All of us have some notion about what the Enlightenment was—probably something like “an emphasis on reason rather than authority.” And that’s largely correct, but let’s have an expert explain it to us.
In a piece in this month’s Atlantic, Rebecca Goldstein presents a primer on the Enlightenment as a byproduct of her reviewing (largely negatively) a new book by Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. In Goldstein’s review, “Don’t overthink it,” she argues that “[Crawford] indicts the philosophical tradition that he believes has robbed us of the world beyond our muddled, misdirected minds. Crawford calls this tradition the Enlightenment, though his description of the European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries distorts it almost beyond recognition.”
There’s a lot in this review, some of it assuming that you know some history of philosophy, but even tyros like me can grasp Goldstein’s disquisition on Kant and why Crawford is wrong about him.
One of the best parts of Goldstein’s review, however, is her succinct description of the intellectual advance wrought by the Enlightenment, to wit (emphasis mine):
. . . the soul of the Enlightenment unmistakably lay in an endorsement of reason, though not necessarily a priori reason, since many Enlightenment thinkers were robust empiricists (but again, you wouldn’t know this from reading Crawford, who considers them all airy nonempiricists). They appealed to rational powers, which meant that only certain kinds of justification for beliefs would be countenanced—namely those that were, in principle, accessible to all humans relying only on our shared cognitive capacities. Insisting on this standard was the Enlightenment’s revolution. There could be no privileged knowers who appealed to special sources of knowledge—available to them by way of heavenly revelation, or authoritative status, or intimations to which their group was privy. Even tradition couldn’t stand merely on its longevity but had to justify its right to continue to exist.
The Enlightenment, in short, amounted to an assertion of epistemic democracy. Whatever can be known by one person can, in principle, be known by all, as long as they master the techniques for knowing that are relevant to a field. It’s no accident that the development of modern empirical science was intertwined with the Enlightenment. So was the emergence of modern political democracy: the American Founders were children of the Enlightenment. Another gift, rooted in the emphasis on our common humanity, was the various human-rights movements, including abolitionism and the first stirrings of feminism. Jeremy Bentham wrote an impassioned brief on behalf of homosexual rights. Cesare Beccaria, the jurist and philosopher, wrote a pamphlet presenting a case against harsh punishments that led to the end of state-sanctioned torture and capital punishment throughout Europe, and influenced the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. What the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has called “the expanding circle” of moral concern was given a mighty outward tug by Enlightenment thinkers. The starkly contrasting normative patterns we find in the world today reflect where the Enlightenment left its footprint and where it didn’t. Some might say that what we need at this moment, assaulted as we are by extremes of irrationalism, is a rededication to the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment.
I agree fully with her last sentence, and I think that’s where most of the New Atheists come down—except, perhaps, those nonbelievers who consider themselves privileged thinkers, with a take on social issues that can brook no dissent.
This line of thinking is not new for Goldstein; she covers it in more detail in her lovely book Plato at the Googleplex, where this excerpt appears in the section “The call of the kinky” (p. 371):
There are strong–oh, so strong–reasons to affirm that yes, we ought to elude privileged points of view as we seek to know the world. No claim to knowledge should be allowed a free pass, getting by without giving an account of itself, a justification that can appeal to all who sign on to the project of reason, no matter the special features of their subjective points of view. It is not just a matter of the objectivity of reality that motivates the demand for objectivity of knowledge. Far more persuasive reasons arise from the obvious hazards of subjectivity, which is a breeding ground for prejudice, superstitions, and egotistical self-aggrandizements. . . .Exposing our most cherished belief to the rough treatment of multiple points of view–each of which is prone to see the world from the vantage of its own advantage–is our only hope for defeating the hazards of self-serving subjectivity–complacent at best, murderously certain at worst. . .
The idea that there can be no “privileged knowers” is key, and is the reason for secularist attacks on religion (indeed, religion is almost the definition of ‘privileged knowledge”), as well as for my own criticism of the humanities for claiming that they have “special ways of knowing” inaccessible to science. Those “ways of knowing,” invariably deriving from areas like art, music, and literature, always come down to a form of privileged knowledge, putting the critic beyond criticism. After all, what one person “knows” to be true from, say, Ulysses, is contradicted by others, or can’t be checked against reality. The reactions to great art may be instances of personal realization or emotional response, but they are not “knowledge about the real world”—unless whatever hypotheses framed by art are tested against reality. And then they become science.
Science, of course, is the ultimate form of “epistemic democracy,” for any knowledge claim can in principle be tested by any other scientist. But how does one test the claim that Ulysses tells us precisely “the mental flow through the mind of a Jewish man wandering around Dublin in 1904” without some kind of test against reality. Does the mind really work like that?
I am not trying to denigrate art here, for, as readers surely know, I’m a big fan of music, art, literature, and photography. What I’m arguing is that there are no “truths” about the world derivable from art that can stand as general truths without being checked against the real world. It would be a foolish person indeed—and yes, they abound in certain literary circles—who could claim that you can check the “truths” of one work of art against those from other works of art. After all, for every painting that glorifies Christianity, there’s a “Piss Christ” that denigrates it.
It is not scientists who flout Enlightenment values, but those who tout “other ways of knowing.”