by Ted Welch
Fri Apr 5th, 2013 at 09:15:36 AM EST
The varied thinkers of the Enlightenment and the continuing relevance of their heritage
The delay in finishing my reply to de Gondi about dialectic - "Dialectic and the defense of reason" - had the positive effect of allowing a kind of internal dialectic to develop, moving on from debate to the resolution of some differences at a more general level. The significance of some things that united Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, Burke, Rescher, Johnson, Walton, Lakatos, Chomsky, Ollman and Bourdieu became more apparent and more important. So let me suggest a path forward and also a wider horizon.
What unites these intellectuals is the defense of reason, as developed and defended by Enlightenment thinkers. I say "Enlightenment thinkers" rather than "THE Enlightenment" because of the widespread tendency; including by many on the Left, to see it as a monolithic entity and to accept a rather negative, caricatured version of it. In fact it included a range of differing thinkers:
The philosophes undoubtedly provided the ideas ... but in the unfolding of the Revolution, what was thought, what was said, and what was advocated, was expressed in terms and categories that came from political theorists of the Enlightenment.
Those theorists were far from sharing the same ideas; but, then, the French Revolution itself was not animated by a single revolutionary programme. Unlike the English and American Revolutions, the French Revolution went through a series of phases, each of which almost amounted to a revolution in itself; and as the Revolutionists repudiated one policy to adopt another, more or less its antithesis, they were able to turn from one philosopher of the Enlightenment, to an alternative, competing or rival theorist from the same stable.
It was because of this variety of approaches, while sharing certain common themes, that I questioned a recent comment here which implied that the Enlightenment did have a monolithic view of human nature and had just one "political project". Michel Onfray also brings out the variety of points of view in the Enlightenment and divides them into two main tendencies; the better-known figures of the "pale Enlightenment" and the more radical "ultras":
"Turn up the Lights" exclaims Michel Onfray in his book on the enlightenment: "Les Ultras des Lumières". He shows that the enlightenment contained many figures that were not very radical despite their rhetoric.
...all these deists, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot ... and d'Alembert are indefatigable in their critiques of materialist thought: La Mettrie comes under fire from all that clique, which further does not hesitate to attack Meslier and Helvetius, d'Holbach and Sade. For what motive? Their atheism, their materialism, their critique of the Church, their refusal of religions - so many radical condemnations that the pale Enlightenment find distasteful.
The range of views could be surprisingly wide, as recent research has shown:
Dan Edelstein, a Stanford French professor, has been exploring an aspect of the Age of Enlightenment that is less familiar to most, the so-called "dark side" of the enlightenment. He described the differentiating factors. "The prevailing understanding of the enlightenment is one in which there was only scientific and rational thinking, but there was also a significant number of people contributing to the enlightenment who were absorbed in dubious scholarly pursuits like alchemy, mythology, astrology and secret societies."
A threatened heritage
Even left-wing theorists, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, mistakenly identify reason, as promoted by most Enlightenment thinkers, with instrumental reason and they relate this to the ideas of the domination of nature and of man by man - the latter in particular was far from the values of Enlightenment thinkers and the main things they defended remain crucial today:
As an idea, freedom was articulated most lucidly at the dawn of the age of modern reason, during the Enlightenment. Today, more than ever before, the conceptions of freedom and reason constructed there is under attack from both left and right.
Adorno and Horkheimer conflate enlightenment reason with instrumental reason and in the process begin a trend toward a non-romantic destruction of reason which is in fact rooted in the tradition of romantic anti-rationalism.
The critique of enlightenment reason begun in D of E has allowed left critical thought to become reactionary against the Enlightenment and the constructive, positive elements that is has to offer. This is a trend that needs to be reversed since, following Marx, the point of philosophy and critical science is not to simply explain the world, but to change it.
