Tuesday, August 14, 2012

21. Problems with the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment has brought much good, in freedom, equality, democracy, universal human rights, education, and science, but has run into its imperfections. The ideals, especially of the radical stream, are wonderful but the ideas do not quite work. The individual is not so rational and not so autonomous. Objective knowledge in a strict sense is unattainable. The main source for correcting one’s errors and revising one’s prejudices lies in critical response from others. In social and political structures and processes rationality loses out to conflicts between private and public interest, and to institutional and political interests. Individuals are socialized and indoctrinated into existing practices and views and are locked into them. The moderate Enlightenment had more eye for this than the radical stream.

We cannot do without the use of rational, logical argument with sharp, exact, well-defined concepts, but when that rules supreme, it blocks the vitality of inspiration, invention, innovation and art. Those require doubt and ambiguity, shifts of meaning, and new ideas of which the boundaries are not yet clear. Invention, development and the flourishing of life require the acceptance of uncertainty and ongoing though shifting ignorance.

In their overestimation of the mind some Enlightenment philosophers (but not Spinoza, for example) neglected the body. Cartesian (and platonic) separation of body and soul, needed to maintain immortality of the soul, and to keep the soul free from blemishes of the body, led to underestimation of the body and human nature. I will discuss the relation between body and mind later in this blog.

We should take into account the limits of reason and of knowledge, ill-understood human nature, roots of cognition in the body, lack of transparency of the self to the self, the unconscious in our cognition, the feeding ground of thinking and feeling in social connections, the hidden power of institutions, a penchant for mysticism and an urge to transcend the human being in something that is higher and carries it across death. More than 90% of our thought is unconscious. I discussed this in an earlier piece on free will.

All this pulls the rug from under the radical Enlightenment. To me that is not an occasion for joy. I would that there could be more Enlightenment thinking. I dread a society such as the present, which evolves towards more emotion and less reason, more opinion and less argument and fewer facts, more impulse and less reflection, less patience, and more drama. In due course that cannot but go wrong. The temptation for demagogues to manipulate it with new totalitarian ideologies and fanaticisms is too great. It can lead to new hunts for heretics, suppression, persecution, murder, and war.

We should keep on striving for reasonableness, freedom, justice, peace and universal human rights, and here we can maintain at least the spirit, if not the substance of the Enlightenment. Perhaps the core of it is openness to critical debate.

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