21st century enlightenment - the work begins


Thanks again to all those who gave me comments, encouragement and suggested reading for the 21st century enlightenment (21ce) project. I am starting to realise how daunting this is going to be. Not only will it require me to carve out more of my time (so I’ll be rejecting even more kind speech requests), but I will need to try to write posts which show development in my thinking while also, as far as possible, make sense as individual posts (I can’t expect new readers to go back over all the previous material).

Having glimpsed the enlightenment from various perspectives (Kant, Foucault, Todorov, Dan Hind) I have quickly come to the conclusion that any attempt crudely to superimpose a 21st century construct on that of the 18th century would be pointless. Not only is this because the ‘original’ enlightenment has so many different, often cross cutting, currents, but also because there isn’t - as far as I can see - any reason, beyond a preference for symmetry, to argue that we should seek to replicate particular structural characteristics of the past.

So even if we agree with Todorov that the enlightenment had three foundational ideas - autonomy, ‘the human end of our acts’ and universality – this wouldn’t mean that a 21st century movement should also have three core principles.

The value of appreciating the enlightenment that was underway when the RSA was established is exemplary rather than instructional. The enlightenment is a powerful example of how a set of ideas can contribute to epochal change in human affairs, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us how we might engineer another such moment. It can inspire us, it may warn us, but it need not constrain us.

The most powerful continuity I can see concerns some of the questions that lay behind enlightenment thought:

  • If we observe and analyse – rather than simply believe – what do we learn?
  • What is this moment in time (which is just a moment a time)?
  • Given the potential for progress, what is holding us back?
  • Intellectually and politically how do the answers to these questions coalesce into an historical project?
  • To keep the debate going I offer a first take on one of these questions: What are the aspects of life today that advocates of a 21ce might see as holding back human potential?  Here are three:

    • An acceptance of mindless progress. In other words, the idea that social progress is the same as economic growth and progress for individuals is about more people owning more stuff
    • The denial of social rights. How can we be happy with our species when so many of our fellow citizens lack the basic conditions for autonomy and the opportunity to fulfil their potential?
    • The cage of individualism. Just as enlightenment thinkers could believe in God while questioning religious authority, the 21CE believes in individual rights while rejecting the ideology of individualism including the idea that human agency is primarily individual.
    • I would be extremely surprised to end up thinking these are the right barriers for peaceful contemporary revolutionaries to be tearing down (or that I am describing them in the best language) but hopefully it will inspire some further interesting responses.

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