The trouble with the Enlightenment

Arguments about the Age of Reason have become stale. Can a new book transform the debate?
May 5, 2013

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Like all good liberal intellectuals of the last century, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog spent a great deal of time agonising over the legacy of the Enlightenment. Cuckolded and divorced, Herzog seeks to make sense of himself, his country, and his century by writing unsent letters to philosophers and politicians, alive and dead. He laments the “liberal-bourgeois illusion of perfection, the poison of hope,” and demands that President Eisenhower “make it all clear to me in a few words.” Instead, he learns the brutal truth from his friend Sandor Himmelstein. “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick,” Sandor tells Herzog. “You guys can’t answer your own questions… What good are these effing eggheads! It takes an ignorant bastard like me to fight liberal causes.”

In the last decade or so, defenders of the Enlightenment have shunned Herzog’s anxieties about liberal modernity in favour of Sandor’s belligerence. In the wake of 9/11 and the perceived threats of Islamic fundamentalism, a brotherhood of articulate, no-bullshit philosophes, led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, dragged debates about the Enlightenment’s legacy out of the academy and into the public sphere. They traced all that was worth defending in the modern western world to the 18th century, when rationality, science, secularism and democracy took hold of the European mind.

Though they possessed an impressive capacity for tub-thumping alarmism, these modern freethinkers were by no means the first to mobilise the Enlightenment for their cause. The 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, Diderot and d’Alembert effectively volunteered their services to the debates of subsequent generations by presenting themselves as the vanguard of modernity. In 1784, Immanuel Kant famously described the Enlightenment as “humanity’s escape from self-imposed tutelage”; it was an intellectual revolution which allowed the human mind to fulfil its natural desire to think for itself, and from which social and political freedom would follow. In short, the Enlightenment presented itself as the dawn of modern self-consciousness, and as the beginning of reason’s slow but inexorable triumph over myth and obscurantism.

Of course, the philosophes’ self-fashioning as liberators of mankind invited detractors. Just over 20 years after Kant’s triumphalist declaration, Hegel would blame the Enlightenment for the guillotine and the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, thus laying the groundwork for the criticism that the Enlightenment had sacrificed love, spirituality and tradition at the altar of reason and absolute freedom. Kant and Hegel effectively dug the trenches for the 20th-century philosophical battle over the Enlightenment. From Germany on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power, Ernst Cassirer launched a pre-emptive defence of Weimar liberalism by reviving Kant’s philosophy of reason. In Californian exile in 1944, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno retaliated against Cassirer’s naivety: the Enlightenment, they said, had found expression not in the dying embers of the Weimar regime but in the murderous furnaces of Nazi Germany, and in the technocratic totalitarianism that was then tearing Europe apart. (The view that the Enlightenment led to Hitler is today popular with the religious right. "You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism," said Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, on Fox News earlier this week. "And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust.")

Horkheimer and Adorno’s nuclear Hegelianism, translated into English in 1972, energised the postmodern critique of liberal universalism. Continental philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault attempted to reveal the absolutist and imperialist nature of the principles of justice and truth, while in the English-speaking world John Gray and Alasdair Macintyre blamed the Enlightenment for the misguided utopian political projects of the 20th century and for the atomised and materialist world of the capitalist west. Predictably, the loyal children of the Enlightenment fought back. Where Kwame Anthony Appiah described himself as a “neo-Enlightenment thinker,” others, such as Francis Wheen, opted for stronger language to combat “mumbo-jumbo” irrationalism, perhaps inspired by Ernest Gellner’s self-identification in his 1992 book Postmodernism, Reason and Religion as an “Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalist.”

The strident rationalism of Hitchens, Wheen et al is, in this way, simply the vulgarisation of a long intellectual tradition, whereby thinkers view the Enlightenment in terms of whatever happens to be “modernity” at a given time, whether it is the atheist and communist modernity of the early 20th century or the secular, democratic modernity of today. As the Stanford historian Dan Edelstein recently pointed out, “accounts of the Enlightenment accordingly become something else entirely: thinly veiled ideological manifestos or pale reflections of current trends.”

