The Enlightenment and its Misfortunes

coffeehouse2 in britain in 18th C

The Enlightenment is both a concept in the history of philosophy and a historical period in the foundation of Western modernity. It has many versions and several nationalities. What follows is one interpretation and in a sense one moral intervention, for as a recent historian has put it: ‘No other period in history has attracted so much disagreement, so much intransigence, so much simple anger.’ (Anthony Pagden The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters 2013, p.5) It’s the feeling that this is really a quarrel over how to live that both situates the Enlightenment as a series of moves in philosophy and makes certain kinds of philosophers disown it.  More trivially, the philosophes of eighteenth-century France, who made the Enlightenment’s name, men like Voltaire and d’Alembert and Diderot, were not philosophers but hugely talented all-rounders able to write and propagandise to an unprecedentedly broad educated public they helped create. They were publicists. The irony is that two centuries later philosophy proper would rediscover their inter-subjective activity as just the right kind of foundation for a liberal society. See the work of Habermas.

My story her however, by which I hope to bring out the nature of that quarrel over how to live, with or without the Church, and with what consequences, begins with Descartes.

I might have begun with the Greeks, of whom that great mid twentieth-century intellectual historian Peter Gay wrote that the great affinity of the Enlightenment was to classical thought and both ages were pagan. (The Enlightenment, 2 vols (1970) I, 8-9) For Gay this meant that Socrates on reason was a better guide to life than Augustine on faith. Gay, said by a more recent historian to have been writing in an optimistic age (Roy Porter The Enlightenment 2nd ed. 2001) , certainly more optimistic than the present (and largely screening out the evils of the Holocaust and two world wars) assumed that the West faced a choice between Christian and Ancient models. Modernity in the West defined itself by prising knowledge, and the definition of human nature, free from Church control, and developing ideas of critique and power. It’s possible Gay didn’t think hard about the term ‘paganism’, because his concluding first volume essay on ‘David Hume the Complete Modern Pagan’ already conflated it with atheism. But you can see that his point of departure was in tune with the philosophes’ own relationship with the classical world. They were keen to use its respected authors to bolster contemporary liberation from religious interference in scientific matters and to support what they hoped would become the modern scientific underpinnings of human happiness.

I might have begun with Locke (1632-1704) , whose interest in a specifically human way of understanding, without interference from God, was a landmark in the late seventeenth century. Locke’s sense of our possessing an inner eye that represents to us how the world is, for all the difficulties of argument that led Locke into, seemed to underscore a new cognitive independence for a self-reliant human nature.

Or with Newton (1642-1727) , whose discovery of mathematical laws created a mechanical model for how the universe might work and stimulated a quest for physical  laws and among the philosophers for moral laws governing human existence.

Or with Kant, whose 1784 essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ is often taken as a convenient peg for examining the German contribution to the modern mind-set travelling in a liberal humanist direction, in partnership with a faith in science and our human capacity to pursue disinterested truth as best we can.

But in this range of choices over two and a half milennia, and in particular over two centuries, I want to stay with Descartes (1596-1650).

Not as a physicist, but as a philosopher who imagined a new order of knowledge. Descartes struggled to free himself from the explanatory power of Christian faith  His self-conversion from the medieval idea of credo, ut intellegam (in the words of Saint Anselm, responding to Saint Augustine’s exhortation that we should all do the same), ‘believe, in order to know’ Descartes asserted (I’m paraphrasing here) that ‘I must doubt everything, in order to know’. The need for scepticism vis a vis his own powers of discernment fills the opening pages of Descartes’ 1637 Meditations on First Philosophy, which treat certainty as precious and hard-won. Descartes’ conclusion about his scientific independence defining his humanity, his ‘I think therefore I am’, was a kind of Nietzschean self-overcoming two centuries before Nietzsche’s time. Descartes dreamt that his ambitions would divorce him from the church, even against his will, yet require a parallel monastic dedication as he built up a new body of knowledge from scratch, trying to discern clear and discrete truths apprehended by himself at his most self-critical. What empowered him with a capacity for clarity he called reason, although in the end he wanted with his discovery of so much power in his human mind to pay tribute to a God he felt must have arranged things so well. Descartes’ rationalism made an accommodation with God. God so made the world that our true perceptions actually coincide with how things are, Descartes believed. As his contemporaries quickly saw, it didn’t matter whether his results coincided with God’s universe or not. The method of doubt was the thing. But I think you can see here that what I’ll call the perennial worry about separating facts and values is there right at the beginning of Descartes’ stimulus to the Enlightened centuries ahead.

