Reasonable Doubts: Dark Bedfellows

Postmoderns and traditionalists unite against the Enlightenment


If you think you've sorted out your scorecard in the culture wars, try guessing who wrote this obituary for the Enlightenment, circa 1992: "The claims of universal reason are [now] universally suspect. Hopes for a system of values that would transcend the particularism of class, nationality, religion and race no longer carry much conviction. The Enlightenment's reason and morality are increasingly seen as a cover for power, and the prospect that the world can be governed by reason seems more remote than at any time since the eighteenth century."

On the face of it, this is a fairly standard exercise in academic postmodernism. There's the reason-is-dead theme; the announcement of the failure of the "Enlightenment project"; the typical deconstructionist swipe at the use of reason as a "cover for power"; and the multiculturalist view of all value systems as contingent on such matters as class and race. Throw in "phallologocentric hegemony," and the parody would be complete.

And yet this quote appeared not in a pomo academic journal like Social Text (of Sokal hoax fame) but in the orthodox Catholic New Oxford Review. Its author was the late Christopher Lasch, a social theorist (The Culture of Narcissism, The Revolt of the Elites) who has a large following among many of the very sorts of people–center-left communitarians, Strauss-influenced conservatives–who consider themselves immune to trendy downtown ideology.

If, unlike Lasch, you think reason hasn't been discredited; that some institutions (such as free speech and private property) can be prescribed universally; and that moral reasoning, while at times a cover for the illegitimate workings of power, is in the end the best hope for overturning them, then you may be feeling a mite lonely. Hardly anyone is defending the Enlightenment these days, while across the political spectrum it seems most heavy-duty thinkers can't stand it.

The arrows land from every direction. Environmentalists, notes The Economist, chide the Enlightenment for launching a "western Promethean conception of human relations with the earth." "Racism and enlightenment are the same thing," adds one of the critical race theorists quoted by Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry in Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law (1997), while Colorado law professor Richard Delgado suggests: "If you are black or Mexican, you should flee Enlightenment-based democracies like mad, assuming you have any choice" (never mind that, as it happens, the actual migration seems to run in the opposite direction). On the right, Roger Scruton in City Journal finds and expresses unease about a "growing tendency" among American conservatives to turn against the Enlightenment as well.

So what is it, exactly, that's so upsetting to these people about the period when the lights came on in Western culture?

The Enlightenment, writes Edward O. Wilson in Consilience, is "the West's greatest contribution to civilization. It launched the modern era." In a fierce, hot blast of invention, intellect, and enterprise–the period can conveniently be dated to the century between 1687, when Isaac Newton published his Principia, and 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was devised–Europe and America forged not only the modern scientific method but also modernist thinking about metaphysics and morality, government, and society.

A few simple but sweeping propositions emerged. The universe is governed by fixed, objective, and impersonal laws, in principle discoverable by the exercise of human reason, experience, and observation. Traditions, customs, and claims of revelation cannot expect to be permanently insulated from such rational scrutiny, and, while no part of humanity's complex inheritance should lightly be discarded, beliefs and practices that prove squarely inconsistent with reason and experience ought eventually to yield ground.

By challenging the intellectual authority of the church, the Enlightenment made its first set of durable enemies; it soon went on to anger the throne as well, by systematizing the idea of individual rights and adding what historian Isaac Kramnick calls the "explosive" proposition that the individual had a morally legitimate right to pursue happiness. "Enlightenment liberalism set the individual free politically, intellectually, and economically," writes Kramnick in his introduction to the Viking Portable Enlightenment Reader.

Derided by some for their abundant confidence in Progress writ large, Enlightenment thinkers also believed in progress writ small, in the form of personal self-cultivation. The emergent Enlightenment man might be at once a man of affairs, a scientist, and an agitator: Condorcet was a mathematician, Locke a physician, Jefferson an agronomist and architect. Self-cultivation would enable an obscure provincial to shed his hometown prejudices and become a sophisticate, a "citizen of the world" accepting the best productions and ideas of all lands.

No citizen was more worldly than businessman-diplomat-inventor Ben Franklin, who "seized fire from the heavens and the scepter from the tyrant's hand," and who, after rendering due service to his Philadelphia neighbors, went on to be fussed over in Paris salons. Assailed during his life as a libertine and infidel, Franklin was one of history's most persuasive moralists, Poor Richard's Almanac having inculcated more sound conduct than all the works of the Puritan Fathers.

While on the subject, there's no doubt which country best embodied Enlightenment ideals: the United States. "An asylum against fanaticism and tyranny" (Diderot), America achieved with its Constitution the highest proof of the practical uses of speculative philosophy. Known as the land of the "self-made man"–a concept Kramnick sees as closely related to that of the Enlightenment man–America was also the land of individual rights and, before long, of science. Even the great exception in the American scheme of freedom, the tenacious existence of slavery in the South, was destined to be eroded at last by the free exercise of moral reasoning.

To be sure, Enlightenment thinking generated its own fads, blind spots, and excesses, especially in undervaluing long-evolved traditions and overrating the prospects for redesigning basic institutions from scratch; these richly deserved their later correction by such figures as Burke and Hayek. And it got widely blamedfor the French Revolution's horrors–although, since the philosophes themselves got purged fairly early in the game, the exercise might seem a bit like blaming Kerensky for Leninism. Still, the criticism stuck and the lessons were fairly learned: Edinburgh and not just Paris came to set the tone, and few people any more wish to rename the months.

