Truth and Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant

What is Enlightenment?  The philosopher Immanuel Kant asked that question in 1784, then offered his famous definition:  “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. . . This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.”  Kant proposed a motto for the Enlightenment:  “Dare to know.”

The Enlightenment according to Kant was childhood’s end and the start of adulthood for the human race.  Dreams and fantasies would be replaced by knowledge.

For reasons that bear looking into, French philosophers and their imitators in academia have aimed their deconstructive rage against the Enlightenment faith that we can know if we dare.  This sentiment is particulary fierce in the soft disciplines – where so little is, in fact, known.

Christian Smith, sociologist and author of the admirable Moral Believing Animals, calls out “various movements in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ‘Enlightenment’” which “sought specify an authoritative foundation of knowledge” outside the certainties of Christianity.  Tearing away the veil of religion, Enlightenment thinkers expected to arrive at universal, irrefutable truth.

In this, according to Smith, they failed utterly.  The entire project was “fatally flawed”:  “all such attempts to discover a universal, indubitable foundation of knowledge have failed and necessarily will fail.”

The God’s-eye-view of knowledge, Smith insists, is itself a dream and a fantasy:  that of the Enlightenment.

I largely agree with this view.  We are defined by limitation.  We must each have a point of view.  All knowledge is therefore in some sense truncated and perspectival.  This is overwhelmingly the case for knowledge about human behavior – morality, history, psychology, sociology – but also true of the harder sciences.

The question is whether the Enlightenment really staked a claim for the universality of knowledge, as Smith holds – and whether we, its descendants, remain in the grip of this illusion.  On the answer hangs authority, moral and political no less than epistemological.

So we loop back to our original question:  what is Enlightenment?

At the most general level, I think it was a reflection on the success of science during the two preceding centuries.  Two broad trends emerged from this effort.  One group sought to discover the system behind scientific progress, and to apply this system to every facet of nature and life.  A second group believed in experience rather than system, and worked to make knowledge generally accessible in the expectation that it would then multiply.

The two trends overlapped, but their internal logic pulled in very different directions.

The worship of reason

The system-builders glorified reason – made a goddess of it during the French Revolution.  They despised religion, tradition, and customary arrangements, and saw history as a tissue of crimes.  They wished to tear down society then build it anew.  Like all good rationalists, each believed he had found the magic formula:  that he had  discovered universal, irrefutable truth, which needed to be imposed on the fortunate populace.  That done, the march of progress would become unstoppable.

The Enlightenment of the system-builders connected directly to the ideology of the Revolution, to the scientific socialism of Marx in the nineteenth century, and to Leninist vanguard movements in the twentieth.  In morality and politics, it sounded an imperious and intolerant note.  During the Revolution and after, universal truth was justified in blood.

Yet there was also a powerful tendency in the thought of the Enlightenment which doubted that truth could be conquered by formulas, and placed its faith in experience, experimentation, and the dissemination of useful knowledge.  With Hume, for example, causation became habit, and reason the slave of passion.  With Adam Smith, wealth – like Hume’s causation – emerged from a multiplicity of human experiences, in this case in the marketplace.

Ben Franklin was incapable of a single systematic thought, but by means of experiment discovered the properties of electricity and saved lives with his lightning-rod.  Diderot’s encyclopedia gathered the practical technology of “leather apron” types like Franklin and made it available to the world.

The philosophers of experience argued for a “moral sense” which guided the human animal, present in apprentices and servant girls no less than in ecclesiastics and kings.  In politics, the tendency led from Locke to Jefferson, and thence to liberal democracy.  It is who we are – what we have become.

The most influential thinkers of the eighteenth century, in fact, were never much troubled by the lack of an “authoritative foundation” to knowledge.  Here is Voltaire’s entry under “Beauty” in his Philosophical Dictionary:

Ask a toad what beauty is, the to kalon? He will answer you that it is his toad wife with two great round eyes issuing from her little head, a wide, flat mouth, a yellow belly, a brown back. Interrogate a Guinea negro, for him beauty is a black oily skin, deep-set eyes, a flat nose. Interrogate the devil; he will tell you that beauty is a pair of horns, four claws and a tail. Consult, lastly, the philosophers, they will answer you with gibberish…

Truth, the wise Voltaire suggested, could be found, but always from a perspective.

When Smith and the postmodernists attack the Enlightenment, they mean that of system and rationalism, with its armed empire of truth.  It’s a convenient strawman.  System-makers like Condorcet, who preached progress all the way to his death in a revolutionary prison, make irresistible targets.  Their “fatally flawed” claims can easily be deconstructed.

But the Enlightenment of experience and freedom looked on knowledge as residing in human minds rather than a system, and on truth as real but forever partial and thus difficult to ascertain.  Its greatest thinkers advocated uncertainty for any given transaction, and trust in the wisdom of custom and public opinion.  Its statesmen stood for equality and tolerance.  Its self-evident truths were moral ideals rather than epistemological propositions.

The divided Enlightenment is still at play today in our divided politics, moral aspirations, economic policies, and even our approach to science.  The conflict leaves open to question Kant’s program for progress.  Can we come to know, if only we dare?

I hope to say more about all this in the future.

David Hume


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