The story of who exactly Descartes influenced in England and France is not important here. Suffice to say that Pierre Bayle, the man who wrote the first critical guide to the new secular way with knowledge (Dictionnaire historique et critique 1697), was his biographer. Descartes was one of those magisterial figures paving the way for the French eighteenth century, the so-called siecle des lumières, from which all other Enlightenments would take their name.

In the eighteenth century the power of mathematics (enhanced by the genius of Newton, but also by the German  Leibniz 1646-1716) backs up the philosophes’ anti-clericalism. A weakening of the Bible’s authority as the foundation for knowledge stimulates an extraordinary proliferation of interest in what is specific to human nature and human understanding. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding back in 1689, followed by Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1739) and its revision as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws (1748) in which he writes that ‘the divinity has its laws, the material world its laws…man has his laws’, and Condillac’s Treatise on Sensations (1784) set the stage in England and France for a new sense of humanity, with Montesquieu taking on the political implications. (A thorough study would want to make a detour back to to Hobbes here, and Pagden’s 2013 Enlightenment does just that.) And so emerged that strongly anti-clerical French intellectual class of the philosophes, an elite with broad practical, communicative as well as intellectual skills and a vision of a new order of knowledge. Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie became both its real and symbolic vehicle. From Montesquieu to Rousseau, Voltaire to Condorcet the philosophes write a new politics and new history, history having also been liberated from the Biblical account of the origins of man. These are also public intellectuals, disseminating knowledge in a newly created public space. Freedom of speech is one of the standards they carry. And once again one has to think of Habermas, rediscovering their ideals for twentieth-century post-war Germany and the rest of the liberal world. From the Greek forum to the European Coffee House to the intersubjectivity of free media, and surely one might say the idealistic beginnings of the worldwide web, the Enlightenment ideal was of the free exchange of ideas. (And of goods.)

Now, one can explore this Enlightenment centred on France, and on that political freedom in England that so impressed Montesquieu andVoltaire, in many fruitful ways, eg with a concentration on the book trade, and not forgetting the role of eg Adam Smith as an Enlightenment figure. This was a world of new economic sentiments too. One can counter some of the elitism of the philosophes by investigating, say, the journalistic popularisation of anticlericalism. But I want to stick to that great new interest in what human nature and human understanding are, and focus for a moment on the paramount Enlightenment figure, the Scotsman who thought of himself as English in the sense of British, David Hume (1711-1776).

Hume was an atheist. He never had any doubts about being an atheist, and saw no need to include God, or divine making, even the least hint of divine assent, in the description of human nature and human understanding that he set out to build up empirically. He shared Descartes’ courage (and the courage to know things for oneself will become one of Kant’s definitions of Enlightenment). But he disbelieved in metaphysical reason, which he understood quite narrowly as an extension of mathematics, as the way to account for the knowledge we live by. Against Descartes Hume was an anti-rationalist and a pioneer of an empirical explanation of human understanding. For his deliberately down-to-earth theory of mind, as it were, he explained how our knowledge came from our sense impressions. These range from the simple to the complex, as they are combined by virtue of resemblance, contiguity, cause and effect. What we call our ideas are but faded, remembered impressions. Hume is a pioneer of Critique, of the key modern impulse to know knowledge, and Critique in this sense becomes a synonym for Enlightenment from Kant to Foucault. But he is also, to my taste, with those ideas defined as faded impressions, stunningly anti-intellectual.

I mean, suppose we live like Hume, as rather practical-minded and pragmatic atheists. Is his empirical account of knowledge good enough stand for what it means to be enlightened henceforth? Is that what we mean by Enlightenment Reason?

The philosopher who thought not was Kant.

Now the picture of the Englightenment I’m building up here is one that is tense and alive with controversy over how well equipped we are to be home alone on the planet. Enlightenment man is full of pride and courage in breaking away from religious authority and going independent, but there is a fundamental clash between the empirical and the rationalist way to proceed.

