Most commentators and intellectuals talk about science, knowledge and the enlightened inheritance in the context of a struggle with external enemies: the enlightened liberal polity is threatened by “medieval” Islam; enlightened scholarship is threatened by postmodern relativism, and so on. Richard Dawkins’s recent documentary, The Enemies of Reason, perfectly expresses this version of Enlightenment. For him the enemies of reason are homeopaths, astrologers and faith healers (when they aren’t religious fundamentalists, of course). In my book, The Threat to Reason, I ask whether it is adequate to set up a conflict between the rational and the irrational, cheer for the rational side, and revel in one’s enlightened sophistication. For it seems to me that this way of thinking about Enlightenment obscures much more serious “enemies of reason” than reiki therapists.
I try to show that the most serious threats to an adequate understanding of reality reside in rational institutions—above all in the state and the corporation. A model of Enlightenment that ignores or misrepresents these threats should be recognised for what it is, a branch of the entertainment business, a kind of “folk Enlightenment.” This folk Enlightenment, with its staple confrontation between the rational (good) and the irrational (bad), sells books and attracts viewers, but its commercial appeal should not blind us to its inadequacy.
The Independent recently published a mixed, but finally negative, review by James Harkin of my book. There are three points in Harkin’s review where I think the reader might come away with a misleading impression of the book’s argument. Harkin’s difficulties seem to derive from his insistence that Enlightenment can only be threatened by enemies that openly declare themselves.
1. “Hind seems unable to distinguish between ideas associated with Enlightenment and things which he simply doesn’t like… Hind criticises corporations for their venality, but businesses which seek to squeeze as much profit as they can are only doing what is perfectly rational from their point of view.”
Corporations and states use rational means—as well as the prestige associated with scientific reason—to secure their aims; these means include systematic attempts to deceive the public. Given that I repeatedly describe the threat posed to open inquiry by institutions that situate themselves within the Enlightenment tradition, I can’t understand why Harkin imagines he is making a meaningful criticism of the book in pointing to the rationality of the corporation. Rational agents can, and do, promote public misunderstanding; they threaten our capacity for reason.
For example, the pharmaceutical companies and their allies in government downplay the risks, and exaggerate the benefits, of their products. Their public relations work in this regard directly interferes with our ability to grasp the facts as they relate to medical science. Their suppression of inconvenient research data, and their menacing behaviour towards critics, are a very significant and widespread “problem for the operation of human reason itself.”
2. “In an (almost theological) cross between Calvinism and Maoism, he demands that we “give up a certain regime of pleasures,” “abandon illusions about ourselves,” and refocus our efforts upon a “disinterested commitment to truth.”
Maoism calls for total revolutionary commitment of the sort that I explicitly reject in my book. As for Calvinism, far from believing that we can only be redeemed by the grace of God, I believe that our best hope for avoiding disaster in this life resides in the disinterested use of reason. Is Harkin trying to spook the gentle readers of the Independent with the bludgeoning use of abstract nouns?
My point in the closing chapters of the book is to ask what it would mean to take the ideas of Kant and Bacon seriously. I pay particular attention to the contemporary implications of Kant’s division between the public and private use of reason. It is as public researchers, not as state and corporate employees, that we can best hope to approach the enlightened ideal of disinterested commitment to the truth. If Harkin thinks this amounts to a mixture of Calvinism and Maoism, this says much more about him than it does about Kant, or about my book.
3. “His own version [of enlightenment activism]—a kind of Enlightenment 2.0, powered by febrile bloggers and enthusiastic amateurs—makes for a rather toothless, muddled kind of liberation.”
My version of Enlightenment is not powered by “febrile bloggers and enthusiastic amateurs.” I suggest that new technology can help us in the work of collaborative authorship. This work will, where necessary and possible, draw on expertise gathered from our private employment. Nevertheless we need to distance ourselves from our identities as employees in order to “make public use of one’s reason” (this is Kant’s phrase, before Harkin denounces me as a disciple of Pol Pot or Ming the Merciless).
A self-conscious and self-confident public can reliably resist, and force the retreat of, corporate and state deception. And this can be part of a wider effort to comprehend, and then change, the world. This would constitute an Enlightenment worthy of the name. That at any rate is my view, and that is the argument I make in my book.
Perhaps Mr Harkin disagrees. But scaremongering and an only intermittently reliable description of my views do not amount to an enlightened response.