Which makes it all the more strange that none of the major voices in this recent debate about the legacy of the Enlightenment belongs to a historian. It’s not as if the archives have been absent of historians investigating the intellectual world of 18th-century Europe. Since at least Peter Gay’s monumental The Enlightenment (1966), scholars have been attempting to reconstruct what the philosophes thought about their own politics and societies. What’s more, they have told us who read the philosophes’ work and what they made of it. They have told us that the Enlightenment was not only based in Paris and Scotland but in Italy, Poland and the European periphery. They have debated the reformist and revolutionary influence of the Enlightenment, and argued whether we can even speak of a single Enlightenment, given its various local manifestations. Our knowledge of the political, intellectual and cultural world in which the 18th-century revolution of the mind took place is vastly deeper and more textured than it was 50 years ago.

And yet this vast industry of research has scarcely registered in the trench warfare over the Enlightenment’s intellectual legacy. For whatever reason, the nuancing, problematising conclusions of historians have failed to break the centuries-old Kantian-Hegelian lines across which philosophers, theorists and journalists trade ideological artillery. Historians are certainly not oblivious to the contemporary relevance of the Enlightenment, and the achievements of scholars over the past half-century, such as Robert Darnton, Daniel Roche and Franco Venturi, have been extraordinary, necessary, and celebrated in the world of academia; but their assertions have largely failed to resonate above the clamorous tussle over modernity.

Perhaps frustrated by the impotence of historians in fighting for liberal causes, in 2001 Jonathan Israel released his inner Sandor Himmelstein and published the first (800-page) instalment of a three-part history of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Here was a historian with impressive credentials in the study of Spanish imperialism, the origins of capitalism and the emergence of secularism in the 17th-century Dutch Republic—ideally qualified, it seemed, to tie in the contingent origins of the Enlightenment with its complex philosophical and political legacies.

No such luck. Despite the erudition of Israel’s monumental trilogy, he has rightly been criticised for an out-of-control obsession with Spinoza and for his apparent belief that what seem, to modern eyes, like the strongest philosophical arguments of the age (for liberty, democracy, tolerance) were also the most important historically. Many critics took Israel to be projecting a particularly benevolent view of western secular democracy into the distant and fundamentally different past. Once again, the 18th century had been swallowed whole by modernity, its supposed creation.

What is a historian of ideas to do? A pessimist would say she is faced with two options. She could continue to research the Enlightenment on its own terms, and wait for those who fight over its legacy—who are somehow confident in their definitions of what “it” was—to take notice. Or, as Israel has done, she could pick a side, and mobilise an immense archive for the cause of liberal modernity or for the cause of its enemies. In other words, she could join Moses Herzog, with his letters that never get read and his questions that never get answered, or she could join Sandor Himmelstein and the loud, ignorant bastards. Is there any other way?


Hope of redemption comes with the news that Anthony Pagden has written a book called The Enlightenment, And Why It Still Matters (Oxford University Press, £20). Pagden, now at UCLA, has had a globetrotting career of which most academics can only dream. Educated in Chile, London and Oxford, he has held a host of positions in the history, politics and philosophy departments at many of England, Europe and America’s most elite academic institutions. He has written learned studies of western-European imperialisms, migrations and ideologies. His last book was a survey of 2500 years of global conflict between “east” and “west.” He is, without question, a man of the world, and perfectly qualified to give us a global perspective on why the Enlightenment, in all its historical particularity, “still matters.”

Pagden’s story begins with the world that the Enlightenment saw itself as replacing. The great thinkers of the 17th century—Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke—destroyed the scholasticism of the universities, which held that the human mind is hardwired with innate, God-given ideas, and replaced it with an account of human nature that relied instead on empirical experience and self-interest. The 18th century therefore inherited a worldview with rational man, not God, at its centre. But with Christianity no longer pulling the intellectual strings, what was to stop humanity from lapsing into self-centredness, cruelty and conflict?

