Conclusion The ideas of the Enlightenment

The ideas of the Enlightenment continue to influence our present culture. The ideal of human emancipation still occupies a central place among
them, though it has since passed through a number of changes. Marxism,
which until recently played a leading role in European life, may serve as an
example both of the continuity with and the transformation of the original
ideal. It derived its goal of social liberation from the eighteenth-century ideal
of emancipation. Yet the kind of social liberation Marx had in mind obviously
differs from the emancipation pursued by the Enlightenment. Eighteenthcentury thought had at least in principle continued to maintain the traditional
primacy of theoretical reason. Marx replaced this primacy with that of instrumental reason. Human emancipation was to result from changes in the social
process of production.
In the West, Marxism now appears to belong to a perfect past and most of
us consider ourselves more legitimate heirs of the Enlightenment legacy. Still,
the Enlightenment itself contained a less overt but no less consequential pragmatism. The eighteenth-century notion of rationality included a universal pattern of order to be imposed upon nature and society. The idea of an enforced
rationality inspired and motivated the French Revolution. Albrecht Wellmer
has described the dangers implied in this project: ‘‘Enlightenment became a
world-historical project of the human species, in which the species simultaDupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
Conclusion 335
neously creates itself and threatens its own destruction; its ultimate aim is
social freedom, happiness, and the independence of the individual, but its
secret logic aims at the extinction of the self-liberating subjects and the selfelevation of social bondage and constraint.’’∞
Jürgen Habermas has made a vigorous effort to disconnect at least the
Enlightenment’s idea of emancipation from a narrowly practical interpretation and to restore some of the metaphysical content that practical reason, at
least for its major thinkers, possessed. Deprived of all metaphysical and religious content, he claims, practical reason tends to degenerate to a utilitarian
calculus, ‘‘rationality in the service of self-preservation gone wild.’’≤ He seeks
to return to what he considers the original emancipatory project of the Enlightenment. The modern concept of reason is indeed linked to emancipatory
action, as Kant had shown. But that call for action does not imply that theoretical reason must ever yield its primacy to practical intelligence. When subordinate to practice, theoretical reason forfeits the authority to raise critical
questions of legitimacy. Both Nazism and Communism have shown the catastrophic consequences to which this leads.
Other contemporary thinkers have recently criticized the Enlightenment for
the opposite reason. According to them, it intensified a one-sided intellectualism that had been inherent in Western thought since its Greek beginnings. In
particular, they object to the typically modern concern with absolute foundations. That concern, according to Richard Rorty, originated in the early seventeenth century.≥ Western thought did not always require the support of ultimate foundations, even though it has always insisted on the necessity to justify
the real. Plato’s philosophy began with ‘‘nonfoundational’’ conversations. His
dialogues remain wide open to all viewpoints, as long as the speakers do not
contradict themselves. To make sense, an argument must remain consistent,
but nothing should or can prevent it from admitting unproven assumptions.
