21st century enlightenment - a nervous toe in the water - RSA

21st century enlightenment - a nervous toe in the water


  • Social brain

Despite my earlier enthusiasm and the supportive comments I have received, blog posts about 21st century enlightenment haven’t exactly been flowing from my keyboard. I have fallen into the predictable undergraduate trap of reading too much too indiscriminately.

In part I blame you, dear readers. On the basis of your (and other) recommendations I have on my desk the 600 pages of Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western world’ and the 300 of Robert Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’. I have worked out that if I read these along with the historical tomes by Jonathan Israel then I will just about have finished reading by the time I have to deliver the final version of my 21CE pamphlet. No wonder I am feeling even more anxious and inadequate than usual.

I need to get to a hypothesis for the first part of my speech. This is where I examine the idea of a shift in consciousness in which the enlightenment played the crucial role. The enlightenment was not a single cohesive movement nor did it have a simple start and finish. Many of the ideas associated with the enlightenment can be found somewhere in the philosophy of the ancients or being prefigured in the renaissance or reformation. Even as enlightenment thinking was provoking reaction and counter reaction in coffee houses, church pulpits, and royal societies, it was hardly touching the lives of the overwhelming majority of the rural and just emerging industrial working class. As Israel has shown, the enlightenment itself was riven by conflict between its establishment and radical variants. As for the completion of the enlightenment project, it could be said we are still waiting. To steal Ghandi’s joke: ‘what do you think of Western enlightenment?’ answer ‘it would be a very good idea’.

Yet despite these provisos, it is possible to identify the core ideas which were together the building blocks of enlightenment thought. Tzvetan Todorov offers three: autonomy, the human end purpose of our acts and universality. These are powerful ideas but they don’t exactly represent what I mean by consciousness. I am interested not just in the ideas to which people may have ascribed but the way they thought about themselves and their place in the world. In this regard I would like to suggest some ways that we tend to think now which became dominant over the course of the enlightenment.

First, we became more likely to see ourselves as part of a mass society, that is to say that we shared something important with a mass of other people even though we will never meet them. The core unit for mass society was the nation state and a key issue for enlightenment thinkers – and a key division between them – was what membership of this unit should entail. Thus the ideas of society as a phenomenon, the nation as a unit and the citizen as a political category come together.

Second, that while we are members of a nation who share common responsibilities and (to some extent) rights we are all also individuals whose life involves an unfolding personal (inner) narrative as well as the destiny which flows from our place in society and history.  

Third, we get to assume that progress from the past to the future is the natural flow of human affairs and that progress should be measured in human terms (this is what Todorov means by ‘the human end purpose of our acts’). That society should progress and, that we ourselves should progress, comes not only to be seen as natural but the ability to achieve progress is how we should judge ourselves, our bosses and our leaders.    

Fourth, we see the route to progress lying fundamentally in the discovery and application of knowledge derived from reasoned inquiry. We think of a world can be explained by discovering its rules in ever more detail, not simply accepting the rules handed down by gods or monarchs.

I am sure there are problems with this list and I need to look out in my reading for more vivid ways of capturing the change in the way we think. Any help gratefully received.

Looking ahead to the next stage of the argument, can we use this list to suggest ways in which 21st century consciousness might need to evolve? In very broad terms:

First, that the thing that we belong to is no longer the nation state but the world and that by this we also mean the biosphere.

Second, that we should understand that the voice in our heads that we call ourselves is only a part of who we are and that the best way to unleash the amazing power of conscious thought is not to exaggerate its power but to see the part it plays in the whole system governing our character and actions.

Third, that we must think very hard about what progress now entails especially for those of us fortunate enough to be in the rich parts of the world.

Fourth, that in many parts of our lives and in many parts of our complex world there are no laws or rules that can predict the future or tell us what to do. Instead we must be willing to rely more on ethics, intuitions and trusting relationships to guide us.

After exploring all these thoughts a great deal more the final part of the speech will explore aspects of today’s world which seem to me to be significant in pointing the way towards a 21CE

Oh dear, just writing this exhausts me. I haven’t the heart even to read it back in case it’s such nonsense it ruins my enjoyment of Crystal Palace versus West Brom tonight (a man must have his pleasures). I would love some comments - but please be gentle.

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