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…