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Enlightening the enlightenment

Recently, some European politicians and journalists have been making well-intentioned appeals to the “spirit of the Enlightenment” or the “values of the Enlightenment”. In the face of resurgent nationalism not only in Europe, but also in the USA, Brazil, China, India, Russia and some other nations and in the face of authoritarian and totalitarian political movements that question parliamentary democracy and the free democratic constitutional state, the need seems to arises to position oneself not only ideologically, but also historically by pointing to one’s cultural roots.

Unfortunately, it is rarely clear what is actually meant by the “spirit of the Enlightenment” or the “values of the Enlightenment”. For many political institutions that were still taken for granted in the 18th century by some famous philosophers and theologians, public intellectuals and ideologues, are no longer demanded neither by liberals nor by (liberal) conservatives at least in Europe (without Russia and Turkey). Such institutions were the death penalty and slavery, outdated concepts of race and a racially homogeneous understanding of the nation, natural law as based on a common religion, an absolute and not only representative monarchy, wars between peoples and principalities or pre-modern forms of a republic without a secular rule of law.

Enlightenment is always necessary when dull prejudices dominate in public, when presumed truths are veiled and when probable improvements of political conditions are prevented. At the beginning of the 21st century, such dull prejudices include above all racist prejudices and derogatory stereo-types about certain ethnic groups, such as Arabs and Africans, Latinos and Asians or Sinti and Roma, as well as prejudices about “old white men”, the elderly and disabled, men and women, gays and lesbians, and finally religious prejudices against Jews, Christians and Muslims. Such prejudices are not to be condoned or condoned even if one no longer clings to the optimistic and progressivist view that they will disappear one fine day.

1. Prejudices about the Enlightenment

However, there are also prejudices and historically inadequate conceptions about the Enlightenment itself. They pertain to both, to the epoch of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and to the project of the Enlightenment by means of science and philosophy. But Enlightenment as an intellectual inquiry and public instruction is always necessary when fashionable slogans and empty words are used in public, which are ideologically charged, but hardly ever questioned. This also applies to the fashionable slogans of the Enlightenment itself.

For several decades many historians studying the cultural and intellectual history of the epoch of the  Enlightenment have been gathering under the umbrella of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS / SIEDS), which is connecting more than 30 national societies for the study of the epoch of Enlightenment.

The philosopher of science Juergen Mittelstrass (University of Konstanz) has suggested that there were actually three epochs of the intellectual project of Enlightenment in the cultural and intellectual history of Europe:

The first epoch of the intellectual project of Enlightenment had been the early classical period of Greek philosophy, which was initiated by Socrates, and realized by Plato and Aristotle. They had challenged early Greek mythology, Greek polytheism and pre-Socratic speculation on nature such that they broke down and were finally overcome. Christian thinkers, such as Augustine or Boethius, later also contributed to this radical intellectual achievement.

The second epoch of the intellectual project of Enlightenment had taken place in the Renaissance, when science and technology, individualisation and historisation attained a tremendous upswing until it was put in its place by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Although this second instance of the intellectual project of Enlightenment was not a glorious period of philosophy, it was a high point in the technical and practical application of the knowledge gained up to that point in the arts and technologies as well as in economics and politics.

The third epoch of the intellectual project of Enlightenment then has been then the period known today as the “Age of Enlightenment” (Enlightenment / Les Lumieres) at least 200 years after the Reformation, which in cultural history can be located between the early modern period of the 17th century and the romantic period of the 19th century. In terms of the history of science, this period of the Enlightenment is commonly located after the rise of Newtonian mechanics (Principiae, 1687) and before Laplace’s Exposition du système du monde (1796).

Mittelstrass’ suggestion is helpful as soon as one wants to get a general idea of what ‘Enlightenment’ can mean as an intellectual project in general without referring only to the specific epoch of Enlightenment in the 18th century. For such a general concept of this type of intellectual projects is not up to the historians of the 18th century, but rather to philosophers. Therefore, it is not the historians of the 18th century who came up with such a general concept of the intellectual project of Enlightenment, but philosophers who have not only studied the Enlightenment in the 18th century, but similar intellectual projects before. Some of these philosophers were Jews or Christians, others were rationalist or empiricist thinkers without denominational ties. These thinkers were mostly inspired by the classical philosophies of Plato and Aristotle or by the conceptions of the Stoics or Epicureans: the “radical Enlightenment” of Spinoza can be adequately conceived as a new variety of Stoicicm and the sceptic Enlightenment of Hume as a new variety of Epicureanism.

