Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment and why it still matters

Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment and why it still matters (Random House, 2013)

51mWBevckmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The overall purpose of the book is to describe the Enlightenment as an intellectual phenomenon, a matter of ideas being thought and books being written, published, and read. There is little attention paid to what we might call the material conditions of history – economics, climate, geography, and social dynamics. So the scope is limited. Nevertheless, Pagden tells a well-informed and entertaining story of a grand sweep of ideas. His book is just the sort of thing that could well have been written by some of the people he writes about. It’s a great introduction to the ideal landscape of the period, and an illustration of the fact that the intellectual debates in our day are nothing new.

As with any great intellectual movement, the Enlightenment is hard to define. Ernst Cassirer called it “a process, the ‘pulsation of the inner intellectual life,’ that consisted ‘less in the certain individual doctrines than in the form and manner of intellectual activity in general'” (quoted by Pagden, 10). It is hard to say anything true about it beyond calling it three centuries of smart Europeans excited by possible conflicts among religion, science, and politics. Maybe we can say that all of them were interested in establishing a new conception of humanity, though they could not agree on precisely what that conception was. For, as Pagden and others show, the thinkers themselves disagreed sharply over matters one might have assumed they agreed upon; and then turned around to agree about other things. Perhaps, if Cassirer was right, the Enlightenment was a variety of sport, and its players found themselves on different teams, and often changed teams as the ball moved to different corners of the field. It would be crazy to define its nature, and crazier yet to deny its existence.

Pagden begins, in “All Coherence Gone,” by recounting the widespread rejection of a single catholic and apostolic church, and the ancillary rejection of a shared philosophical vision of the relations among nature, humanity, and God. Individuals discovered an inner need to work things out for themselves, perhaps politically (as with Hobbes) or epistemically (as with Descartes). Even those like Leibniz who sought a reunification of Christendom went about it in their own way, with their own systems. This led to a moral problem, recounted in “Bringing Pity Back In,” which was to find some motivation for such atomized individuals to have concern for one another. For Hobbes the motivation was strategic and greedy. But of course that goes only so far. Later thinkers believed that we find sympathy within the natural psychology of human beings, and that explains why we sometimes care more for others than can be explained by our narrow interests in self. “The shift from ‘selfishness’ to ‘sentiment,’ from the calculation of interests to the awareness that all humans were bound together by bonds of mutual recognition, became the basis on which a new conception of the social and political order of the entire world would eventually be based” (95).

The third chapter, “The Fatherless World,” recounts the problem of what value to place in religion. Some radicals found no value at all. Others recognized that religion at the very least provides some incentive toward moral behavior when self-interest and sympathy fail. In any case, all agreed that religious intolerance was a clear evil, and that a more generic form of theism would be sufficient to meet the apparent human need to believe in magic beings and provide the sort of crowd control a society requires.  (I am beginning to believe that the advent of European deism is a political strategy of both crowd control and crown control.)

These first three chapters cover the basic territory that has to be covered; one might regard them all as preparatory. In the next three chapters, Pagden turns to the areas he knows best, and they are fascinating. They are “The Science of Man,” “Discovering Man in Nature,” and “The Defense of Civilization.” They all involve the challenge presented to European thinkers by the peoples of the Americas and the Pacific. What are we (Europeans) to make of their different values, customs, and practices? Do they simply present to us our primitive origins? Should those origins be regarded with loathing or admiration? What has civilization done for us – and to us? Pagden tells the stories of “Aotourou” and “Omai,” two Tahitian men brought to Europe on different occasions and paraded around town for all to survey and wonder. Their sad stories lend credence to the critics’ charge that the Enlightenment was “specifically a European form of tyranny”(20): both men’s lives were destroyed in the process, and their home communities fared no better.

The final three chapters, “The Great Society of Mankind,” “The Vast Commonwealth of Nations,” and “Enlightenment and its Enemies” trace connections among the noblest ideal of the Enlightenment – true cosmopolitanism, or the free and equal world citizenship of all human beings – and the decidedly mixed consequences of this noble ideal. On the one hand, any dream we have today of stable and peaceful relations among nations, with citizens playing genuine roles in the self-determination of governments, can be traced to books, treatises, and arguments of the Enlightenment. At the end of the book, Pagden speculates how Europe’s history would have been without it. The basic answer is that, had there not been “all coherence gone,” Europe would have met the same overall decline as the glorious Islamic world of the middle ages. A static religious hegemony would have stifled free inquiry, and external barbarians would have charged in and carved us up. Instead – good news! – we were able to do that to other people. And that, of course, is the other hand.

But, really, it need not have been that way. What humans have done under the banner of Enlightenment ideals has certainly not been concordant with those ideals. It is clear that Pagden’s overall assessment – “why it still matters” – is positive:

 [The Enlightenment] was about creating a field of values, political, social, and moral, based upon a detached and scrupulous understanding – as far as the human mind is capable – of what it means to be human. And today most educated people, at least in the West, broadly accept the conclusions to which it led. Most generally believe that it is possible to improve, through knowledge and science, the world in which we live. Because they believe this, they also believe there exists a ‘human nature’ …. They hold, that is, that although cultures are important and differences must be respected, this can be so only when cultures conform to some minimal ethical standards that every rational being could be brought to understand. They believe that although most rights come to us courtesy of the states to which we belong, there are others to which we are entitled by virtue of our humanity. (407)

I agree with him that these conclusions express the ideals of the Enlightenment; and it can be no coincidence that we can find no end of volumes from Enlightenment thinkers recommending these conclusions to us. But it is far trickier to establish that we have these values because of the books Pagden discusses. It could be that both phenomena – the great Enlightenment books, and our modern opinions – are expressions of some other deeper thing, like perhaps an economic revolution or some social transformation or lower mortality rates or just the bracing self-interrogation that follows prolonged exposure to other sorts of people. In short, what’s not clear to me is that “what matters” about the Enlightenment is the causal result of thoughtful books.

As much as I like engagement with the world of ideas, I am not always convinced that ideas play decisive causal roles in political and cultural change. They do play some role; ideas cannot be tossed aside as epiphenomenal. But sorting out why ideas matter, and how they come to matter, requires narrow and careful examination on a case by case basis. And that’s not the kind of story Pagden sets out to tell – except in the middle chapters and his discussion of how poor Aotourou and Omai were received and conceived by their European liberators/captors. Even there, not many details were included, and I will be on the lookout for more comprehensive discussions.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment and why it still matters

  1. Mike says:

    Ideas, not always entirely epiphenomenal. Woohoo! Hooray for ideas! 🙂

    More seriously the positive way to say that is, when we feel compelled to be ideas guys, “let’s work on the ideas that aren’t generally epiphenomenal, brotha”.


  2. Huenemann says:

    I think I see a bumper sticker coming….


  3. Mike says:

    It can be in the Church Of Mike daily devotional calendar.


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