Enlightenment Today - RSA

Enlightenment Today

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    Brian McLeish FRSA
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Thematic Councillor, Brian McLeish FRSA reflects on what enlightenment means and how best The RSA can take this forward in their work, addressing current barriers in society.

In late October last year, the RSA Head of Scotland Jamie Cooke asked the question Is Scotland on the brink of a new Enlightenmentin a comment piece in the Scotsman.  About two weeks later, the RSA published an essay collection entitled Ideas for a 21st Century Enlightenment.  This inspired the RSA Fellowship Councillor team in Scotland – made up of me (Thematic Councillor for Public Services and Communities) and the two Scotland Fellowship Councillors Neil McLennan and Lesley Martin - to reflect on what this all means, both for the RSA and for Scotland.  Neil kicked this off with Sparking the Modern Enlightenment back in January.

Voltaire said “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”, which reflects the pivotal role that Scotland played in the 18th century enlightenment.  The coffee houses of Edinburgh and the debating chambers of Glasgow were as important as the salons of Paris.  I see no reason why Scotland can’t play an equally important role today.

So, what is Enlightenment? If I started debating the various meanings attached to the Enlightenment I would be here for far longer than anyone’s attention span could take, including mine. It was, simultaneously, a series of events, a network very specific to its time and place, and a way of thinking. One aspect of it that I want to focus on specifically is Enlightenment as a paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn said that a paradigm shift comes about when anomalies are discovered that cannot be explained by the current paradigm. However, science, let alone the social sciences, is replete with people who will tie themselves in rhetorical knots, generating epicycle upon epicycle, sticking plaster after sticking plaster, to maintain the current paradigm, on which their career has been built. It is just human nature. To paraphrase Keynes, it is often better for one’s reputation to be wrong conventionally than right unconventionally.

In this age of ‘fake news’, partisan division, and ‘thought leaders’ rather than ‘public philosophers’ (the latter split notably highlighted by Daniel Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry) the free flow of ideas is being challenged in a way that hasn’t been seen since before the 18th century enlightenment. Who then is brave enough to ask the right questions, the questions that will lay bare the anomalies and enable the paradigm shift that will move us forward?  I would argue that the answer now is much the same as in the 18th century and recalls the famous words of Margaret Mead “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”. Networks like those formed by RSA Fellows are, as ever, crucial to this and there are many examples of them in Scotland today.

The RSA essay collection I mentioned in the opening paragraph is a good example of this, raising ideas for debate with the intention of sparking further questions and, hopefully, some answers.  Similarly, the work of the RSA Public Services and Communities team to look anew at Beveridge’s five giant evils – starting the process of thinking about how to build a better society by first asking what problems need to be addressed.  Here in Scotland, our annual Angus Millar lecture of 2018 was delivered by Jamie Susskind.  Jamie spoke about his new book, Future Politics, which asks not how technology works within the current framework of thinking, which is how these books usually go, but instead asks how does it actually change the ‘rules’ of the game. 

In this “21st century enlightenment” we need to go further than the 18th century original. The Enlightenment freed thinkers from the intellectual control of the Church and, especially in France, the overwhelming power of absolute monarchy.  In the 21st century the need is to extend this freedom of thought to all parts of society.  Diversity, both socially and intellectually, is needed to prevent it becoming an elite enterprise.  One of the other names for the 18th century enlightenment is the “Republic of Letters” conjuring the idea that the intellectuals involved in this debate are somehow separate from the society in which they each reside, the original ‘citizens of anywhere’ (to use David Goodhart’s, admittedly controversial, distinction). A 21st century ‘Republic of Letters’ would recreate this divide and exacerbate the already negative consequences of division between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and citizens of ‘anywhere’. 

This is a dangerous folly for many reasons, but I will highlight two here.  Firstly, echo chambered intellectuals tend towards utopian thinking and grand designs for human society.  I am not going to rehearse the many reasons why this is catastrophic here – those who need to be convinced should read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. 

The second reason is that the only way to change society is to be in society.  The RSA is a ‘think and do’ tank, increasingly aware that it is not enough to come up with ‘gee whizz’ ideas, you need to test them by working with real people in real situations.  From the many Fellows I meet here in Scotland, I am aware that the RSA Fellowship is replete with people who not only “get” this but actually live it. 

I would encourage my fellow Scottish Fellows, indeed Fellows at large, who have ideas that may take our society forward to consider how the RSA could help.  At the most basic, reach out to other Fellows.  The diversity and geographical (indeed, international) reach of the Fellowship is such that there will be Fellows out there who will be able and willing to contribute.  Also consider linkages between your idea and the work of RSA Action and Research teams (I am happy to facilitate those sorts of discussions in relation to my own area of Public Services and Communities) or consider applying for a Catalyst grant to help turn your idea into a reality.

We are, in relation to several of the new giants identified by the RSA, standing on the brink of catastrophe – climate change and inequality in particular.  However, if we take from the best of the original Enlightenment, curiosity and intellectual debate, and add in our modern strengths of diversity of voice and bottom-up change, we can give ourselves the best chance of facing these challenges. 

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  • "reach out to other fellows" is something that many want to do, but how? The fellows forum was set up, but did not have enough support from the RSA itself. If the RSA, or officers/councillors within it, want to support your ideas here, we need to get the forum re-animated and supported, then we could all talk to each other as you propose. (disclosure: part of the admin team on the forum, but gave up for a while as it didn't have the support or go far enough - you can't have a forum of fellows if the fellow "management" don't take part :)
    I also agreed to be part of the heritage network, but have not heard from them in a long time, so networks are great, but they need managing and someone to actively keep managing them, and preferably someone within the organisation that "holds the keys" as it were.