Kant, writing towards the end of the eighteenth century – he died in 1801 – was, against Hume, unashamedly a metaphysician in a tradition most recently influenced by Leibniz, and is best named with the original German word: die Aufklärung. For Leibniz, who can be seen as the father of the German Enlightenment, the issue of separation from God was not important (and this may be because the Protestant church of his environment was more inward and less intrusive into the public realm than the Catholic Church in France. Descartes after all had to flee from France to Protestant Holland once he began publishing.) So Leibniz. For Leibniz God was the master mechanic, and he created a perfect world for us to function in through our systematic use of reason. (See for a meticulous account, Ernst Cassirer The Philosophy of the Enlightenment 1932)

Now, because for a long time Aufklärung was routinely translated into English as ‘Enlightenment’ the distinction with the Anglo-French eighteenth century used to be blurred, at best. But the distinctive difference between the two is why for instance Michel Foucault will always use the German term to what he means, in fact not negatively, by ‘Enlightenment’. And I think that by looking for tensions between those branches of the Enlightenment we can get back to the energy that fuelled this great homage to reason, and its place in our modern lives, in the first place.

Kant is only one of many fresh publicistic voices in the German eighteenth century, including the key figures of Moses Mendelssohn and Lessing. An important aspect of the German Aufklärung was the emancipation of the Jews. German thinkers were also markedly concerned with the education of the new kind of man. Lessing was a great playwright and thinker whose work embraced both of these impulses forwards. But it’s Kant who is the real author of the Aufklärung in this essay of mine, because he tackles that question of human understanding systematically, in philosophy, in a unprecedented way. It has some affinity with Descartes’ rationalism and not much with Hume’s empiricism, as I understand it. But Hume was always a presence, against whom Kant measured his own new departures.

Kant wrote three great critiques of knowledge between 1781-1790, whose aim was certainly to establish what knowledge could do, but also to divide up reason’s competences and at crucial points limit the scope of human knowing. You might say that the Aufklärung never quite lost an element of piety. Kant was a critic of certainty, a the same time as pursuing it as far as he could. His was Enlightenment on the side of knowledge, but Critical Philosophy on the side of that knowledge’s limits.

Because of the neatness of his system it is relatively easy to summarise Kant. It is commonly said that he had three questions on behalf of mankind: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for? Now, what’s important about those questions are the modal verbs that express them, verbs of possibility and imagination and obligation. The point about Kant’s entire theory of knowledge is that it was morally inscribed. It was Kant’s German task to put the brakes on the Enlightenment as it came from France and England, and to restore some subtelty in regard to moral and spiritual matters, in regard to that breakaway from religious authority.

Perhaps this would be the moment to make clear that subtle crisscrossing of Catholic and Protestant tendencies in the fate of the Enlightenment across Europe which I alluded to above. In the Catholic countries, with France as the leading example, the authority of the church intruded conspicuously into society, leading to that memorable driving out of the priests in the Revolution.  But elsewhere the Reformation had already modified the political authority of the Church. In the German-speaking world no revolution needed happen, as a religiously led individual inwardness led easily into to a subjective modernity that oriented itself according to art (including literature of course) and philosophy. The cultivation of what the Germans called Geist would bring its own problems, but let those rest for now.

From the point of view of the Enlightenment qua philosophy it seems to me that the quarrel between Kant and Hume is crucial, for it divides Enlightenment reason. Does reason  inextricably entangle us in metaphysics, is it a foundation for Truth writ large, or it is the practice of empirical science and nothing more? The dispute that Kant took up in the 1780s, after Hume’s death in 1776, was nominally over causality. Hume believed we could not experience cause and effect other than in the form of constant conjunction. Necessity could capture a conjunction of facts that made some consequence highly likely, but we could not define a law that would exclude future exceptions. But Kant thought that it is only because causality as an a priori principle in the human mind that we can come to know, about the world, facts that go beyond the empirical, and thus science can advance. We have, and can, shape knowledge at the highest conceptual level because as human beings we are so endowed. For Kant it was a priori causality, the fact that we can realise necessity when we see it, which rescued time from being a purely subjective experience; whereas for Hume time was given objectively in the order of events happening in the perceived world. What came out on Hume’s sceptical side was a world in which facts and values were separate and our experiences generally were much more loosely bound together; whereas with the rationalist Kant knowledge was morally inflected in a world predicated on higher notions of reason and humanity. You begin to see in Kant how those Enlightenment ideals might be endowed with initial capitals: Reason and Humanity, and attach themselves to a troublesome European superiority. But you also see that for him with intellectual power comes moral responsibility and the two are closely intertwined.

