Twenty first century enlightenment: something to build on? - RSA

Twenty first century enlightenment: something to build on?


My PA, Barbara Corbett, whose effectiveness is only surpassed by her patience, was relieved I was due to go to Leeds yesterday to speak at a conference on privacy.  Over the years she has got used to my gloomy mood the day after my annual lecture. Having spent several weeks researching and writing and the immediate days beforehand worrying how the speech will go, once it’s over my immediate reaction has tended to be ‘what was the point of that’?

It’s partly that the speeches (especially the 2008 effort) have simply not been as good as I wanted but also that the vague hope they will spark a wider reaction than the polite response of the Great Room audience has been dashed. I did get some media and political interest in the first year’s speech (on pro-social behaviour) but little or nothing from years two and three.

But this year Barbara need not have worried. Not only was there a great response from a fantastic live and on-line audience, but by the time I got up to speak I was already contented with media coverage. Madeline Bunting (who chaired the event really well) wrote a kind piece in the Guardian on Monday, an essay I based on the speech was the cover story of the New Statesman and I recorded a short film for Thursday’s Daily Politics.

While I am crowing, the best bit was the response of people associated with the RSA. The speech was based on the Society’s new strap line, ‘Twenty first century enlightenment’ so it was important that Fellows, Trustees and staff felt the speech succeeded in helping in defining our focus and mission.

So, despite being a bit weary (more, I have to admit, a reflection of drinking too much beer with miserable England fans in Leeds than the exertions of the lecture) I have been thinking about how, this year, I can maintain some momentum behind the ideas.

The lecture (and the longer essay that accompanied it) contained lots of material but I think it can be broken down into five assertions:

  1. Citizens need to – and should want to - change their attitudes and behaviours. Such change will involve rethinking modern ideas (which took root in the Enlightenment) which have shaped both our culture and consciousness. As well as challenges in the world and aspirations for human begins to function at a higher level, new grounds for this rethink are to be found in insights into human nature.   
  2. Our idea of autonomy needs to shift from possessive individualism to something more self aware and socially embedded.
  3. In pursuing the goals of universalism we need to give more thought to the conditions which give rise to (and diminish) the sentiment which lies behind fellow-feeling: empathy.
  4. In thinking about progress we need to make it easier to have substantive and ethical debates about the kind of choices we face and the kind of future we might want.
  5. In pursuit of a twenty first century (enlightenment) consciousness there are a number of possible policy priorities but also very important is the role of new and reformed institutions to creating a new public sphere.     
  6. The reaction I have received suggests there is quite a lot of agreement with arguments one, two and five. Argument three – focussed on empathy – is found interesting but is controversial, principally because the relationship between inter personal empathy and support for global justice is far from clear. As for argument four – on ethics – I'm afraid my concerns that I wouldn’t manage to get this to rise above sounding a bit obvious and pious proved well founded.

    From here on I intend initially to do my best to get more interest in the lecture and essay, but I’ll be doing this more in hope and expectation.  Then I want to find ways of staying focussed on these issues, doing more research, writing and speaking.  Third, I hope we can hold some event multi disciplinary events at the RSA where we explore aspects of the argument from the different perspectives of science, social science, politics, philosophy and social activism.

    I suspect that by the time I get to my 2011 annual lecture there will be more that has changed from my current thinking than has survived. But having benefited from fantastic support from colleagues,  friends and, of course, my great blog readers (it was a delight finally to meet some of you at the post lecture drinks), I do think there’s something here worth sticking at. After all even if my ideas don’t stand up to closer examination the RSA’s new strap line is here to stay.

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