Recent rhetoric about “The Enlightenment” is bizarre. A major strand of the Enlightment was about the Perfectibility of Man through Reason. The revolutionary reconstruction of society. The French Revolution is a child of the E & the Bolshevik Revolution one of its grandchildren.
It’s as if the fans of the Counter-Enlightenment forgot themselves and have appropriated the Enlightenment.
“The Enlightenment” cannot be selectively and whiggishly reduced to liberalism and natural science. The Enlightenment is also synonymous with scientism and rationalist social engineering.
This heroes' genealogy making the rounds of Twitter is what I'm talking about: "The Enlightenment" without Diderot or d’Alembert (editors of the Encyclopédie), Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Condorcet, d’Holbach, Turgot, Quesnay (other famous contributors).
The French part (which was most of it) & the radical Enlightenment have been erased out of that picture for presentist reasons. Conservative historian G Himmelfarb at least had the sense to invent (distinguish) 3 different Enlightenments so she could say the French one was 'bad'
BTW I'm NOT recommending Himmelfarb. Only noting she saw the E. as problematic (for her), not as the source of all that is good & great. Likewise, without endorsing I note, Hayek also saw much of the E. as negative & avoided today’s bizarre pop celebration of “The Enlightenment”
Commenters keep saying the E. must be divided into "Voltaire v Rousseau" or "moderate v radical" etc. & they're missing the point. The wrong but very popular idea of the E today is that it was mostly a British empiricist affair & the French rationalists had nothing to do with it!
Only 2 ppl have guessed who I'm subtweeting in this thread, but (given some of the comments) I note it is *not* Mokyr. Mokyr explicitly investigates the connection btw 'high' science & the non-scientific tinkerers of the 18th c. in what he calls the "Industrial Enlightenment".
As @jtlevy has mentioned, this "Pop Enlightenment" that I've been describing contrasts strongly with Jonathan Israel ( global.oup.com/academic/searc…) who now dominates the historiography of the Enlightenment & he attributes to the “Radical Enlightenment” most modern ‘basic values’:
Summary: There now exists a sanitised, narrowed-down, & anti-historical “Pop Enlightenment" which reduces the Enlightenment to liberalism and empiricism, whilst erasing other dimensions of the Enlightenment which have been criticised by conservatives, liberals & the left alike.
I know there are many many critiques of Israel's trilogy but 'dominates' historiography means everyone must engage him first, he sets the critical agenda. at least that is the impression I get.
Then you should call it something else, then. "Liberal empiricism" sounds good to me!
I'm annoyed, for example, that the "New Atheists" appropriate the term 'rationalism' all the while also extolling 'empiricism' because in the history of philosophy they are contradictory terms !
I can let go 'rationalism' because it's used in so many many vague ways, but I won't let go of the Enlightenment :-)
so I'm going to be on the lookout for when you might complain about a misuse of a term whose popular meanings are changing but are historically specific :-)
PS — Only a handful of people seemed to realise that I have been talking about the “Pop Enlightenment” of Pinker or his acolyte-followers (I’m not sure which yet) twitter.com/mattyglesias/s…
PS #2: I have not endorsed any particular interpretation of the Enlightenment or its alleged consequences or descendants. I simply referenced other interpretations to show that the "Pop Enlightenment" has an extremely narrow set of characters.
No less an intellectual historian than Isaiah Berlin did the complete opposite of the "Pop Enlightenment" -- he reduced it to continental utopian rationalism & scientism & a precursor of totalitarianism.
@charlesjkenny this is not to deny the “world is getting better all the time in long run perspective” narrative, which I agree with (although the narrators should know by now from behavioural sciences that doesn’t prevent popular disgruntlement!)
This is also very true, though I deliberately tried to compare the “Pop Enlightenment” with centre-right interpretations twitter.com/mattzeitlin/st…
Just one more addition: this thread does NOT dispute that the world has continuously been getting better, at least in a long run perspective. I am simply making a historiographic point.
I endorse this comment! Although Edmund Burke has been traditionally considered a figure of the Counter-Enlightenment, the “Pop Enlightenment” is noticeably Burkean in turning the continental rationalists into desaparecidos twitter.com/soashworth/sta…
Religion note: The "Pop Enlightenment" tends to be radically secular & atheistic; and tends to downplay, or rationalise away, the religiosity of the figures of the Enlightenment it picks and chooses to champion.
Isaac Newton, one of the greater gods of the Pop Enlightenment, had some of the most bizarre mystical beliefs possible ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_New… ) -- totally contrary to the radically anti-superstition stance of the Pop Enlightenment.
Keynes, who bought the manuscripts of Newton's occult works, called him, "not the first of the Age of Reason [but] the Last of the Magicians". A great terse summary of the anti-historicity of the Pop Enlightenment
A mostly blithering review of Pinker's new book. Pinker benefits from an advantage first discovered in the Enlightenment, appropriately enough. Voltaire: 'I always made one prayer to God: "O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!" God granted it.' the-tls.co.uk/articles/publi…
BLITHERING: "what happens if many of the goods being measured – electric lighting, cars, televisions, computers – get cheaper and cheaper as time goes on, so that a rising standard of living is concealed by falling prices?"
The weakest part of the review is actually what the reviewer says is the weakest part of the book. It's amazingly flaccid. And disappointing because while you can't really dispute the improvement in human life since ~1800, surely there's much to bicker about over its causes?!
Just finished ch 20 (3 more to go) of ¡Enlightenment Now! As several have already noted, ¡EN! is mostly *not* about the Enlightenment, so I have made a mistake: there is much more Enlightenment in the Wikipedia entry for the E than in ¡Enlightenment Now! :-)
80% of ¡Enlightenment Now! is an extended love poem to Max Roser, i.e., it is heavy on the descriptive statistics of The Progress or The Great Improvement. But those are already very familiar (but I grant that there is still a readership unfamiliar with Max Roser).
But like Better Angels, ¡Enlightenment Now! (so far) is casual on the causes of the Great Improvement. Peter Turchin criticised BA for not having a good theory. I thought the Flynn Effect was a pretty good hypothesis, but it's true Pinker's cultural explanation is rather ad hoc