Rebecca Goldstein explains the Enlightenment

May 16, 2015 • 12:30 pm

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 DistractionIn 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.”

51 thoughts on “Rebecca Goldstein explains the Enlightenment

  1. “flout and tout” = of ” It is not scientists who flout Enlightenment values, but those who tout “ ‘other ways of knowing.’ ”

    O, I quite like that one, too. Yet another of Professor Ceiling Cat’s to remember inside my Lexicon Binder of Succinctly Spot – on Phrases = as is an utterly true descriptor of that which so, so many unEnlightened espouse and do.


      1. O rickflick, most certainly you may. Mine is stashed at least 180 degrees, and quite possibly an Enlightened World Away, from Mo’mo’ Mitt’s binders full up of Us Not Males.

        So’s it is most easily found cuz ‘tis .not. amongst his an’ those o’his ilk.

        ( Pin, er, ) Fin

  2. Great post PCC! Your commentary adds superbly to the text from RG making this democratic knowledge concept fit into the epistemic framework. Part of the reason this website continues to draw me daily.

  3. One of the phrases I frequently hear, especially from America, is “our God-given rights to freedom of speech and expression,” and similar. Depending on my mood, they make me sad, angry, frustrated, or I just cringe.

    It was the thinkers of the Enlightenment that gave us the freedoms we have today, and it’s great to see this set out.

    1. One can attribute the “God-given” tick to the Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which asserts humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” intending to put those rights above royal or even elected power and fiat. Still, had TJ simply said “All people are entitled to …” I am confident the phrase would still be used, as we Yanks tend to believe we are on a mission from the all-powerful.

      1. Still, had TJ simply said “All people are entitled to …”

        What TJ originally wrote was:

        “… that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, …”

        The “endowed by their creator” was then an alteration by others on the committee. (See TJ’s original draft.)

  4. One of the more interesting commentaries on the the Arkansas creationism trial of 1982 was Gene Lyons’ “Repealing the Enlightenment” in Harpers. I don’t have a copy, and Harpers‘ archive is for subscribers only, but it might be worth looking up in your library. Needless to say, it was the creationist politicians who were trying to repeal the Enlightenment.

    One of the reasons I supported the candidacy of Wesley Clark for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination was his explicit endorsement of Enlightenment principles. I read this in his position papers, but a quick check online reveals the following quote from and interview with Bill Maher in 2003, showing he did not just have someone write those papers for him, but was conversant with the principles:

    We live in a liberal democracy….That’s what we created in this country. I think we should be very clear on this. You know, this country was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment… It was the idea that people could talk, reason, have dialogue, discuss the issues. It wasn’t founded on the idea that someone would get struck by a divine inspiration and know everything right from wrong. I mean, people who founded this country had religion, they had strong beliefs, but they believed in reason, in dialogue, in civil discourse. We can’t lose that in this country. We’ve got to get it back. [emphasis added]

    It’s striking how this accords with Goldstein’s and Jerrys statement of Enlightenment principles.

    1. Thanks for the heads up on the Lyons article, Greg. I’ve been a loyal Harper’s subscriber since Freshman year and always like Lyons. Haven’t cracked this issue yet.

      Totally OT but possibly of interest to readers: The Extreme Life of the Sea by the father/son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi. Palumbi père is a bio prof at Stanford and head of their Hopkins Marine Station near Monterey. I’ve only read the first 20 pages but it’s interesting and well-written so far.

  5. Goldstein: “The Enlightenment, in short, amounted to an assertion of epistemic democracy. ”

    Now that was worth getting out of bed for!

    1. The absence of an “enlightenment” in the Islamic world is the cause of the problems we have today–the absence of an epistemic democracy. It existed in Egypt 60 years ago, as described by the wonderful Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. O tempora o mores.

      1. That’s a key observation for the conversations we’ve been having on this forum. It is troubling that probably a small minority within Islam truly appreciate the enlightenment. The founders of the militants back in the 1940’s, it appears, studied it and rejected it. Thus, these cretins throw acid at children who wish to learn.

  6. I want to defend the humanities/social sciences. It is far from all unscientific. That’s just the art/postmodernist approach. A lot of things in studies of politics and history are scientific. It is of course not the same degree of science as natural sciences but more using the scientific method to do X, like medicine or engineering. In case of politology, the scientific part however always requires pesky stuff like statistics that the usual “young revolutionary” student does not like. Half of one class in which we intensively studied comparative methods of eg. Dahl or Lijphart were looking bewildered at me when I said I was just there because the topic interests me. For many, it was the second most boring module they had to do, next to policy field analysis.

