Towards a new Enlightenment

Farewell to reason, progress and other philosophical myths

Socrates’s legacy is one of philosophy as intervention and enlightenment of public life. Could contemporary academic philosophers play a similar role? The Enlightenment’s legacy, still alive in the academy today, sees philosophers as the holders of reason and the guides of progress. But those are philosophical myths best left behind. What is called for is a new Enlightenment, one that interrogates grand buzzwords like “reason” and “progress”, is more historically grounded and pragmatic, writes Michale Hampe.  


Should academics in philosophy promote an enlightened way of life? As academics they can see themselves as experts who advance a particular academic field and represent it in public, but who have not more and no less to contribute to the improvement of human conditions than physicists or papyrologists, sociologists or psychologists, insofar as the latter act publicly as citizens or "public intellectuals".

But philosophy itself can be understood as an enterprise originally and primarily conceived as an intervention in the human condition, not a religious or political one, certainly not a military one, but an intervention sui generis. Socrates' questioning of the beliefs of his fellow men was an intervention in the Athenian conditions of living of his time. And his activities were not occasional "reach outs" of an academic, which Socrates was not, but his "real activity." The fact that human life does not have to be determined entirely by conventions, religious dogmas or political regulations, but - this is how one can summarize the intention of Socratic activity - above all by a communal reflection, can itself be interpreted as an initial spark of enlightened philosophy, a philosophy that was striving for a "form of life": that of a community of people who freely communicate with each other about what one should do in life, once self-preservation has more or less succeeded, a community of reflective friends who do not want to be told what to do by a caste of priests or political "leaders". Following Dewey, for whom democracy was not merely a form of government, this can be called an enlightened democratic way of life or a secular philosophical life.  The question is, what can philosophy’s intervention for a more enlightened way of life look like today?  

Behind the concept of reason used in this abstract way lurks an illusion of the Enlightenment that is continuing to mislead philosophy to this day.


Farewell to reason, and other philosophical myths

Can philosophers intervene in the public sphere in a regulating way and develop criteria of reasonable, friendly discourse that may contain the universal struggle for power and attention in the end and replace it with collaborative thinking and enlightened education for which philosophy establishes the principles, as modern Kantians, such as Habermas, seem to think it possible? I don't think that this is an option.

To understand my skepticism, a look at the philosophy of science may help. For there, too, regulatory claims of philosophy have long since failed. Paul Feyerabend already wrote at the end of the 1980s: "A ... theory that reveals a structure underlying all sciences and rules belonging to it ... and shows how it is related to even more general laws of reason is ... not possible. One can enumerate rules of thumb ... one can show by means of case studies how complicated and history-dependent the way to scientific results is ... A theory that tries to do more loses contact with reality. What Feyerabend says here about possible criteria of reasonableness of science applies to criteria of reasonableness in discourse and education in general, i.e., in an "enlightened world," insofar as it still goes beyond the sciences.

Kantians use to say, that the rules of reason are not facts to be discovered, but that they are a task to fulfill. That to "us" "reason" is set as a "duty", that it is set as a task "for all rational beings", is an edifying Kantian formulation, which I have often heard myself and which I was supposed to think about as a student (similar to Sunday school where we had to reflect about the fact that we are all sinners). But what are the concrete consequences of this task in education? I must confess: I have never seen a successful application of the general guide of reason in dealing with material in the history of science, let alone in educational policy. For me, this guideline is, to use another of Feyerabend's somewhat polemical formulations, part of the Kantian "castle in the air" of a general reason. 

Behind the concept of reason used in this abstract way lurks an illusion of the Enlightenment that is continuing to mislead philosophy to this day. It is a variant of a very general illusion, which I would like to call the "illusion of the foundation by the reflecting on great words". According to it, philosophy has to take care of a business of grounding both theory and action in general by thinking about reason, freedom, truth, happiness, nature, and not about specific rational procedures, truth practices, understandings of happiness, and the various domains of the natural. I have devoted most of my writing to forging needles with which to poke the illusion bubbles of such grounding fantasies.  And insofar as the destruction of illusions is the business of enlightenment, I understand these critical or negativistic efforts to be enlightenment ones.