The Enlightenment’s great achievement, Pagden argues, was to repair the bonds of mankind. Its distinctive feature was not that it held history, nature, theology and political authority to the scrutiny of reason, as most of its critics and many of its champions claim, but instead that it recognised our common humanity—our ability to place ourselves in another’s situation and, ultimately, to sympathise with them. Adam Smith and David Hume taught us that man is neither a creation of God nor a selfish pursuer of his own interests; at the most fundamental level, man is the friend of man. This, Pagden argues, was the origin of cosmopolitanism: the central Enlightenment belief in a common humanity and an awareness of belonging to some world larger than your own community.

For Pagden, the significance of this turn in human thought cannot be exaggerated. Cosmopolitanism “was, and remains, possibly the only way to persuade human beings to live together in harmony with one another, or, to put it differently, to stop killing each other.” It is inextricably tied to the Enlightenment’s “universalising vision of the human world” that ultimately led to a conception of civilisation in which questions of justice can be applied and upheld at a global level. Pagden admonishes critics of the Enlightenment project such as Gray and Macintyre for reducing it to a movement based on autonomous reason and objective science. Instead, the Enlightenment was about sympathy, the invention of civilisation, and the pursuit of a cosmopolitan world order.

While he is clearly in the Kantian camp in arguing for why the Enlightenment still matters, Pagden wants to make it clear that all participants in the debate have been fighting over the wrong issues. And these issues still matter because the cosmopolitan project is still incomplete. In shifting the focus of the Enlightenment away from science and reason in favour of sympathy and civilisation, Pagden may well have dodged the odd postmodern bullet. But what if his version of the Enlightenment is in fact even more questionable than the traditional “Age of Reason” Enlightenment with which the Hegelians, the postmodernists and the communitarians had such fun?

One major problem is that Pagden’s cosmopolitanism rests on outright hostility to any religion. He believes that as long as any “ethics of belief” still exists, the Enlightenment project will remain incomplete. For the most part, his presentist defence of secular cosmopolitanism is restrained to coy, rhetorical asides about suicide bombers, Pope Benedict XVI and “uneducated believers.” Yet it manifests itself fully in the book’s conclusion: a bizarre counter-history of a Europe in which the Enlightenment never happened—a Europe that had “dropped behind,” before being conquered by its “centuries-old antagonist to the east, the Ottoman Empire.” It is a Europe in which nobody can think for himself, choosing instead to listen to the Prophet and his laws. Europe has become a civilisation which fails to progress, which is no kind of civilisation at all.

This is a peculiar attempt to prove that the Enlightenment is all that stands between the west and Islamist despotism. But it is the natural culmination of a narrative that presents the Enlightenment project as the discovery of some timeless truth that had previously been obscured by religion. This raises a further objection to Pagden’s cosmopolitanism: it unquestioningly endorses the Enlightenment belief that “civilisation” is the inevitable destiny of all human beings and all human societies. The philosophes worked this out in Europe in the 18th century, thinks Pagden, and we in the west are still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

But a cosmopolitanism that rests upon ideals that were developed centuries ago in a few corners of Europe is just about the most restrictive, parochial cosmopolitanism imaginable. In its advocacy of a global “civilising process” it is archly imperial, recalling the condescending liberal aspirations that Thomas Macaulay and John Stuart Mill once held for the British Empire’s Indian subjects. And in its comprehensive rejection of religion as having any role to play in human understanding and organisation, it is a hopeless model for modern global governance. No society has ever existed without being accompanied by some form of religion or spirituality; this holds true today, even in the “disenchanted” west. If the dawning of a new cosmopolitan era is waiting on the disappearance of religion from human affairs, it will be waiting a long time.

This point about global governance is key, as Pagden is a keen supporter of supranational institutions such as the UN, tracing their origins back to Kant’s essay Toward a Perpetual Peace (1795). Kant was never quite clear on what this institution would be—a “league of peoples,” “an international state,” a “universal nation of states”—but Pagden emphasises that Kant could imagine a peaceful, global federation of political representatives. The global institutions that we have now, he argues, should be seen as a laudable attempt to make Kant’s imagined federation a reality.