  7. It’s probably worth reading Crawford’s book before commenting on it. He provides essentially the same definition that Goldstein does and then he provides his critic. Which I won’t restate because he wrote the book to explain his position. I don’t know what axe she has to grind but Goldstein’s “review” is a caricature of the book and not an open minded reading. Crawford isn’t against the ideas of Enlightenment. He thinks they were a huge advancement for humanity but feels they could be refined and improved. He draws from phenomenology and embodied cognition as well as his own ideas. If you don’t want to read the book try reading an interview with the author or an objective review. Despite the caricature presented by Goldstein his ideas are well worth exploring.

    1. Yeah, I think it would be necessary to read the book. I got to wondering just how the notion that it might be good to do things like flipping burgers and fixing motorcycles, while paying full attention, is contra to Enlightenment values.

      Goldstein writes: “Crawford’s basic beef with the Enlightenment is that it so loosened our grip on reality, plunging us into the wishy-washiness of our own subjectivities, that we lack the grit to resist the usurpation of our “attentional environment” by all the aspects of contemporary life that tick Crawford off.”

      It would have been helpful had she reported what Crawford actually wrote about that. Does he really think the Enlightenment weakened our ability to determine what is real?

      Anyway, G. points out the influence of James J. Gibson’s ideas on Crawford re perception, which gets into direct vs indirect realism. As near as I can figure out, Gibson took the direct approach. But whatever the case, neuroscience has certainly advanced greatly since the 1970s, and even if Gibson were correct in principle, later research wold certainly add to the picture, and most likely provide a more complete explanation of how perception and reality interact in the human brain.

      G. writes: ‘[Crawford thinks that we] don’t need to reason our way past the scrim of subjective representations fluttering between us and the world of things. We just need to engage with those things. Anyway, the whole idea of that subjective scrim was foisted on us by—you guessed it—the Enlightenment.’

      If that is true, I would agree that Crawford is missing something. She makes it sound as if he is talking about pure perception followed by action. This has a strange, Zen-like vibe. When you eat, you just experience all the sensory input generated by eating–seeing, smelling, tasting, chewing, etc. In other words, you fully engage with eating, you don’t read the comics, talk, think about what you have to do later, etc. Does Crawford think we should do more of that? What are we distracted by? And most importantly, how did the Enlightenment bring about this regrettable state of affairs?!

  8. If there ever were another an age that I would surely like to have born into (not considering the poor state of its medical science) it would be the Age of Enlightenment. Two things make it seem such a golden age to me – first a universal cultural zeitgeist that puts relationality and love of knowledge central to all human endeavour (and in a way that seemed to have no limiting national boundaries), and second that there seemed to be such a spirit of optimism and hopefulness about mankind’s expectations for the future. I feel the rise of Romanticism and its focus on intuition and emotion soon put pay to all of that, much to our cost. Crawford, it seems to me,follows in that horrid romantic introspective tradition which only highlights what has gone wrong in the modern world.

    1. …. I would only add that we in America were “truly blessed” (if an atheist can use this phrase) in that the founders of our country included so many talented Enlightenment figures who then encapsulated Enlightenment values in constitutional system.

      1. Well, a lot of this is forgotten, just think of Voltaire who opposed capital punishment. Europe was not better, and I admire the French president Francois Mitterand who abolished capital punishment in France as soon he took over in the early 1970s.

  9. The distinguished German-American historian Peter Gay died this week. From the New York Times obituary:

    Mr. Gay, a [Jewish] refugee from Nazi Germany, devoted his career to exploring the social history of ideas, a quest that took him far from his original area of specialization, Voltaire and the Enlightenment. “He is one of the major American historians of European thought, period,” said Sander L. Gilman, a cultural and literary historian at Emory University.

    It was his work on the 18th century that sealed Mr. Gay’s reputation as one of the pre-eminent historians of his generation. “Voltaire’s Politics,” published in 1959, was followed by “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation,” a monumental two-part study whose first volume, subtitled “The Rise of Modern Paganism,” won the National Book Award in 1967. The second volume, subtitled “The Science of Freedom,” was published in 1969.

    “That is the last great work to provide a synthetic account of the philosophes and their world,” said Margaret Jacob, a professor of history at U.C.L.A. “It was canonical. He just had an encyclopedic grasp of the subject.”

    A more recent title from a quality publisher on the enlightenment:
    The Enlightenment:History of an Idea by Vincenzo Ferrone. Princeton, 2015

  10. I didn’t read the book, and I am not going to judge the author’s ideas based on a review.
    Nonetheless, I join Jerry’s complete agreement with thhis sentence: “… 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”.