But it's one thing to trim the hedge and another to hack at its roots. Today's diverse opponents of the Enlightenment seem to be attempting just that, in ways that often converge curiously with each other:

• Cut science down to size. A key tenet of the postmodern study of science, according to Noretta Koertge's introduction to the new essay collection A House Built on Sand, is that the field needs to have its claims to objectivity deflated: "Science must be `humbled.'" Echo on the right: Paul Johnson, whose London Spectator column has a distinctly crankier streak than the doorstop histories he ships across the Atlantic, now rails against "scientific triumphalists" and names, as the chief menace to be fought in the new century, "Darwinian fundamentalists."

• Deride the "self-made man." Lasch and other antimodernist critics decry, as the defining act of the deracinated modern, the flight into "choice" and away from a dense matrix of local associations. So they tend to belittle–as "self-inventing," "narcissistic," or worse–anyone who, in Virginia Postrel's phrase, turns his back on the old neighborhood with a mind to seek new challenges and associates in a place of his own choosing. Likewise, where identity politics holds sway, the young person who defects from a particularist subculture into the wider generic American culture can expect similar abuse, even if the epithets differ ("sellout," "assimilationist," "Oreo").

• Stop the globalization of culture. The borrowing of Western culture by poor countries would have thrilled the philosophes; it appalls equally Lasch and the conservative philosopher John Gray, who see it as an assault by generic modernism on traditional and authentic forms of community. The 60s-era campus left was more straightforward about what it was fighting: "Western imperialism."

• Trash the concept of tolerance. Thirty years ago it was Herbert Marcuse who unmasked the idea of "tolerance" as a tool of repression by the elite. Now social conservatives, from Harvey Mansfield to Robert Knight in The Age of Consent, have learned the deconstructionist dance steps. (Mansfield: "Toleration is not neutral….If we don't keep up the standard of morality we will bring it down.")

The gradual convergence of antirationalists on the right with their pomo Doppelgängers may have sped up a little in February 1994, when First Things published–I am not making this up–a piece with warmly appreciative things to say about Michel Foucault. Rising traditionalist thinker J. Bottum, who's now books editor of The Weekly Standard, praised the Frenchman's insights and noted a "curious parallel" between the work of left-wing icons Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Frederic Jameson and that of such medieval thinkers as Eckhart, Cusa, and St. Bonaventure: "What believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge." He proposed exploring common ground toward the joint goal of overthrowing the modern temperament, with its "scientific" and "technological" bent. He admitted the two camps still "disagree on whether God exists," but figured that little problem can be worked out after the rationalists are driven from the field.

Letters published in First Things since then confirm that other readers have been thinking along similar lines. Thus Susan Mennel of the University of New Hampshire salutes the "postmodern denial of the possibility of objective, neutral knowledge" since it "means that the appeal to some kind of objective `proof' is itself ruled out, and therefore religious arguments, which have never relied on such a standard, can be far more intellectually convincing to a contemporary audience than to earlier ones more assured of the validity of naturalistic explanation."

By now, some explicit and vocal defenses of the Enlightenment might seem in order–and in fact they are turning up here and there, as in Wilson's Consilience. Also among those pursuing the issue are some of the followers of Ayn Rand, the Enlightenment lineage of whose general position is plain enough. In October the Institute for Objectivist Studies, which has been moving lately to engage a wider intellectual audience and shed the sectarian tone often associated with Rand circles, held its annual conference in New York on the theme "The Real Culture Wars: The Enlightenment and Its Enemies." IOS Executive Director David Kelley suggests one productive step might be to stop describing the culture wars as mostly a left-right squabble when in fact at least three distinct cultures are contending with each other: the Enlightenment culture that still holds sway in much of American life, a postmodern/relativist culture with a stronghold in the universities, and a pre-Enlightenment culture that has never given up its claims to authority and is staging something of a comeback.

Who is likely to rally to the Enlightenment banner? Among the obvious candidates are scientists and technologists, who know from their daily experience that the material facts of reality cannot be arbitrarily redefined at will. (In Wilson's wry version: "Scientists, held responsible for what they say, have not found postmodernism useful.") Businesspeople as well, says Kelley, instinctively share the Enlightenment outlook, what with their common-sense grasp of material reality, their optimistic assumption that problems exist to be solved, their knowledge that scientific facts count, and the high value they place on individual achievement as something that deserves direct reward.

Another likely science-based flashpoint, Kelley believes, is today's rapid spread of anti-evolutionist ideas. Confined until only recently to a few beachheads like Tom Bethell's American Spectator column and David Klinghoffer's back-of-the-book in National Review, critiques of Darwinism are now the rage across the conservative press, even in places like Commentary and The Wall Street Journal. More–much more–friction on this issue appears to lie ahead. According to the newsletter of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, California's Ahmanson family, through its Fieldstead & Co. foundation, has donated $1.5 million to the institute's fledgling Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture
for a research and publicity program to "unseat not just Darwinism but also Darwinism's cultural legacy." Observing that "the most severe challenge to theology over the last two hundred years has been naturalism," the center proposes to "cure western culture of this unfortunate Enlightenment hangover."

Ben Franklin once said he was almost sorry he was born so soon since it meant he would not have "the happiness of knowing what will be known 100 years hence." Two centuries later, amid the undreamt-of levels of health and comfort that science has brought the West, a generation of intellectuals amuses itself in efforts to gnaw away at the Enlightenment foundations of the enterprise. Were he hooked to an underground turbine, Ben Franklin might be discovering a new way to generate electricity: spinning in his grave.

Contributing Editor Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law Is Paralyzing the American Workplace (The Free Press).