I want to end this hugely abbreviated and curtailed survey of what the Enlightenment was as a concept and a series of events in philosophy with Hegel, who published his Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807. In Hegel those German moral and spiritual brakes, applied by Kant in such a complex way, were sharpened by the event of the French Revolution, and by Hegel’s early training as a theologian. Hegel shared the Enlightenment’s fascination since Locke with saying what human understanding was, and perceived that it was already time to write the history of that phenomenon. The possibility of writing a secular history of the intellectual and spiritual development of mankind sparked Hegel’s imagination in a way unrivalled by any other modern philosophical system . Hegel believed in reason and progress as set out by the philosophes in France, and inflected those beliefs in a vast post-Kantian theory of knowledge. The result was arguably a disaster for European man. Hegel takes us to the heart of objections to the Enlightenment, in whatever form: namely that here was a move to account for the whole of human life as if it were a seventeenth-century system of cosmology. The irony was that Hegel’s own system was designed to forestall its own overreach. Hegel extracted progress, indeed dialectical progress, from the superficial rationalizing of the French. He subsumed the empiricism of the English which was conservative and imaginatively uninspiring into a much more complex psychology of human spiritual development. These developments allowed him to reject the limits Kant set to knowledge not twenty years earlier. For Hegel knowledge, and our knowledge of it, and the corresponding social reality, were constantly expanding, and to that corresponded the vastness and the comprehensiveness of the cathedral-like structure of his system. Hegel, if anyone, systematized and conceptualized the Enlightenment as a new faith in the progress of man, for which developments since the scientific revolution offered such abundant evidence.

Hegel: a cathedral built of concepts

Hegel: a cathedral built of concepts

Hegel’s system looked like this. Sympathetic critics in future would demand that the roof be removed. To aim at perfection was, for man alone, disastrous.


Part 2: Objections to the Enlightenment

1.The first political objections

The Enlightenment liberated an educated and communicative middle class primed to challenge traditional authority. It looked threatening to the absolutists of the eighteenth century Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia, even as they took a fashionable interest before the French Revolution happened. Afterwards Catherine and her courtiers were horrified, and that blighted their support for progressive education, a very practical and decent outcome of the Enlightenment.

Many historians since and commentators at the time in Britain and across Europe saw the Enlightenment in France as having prepared the political upheaval which drove royalty, aristocracy and clerisy from power. A countermove in Russia, codified as policy in 1833, was to insist on absolute religious authority, divinely sanctioned sovereign authority and a managed version of all the new civic and imaginative freedoms that were arising because of the Enlightenment. The formula is interesting because it shows how closely there followed upon the Enlightenment, for the good, the kind of liberal civil society with freedom of speech we are lucky enough to live in today. The dark Russian example reminds us of where the liberal tenor of contemporary Western society came from and what might threaten it: authoritarianism, religious intervention in secular and political life, and so on.

2. The first emotional and psychological objections

There was however always a Counter-Enlightenment, or Counter-Enlightenments, constituting a spiritual resistance to reason’s blindspots, and which seems like something we should take notice of. Vico in Italy was one of the earliest and most interesting theorist of a cyclical rather than progressive view of culture, and a man who raised objections to a too rational picture of humanity that denied the texture of living. The German Herder, writing in the 1770s, the decade most of the great French philosophes died, held similar views in some respects. He stressed imagination, language, locality, ethnicity, genius, expression and creativity, in response to Enlightenment’s pragmatic cosmopolitanism. Yet he still pleaded for ‘one and the same human species’ in diversity. (Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind 1785, Book 7) and saw an understanding of the human spirit in a framework of progress. What we can say is that Herder, who was enormously complex, and his coeval Hamann, a much darker kind of figure, didn’t want human life evened out by the mathematical model that hovered in the background of Enlightenment ideals.  If the tension between Enlightenment and its spiritual critics often came down to different views of happiness, here the extreme Hamann was a mystical fundamentalist. Where Decartes had understood reason as the fundament of human existence, Hamann saw everywhere manifestations of God in human life and found his anchor there. His writing helps orient whatever we mean by counter-Enlightenment/counter-enlightenments.

3. Objections to Enlightenment through the nineteenth century

Romanticism all across Europe grew out of that emotional and psychological revolt fomented by the German spiritual dissidents. It was expressed philosophically in post-Kantian Idealism, with Hegel’s contemporary Schelling proposing that we best know the world through leaps of intuition. For the Romantic human nature at its finest was such that neither the empiricists nor the rationalists had got it right. For a Blake and a Coleridge imagination was the way to the highest understanding, leaving behind the limited evidence of the senses on the one hand and the power of conceptualization on the other.