  11. It seems ironic that between this discussion and the comment thread on the Atlantic article there are literally dozens of paragons of Enlightenment thought taking at face value a mean spirited caricature of an insightful book that nobody in the entire discussion has actually read.

    1. You’ve made your point above. I don’t think the review was “mean-spirited,” but critical. Do you understand the difference? And go over to the Atlantic article if you want to criticize its commenters, not here. Besides my emphasis in this post was on the Enlightenment, not on Goldstein’s criticisms of the book.

      1. When Goldstein says things like:

        “To attain our better selves and undo the damage of the Enlightenment, we have to count on different organs of cognition—our eyes and skilled hands—and put them back to work fixing appliances, flipping burgers, making stuff.”

        “Kant’s free will, in other words, was purchased for the whopping price of dissociation from our material and social environment, and we’re all paying that price. Well, not all of us, but we who aren’t marching in Crawford’s parade of manually skilled workers and practiced athletes, or riding out the narcissistic age astride a motorcycle. They’re the few who escape the distracted blur to which Kant condemned us.”

        It seems to me she’s “making fun” of Crawford rather than being critical. After reading the Atlantic review where the critics of Crawford’s ideas took Goldtein’s versions at face value I was hoping to find a more serious discussion that engaged with Crawford’s actual ideas.

        A couple of quotes from his book include:

        “We think through the body. The fundamental contribution of this school of psychological research is that it puts the mind back in the world, where it belongs, after several centuries of being locked within our heads. The boundary of our cognitive processes cannot be cleanly drawn at the outer surface of our skulls, or indeed of our bodies more generally. They are, in a sense, distributed in the world that we act in.”

        “The creeping substitution of virtual reality for reality is a prominent feature of contemporary life, but it also has deep antecedents in Western thought. It is a cultural project that is unfolding along lines that Immanuel Kant sketched for us: trying to establish the autonomy of the will by filtering material reality through abstractions.”

        These quotes don’t provide the full context of his ideas but they’re at least in his own words. His argument is made in a building block fashion with each chapter building on the next so I don’t feel qualified to summarize or defend his argument.

        As a layperson who’s read some philosophy and who’s attempted to apply philosophy in a work context Crawford’s ideas resonated with me so I thought it would be helpful to read a well reasoned discussion of the disagreement between Goldstein and Crawford.

  12. “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?”

    This is why I’m not such a huge fan of literature. Too much of it is just wrong. Take “The Lord of the Flies” for example, a book that is very highly thought of in many areas. It postulated a scenario about boys stranded alone on an island that was pretty gruesome, but actual scientific studies of boys in similar circumstances, have shown that the author was mistaken about what would happen, specifically, the already formed groups would not disintegrate, they would be reinforced. And it matters, people read books and believe that the stories have some relationship to reality, when in fact large parts are not an accurate representation of how the the universe works at all. In general you’d hope that the most popular stuff would be more reflective of reality, but I doubt that’s true. It’s more likely to be reinforcing our prejudices.

    1. I’ll +1 on that.

      My only test of literature is, “Is it enjoyable to read”. Which, I might add, most of the classics chosen for us at school, failed quite comprehensively.

      I’m a voracious reader, but that’s in spite of English Lit at school, not because of it. (In reality I doubt there’s any correlation between English Comprehension and reading habits, which is probably just as well).

    2. I think you misunderstand literature. Try transposing what you say to music or the visual arts. What is the “relation to reality” of Mozart’s Requiem, or the roof of the Sistine Chapel, both of which give a particular expression to Judaeo-Christian myths? The reality they reveal to us is different ways of seeing, or hearing, or feeling, and a sense of the reality of other minds. When I read Lord of the Flies, aged about 7, I drew no conclusions about its “relation to reality” except that it was wrong and cruel, in my very tough all-boys primary school, to bully or tease the fat, awkward, shortsighted boy who was the butt of all the jokes. And that the godlike, good-looking, sporty 10-year-old we all admired, was perhaps not so admirable after all, since he was the one leading the bullying and teasing. That is a lesson that has stayed with me all my life. Not just that every human being has an inner life that needs to be respected, but also not to be deceived by looks, or charisma or ideologies, to resist group-think, in fact to try to live out the Enlightenment ideal of skepticism and doubt on all matters (I fail of course, often, but it is worth trying).

