The moderate enlightenment stressed the need for gradual, limited change and restricted ideas like free speech or voting to ‘responsible’ or propertied citizens. By contrast, the radicals took seriously the universal quality of citizen’s rights and sought to spread such ideals to all citizens. For a long time, the chaos of the French Revolution’s descent into the Terror seemed to support the moderates’ conviction that change must be gradual. Which of these Enlightenments should be of most interest to us today?

Aside from these distinctions, the Enlightenment also left an ambiguous legacy with regards to the status of science. A key feature of the Enlightenment was the explosion of experiments, tests and empirical research and their application to all areas of the natural and human worlds. But can the human world be fully understood with scientific concepts, or is human reason broader than just science? Certainly, the Romantic reaction to the supposed deification of science – captured in Keats’s accusation that ‘In the dull catalogue of common things / Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings’ – casts a long shadow over Western intellectual history.

So, what are we to make of the ideas and the legacy of the Enlightenment? In a world of ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories, do we need to rehabilitate the idea that human reason can make sense of the world? Or, in an era of climate change concerns, should we be careful about claims of human mastery over nature? How are we to understand the radical impact of the Enlightenment in the American and French Revolutions: do we celebrate the Bill of Rights and the ‘rights of man’ or deplore the Terror? And what about the oft-forgotten Haitian Revolution? What can we learn from the Enlightenment today?