Monday, September 19, 2011

Which Enlightenment?

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?

No comments:

Post a Comment