      Having lived in many countries where storytelling of the kind exemplified by the novel is rare or non-existent (i.e. where storytelling is archetypal or mythical rather than individual), you can see a lack of that ability or readiness to consider other minds that the novel exemplifies.

      To say that literature is “just wrong” reminds me of the line in Amadeus, the film about Mozart, when the Emperor, who fanices himself a music connoisseur, tells the young Mozart that one of his pieces has “too many notes”. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what literature is, as egregious in its own way as the idea that science is a “white male” activity, and that there are other kinds of science.

      1. Marbella did not say literature is just wrong, just that too much of it is, big difference. Any author can make a story fit their personal view of reality: there is no inherent truth to any literature. It may make us think, it may even cause us to change our minds, but it would be a mistake to assume it represents reality.
        It’s a fair warning: no literature is inherently true, and a lot, thus too much, is very wrong. It behooves us to be wary of mistaking good literature for good science.

        1. My point is that to call a work of literature or art wrong is a category error. It may be bad or objectionable or boring but to call it wrong in the scientific sense of not being a reproducible model of reality that makes predictions is to miss the point. Joyce’s Ulysses is, amongst other things, an attempt to reproduce the incessant internal chatter of the human brain in a single 24 hour period using Homer ‘ s Odyssey as a literary framework. You can find it boring or obscure or ugly or shocking, but I don’t know what it would mean to say it was “wrong” in the way that Ptolemy’s cosmology is wrong.

        2. My point is that to call a work of literature or art wrong is a category error. It may be bad or objectionable or boring but to call it wrong in the scientific sense of not being a reproducible model of reality that makes predictions is to miss the point. Joyce’s Ulysses is, amongst other things, an attempt to reproduce the incessant internal chatter of the human brain in a single 24 hour period using Homer ‘ s Odyssey as a literary framework. You can find it boring or obscure or ugly or shocking, but I don’t know what it would mean to say it was “wrong” in the way that Ptolemy’s cosmology is wrong.

        3. Who mistakes good literature for good science? Most people know when they are reading fiction (with the exception of religious fiction). A more interesting question is whether literary criticism or literary theory are in any way scientific. Though I have a PhD in comparative literature, I have to doubt that the study of literature is scientific in a way that a physicist or biologist would recognise, because no one, not even the author, can say what might be “right” in a particular interpretation. And conversely what would be the proof of a wrong one? A pomo response would be the epistemological staus of the “hard” sciences are no different, but I then that’s a view that is pretty much discredited outside academe.

          1. In ‘The Atheist’s Guide’ Alex Rosenberg declares that literary criticism consists of ‘stories about stories,’ though ironically some of the derivative stories are more interesting than the ‘originals’ that are their subject. Entertaining, even occasionally moving, but not to be confused with science.

      2. I think the point is, literature has the potential to mislead. Mozart does not. I think of the influence of films and TV programs (a kind of literature) for example. Many people use these as resources to formulate an image of reality. Some of it is simply not objectively correct.

        1. I am not sure that it is correct to say that literature has the potential to mislead, so much as that it can offer a particular worldview with which people may identify. Most nevertheless do not confuse it with reality, even if it becomes part of our mental landscape. Given that we are talking about fiction, it is somewhat redundant to say that it is not objectively correct.

          Marella’s argument about Lord of the Flies – “It postulated a scenario about boys stranded alone on an island that was pretty gruesome, but actual scientific studies of boys in similar circumstances, have shown that the author was mistaken about what would happen, specifically, the already formed groups would not disintegrate, they would be reinforced” – may be to the point (though for obvious reasons one might question the claim that any “scientific study” that relates to “similar circumstances” cannot be very scientific, precisely because the variables will be different). However, fiction allows you to do what you like with reality – in this case, the novel is not so much about boys on a desert island, but about the war that brings them there and the propensity to violence and in-group/out-group conflict in our species that this war exemplifies. I think that evolutionary psychology would have something to say about the reality of that propensity, as will any look at the news at this moment.

        2. By the way, I think it is wrong to conflate a visual medium like film and TV with literature. Film is much closer to the way we perceive the external world, and therefore I suspect conveys a much stronger, unmediated, impression of reality, of which we are passive observers. The act of reading is more complex – it requires us to do our own picturing of the world being evoked, essentially to recreate it ourselves. I suspect that the neural pathways engaged in the two processes are very different.

