The Legacy of The Enlightenment

A short note, where I’d like to make an observation. Seems to me that the age of enlightenment, or what one could call “its legacy”, was that it revived a radical interpretation of modernity. Descriptions of the enlightenment, if one were to contemplate it within historical periods, seems to ubiquitously situate it in what is known amongst historians as the “Long Eighteenth Century”.

I have always found it helpful to think of the “enlightenment” as a term of art, which designates remarkable changes in human life. Between the predecessor “early modern period” and the ensuing “19th century positivism”. I think of remarkable changes in human subjectivity, as well as, in conceptions of corporatism and statehood. And specifically, I think it is important to stress that the thinkers of the enlightenment made startling observations concerning an individual’s “cultural beliefs” and a community’s “political predicates”. Not only did the thinkers of the enlightenment consider these topics worthy of reflection, but also, those thinkers took issue with causality, specifically between one’s beliefs and one’s political claims. Enlightenment thinkers challenged the idea of “foundations” like Aquinas’ contemplation of “first cause”, and turned their attention to an evidence-based approach to “outcomes” that was a radical departure from the received wisdom of cosmological casuistry. Bluntly, I would surmise that the enlightenment reminded us that there was no need for some ultimate telos, and instead, one should measure human activity through utilitarian techniques. (Personally, I find both stances key to the idea of “human flourishing”)

This is a significant point, and it is one that continues to be grappled with by everyday thinking we all engage with and also by the major philosophers of every discipline. Of course, I do not think the idea of critiquing beliefs is anything new. The renaissance before it, and many other eras of political thought have grappled with similar questions. What distinguishes the enlightenment era, is that thinkers became more attuned to the sublime force – I use the word sublime in both the terrible and beautiful senses – those beliefs have in structuring human identity and their perceptions of the world.

Those thinkers came to hold the view that received wisdoms about ‘natural order’, meaning to say any kind of cosmic reality we wish to believe, was not some original static fabric. “Modernity” for the enlightenment thinkers was not governed by a priori natural order, which we could discover and study. Instead, our ‘studies’ is what creates human reality and drives beliefs. In other words, modernity – the idea of the “state of things” – was created by human thought. This means, that our beliefs – as they have been discursively constructed – act as predicates to everything we think we are merely ‘sensing’ or ‘observing’.

This knowledge, that what we “sense”, is changed and formed by what we already know, was a huge transformation in human thought. In the history of “ideas”, which is a very long journey indeed, human penchant for adhering to platonic traditions of the soul and divine truth became a danger to ‘rationality’. It was a danger, because many of the major thinkers at the time learnt to recognise that predicates created upon belief operate as ‘self-referential truths’. The fact that political predicates are based on belief means that they can neither be proved right nor wrong. They are at heart, assertions. Except that, the believers do not see themselves as making assertions and would cognate any disagreement as a threat to the ideas they hold as truth.

Like I mentioned earlier, the enlightenment thinkers should not be seen as the first to do so. But in the constellation of ideas in human history, the enlightenment thinkers are our “closest informants” for interrogating our present world.