2. Four philosophical studies to understand the Enlightenment

Mainly, there are four elaborate inquiries that have gained some impact in European philosophical research on the concept an epoch of the Enlightenment:

Ernst Cassirer: The German-Jewish philosopher came from the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism (Hermann Cohen, Paul Natorp, Karl Vorländer) and in his philosophical writings drew on Leibniz, Goethe and Kant. He was one of the first Neo-Kantians who sought to examine more modern developments in mathematics, such as e.g. non-Euclidian Geometry, in physics, such as the relativity theory of space and time, and in the humanities, linguistics and anthropology. His goal was to integrate these modern scientific conceptions into Neo-Kantianism. Cassirer’s philosophical-historical diagnoses on knowledge and the “Philosophy of the Enlightenment” (1932) still assume quite optimistically that since the epoch of the Renaissance “Man” has learned to orientate himself on various “values” which are no longer prescribed to him by some traditional authorities or an “Objective Mind” in the sense of Hegel, but which he is responsible for of his own free will. Again, it is supposed to self-appointed enlightened intellectuals who influence the masses of people to orient themselves morally correctly in order to lead them to the hoped-for “light of reason”. However, what happened to the Enlightenment’s insistent criticism of sentimentality and naïve enthusiasm? What about the sentimentality and enthusiasm at the origin of the totalitarian ideologies and political mass movements of Fascism, National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism? After two World Wars, after the Holocaust and the Archipel Gulag, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this unbroken optimism about the intellectual project of enlightenment sounds somehow naïve, stale and too enthusiastic. Secular faith in an alleged automatism of intellectual, ethical and political progress and the flattering idea of some intellectuals and politicians that they live on the bright and right side of history have received too heavy blows in the rather dark 20th Century.

Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer: After two world wars and after clarifying the global public about the Shoa, these two German-Jewish intellectuals wrote their mostly influential book “The Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1944). What had happened between 1933 and 1945 in Germany and all over Europe forced them to ask the radical and challenging question, to what extent the European Enlightenment and secularization also led to the ideological and totalitarian mass movements of National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, not only ideological naturalism with its biological Darwinism and practical instrumentalism were put to the test, but also the “revolt of the masses” against the critical minds and living spirits of many creative intellectuals. For both mass movements attacked the classical philosophical questions about the good life and the good state, as well as Kant’s critical philosophy of reason and Hegel’s speculative spiritual metaphysics. Their critical analyses of the capitalist culture industry, which is able to transform even seemingly elucidating thoughts and works of art into venal fetishes and commodities, have not lost much of their topicality up to this day. However, this also applies to the cheap call for a “new Enlightenment” that no longer takes on the hard “work on the concepts” (Hegel) and only makes manic and panicky political demands, but tries to avoid the laborious “drilling of thick planks” (Max Weber).

Panajotis Kondylis: The Greek historian of ideas and scholar, tied in more with Nietzsche and Marx, like Michel Foucault, rather than with Kant and Hegel, like Adorno and Horkheimer. In his extensive inquiry “The Enlightenment in the Context of Modern Rationalism” (1981) he attempted to radically reduce the entire discourse of the epoch of the European Enlightenment to a common denominator. According to Kondylis, the discussions of the Enlightenment philosophers are said to have been merely a dispute between empirical defenders of sensuality and rationalist defenders of understanding and reason. With this overly simplifying claim, however, Kondylis falls behind Kant and Hegel. For Kant’s critical philosophy was quite rightly interpreted as a fruitful and lasting synthesis of empiricist and rationalist convictions, and for Hegel had not completely rejected neither Kant’s philosophical conceptions about the faculties of the human mind nor the theoretical and practical goals of the French Enlightenment. However, Kondylis’ naturalistic and instrumentalist reduction of the intellectual life of the human mind as being always only in the service of a “will to power” (Nietzsche) can serve all kinds of hands and heads, not only Hitler’s “workers of the forehead and workers of the fist” but also Stalin’s murderous henchmen of the Russian Revolution and Mao’s barbaric fighters of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. One may wonder what Kant and Rousseau had to say about such a fundamental misunderstanding of their critical contributions to the leading philosophies of the enlightenment.

