Book review: why the Enlightenment still matters

Book review by Ollie Cussan of Pagden, The Enlightenment and why it still matters, in Prospect:

The Enlightenment’s great achievement, Pagden argues, was to repair the bonds of mankind. Its distinctive feature was not that it held history, nature, theology and political authority to the scrutiny of reason, as most of its critics and many of its champions claim, but instead that it recognised our common humanity—our ability to place ourselves in another’s situation and, ultimately, to sympathise with them. Adam Smith and David Hume taught us that man is neither a creation of God nor a selfish pursuer of his own interests; at the most fundamental level, man is the friend of man. This, Pagden argues, was the origin of cosmopolitanism: the central Enlightenment belief in a common humanity and an awareness of belonging to some world larger than your own community.

For Pagden, the significance of this turn in human thought cannot be exaggerated. Cosmopolitanism “was, and remains, possibly the only way to persuade human beings to live together in harmony with one another, or, to put it differently, to stop killing each other.” It is inextricably tied to the Enlightenment’s “universalising vision of the human world” that ultimately led to a conception of civilisation in which questions of justice can be applied and upheld at a global level. Pagden admonishes critics of the Enlightenment project such as Gray and Macintyre for reducing it to a movement based on autonomous reason and objective science. Instead, the Enlightenment was about sympathy, the invention of civilisation, and the pursuit of a cosmopolitan world order.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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