Romanticizing the Enlightenment

I am increasingly being asked to reflect on my self-development. This is neither as boring nor self-aggrandizing as it might first sound. You may actually learn something about yourself in the process. I was someone who read philosophy from quite an early age – certainly by high school I was able to distinguish the major philosophers and some of them I had actually read in excerpt form. For my high school newspaper, I compiled a list of the 100 greatest people (I think it was ‘people’ — not ‘thinkers’) of all time. All I remember clearly was that Jesus headed the list, with Moses, Muhammad, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Newton and Kant close to the top. Karl Jaspers’ account of the great thinkers made a strong impression at the time – though I always recoiled at the word ‘wisdom’ he used to characterise them as a group. For me ‘wisdom’ suggests old age, and while we should always learn from the past, we should never venerate it. I believed this at age 15 and at age 55.
I always strongly identified with the Enlightenment as a movement. People who know my work mainly through my critics – especially in the scientific establishment – may find this surprising. However, I’ve been very consistent on this point. But what I value in the Enlightenment is its spirit, not any dogmas that may trace their legitimacy to what some 18th century thinkers said. The Enlightenment was, in the first instance, an anti-authoritarian movement that basically set out to finish the job started by the Protestant Reformation, the denominations of which had begun to coalesce into mini-Vaticans of their own. (If you want to understand the soul of an intellectual movement, don’t take its actual content too literally; rather, take that content as indicative of a certain change in attitude toward what has come before – a kind of re-branding or re-spinning. This is Hegel’s take-home lesson for today.)


In the 1970s, when I first become engaged with these things, the Enlightenment and Romanticism were seen as two complementary movements that pivoted around the Industrial and French Revolutions. (If the reader does not find this framing intuitively clear, then the world really has changed.) Because I remember a time before academics had any clear sense of what ‘postmodern’ might mean, a young person from today transported back to my youth would probably recognize the distinction between Enlightenment and Romanticism in terms of ‘modern’ versus ‘postmodern’ – and then wonder why couldn’t these primitives state the obvious! However, the key difference was that back in the 1970s, much of the discussion focussed on the psychology of the individual that was privileged by Enlightenment vis-à-vis Romanticism. These discussions, very rich in detail, were often reduced to ‘reason’ versus ‘emotion’ in popular forums. (Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man is a sociological artefact from that era.) From that standpoint, the more recent wranglings over ‘modern’ versus ‘postmodern’ look very abstract and detached from these original concerns with personal self-understanding.
Of course, what intervened was the French ‘death of the subject’ movement associated with Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, the English translations of which only started to be integrated into humanities and social science curricula when I started university in 1976. Initially Derrida’s Of Grammatology made the biggest impression on me but Foucault’s The Order of Things has stuck the longest.
I say all this because my sense of the Enlightenment was always coloured by the psychology of the Enlightenment figures – perhaps even more than by the content of their views. In particular, having read Will Durant’s popular biographies of Voltaire and Rousseau, I was drawn to these very brilliant, dynamic and volatile figures, who operated in many media and always presented the assertion of reason as an endless struggle against stupidity, superstition, depravity and incapacity – in both oneself and others. It requires eternal vigilance – comparable to what only God himself provides in keeping the cosmos in operation! If you recall Goya’s famous painting about ‘the sleep of reason’, you get the message. I don’t deny that this image of the Enlightenment was very compatible with the Cold War’s ‘permanent state of emergency’ (Daniel Bell’s phrase) mentality, but at the same time it reached out to the Romantic sensibility by suggesting that even ‘reason’ needs to be somehow ‘inhabited’. (I see Bourdieu’s habitus as largely a sociologically relativized and objectivized take on this point.) In any case, I always found that more recent self-avowed defenders of the Enlightenment, whose scholasticism would even make Kant blush (e.g. Juergen Habermas), have lost sight of what made that period so inspiring for many generations of thinkers throughout the world – and still animates my own way of thinking.

Categories: Mediated Matters, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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