Nietzsche was a extreme late product of this rebellious inwardness, and he did his best to deflate reason’s confidence. But he was much more than a Romantic, of course, and his self-perception was ironic. So far as the Enlightenment was concerned his target was reason’s own late outcome, positivism. Nietzsche despised a narrowing and an institutionalisation of science that became closely associated with the authority of states and universities, and with the power of industrialisation: with technology and progress, above all in his despised Bismarckian Germany.

With objections to Enlightenment from Nietzsche on, we are dealing with a much thinner and more instrumental kind of reason than in the eighteenth century and we can legitimately write it with a capital letter, Reason, to signify its multiple bids for power over ragged human life. Foucault says in his 1978 essay ‘What is Critique?’ that France was complacent through the nineteenth century with regard to positivism, having produced Auguste Comte as reason’s monumental codifier in the early decades. Comte was like a simplifier of Hegel, with a vast vision of progress as the unfolding of the scientific spirit. Foucault suggests that how the French in the twentieth century reacted retrospectively to the German Aufklärung,  and how they cultivated Nietzsche as its great critic, had to do with this earlier neglect. Somewhere here, one feels, is the origin of that almost modern feeling of needing to be ‘against the system’ because the system is that tight mesh of the authority of state, of science instrumentalized in the state’s interests, and of a generalised and universalised vision that deals in laws rather than exceptions.

3. The twentieth century and on

Here is a quote from Foucault before I go on:

‘Even if it is relatively and necessarily vague, the Enlightenment period is certainly designated as a formative stage for modern humanity. This is the Aufklärung in the wide sense of the term to which Kant, Weber etc referred, a period without fixed limits, with multiple points of entry since one can also define it by the formation of capitalism, the constitution of the bourgeois world, the establishment of state systems, the foundation of modern science with all its correlative techniques, the organization of a confrontation between the art of being governed and that of being not quite so governed. Consequently this is a privileged period for historical-philosophical work, since these relationships between power, truth and the subject appear live on the surface of visible transformations.’ ‘What is Critique?’ in The Politics of Truth (1997) 41-82  (57).

Less than fifty years ago Foucault, never its straightforward critic, suggested that the Enlightenment was the biggest issue facing philosophy and possibly the only one. Something of this can been seen in a comparison of Peter Gay’s monumental two-volume history in 1970, still superbly readable, with Samuel Fleischacker’s spare and urgent What is Enlightenment? (2013). Read these two works side by side and you can see that there has been a complete refocus of emphasis, from the siècle des lumières, with its Greek and pagan antecedants, to the Aufklärung, founded in knowledge wanting to know about itself, or ‘critique’, from Kant’s day on.

Interpretation of the totalitarian catastrophes of the earlier twentieth century was the fulcrum of change. The seventeenth-century desire of science to master nature seemed to have become three centuries later a project towards ruthless technological domination at the expense of human life and the life of the planet. Enlightenment in practice took an extreme turn. In combination with the totalitarian state a thin and dictatorial version of Reason, ready to cut off life’s ragged edges, was evil. When in the 1930s Stalin’s (and also in theory Lenin’s) Russia, and Hitler’s Germany applied spurious scientific laws to the concrete circumstances of real human beings the result was immeasurably bloody. In the Russian instance Marxism was implicated, as the culmination of Hegelian Aufklärung.

The most famous objection to the Enlightenment on these grounds came from Theodor Adorno, whose personal loss of faith in the Aufklärung was doubly embittered by seeing what happened to Germany in the 1930s and being himself exiled in America. He was thrown out of the great intellectual tradition in which he was educated. That tradition was Geist, which Adorno’s co-author and friend and fellow exile Max Horkheimer was still in 1961 parsing as ‘spirit…serving the realization of a more than empirical reality’ as opposed to ‘empirical science…kept to its proper field of activity.’ (‘The German Jews’ in Critique of Instrumental Reason 1974, p.112).  Recall that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Die Phänomenologie des Geistes) elevated Geist to those unprecedented heights from which it now abruptly tumbled. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer wrote a collaborative collection of fragments in 1944 in which they compellingly probed Enlightenment’s weaknesses. Their discipline was sociology and they drew on anthropology. Yet after the relatively sober probing of the first few pages they went wild with personal anguish:

Die Aufklärung verhält sich zu den Dingen, wie der Diktator zu dem Menschen

The Enlightenment relates to things as the Dictator does to human beings.

