Sunday, July 31, 2022


549. Turn the Enlightenment down a bit

This is the title of a book that is coming out, in Dutch. Here I give a summary of its core, in English

Aghast at the irrationality, emotionality, fake news and conspiracy theories of our time, people have rallied under the slogan ‘Back to the Enlightenment’, with its promises of rationality and clarity. I sympathise with that, but warn that we should accept also the limitations of that, of reason and clear language, because otherwise we lose the Enlightenment altogether, and don’t see some threats to democracy.

Reason and science do not yield certainty. They are crucial but limited and one-sided, with disciplines looking in one direction and not others, and their insights being temporary, subject to new insights and theories. Our cognition, the working of brain and body, need emotions to direct our body and mind. Much of our motivation is subconscious, with shortcuts of ‘heuristics’. The merit of science is change on the basis of mutual criticism of scientists.

Language is often ambiguous. Public, stable meaning of concepts is only part of it. Next to such public, temporarily stable meaning for the sake of agreed reference (Frege) or ‘langue’ (Sassure)is one part. Another part is how people assign things to a category, recognise things ‘as’ something, called ‘sense’ by Frege, in a living stream of thought, called ‘parole’ by de Saussure. Together, they form a ‘hermeneutic circle’, where general meanings become specific, individual. in a sentence, in an action context, the general concept of ‘cat’ becomes that specific cat of mine, lying there on the mat. Exceptional specifics, when shared between people, can cause a shift of the general concept. This is how meanings change.

Asa result, meaning is not fixed, and is often ambiguous, allowing for deviations. That can be cumbersome, in discourse, but is in fact not a problem but rather a blessing, in leaving some room for variety of people, idiosyncracy and autonomy, a certain freeing of life and a source of change of ideas.

Neglect of the changeability of knowledge and meaning, in some excessive idealisation of the Enlightenment, makes society stagnant, homogeneous and totalitarian. In banning emotions, it reduces people to stereotypes, machines, automatons. It is better to live in a messy, volatile world, than in a stagnant and inhuman one.

Partly on the basis of this analysis, in the Dutch book I enumerate twelve threats to democracy. Democracy is threatened by loss of the ideals of the Enlightement, but also by neglect of its limitations



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