3QD: What is living and what is dead in the Enlightenment?

Talking about “The Enlightenment”, when understood as something like “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries” (thanks, Wikipedia), is like talking about Batman: do you mean classically heroic comic Batman? or the delightfully campy Adam West Batman? or the Batman of the movies, or of the gloomy Dark Knight era? The Batman one selects will determine what further questions need to be settled, and what scales of evaluation should be used. 

Similarly, the Enlightenment can be seen as a cluster of philosophical values (placed upon individual liberty, human equality, political and scientific progress, and independence from religion), or the ways in which those values helped to form economic institutions (slavery of various forms, global capitalism, and free markets), or as a stand-in term for whatever deep injustice people think has become dominant over the last three centuries (global economic inequalities, political states favoring the wealthy, and enduring white privilege). It is often thought that the Enlightenment is somehow a single thing behind all these things, in the way some of us think there can be a steady “Batman” character behind his various depths and flavors. 

These various flavors of “Enlightenment” are not wholly disconnected. For example, John Locke formulated a system of rights, contracts, and obligations that justified slavery on at least some occasions. The notion of actual human equality was interpreted by colonizers to mean potential human equality, which licensed the brutal process of more civilized nations forcing benighted savages into “more advanced conditions”. Scientific progress seemed to demand that we regard the natural world as a resource to be controlled and consumed, and soon our air became unbreathable. Freedom from religion came to mean that the only considerations that belong in the public sphere are measurements of material loss and gain; so “sin” and “virtue” need not apply.

And so, the criticism goes, the core ideals of Enlightenment lead to an alien and inhuman operating system that maximizes material well being for some, while annihilating any local traditions and values that are not readily uploaded into the system.

Read more here

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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1 Response to 3QD: What is living and what is dead in the Enlightenment?

  1. Pingback: Reposting What is living and what is dead in the Enlightenment? – The Dog Walks

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