Wednesday, March 29, 2006


In yesterday's Comment is free, Madeleine Bunting admitted she needed enlightening about the Enlightenment. Hold onto your hats, it's a bit of a bumpy ride:
I need some help. I've been getting increasingly disturbed at the way in which the Enlightenment gets invoked by the self styled 'hard liberals' as if it amounts to their tablets of stone. Something didn't seem to be adding up to me when they waxed lyrical about the Enlightenment legacy of rationality, secularism, belief in progress, the rule of law and the basis of all we know and love in western democracy and individual human rights.
Something not adding up? Time to consult the experts:
Hence I was gripped by the exchange between two philosophers, Eric Bronner and Jonathan Ree at the Institute of Public Policy Research/New Humanist conference last week on faith and politics. Bronner kicked off the debate by arguing that the Enlightenment is at the heart of all democracy. It forms the basis of freedom and human rights, for example its views on torture. It argued that we temper our worst tendencies through reason. It was not against religion, but against fanaticism, and argued that religion should be kept in the private sphere. He cited Comte as accepting religion but within the bounds of reason (I'm not sure how Comte was going to square that). He concluded by saying we need to pick up the Enlightenment legacy and adapt it.
Presumably this is the take on the Enlightenment that Madeleine has problems with, the approach that doesn't add up. Well, there's a good reason for that as Ms Bunting's preferred argument shows:
Ree countered by saying the Enlightenment had never happened - or at least certainly not in the shape we think it did. It was a retrospective creation in the nineteenth century designed to make the eighteenth century look silly - the gist was that excessive pride in human rationality was a story which had ended in tears in the brutal terror of the French Revolution. Ree pointed out that all the great thinkers attributed to the Enlightenment such as Hume, Locke, Kant were actually religious believers and none of them believed in progress.
If ever anyone was in need of a thorough pummelling with a cluebat it was her. Regurgitating nonsense about Hume being religious is bad enough but as David T says:
[I]t beggars belief that we are being asked to swallow the idea that the Enlightenment was a Nineteenth Century construct - unless she wants us to believe that the constitution of the United States and the laws of the first French republic were backdated forgeries actually drafted 100 years after the dates on the face of them.

It was enough to drive Norm to drink.

For those without the inclination to wade through all of her gibberish, Shuggy sums it up beautifully:
Ms Bunting - done gone and lost her damn mind. She actually said, "I'm no philosopher" - surely in the context the three most superfluous words in the history of journalism?

But for those with a little more time on their hands, Andrew Anthony's "A relativist in distress" does its best to enlighten Ms Bunting. The strap-line says it all:
Why do 'hard liberals' keep invoking the Enlightenment? It must be something to do with intellectual liberty, scientific rigour and freedom from tyranny.
but it's worth reading the lot. Here's an extract:
So when Bunting asks why we still hold to an understanding of rationality that is over 200 years old, the answer is that it works. Just as the understanding that the Earth revolves around the Sun works, even though - gulp - it's an even older idea. Rational debate and free expression allow for - indeed positively encourage - new and better ideas and hypothesis, while never settling on a definitive truth. All ideas are permitted but rationality also offers a means of testing their worthiness through open and vigorous debate.

But of course, this is a futile exercise. Bunting requests a justification of rationality, yet how is it possible to make an argument for reason other than through reason, the very thing that she suggest is out of date? It's as if she has said, I don't understand or recognise English, but could you explain why I should, and could you do it in English. What's the point of making a case for making a case if you're making it to someone who doesn't accept that making any case is valid? Or any more valid than religious edict?

There are other methods of understanding and discussing the world aside for rationality - religious fundamentalism and its apologist cultural relativism, for example - but in the former there is only a single truth and in the latter there are no untruths. They both, in their different ways, close down debate. Neither seems particularly attractive to me.

Finally, Bunting asks, "What is it about the Enlightenment that people are now taking it off the shelf to polish up and put forward as their political and intellectual credentials?" Well, only intellectual liberty, scientific rigour and freedom from tyranny. Maybe that all seems quaintly 18th century to Bunting but, call me a hard liberal, I don't see anything better on the horizon. Or put it this way, I prefer the ring of "Comment is free" to "Comment is regulated by the religious authorities".

Does that help?
I'll bet it doesn't, you know.


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