Lest there be any misunderstanding: Like Feyerabend, I have nothing in principle against the concept of truth, nor anything against that of reason. However, I think that just as there are concrete truth practices in different intellectual projects such as mathematics, pathology, archaeology, jurisprudence, etc., there are also different things to be characterized as "reasonable" in different contexts in each case. What constitutes a reasonable diet, a reasonable monetary policy, a reasonable research plan, a reasonable argument, a reasonable formal proof, a reasonable poetry interpretation, and a reasonable educational style cannot, in my view, be determined by general criteria of reason that can be deduced transcendentally (however that goes), but must be studied in terms of examples of procedures in the respective fields that have been judged to be successful.

There is no philosophical secret tunnel to ahistorical criteria of control that could be used to guide public processes of negotiation about how to locate truths and when to nobilize practices as "reasonable."

There is no philosophical secret tunnel to ahistorical criteria of control that could be used to guide public processes of negotiation about how to locate truths and when to nobilize practices as "reasonable." Philosophers cannot on the basis of their theories of truth prescribe to scientists, lawyers, journalists, and others how truth-seeking goes in their fields, and they cannot prescribe to educators and doctors what is a reasonable educational practice or method of treatment. The reason why they cannot undertake this business is that they usually have no knowledge at all of the contents of the sciences, of legal procedures, of educational and curative practices, based on practical experience. They usually know only the results of these undertakings. The idea that a contemplative caste of philosophical intellectuals possesses fixed criteria of judgment as to what can be true and reasonable, and that practitioners must conform to these criteria, is a power fantasy that has haunted philosophical minds since Plato's "Republic"  and which Kantianism has not made any more plausible. Practices, whether truth-practices or others to which we attach the predicates "reasonable" and "unreasonable," should, in Dewey's sense, be evaluated and developed by those who actually perform them, not by those who can talk about these practices but cannot themselves perform them at all.  Observers of practices can only try to trace what made "our" ancestors or "ourselves" move from one practice to another and why, and how "we" may have discovered new ones in the process.

How is it that the arguments against slavery, existing since the Stoa, never caused it to be abolished, but only art ("Uncle Tom's Cabin") and presumably economic constraints that made it seem unprofitable in the 19th century had this consequence?  In the face of such facts, philosophy must ask itself what social and political efficacy its arguments have had. I share Raymond Geuss' position that a "good philosopher ... must be a self-critical partisan of the Enlightenment" and not a fanatical knight of "reason."

At this point, some overlap arises between the thinking of Geuss, that of Feyerabend in his "Farewell to Reason," and my own modest attempts. For Feyerabend expressed the hope that all efforts to "let our actions be guided by insight and no longer by ... buzzwords" might lead to a "new enlightenment" in which even old traditions of thought and those from other cultures are examined and possibly brought to new prominence.  What Feyerabend calls the error of being guided by buzzwords, Geuss calls "world-views," and I call the "tossing around of big words for foundational purposes." A Third Enlightenment movement would seek to avoid buzzwords, world-views, and grounding projects. Insofar as utopias are "world-views," it would also avoid them. For, according to Geuss, they are ultimately nothing more than a non-functioning substitute for a formerly intact and sustainable communality, or the attempt to save this communality through "theory building". Communities whose members have become alienated from each other, can only compete against each other, are socially too "weak" to feel bound by the rules and habits within them. They seem to "need" justifying worldviews and, I would add, utopias. But these theoretical constructs cannot, according to Geuss, restore the disappeared cohesion and sustainability of a community either.

A Third Enlightenment movement would seek to avoid buzzwords, world-views, and grounding projects. Insofar as utopias are "world-views," it would also avoid them.


Two forms of Enlightenment

One can distinguish between a positive and a negative enlightenment, just as one can differentiate between a positive and a negative utilitarianism. The first seeks to promote the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number. The second seeks the reduction of suffering.