The role of "public intellectuals"
De Gondi says: "Get on with the show, theoriticians, everyday activity is where it's at!". Well, from the first development of the term "dialectic", a theoretician like Aristotle based his ideas on examples from real life. But "everyday activity" includes lots of confused ideas, many of them encouraged by "extreme rhetoric"; after all, lots of Italians still vote for Berlusconi, and de Gondi also exhibits his attacking style in his recent "harsh" comments on Grillo, whose rhetoric is very popular with many of those engaged in "everyday activity".
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca had had personal experience of totalitarianism, partly a product of Hitler's rhetoric:
Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca met during the war and experienced the cruelty of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Perelman was a co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of Jews (CDJ) and Olbrechts-Tyteca, who was not Jewish, worked with Fela Perelman (wife of Cha ̈ım) and the CDJ as one of several "godmothers" of displaced Jewish children. In the wake of the war, Perelman assisted Jewish survivors and collaborated with Richard McKeon, E.H Carr, and others to establish the philosophical principles for the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
They wished to defend the application of reason to politics, hence the need develop ideas about reasoned debate which go beyond the limits of formal logic and to oppose radical skepticism.
Burke emphasised that totalitarianism was not confined to the Nazis, though even some of his friends found such views unacceptable:
As Burke wrote that same fall in Direction, the real "enemy" for America was not Hitler alone but both the equivalent empires of Europe, the "aging British Empire" and the "young Nazi Empire" ("Embargo" 2). Even his friends disagreed with this assessment, but for Burke both empires suppressed the dialectic.
The call for war's purification in the epigram to the Grammar was more than idealism, therefore; it was Burke's notice that the Grammar would in fact be a specific response to the real threat of totalitarianism, both militarily from Nazi Germany and politically from the US response to that militarism.
Clearly in this extension of his critique of the Nazis to the British Empire and the possible move towards totalitarianism in America itself, Burke foreshadows Chomsky's criticism of US governments and the economic elites which influence them, criticism which is also in the tradition of some Enlightenment thinkers:
In a lecture he delivered to the University Freedom and the Human Sciences Symposium in January of 1970, Chomsky explored the language-freedom bond in relation to historical texts, notably works from the Enlightenment period. Citing Rousseau (especially his Discourse on Inequality ), Kant, Descartes, Cordemoy, Linguet, and, of course, Humboldt, Chomsky describes how Enlightenment thinkers anticipated a society set up to encourage rather than stifle human potential. Humboldt is particularly important here, because he forges a link between characteristic human traits, an appropriate social setting, and the language that sets man apart from animals. He also
"looks forward to a community of free association without coercion by the state or other authoritarian institutions, in which free men can create and inquire, and achieve the highest development of their powers"; "far ahead of his time, [Humboldt] presents an anarchist vision that is appropriate, perhaps, to the next stage of industrial society"
The opinions found in "everyday activity" are influenced by the views people see articulated in the media. The Right understands this, which is why there has been a massive increase in the funding of Right-wing think-tanks, whose theoreticians are eager to supply the media with authoritative-sounding defenses of Right-wing policy - ideas spew out from Wall Street to main street.
As Chomsky and Bourdieu point out, intellectuals and theoreticians have the luxury of time to research and analyze and they have a duty to apply their skills to help activists in their political struggle, as Bourdieu says:
There is a need to invent new forms of communication between researchers and activists, which means a new division of labour between them. One of the missions which sociologists can fulfil perhaps better than anyone is the fight against saturation by the media.
media intellectuals ... have an extremely important role from a political standpoint, and it would be desirable for a proportion of the researchers to agree to devote some of their time and energy, in their activist role, to countering their effects.
Acts of Resistance, p. 57
Chomsky is constantly doing this kind of critical analysis of the ideas of media intellectuals, and he's able to do so because he's able to devote time to the study needed to do so in an informed and effective way. For this reason he's welcomed by activists around the world to give talks to those engaged in "everyday activity", but with a knowledge-base rarely found on the street.
While he wouldn't call his approach dialectical, it fits very well with the marxist variant as outlined by B. Ollman in its emphasis on economic factors and its general, synthesizing approach, linking a wide range of fields. it is also one which very clearly follows in the tradition of a great many Enlightenment thinkers.
