Professional Philosophy For and Against the Enlightenment.
The modern university and modern philosophy, alike, are founded on the intellectual, moral, and political ideals of the Enlightenment.
But in the second decade of the 21st century, an era in which the university is not only intensely pressured from without by the demands of neoliberal politics and advanced capitalist values, but also intensely pressured from within by the demands of identity-politics and Social Justice Warrior values, the contemporary university—aka the professional academy—has in effect turned itself from an Ivory Tower into an Ivory Bunker, which, in the late 1990s, Richard Rorty very presciently called “the unpatriotic academy” and “an object of contempt.”
And what is perhaps even worse, contemporary professional academic philosophy has in effect turned itself into The Ivory Bunker’s meanest junk-yard dog, even to the point of attacking its own offspring.
So, more precisely, in their double enslavement to externally-imposed neoliberal politics and internally-imposed identity-politics, the contemporary professional academy, and especially contemporary professional philosophy, have seriously stultified themselves—by which I mean, that they’ve fucked themselves up, big-time—by systematically, even if more or less unintentionally, undermining their own founding Enlightenment ideals.
In order to understand this disaster better, I’m now going to provide a brief rational reconstruction of the rise-and-fall narrative I just sketched, in terms of core philosophical concept(s) of the Enlightenment, and then also, at the end, suggest a reasonable alternative to, and an escape route from, this contemporary sociocultural disaster area.
In Isaiah Berlin’s justly famous essay, “The Counter-Enlightenment,” he lists
the central principles of the Enlightenment—universality, objectivity, rationality, and the capacity to provide permanent solutions to all genuine problems of life or thought, and (not less important) accessibility of rational methods to any thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking. (pp. 19-20)
Let’s call these Berlin’s Basic Principles, for short.
He also says that
[w]hat the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin, believing instead that [the human being] is born either innocent and good, or morally neutral and malleable by education or environment, or, at worst, deeply defective but capable of radical and indefinite improvement by rational education in favourable circumstances, or by a revolutionary reorganisation of society as demanded, for example, by Rousseau. (p. 20)
In other words, all Enlightenment thinkers go in for one or another of these three different fundamental conceptions of human nature:
(i) that the human being is born innocent and good,
(ii) that the human being is born morally neutral and malleable by education or environment, or
(iii) that the human being is born deeply defective but capable of radical and indefinite improvement by rational education in favorable circumstances, or by a revolutionary reorganization of society.
And let’s call these Berlin’s Options, for short.
Berlin’s Basic Principles and Berlin’s Options provide an excellent two-part starting place for a deeper four-step analysis of the disaster narrative I described above.
And by means of that four-step analysis, what I’ll claim is that not only do we need need to distinguish between what I’ll call
(i) Enlightenment Classic, and
(ii) Enlightenment Lite,
previously discussed by members of the APP circle in
“From Enlightenment Lite to Nihilism: How Professional Philosophy Has Totally Let Everyone Down about the Real Purpose of an Undergraduate Liberal Arts Education,”
“What (the Hell) is Enlightenment?,”
(iii) Radical Enlightenment,
also previously discussed by the APP circle, in
“Radical Enlightenment 1: Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia”
“Radical Enlightenment 2: Dialectical Enlightenment,”
but also that all contemporary real (i.e., authentic, serious) philosophers should thoroughly reject Enlightenment Classic, AND the relativism and the skepticism of the Counter-Enlightenment, AND Enlightenment Lite, and instead affirm what I call a Left Kantian version of Radical Enlightenment.
First, starting with Berlin’s Basic Principles as a template, what I’m calling Enlightenment Classic is committed to five basic principles:
(i) dogmatic, unqualified universality,
(ii) either noumenal or natural scientific objectivity,
(iii) instrumental rationality,
(iv) the capacity to provide permanent coercive, violent, authoritarian statist solutions to all genuine problems of life or thought, and
(v) the accessibility of rational methods to any “civilized,” properly-educated thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking.
Enlightenment Classic is best, most world-historically, and most notoriously, exemplified by the lives and political careers of Peter the Great, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Robespierre, and Napoleon.
