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Enlightenment Shadows

Genevieve Lloyd
Publisher
Oxford University Press
Price
£30
ISBN
9780199669561

EXTRACT

 

 

 

There is a rich—though often confusing—literature of critique of the intellectual movement we now know as 'the Enlightenment'. It has been celebrated for its resolute commitment to freedom of thought—to ideals of unfettered criticism of prevailing opinion; it has also been de­plored for its alleged associations with totalitarian thinking. It has been hailed as a precursor of 'evidence-based' approaches to governance and policy making; it has also been denigrated as heralding inflexible 'top-down' administration. It has been credited with being an influence on modern understanding of universal human rights and multiculturalism; it has also been blamed for inappropriate projections of western ideals onto non-western cultures, to the detriment of the recognition of difference.

The Enlightenment has become the touchstone for highly emotional— often contradictory—articulations of contemporary western values. We of the west may proudly claim it as our heritage; we may also blame it for our contemporary woes. Whether we praise or deride it, we now live in its shadows and must reckon with what it has bequeathed us. Western thought is haunted by the Enlightenment.

The power of metaphors of light can make it difficult to get clear articulations of the darker side of the Enlightenment. Customary boundaries between the successive periods of intellectual history can also complicate the appreciation and evaluation of Enlightenment thought. The Enlight­enment, construed as an intellectual movement, was succeeded—so a common story goes—by the more expansive spirit ot Romanticism. The celebration of Romanticism, with its emphasis on the non-rational powers and dispositions of the human mind, can encourage the idea that Enlighten­ment thinkers were in contrast excessively rational. They can be seen as excessively preoccupied with abstractions—with the universal as against the specific or particular; with the commonalities of human nature rather than with diversity; with the rigid formalities of reason, in contrast to the subdeties of emotion and imagination.

The writings of Isaiah Berlin have been central to that way of thinking of the relations between Enlightenment texts and what happened later in European intellectual history. Berlin talks of a 'counter-Enlightenment'— an intellectual transformation which rejected a number of assumptions underlying the thought of the Enlightenment. According to the Enlight­enment outlook, on his analysis, the world was amenable to a unified explanation which could form the basis for a single form of resolution to human problems. Thus construed, the Enlightenment fostered commit­ment to universal truths, universal canons of art, universal demonstrative criteria for getting things right. With the transition to Romanticism, the story goes, came a shift to delight in difference—to recognition of diversity rather than universal order. The 'counter-Enlightenment'—epitomized by the German Romantics—is presented as celebrating the expression of what is creative and sublime in human individuality and cultural groups, rather than the common necessities of human nature.

There are of course hazards in offering broad articulations of tectonic shifts in the history of thought of the kind at which Berlin excels—and hazards too in offering a simple overview of Berlin's own subtle interpret­ations of individual authors or texts. He acknowledged that there are in some Enlightenment texts anticipations of what was to become the Romantic resistance to Enlightenment ways of thinking: Hume repudi­ated universal order, affirming that there were no real necessities—only probabilities; Montesquieu articulated the significance of cultural differ­ences, showing that not everything was everywhere the same. However, for Berlin such shifts within Enlightenment thought were minimal—'faint dents' in the Enlightenment outlook, in comparison with the magnitude of those that were to follow. My own assessment of such apparent anomalies sees them as both deeper and less antithetical to what Berlin describes as 'the Enlightenment outlook' than his metaphor of'faint dents' suggests. I will be presenting them as rich tensions within Enlightenment texts, rather than as weak intimations of what was still to come....