Pagden’s faith in these institutions might strike some as quixotic, as the European Union struggles to find an effective democratic solution to its financial troubles, as UN sanctions struggle to deter bellicose nuclear powers, and as the US continues to see itself as exempt from the International Criminal Court. As Mark Mazower’s recent book persuasively argued, one of the principal lessons of the 20th century is that the claims of cosmopolitan ideals and institutions to trump the sanctity of borders “may turn out to produce more wars, more massacres and more instability.” And even if some form of cosmopolitanism or global legalism is needed to solve the problems of the 21st century, why should the answers lie exclusively with the cosmopolitanism of 18th century Europe? Arguing from the authority of the philosophes is unlikely to convince those non-European cultures which have their own heritage of cosmopolitan thought, nor those where the legacy of European imperialism is still a political factor.

Voltaire implored his contemporaries to eschew their deference to the past; perhaps it is time historians and theorists of the Enlightenment do the same. Pagden thinks the cosmopolitan Enlightenment that he has identified is so important that he has unquestioningly adopted its secular worldview, which sees global history marching in one direction, towards a future that was imagined in Europe over 200 years ago. In making his Enlightenment about sympathetic cosmopolitanism, he believes he has successfully broken free from the interminable debate about the legacy of the Age of Reason, in which the charges laid against the philosophes include technocratic scientism and the atomisation of society. But one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist, nor a postcolonial activist, to take exception to Pagden’s European triumphalism.


But all is not lost. Pagden makes no secret of writing his history of the Enlightenment with current debates in mind. Such presentism can skew our view of the past, and make us read into it the stories we want to tell ourselves. But it can also encourage us to discover aspects of the past that have previously been overlooked. And if Pagden’s account of enlightened cosmopolitanism is a surprisingly conventional narrative prompted by current controversies of “globalisation,” then there are promising signs that more original attempts will follow.

David Armitage, the Harvard historian, has recently argued that a renaissance in the history of international thought is underway. Intellectual historians are studying the movement, connections and interactions of ideas, how they travel and how they are communicated. Historians of the Enlightenment, for example, have begun to pay attention to Adam Smith’s claim that the two most important events in the history of mankind were the discovery of America and that of the passage to the East Indies around the Cape of Good Hope. The philosophes lived in a world connected across oceans by networks of navigation, commerce and correspondence, providing a contingent basis for their universal conceptions of cosmopolitanism and cultural progress. Humanity was drawn closer together in the 18th century not only in the minds of a few great thinkers but in a fundamentally material way as well.

While globalisation has encouraged historians to explore the spatial scope of Enlightenment ideas, another 21st century concern of planetary significance—the threat of climate change and global warming—has sent scholars in another fruitful direction. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted, the Enlightenment coincided with the period in which human beings switched from wood and other renewable fuels to the large-scale use of fossil fuels; the origins of ideological and material modernity, in other words, coincided with humankind becoming capable of causing lasting change to the planet. As Chakrabarty puts it, “the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” The not entirely unrealistic possibility that mankind might not in the future exist on this planet, that there might be a world without us, therefore calls into question the notions of freedom and of civilisation progressing endlessly into the future which began in the 18th century, along with mankind’s first significant intervention into its planetary environment.

These are grand historical projects, reflecting the scale of the contemporary concerns out of which they have emerged. It is unclear how the Enlightenment will look against the backdrop of primitive globalisation, or the planet’s transition to the anthropocene, but chances are that perspectives of such magnitude might shake the convictions of Kantians and Hegelians alike. These approaches will not be able to provide us with an Enlightenment that “still matters” in the sense that it has all of the answers to our political and philosophical anxieties. But unlike in Herzog, a question that goes unanswered is not always the sign of a nervous breakdown or of ideological impotence. A healthy society needs intellectuals to ask uncomfortable questions. After all, one of the many reasons the Enlightenment still matters is that it taught us to question how we got here, and what that might mean for where we’re going. And with questions like that, who can hope for easy answers?

Michael Ignatieff: In defence of the Enlightenment

John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong. We are not becoming less violent.

A Tory Communist: Ian Buruma interviews Eric Hobsbawm

The origins of globalisation by Matthew Wolfson

Three days with Christopher Hitchens by Alexander Linklater

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