As I said at the end of the reply to de Gondi, I would hope that he would agree with this support for the wider project of P & O-T AND K. Burke and his dialectical approach, and the related work of people like Chomsky and Bourdieu. I also hope that he will now qualify his criticism of dialectic, giving us more examples of what he finds so objectionable, which I suspect might include the other people Chomsky criticizes, as well as Derrida. But I'm sure the real objections have little to do with their supposed dialectical approach and more to do with their pretentiousness, dependence on discredited authorities like Freud, and attempts to impress by reference to often poorly understood ideas from the sciences, or relativistic views about science (see Latour below).
I am all for the very harsh criticism of this kind of stuff, as very well argued in "Intellectual Impostures", Bricmont and Sokal, but they deal with specific cases. More specifically they focus not on these intellectuals' general theories, but on examples where they misuse science to lend spurious support to their ideas:
Sokal (an American) and Bricmont (a Belgian), two scientists, discuss the writings of the following prominent theorists, insofar as they concern ideas in physics and mathematics, areas of professional competence for the former, but not, seemingly, for these persons: Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Paul Virilio.
The authors make it clear at the outset that they are not analyzing postmodern thought in general, but this has not prevented outraged reactions from supporters of the theorists mentioned. Despite the exemplary clarity and carefulness of the book, it has been subjected to exactly the kind of arbitrary, uninformed, fallacious and frankly puerile remarks that are the object of the study in the first place. One of the protagonists, Latour, demonstrated this in person when the book came out in Britain, by debating with Sokal at the London School of Economics in a shamefully clownish way, avoiding questions, changing the subject, and generally failing to give a reasoned account of himself.
Latour repents his relativism
To be fair, Latour seems to have had a change of heart recently and now realises the very real dangers of his approach:
What has become of critique, I wonder, when an editorial in the New York Times contains the following quote?
Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by man-made pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.
"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."
"Environmental Word Games," New York Times, 15 Mar. 2003, p. A16.
... Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show "`the lack of scientific certainty'" inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a "`primary issue.'" But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument--or did I?
... entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not?
I suspect that some others who were criticised by Bricmont and Sokal might also have come to revise their views. They are to be welcomed to the camp of those of us who defend reason, clarity of argument and the role of science in establishing such facts as global warming, while also discovering facts which make possible less destructive technologies. But freeing ourselves to develop these technologies involves political struggle in which intellectuals have an important role in the area of ideology, which needs to be developed in a co-operative way and at an international level, as Bourdieu points out:
If it is true that most of the dominant economic forces operate at world level, transnationally, it is also true that there is an empty space, that of transnational struggles. It is theoretically empty, because it has not been thought through, and it is practically empty, for lack of genuine international organization of the forces capable of countering the new conservative revolution, at least on a European scale.
That was written in 1996, there has been some progress since then, there is Eurotribune, for example, but much remains to be done. However we need to be clear about who our real enemies are, and who we shouldn't waste time on; an important aspect of reason is clarity and that involves trying to be specific about both the targets of our criticism and our praise.
Public research conducted without prejudice surely cannot conclude that homeopaths and postmodern academics pose the most serious threats to the ideal of a rational public. Bin Laden in his cave hideout isn't really a plausible successor to Joseph Stalin. If our claims to be enlightened are to be more than a kind of self-congratulatory anaesthetic then we must concentrate our attention on those threats to reason that matter [state and corporate power]. This in turn must mean addressing directly the tension within the Enlightenment tradition, between the hope of a world transformed and the demands of tyrannical power.
Dan Hind, "The Threat to Reason", p.161
However, as Latour realized, while postmodernists may not be "serious threats", they can make things easier for those who are.
We need to continue the work of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, K. Burke, Lakatos (in his particular defense of reason as the basis of science), Chomsky, Ollman, Bourdieu, etc. in the struggle to defend and apply reason in order to realize the progressive aims of Enlightenment thinkers - before it's too late.