The positive enlightenment has tried to promote autonomy and maturity, the ability to think for oneself and to dare to act from one's own thoughts and feelings. It has fought as a political movement for the emancipation of marginalized people, women and the exploited. In doing so, it has tried to develop general criteria of reasonableness (in the sense of Kant) and a general "rational language" (in the sense of Descartes's „Discours de la méthode“ or Leibniz's characteristica universale). The negative enlightenment (which has also always existed, like negative utilitarianism), on the other hand, tried to avoid cruelty and illusion, to push back authority, to end religious fear-mongering. A third enlightenment would also have to be a negative one, trying to stop the already ongoing divisive habits, the cruelties that result from them and that are not only done to humans, but also to many other living beings by the universalization of the market. A movement of a third enlightenment, after the first one 400 BCE and the second one 1700 ACE, would have to show that the general criteria of reason are not needed in order to nevertheless characterize a change in practices as "reasonable."

For there is, if one looks, say, at the history of criminal procedure or the game of soccer, a continuous change in the rules by which these practices are carried out. Good historians can describe how the changes have proceeded in each case and the reasons the change-makers had for their changes. Even the types of reasons may themselves be subject to change in the process. Insofar as these processes are comprehensible, they can be characterized as "reasonable" ones, without therefore having to be controlled by principles of reason a tergo or to run teleologically towards the realization of the reason given to us all.

A movement of a third enlightenment, after the first one 400 BCE and the second one 1700 ACE, would have to show that the general criteria of reason are not needed in order to nevertheless characterize a change in practices as "reasonable."

This also applies to the history of philosophy. It, too, is not driven by abstract reason and does not run towards a definite reasonable final state. It seems to me as little a movement of progress as the history of painting or poetry. I share Ian Hacking's diagnosis that philosophy is not in the "progress business," that it cannot be the task of philosophy to advance knowledge in the sense of the natural and technical sciences, because it is much less determined than the latter by shared methods.

Calls for a new enlightenment are also an attempt to remember. Let us think of people who have been living in war for 100 years. For a long time now, there have been no peaceful banquets, no quiet fellowships that did not lead to competitions, but only flight, hardship and struggle. People can get used to this, too, as the Enlightenment philosopher Lichtenberg once remarked, because those who "tasted" peace are dying out and the memory of it is therefore fading.  Just as one can get used to war, "we" have gotten used to our life, which we also like to characterize as "progressive" because it is associated with technical innovations and gains in wealth for a small group. But what if we have to realize that this progress is detrimental to a majority of people and other living beings, and therefore the institutions set up for it must fail? Is not then the word "progress" like the word "reason" and the word "freedom" a major concept of the Enlightenment, a "buzzword" in the sense of Feyerabend, about whose meaning perhaps more thought should be given, about which "the Enlightenment" as a cultural movement should enlighten itself? In this sense, can't a reminder of old thoughts, a compilation of reflections that may be well known to some, still have an enlightening utility in the public sphere, in the sense of an unmasking gesture? The pragmatist Chauncey Wright wrote in 1865 in criticism of Herbert Spencer:

"Progress is a grand idea, Universal Progress is a still grander idea. It strikes the key note of modern civilization. Moral idealism is the religion of our times. What the ideas of God, the One, and the All, the Infinite First cause, were to an earlier civilization, such are Progress and Universal Progress to the modern world,--a reflex of its moral ideas and feelings."

Wouldn't it be worthwhile, instead of trying to advance supposed progress, to remember instead that people can live differently than "we" are doing right now? Wouldn't it be worthwhile to remember that, just as it was possible to live without war for some time, it was also possible to live without selling everything, without always being in a competitive market, without shouting your opinions in each other's faces? Wouldn't an "unmasking" of the role of the concept of progress as an empty "buzzword" in the Feyerabendian sense within a "world-view" in the sense of Geuss, accessible to the broader public, therefore be a desirable project of negative enlightenment, worth to be pursued also by academic philosophers?


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