Premodern thinkers have never felt the need to prove all of the presuppositions
of their thought. Yet, as I understand them, the concerns of Rorty and some
other postmodern thinkers move beyond the intellectualism of the Enlightenment. Their critique of modernity forms part of a more comprehensive attack
on a logocentrism that allegedly has obsessed Western thought from the beginning. Modern rationalism, then, would be merely a distinct, more selfconscious stage of that ancient rationalism.∂
In my opinion, that critique of the Enlightenment continues to rely on principles inherent in the Enlightenment itself. Its summons to uninhibited critical
thinking—sapere aude—challenges any principles that stand in the way of
such a critique, including the Enlightenment’s own. Formerly few dared to
turn the power of their critique on the rule of reason itself. Today’s critics are
Dupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
336 Conclusion
prepared to do so, though the source of the critical impulse lies in the very
movement they criticize. Michel Foucault’s thought presents an amazing example of opposition to Enlightenment in the name of Enlightenment principles. In his view, the fact that the human subject imposes meaning transforms
the meaning-giving act itself into an exercise of power. Structures of meaning
that appear as determinations of reason express in fact an underlying will to
power.∑ So, he rejects the primacy of reason, essential to Enlightenment project, altogether. Here also, however, it must be said that antecedents of this
critique may be found in the Enlightenment itself. Rousseau continuously
attacked the rationalism on which his political critique was based. In others,
such as Diderot, the inconsistency is less obvious. Yet their personal and fictional writings substantially differ from the rationalist principles that lie at the
ground of their critique. It has been said with some justification that the socalled Age of Reason was reason’s worst enemy.∏
In the course of this book I have repeatedly indicated that one of the main
problems of the Enlightenment stems from the assumption that the mind alone
is the source of meaning. This often led to an unwarranted intellectual confidence. Many appeared insufficiently aware of the limitations of the historically conditioned individual mind and tended to identify it with the universal, transcendental reason. Kant, who coined the term ‘‘transcendental ego,’’
warned against equating it with the empirical self. Others did not adequately
distinguish them and ended up with an idea of reason that badly needed to be
desublimated. One effect of it was that they tended to overestimate the realistic chances of their projects. Utopian treatises on perpetual peace, on a permanent international brotherhood, on the unification of all sciences, and on the
future extinction of crime, bear the sign of a naive presumptuousness. For a
brief period many intellectuals, especially but not exclusively in France, expected that the French Revolution, the ultimate utopia, was about to realize all
the Enlightenment’s hopes.
Contrary to the religious utopias of earlier ages, those of the Enlightenment
appeared realistic because their supporters intended to realize them by scientific means and methods. But, as Karl Mannheim remarks, that did not make
them any less utopian. ‘‘Nothing is more removed from actual events than the
closed rational system. Under certain circumstances, nothing contains more
irrational drive than a fully self-contained, intellectualistic world-view.’’π In
fact, religious utopias, believed to be long suppressed, continued to inspire the
allegedly scientific projects of the Enlightenment. Behind the rationalist outlines of the stages of world history we still detect traces of apocalyptic speculations that began with Joachim of Fiore. Lessing’s essay on ‘‘The Education of
the Human Race,’’ directly influenced by Pietist sources, shows how easily a
Dupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
Conclusion 337
religious view of history could be transferred to a secular one. In France, the
young Turgot initiated a similar transition in his ‘‘Discours sur les progrès
successifs de l’esprit humain,’’ which his admirer Condorcet developed into a
fail-proof, scientific utopia. His certainty of the future as that of other utopians rested entirely on an unrestricted trust in the compelling force of reason.
Having reached full intellectual maturity, humans, they assumed, would have
no choice but freely to obey the voice of reason and thereby to realize the ideal
state of humanity. Since then we have learned what Voltaire knew: how little
reason directs human conduct.
Finally, I return to the question raised at the beginning of this book concerning the Enlightenment’s relation to early and late modernity. From the preceding chapters it should appear that in the Enlightenment the original thesis of
modern thought, namely, that the mind plays a creative role in the constitution
of the real, found its strongest expression. That does not imply, however, that
the Enlightenment’s intellectual position can be derived from early modern
premises. In many respects it deviated from them. Early modern thought had
none of the abstract universalism characteristic of the later period. The Enlightenment reinterpreted the humanist idea of human creativity. The characteristic inclination of Enlightenment thought to universalize its concepts deprived the Renaissance notion of human creativity of the tragic limitations
restricting each individual’s potential to realize it, of which precisely the most
creative men of genius—Michelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo—had remained so
acutely conscious. We rarely perceive those limitations in the Enlightenment.
For the later thinkers, no meaning is given with reality itself. This belief constitutes the basis of what we consider to be the Enlightenment’s rationalism
taken in the comprehensive sense that includes empiricist as well as philosophically ‘‘rationalist’’ thought.