    3. It depends very much on the literature in question though doesn’t it. Stories about Thor and Odysseus are clearly allegorical and you are free to take from it what you will, trying to decide what gods would actually do under the circumstances is pretty silly. But stories like “The Lord of the Flies” clearly have more of a barrow to push. I am glad one of my critics found it useful to remind him not to be a dick to fat kids with glasses, but the story has a lot more to say about the failings of human nature than that, not all of which is true. I think it’s important to remember that literature is not knowledge, it’s just someone’s opinion; someone who may well know very little about the subject in question.

      1. Literature is neither “knowledge” nor “opinion”. Knowledge = the world is this way. Opinion = I think/believe the world is this way. Literature = here is my imagined world – I hope you enjoy reading about it.

        Nothing in “The Lord of the Flies” is true, that’s why we call it fiction (from the Latin fingere, meaning approximately to make up). There is something depressingly literal about the idea that an author/artist may “know very little about the subject in question”. Let’s get Beethoven and Dostoyevsky and Van Gogh peer reviewed, after all the contemporary critics thought they were crap.

        I love science, it provides models of the world that are self-consistent and often enable us to predict lots of things about reality. It also reminds us how astonishing the world is. But one of the astonishing things about the world is how an evolved ape can respond to music, stories and pictures. One day science might tell us why and how we respond to those things, but I’m fairly sure and very content that it won’t manage to “unweave the rainbow”, because there are different ways of apprehending the world, and it is possible simultaneously to acknowledge that kittens have evolved/been bred to stimulate the human response to neoteny in helpless creatures of our own and other species and to trigger an owwww-cute reaction. That is the difference between science and art, outside and inside, quanta and qualia. I happen to think that the qualia motivate the pursuit of quanta (or that – as Hume said – the passions dominate reason – but I’m not sure they can be so clearly distinguished.

    4. ‘people read books and believe that the stories have some relationship to reality’

      And this is a true belief. First, stories are told or written within the sociocultural reality of humankind; and, second, stories are representations of human action that at best capture in strongly moving ways the universals of being what we are (really).

      How do stories do this? I think by reducing the noise of life sufficiently so that patters can be discerned. The most moving stories, then, are those that reveal the fundamentals of our morality.

  13. Immanuel Kant himself described the Enlightenment project as an escape from self-inflicted “Unmündigkeit” towards “Mündigkeit”. The term is easy for Germans, but difficult to translate directly. It assumes a person is not impaired or coerced, nor practically remains in such a state as if they were out of convenience or anxiety, but can think for themselves and dares to reflect on everything without guidance. Kant put it into a latin motto, as it was fashionable at the time: “Sapere Aude!” — dare to think for yourself (approximation, the audacity to be sapient)

    Crawford appears to be correct when he believes it releases humans into subjectivity. It does — at first. But why would that be a problem when the prison was built by authorities who crafted it to suit their own ends. Once released from the darkness, each prisoner recognized the world in similar ways. Arising disagreement could be settled by the scientific method, and the results don’t require belief for, as Richard Dawkins puts it best ,“It works, bitches!”.

    However, the mind and the intersubjective interplay between humans are reality too, and to us arguably the most important part of it. To make matters most complicated, it’s that very area were subject and object flow into each other. I don’t believe in “all is relative”, loath postmodernism, but naïve realism doesn’t work much better than cognitive relativism does. For me the best solution is the idea that is behind “model-dependent realism” or what Robert Anton Wilson called “never accept anyone’s belief system (B.S.) fully, don’t even your own” (be sure to apply this to Wilson’s occasionally woo infused ideas). Sapere Aude, indeed. In the spirit of “it works, bitches” we can go with what works, and treat the perfect as the enemy of the good, but of course there are some treacherous problems with such “rational ecclecticism” and iterative limping forward, too: from “Whatever the Thinker thinks the Prover proves”; using a map to create a territory; simply taking cross purposes; or the inability to measure “explanatory power” to decide objectively which model works best. Throw in a great array of cognitive distortions and some pessimism in objectivity is warranted. But neither naïve realism, nor postmodernism, nor authoritarianism solve that problem. Kant, summarizing the Enlightenment, project got it.

  14. Enlightenment thinkers were not all empiricists – some were ratio-empiricists (e.g., Smith), as scientists are tacitly when working. Hume was of course one, but even there he has role for sentiment, which is arguably a rationalistic (of sorts) component.

    There’s an unfortunate tendency to use “empiricist” to mean “science friendly”, and that’s unfortunately not the case, even ignoring the fact that scientists are not empricists in the original sense. Example is Berkeley- in fact Berkeley’s subjectivism (and of course idealism) is a product of his empiricism. Note that one can get to the same place “from the other way”, as in the textbook cariacture of Descartes.

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