Another view of the Enlightenment

Alireza asked:

Could you explain the following sentences (especially the last one)? I have problem understanding them:

The Enlightenment project, writes David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity, ‘took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and represent it rightly. But this persumed a single mode of representation which, if we could uncover it… would provide the means to Enlightenment ends.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As you quote nothing else and I’ve not read this author, I can only respond to the quotation. It is a singularly narrow perspective and fits only one (and hardly the central) aspect of the Enlightenment. The issue of the rational mastery of human life was certainly important, but by no means the absolute focus of the Enlightenment. Indeed, one has to step back and consider Bacon’s agenda first, because it was taken up by Diderot and d’Alembert and acknowledged by them as a chief impulse. Bacon’s first principle was, “knowledge is power”, by which he did not mean the individual’s knowledge, but the pool of all knowledge in the realm. So he insisted that peasants and tradesmen be given a voice and add their knowledge to the pool. And he certainly had an encyclopaedia of all knowledge at the back of his mind and even drew up a schema of how this could be collected.

The point of this was that knowledge of the empirical world must be given equal billing to “revealed knowledge”. When the French philosophes implemented it, they stressed this empirical perspective, culminating in the achievement of a multi-volume encyclopaedia. But the gist of it — in other words its agenda — hardly reflects your quote. They were not saving the world by enthroning reason, but giving expression to their belief that reason should play a greater role in the affairs of man — greater than privilege, prejudice, religion, superstition etc. Accordingly most of the vocal thinkers of that era were proponents of education, by which they meant education for everyone. This does not (in my opinion) square with Harvey’s “axiomatic” proposition.

The Enlightenment as a whole was hardly driven by ‘axiomatic’ ideas. It was above all a concern for the (educational) deprivation of the majority of people, who had been kept in the dark by church and nobility too long already.

To that extent, the Enlightenment was indeed enlightened; and the meaning of this word stems directly from its proselytisers as an expression of hope for mankind — hope for greater justice, equality, legality, peace and prosperity. I believe that the quoted depiction is a caricature of these ambitions, relying too heavily on Adorno and Horkheimer’s assessment, who were the first to blame the Enlightenment for the derailment of reason in the first half of the 20th century, as if it was a direct outcome of those aspirations.

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