The time period known as the Enlightenment is probably one of the most controversial moments in human history. One learns a lot about a person's belief system in hearing their own feelings about it. When I teach the subject I introduce it in a couple of ways.
1. Understand the Enlightenment from location. This means that one understands the Enlightenment by studying how it took place in England, Scotland, France, Germany, etc. In short, instead of collapsing all the varieties of the Enlightenment under this blanket term one tries to view it per certain local, social-political issues per each culture. One of the problems with this view is that it oftentimes sees the Enlgish/American Enlightenment as superior to the French because the French led into the Terror of the French Revolution. However, this is to deny overlap of ideas from the perspective cultures.
2. Understand the Enlightenment per Radical versus Moderate. This view (see Jonathan Israel's work) tends to see an ignored strand of thinking starting from Spinoza that pushed for real equality and real freedom of thought for all; Spinoza and his naturalist followers like Diderot are the heroes while Voltaire and Locke are moderates who want to keep some type of political/religious tradition because of their elitism. The best from the radical elements of the French Revolution are thus the extension of Spinoza's and others thought. This is somewhat a revisionist take that probably reads too much Spinoza into the history of thought (Spinoza was influential but perhaps not as much as Israel would like). It also tends to be the view that pure secularism is the only true Enlightenment and so those who are not atheist, egalitarian democrats are deemed half-hearted or duplicitous.
3. Understand the Enlightenment as a war against Christianity. This view sees modernity as an anti-God view that propels modernity in its secular ways. I would call this the typical Evangelical view (what I learned as a kid). This view is right in that traditions were debated and criticized. However, there is definitely a religious tradition within the Enlightenment (see those Israel calls moderate or counter-Enlightenment and David Sorkin's work). Simply way too simplistic in saying these "religious" thinkers were not serious or "real" Christians in wrestling with modern thought and ancient traditions without falling into naturalism or pure anti-Trinitarians.
4. Understand the Enlightenment via Postmodern critiques. This view sees the so-called power-plays of Enlightenment thinkers via European superiority and imperialism/colonialism. In short, Reason equals reason via white, European male and not for other races. This view again probably fails in not noticing the diversity of thinkers but makes us aware of just how racist/sexist these thinkers really were. It also suffers in that the critiques of Enlightenment thinkers are carried out by the very methods formed by the Enlightenment.
Well those are 4 generalized readings of the Enlightenment. From Adorno's view that Enlightenment Reason led to 20th Century disasters to Darnton's view that philosophy books were not even the principal means that led to reforms and changes in society, the Enlightenment is a contested time period. Honestly we cannot escape its shadow. The models are not perfect but are at the most part helpful in describing how people see the Enlightenment from different perspectives.
I believe the pragmatic view about the Enlightenment is to take the reformist view. It is to understand that the time was ripe then and now for reforming traditions and society-that progress is a healthy option for every society. I currently think that Rousseau might be the hero of the Enlightenment (an extremely flawed hero). There is enough balance to his look backward at Athens/Sparta as models (a pretty consistent staple of the "moderates") while at the same time pushing for a democratic impulse in current society. I also think a tempered secularism is something that must be fought for. In some sense Spinoza was on to something, but the problem is in trying to see how much he is the true inspiration for democratic-egalitarian movements. The other problem is in seeing our own concepts of liberty, freedom and equality today as it matches up with the Enlightenment. Does it really match up all that well or do we simply pick figures and thinkers we like and make them say what we want them to say?
It was a sad day. I finally visited the Borders closing in Torrance and it was a mess. Everything was mostly gone, so I could not even buy anything. Of course I helped contribute to its closing to the extent that I bought most of my books at Amazon in the last two years.
Still, I can't help but think what my life would be like without Borders. At Borders, I bought my first books on Barth, Zizek, Dostoevsky, American history, etc.; these are all the books that have basically shaped my academic career and fostered my love of books (and at the same time ballooned my credit card debt). I will always cherish those days I walked the aisles on a Saturday evening deciding for hours on whether to but a book or not.
Of course there are other bookstores but I can't help feeling a little sad that the main place where my love of books, music and movies was fostered for so many years is actually gone.
As I contextualize Barth lately, I could not help but notice the period of his popularity (right after WW1) and the period of his decline (right after the 1950s) coincided with the same type of reception the American thinker John Dewey received. What is also amazing is that with the rise of postmodern thought in the late 1980s, both Barth and Dewey have been rediscovered. In some sense, both thinkers, in their radically different ways, tried to find a third way as opposed to some of the binary ways fostered in the Cold War or in traditional thought.
Rorty has brought me back to American thought especially to the tradition known as Pragmatism. In light of the 10 year anniversary of 09/11, I remember taking my first philosophy class at El Camino college and reading the work of Charles Peirce. I recall that I considered myself a pragmatist at this point of time because it just made a lot of sense to me.
Where pragmatism and Barth further coincide is in their epistemological doubts; in short, the idea that we must find an absolute true idea to call true knowledge as the primary concern for philosophical thought. Both Barth and the pragmatists doubt we can get to the place where we can be so comfortable with our understanding of knowledge. Instead, it is how this way of life dictates how we live that is important. It is to limit the scope to what us humans can really know but not in the way that denies hope to the actual choices in life's decisions.
For Barth, it is to say yes to life because God has said Yes to us in Christ; he insisted that democracy in an open way is the best way to live in the public world for both the public and the private spheres. For Dewey, democracy was important to foster both individual freedom and responsibility to others to make good decisions, which is why education was so important to him. I wonder have we lost some of that optimism toward democracy today? There seems to be loud voices coming from both the Left and Right who have given up on this idea or judge it as facile and naive. My question is what would you replace it with then? Most of these voices don't have a concrete answer, and I think perhaps never will. To give up on the democratic process is to give up on the public space itself. From my readings of history both Barth and Dewey, again radically different thinkers, would be disappointed if we took the doom and gloom prophets too seriously...
I have been continuing my reading of Rorty and it has been a great pleasure. Again, the biggest benefit is to get me back in touch with American thought. My newest project is to study American pragmatism in Pierce, James and Dewey-which was concomitant with the growth of Barthian thought in Europe.
Rorty's conversational style is also a helpful way in exploring and teaching the Humanities. It ceases to prove some truth or simply gain cognitive knowledge but instead to form a way to live with a certain non-dogmatic approach to things. It is to see value in the great works simply in the way they inspire people; I would argue this is what keeps me reading my Bible because figures like St. Paul, King David and the prophet Jeremiah inspire me to live better toward God and others-even in learning from their mistakes.
For example, in his Achieving Our Country, he makes the point that dogmatism in politics gets nowhere; that real reform works from the top-down and from the bottom-up. In short, this goes against a theory like Marxism that focuses only on the poor (mythical proletariat) for the agency of hope or in elitism that says reforms only comes from the powerful/wealthy. In a democracy, in theory, it is the arduous, everyday work of all to iron out what is best for the greater society. I would then argue that Charles Dickens gets this point well; if you read his novels you see both corruption and virtue from both the rich and poor classes.