Within that rationalism, the principle of universality, crucial in our intellectual tradition since its Greek beginnings, turned into an abstract, logical principle of reasoning. On a practical level, it became a tool of instrumental reason
that enabled the West to develop a technical superiority, which allowed it to
impose its views and politics on most of the world. Through colonization,
technical advances, and economic power, it has attempted and mostly succeeded in restructuring other societies on a Western pattern. These developments were not accidental: they were direct consequences of the new concept
of reason. That concept was isolated from the historical context in which it
had previously been embedded. In premodern thought reason was never taken
to be free of presuppositions. To overcome the skepticism created by the
nominalist crisis, however, Descartes considered it necessary for reason to be
its own foundation and not to rely on anything outside itself. That abstraction
Dupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
338 Conclusion
by now has shown its limitations, both the theoretical and practical. With
many others, Alasdair MacIntyre has called for a return to a way of thinking
that recognizes its link to a particular tradition. ‘‘What Enlightenment made
us for the most part blind to and we now need to recover is . . . a conception
according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge
from and are part of a history.’’∫
Since the Enlightenment has now come under such a severe revision, many
have begun to wonder whether it was more than an unfortunate cultural
interlude, a deviation from the course of our intellectual development. Against
this position I have argued that the Enlightenment, though flawed and onesided, accomplished an indispensable task in the development of Western
thought. With admirable persistency it pursued the principle that has dominated our intellectual tradition since its beginning, namely, that things ought
to be justified rather than blindly accepted from habit and custom. In its
single-minded attempt to make that principle into the guiding rule of thought,
the Enlightenment achieved a veritable breakthrough on the way toward consistent rationality and even provided the tools for correcting its own onesidedness. Though the eighteenth century rarely made those corrections, its
intellectual achievement remains unsurpassed.
The Enlightenment has given us some of our most important ideas: an
expressive conception of art, a nonauthoritarian view of morality, political
theories that build freedom and democracy within the very structures of society. These were rationally sound positions, even when the arguments that
supported them often rested on questionable grounds. A theory of human
rights conceived in a judicial vacuum may be hard to defend juridically, yet the
very concept of such rights expresses the profoundly rational insight that
human beings are by nature entitled to rights. The same applies to the doubtful
arguments by which political philosophers legitimated the idea of a social
contract. They were right in believing that political structures must serve people’s needs rather than being self-justifying structures. If today we feel that the
undesirable conditions in which many humans have to live impose a universal
obligation on the conscience of the more fortunate ones, we may find it hard to
justify that insight, but we nevertheless know it to be true. Time and again the
rational insights of the Enlightenment surpass the arguments invoked to justify them.
Even in its attitude toward religion, which has most severely been criticized,
the Enlightenment deserves considerable credit. Religious tolerance; the separation between cult and public life; the protection of the individual conscience
against religious compulsion, social pressure, or cultural prejudice—all of
these have become nonnegotiable positions to Western believers. The sad
Dupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
Conclusion 339
events mentioned at the beginning of this book show the evil a religion may do
when it refuses to accept those positions. The critique of the so-called arguments for the existence of God, themselves a modern, rationalist invention,
forced theology at last to abandon a long surpassed pre-Copernican conception of the world. The idea of creation conceived as a divine imparting of
motion, held over from an Aristotelian cosmology, lost its meaning after Newton’s theory and Diderot’s attacks. The critique of religion proved painful,
particularly in the irreverent form in which it was often administered; yet it was
necessary and overdue. In the end religion benefited from it. It forced the
religious community to seek the proper domain of religion in symbols of
transcendence rather than in science, and compelled it to begin a search for the
kind of spiritual depth needed to live in accordance with this insight. Paradoxically, it was the critique of the Enlightenment, however one-sided and intolerant of alternative views, that opened the eyes of Western believers to the truth
and value of religions other than their own. Even deism, rationalism’s own
defective product, was capable of inspiring genuine piety as the example of the
deeply religious Moses Mendelssohn showed and as Lessing’s play based on
that example proved. However we assess the Enlightenment’s achievements,
we could commit no greater error than to deny or reject them. They have
become an essential part of what we are.
Dupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
Dupré, L. (2004). The enlightenment and the intellectual foundations of modern culture. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-29 17:00:00. Copyright © 2004. Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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