Rainer Enskat: In contrast to previous studies of the history of ideas about the epoch and discourse of the Enlightenment, Enskat’s very dense, sophisticated and difficult investigation (Conditions of the Enlightenment, 2008) starts out from a new and original clarifying analysis of the concept of Enlightenment. Any satisfactory concept of enlightenment, according to Enskat, has to provide sufficient informations about who wants to enlighten (enlighteners), whom (those who are to be enlightened) about what (facts and problems), how (methods and resources) and for what purpose (goals and purposes). On the basis of this new and manifold questions, Enskat reconstructs and discusses in detail how Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his ingenious investigation of the chemistry and the main works of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment of his time, has already discovered the core problem of judgement and the notorious difficulties of the project of an “Enlightenment through science”. Enskats investigation gains lasting relevance for all contemporary intellectuals who would only too gladly follow on from the modern era of the European “Enlightenment through Science”. For all new attempts of a supposed “Enlightenment through Science” still fail, because they have not sufficiently analysed their own understanding of enlightenment. That applies not only, but also when they are directed in the positivist sense of “Aufkläricht” (Kant) against faith and reason, theology and philosophy. For the modern sciences, arts and techniques constantly present us humans with new difficult challenges, which at any rate cannot be mastered by the sciences, arts and techniques alone. For no scientific theory, no matter how well confirmed, and no technical invention, no matter how sophisticated, can tell us how to make “good use” of them in order to avoid undesirable side effects and long-term damage to man and nature, despite of all expected success.

The achievement and value of Enskats contribution to a philosophical understanding of the concept and intellectual project of Enlightenment has become fully apparent in the current debates about global warming and about the corona-virus-pandemic. First of all it should be a truism that there is no such uniform thing as “science” as such. At any rate and at any topic, there are always many scientists, many ongoing scientific research programs and many scientific discussions.

But apart from even the most reliable data and statistics, apart from even the best evidence-based diagnoses and prognoses of leading experts in the fields of either meteorology and climatology or virology and epidemiology, and even apart from well informed risk-management, it is always necessary that adequate judgments and smart decisions have to be made by virtuous politicians in the light of genuine moral and ethical principles as well as in the light of responsible economic and political considerations. However, it is still up to philosophical discourse to gain insights about convincing ethical and moral principles, about responsible economics and decent politics within modern government. Therefore, enlightenment through science alone is not possible and philosophical discourse still matters.

However, philosophers still have to strive for real philosophy by gaining lasting insights and not for clever sophistry in pursuit of quick rhetorical success in influencing the crowds. This is even more true at the beginning of our early 21st century when the crowds have become at first only fascinated and then even obsessed by an undigestible flood of informations and by an overwhelming stream of pictures in the common matrix of TV and the digital media. Human beings are simply not made for this – neither by God nor by evolution. What many people are currently doing to themselves, is overstraining and going against their human nature.

3. Enlightening the enlightenment

Should contemporary philosophers and theologians, scientists and politicians continue to introduce the fashionable buzzword of ‘Enlightenment’ into the field of public and political debate, despite of numerous misunderstandings about the concept, the era and the intellectual project of the Enlightenment? Can they do this without merely repeating the rather superficial rhetoric of many ideologues of the Enlightenment? Can they do so without clarifying the main leading ideas of the unredeemed promise of the previous attempts of Enlightenment? Should they do so without evading the serious issues and complex problems of scientific, economic, ecological and political realities? Is it responsible to do so despite of the truism that there is nothing like “listening to science”?

After all, at our universities we need sober diagnoses and dialectical analyses of the bright and the dark sides of the era, the concept and the project of enlightening the supposedly unenlightened citizens and people. For most of the best philosophers of the epoch of the Enlightenment, like Kant and Rousseau, Reid and Smith rightly doubted the hot-headed raptures of a shallow Enlightenment.

However, those who propagate Enlightenment today, but actually mean only atheism, naturalism, scientism and historicism, are neither historically well informed nor philosophically well educated. Those who still propagate “Enlightenment”, must honestly also say what they really mean by it. For Enlightenment as the ideological and political project of a boundless naturalization and historization of the public Lebenswelten of education and science, of law and state, of economy and politics has already crashed in the bloody, violent and technocratic genocide and wars of the 20th century.

This ideological and political project was based on naturalist and historicist worldviews of the 18th and 19th centuries, which are no longer suitable for the 21st century with its methodological and ontological pluralism. For this reason, what is needed today above all is a convincing philosophical and historical explanation of Enlightenment, i.e. a diligent explanation of the epoch, the project and the concept of Enlightenment.

No philosophy, no society, and no age can give up enlightenment altogether. But never before has it been as necessary as today to enlighten the enlightenment.

Ulrich DiehlUlrich Diehl

Ulrich Diehl

Ulrich Walter Diehl is a Philosopher and Protestant Theologian at the University of Heidelberg and held academic positions with the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of European Enlightenment (IZEA) at Martin-Luther-University in Halle-Wittenberg and the Karl-Jaspers-Edition of Heidelberger Academy of Sciences.

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