Since Dialectic of Enlightenment was first properly published in German in 1969, and in English in 1972, several generations have taken this terrible indictment of Enlightenment to heart, despite the reservations expressed by the authors in their 1969 Preface that they no longer held entirely to what they wrote and that ‘in not a few places the formulation of reality is no longer appropriate to today.’ In truth they were attacking Hegel for not respecting the principle of critique for which dialectical reasoning was invented. Hegel invented it! They observed how Enlightenment became an authoritarian myth, where once it was the opponent of mythology. The rest was disaster. (This is why their post-war West German critic Habermas could follow an easy course in calling for a new Enlightenment based on inter-subjectivity as the basis for a civil society, conversation and free exchange, much as the philosophes from Voltaire to Diderot had stood for.) Whatever else one takes from Dialectic of Enlightenment, one has to understand that it is aimed at Hegel, whose critical method Adorno still revered.

The other great twentieth-century critic of Enlightenment, and indeed of Hegelian dialectic, was Heidegger, the Nazi enthusiast whom Adorno both detested as a rival and overlapped with in his thinking. He may have borrowed his key anti-Enlightenment formulation from Heidegger, which would be ironic, to say the least. The fact was that Heidegger was already the enemy of what he called ‘instrumental reason’ in Being and Time (1927), where he wrote [H62] that it ‘raided the cabinet of nature like a booty-hunter, in its quest for knowledge.’ For Heidegger the Aufklärung was a theological disaster, to which he responded by putting scientific knowledge in a secondary place compared with the need to secure meaningful human existence. He wasn’t against science, but he struggled to reconcile technological progress with how to live authentically, in touch with our being-here.

While these issues with Enlightenment are still with us, however, I think they come second today to other concerns that are creeping up on us and others which have never gone away.

Increasingly ours is a world of an educated cosmopolitan elite, in the political and economic driving seat, in contrast to a world polity that defines itself ethnically and regionally. It as if Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment have become geo-cultural tensions within countries, as well as between developed and less developed parts of the world. Foucault said the Enlightenment was bound up with a project to the effect that we might be governed a little less. But many people have no idea who, or what, governs them.

The fact/value gap which the atheist Hume was prepared to live with, but others struggle with, gapes large. This seems to be why that very recent historian of the Enlightenment, Anthony Pagden, after nearly 350 pages of sober deliberation  (in The Enlightenment and Why it still matters p.343) suddenly bursts out that the Church has failed to provide the moral guidance it used to, and that this is why the Enlightenment happened. So one might say that any debate on the Enlightenment qua philosophy today closely shadows the always keen debate between atheism and belief, not least as it has most recently been reviewed in the light of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Consider the problem. Hume thought that we take our values from traditions and customs building on our common human passions; that we don’t need the authority of a Bible to be moral. But nowadays, and not least because we’ve had a critical education, many of us have difficulty locating and respecting those traditions and which, if found, may turn out to be staggeringly intolerant. So Hume empiricist view of a fact/value gap looks morally insufficient to me.

Rousseau responded to Hume that we could find our values if we ‘returned to nature’ which would liberate a best version of our human selves. But on the one hand an entire Hobbsian tradition was against Rousseau in terms of his hopes for humanity, and on the other we can see today that taking nature as our moral standard can only get us so far. We tend to turn to nature in exasperation when human beings disappoint us, an understandable impulse full of consolation, but not one that is going to give us more than a peacemeal morality.

Quite differently again, Kant thought that we were thoroughly moral beings, and that it was the world in itself that we didn’t know. Kant seemed to suggest there was no basis for taking moral comfort in ‘nature’ but that as innately gifted creatures with the intuition of a universal moral law we can at least fulfil our humanity.

Hegel would say that moral law wasn’t static. It grows with us as we make it.

In practice something of what each of these philosophers says helps us muddle along. But it is a muddle. In practice out of that eighteenth-century passion for what makes a human being spring those transnational bodies that still enshrine moral aspirations today, from the United Nations through Human Rights to the European Union. But they often don’t seem to be doing very well. Meanwhile the transfer our our moral needs to the political sphere doesn’t satisfy the Counter-Enlightenment urge, unless we’re fanatics of absolute faith. So we turn to art and the deconstructive postmodern to get out of the loop of misplaced necessities, while finding some indirect way to express our frustrations morally.

I’m an admirer of the Enlightenment and a lover of the Aufklärung. What I cherish most is the impetus to consider where we get the morality to frame our knowledge, and the insistence on the value of reason, as a discipline, alongside the more intuitive approaches to lived life, our Heideggerian Dasein.


This entry was posted in A Shoe Story - my next book, Philosophy and Philosophers, Things German, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.