Not surprisingly, then, Enlightenment Classic has been sharply and even radically criticized by proponents of what Berlin aptly calls the Counter-Enlightenment, from J.G. Hamann and Kierkegaard, to the German and British Romantics, to Joseph de Maistre, Edmund Burke, Nietzsche, and Max Stirner, to Frankfurt School neo-Marxists like Horkheimer and Adorno, and finally to 20th and 21st century Foucauldians, and contemporary identity-communitarians of all stripes.
Alongside their many important differences, what all the members of the Counter-Enlightenment share are:
(i) relativism and skepticism as applied to each of Berlin’s Basic Principles,
(ii) a passionate affirmation of the contingencies and particularities of subjective or intersubjective human existence, and
(iii) a passionate and even visceral rejection of the actual social consequences of Enlightenment Classic—e.g., the descent of the French Revolution into The Terror, imperialist conquests and imperialist oppression, racism, serfdom and slavery, the Nazi-created Holocaust, Stalinist-style communist totalitarianism, and other more recent authoritarian statist monstrosities flying the Enlightenment Classic flag right alongside the flag of global corporate capitalism.
Second, once the all-out Counter-Enlightenment rejection of Enlightenment Classic has occurred, however, what then is left of human rationality?
The answer lies in Enlightenment Lite, which is nothing more and nothing less than a pared-down, minimalist version of the fifth basic principle of Enlightenment Classic:
(v*) the accessibility of rational methods to any properly-educated thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking.
Nevertheless, and sadly, Enlightenment Lite is value-neutral.
Hence, in a contemporary 21st century context, Enlightenment Lite is smoothly consistent with the valorization of capitalism and neoliberalism, equally smoothly consistent with scientism and determinism, and also committed to a subsidiary classical statist principle about freedom of speech, namely the “argue as much as you like, and about whatever you like, but obey!” principle, originally formulated by Frederick the Great, but also fully sustained in the context of 19th and 20th century democratic liberalism by, e.g., John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, ch. II.
The “argue but obey” principle, in turn, is the characteristic operating rule and mantra of the ideologically well-disciplined professional and the normalized intellectual.
Third, when you combine value-neutrality, neoliberalism, scientism, determinism, and the “argue but obey” principle, with the relativism and skepticism of the Counter-Enlightenment, and a further commitment to the second of Berlin’s Options, to the effect that “[the human being] is born … morally neutral and malleable by education or environment,” then the result is precisely the morality and politics of the professional academy in the first two decades of the 21st century, aka The Ivory Bunker, especially including professional academic philosophy, the Bunker’s meanest junk-yard dog, hence professional philosophy’s Ivory Bunker Morality-&-Politics.
Fourth, is there a reasonable alternative to the two rebarbative versions of Enlightenment–that is, Enlightenment Classic and Enlightenment Lite–that is ALSO a reasonable alternative to the equally rebarbative first thesis of the Counter-Enlightenment, namely its relativism and skepticism, and ALSO a reasonable alternative to the contemporary professional academy’s, and professional academic philosophy’s, outstandingly rebarbative and shitty Ivory Bunker Morality-&-Politics?
Yes, at least one: what I call Left Kantian Radical Enlightenment.
Left Kantian Radical Enlightenment is defined by its commitment to the following five principles:
(i**) the manifestly real, phenomenologically self-evident universality of human dignity,
(ii**) common sense, intersubjective objectivity,
(iii**) non-instrumental, non-egoistic rationality,
(iv**) the passionate rational hope that it is really possible for us to provide permanent non-coercive, non-violent, anarchist solutions to all genuine problems of life or thought,
(v**) the accessibility of rational methods to any critically self-conscious thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking.
This in turn allows for a friendly revision of the third of Berlin’s Options, namely this radically enlightened conception of human nature:
(iii**) that the human being is born free and capable of good, and also fully capable of evil, hence s/he is a “crooked timber” and “human, all too human,” but nevertheless remains fully capable of radical and indefinite improvement by critically self-conscious rational education in favorable circumstances, which in turn must include a progressive devolutionary/revolutionary anarchist reorganization of society.
And that, finally, is what I’m saying that all contemporary real philosophers should be passionately pursuing outside The Ivory Bunker, by means of Philosophy’s Second Copernican Revolution, in order to interpret charitably and critically, reformulate constructively and radically, and finally realize in the real world, the original intellectual, moral, and political ideals of the Enlightenment.