The Enlightenment Wars

by David Ottlinger

There was a time, I remember it distinctly, when I felt that having opinions on the Enlightenment put me very much in the minority. As an undergrad, in the late aughts, I read a great deal of Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville and especially Kant. I and my fellow students in the philosophy department found these figures exciting and important, but we were generally met with blank stares if we mentioned them to anyone else. Now it seems that everyone has, seemingly at once, gained my same enthusiasm. And, frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

An examination of recent debate will help explain my ambivalence. The Enlightenment had already been on everyone’s radar, after Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now was published in February. [1] But the controversy I have in mind arose in the spring following the publication of a book by Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West, which mounts a vigorous defense of liberal democracy and capitalism. [2] For Goldberg, preserving such things means choosing the values of the Enlightenment over the temptations of Romanticism. Then, David Brooks, always a magnet for liberal criticism, wrote an article reflecting on Goldberg’s book and similar writings from other conservatives. [3] The controversy began in earnest, however, when Slate’s Jamelle Bouie joined the fray. Naturally enough, it began on Twitter, where over the past few months Bouie aired some thoughts on the Enlightenment and its relationship to racism, some of them framed as criticisms of Brooks and Goldberg. [4] Fairly soon, several famous and near-famous people had commented. [5] Bouie then further developed his ideas in an essay, which resulted in response essays and so on. Now we seem to be in a quiet period, between waves of controversy, but we may be sure that the debate will return. The argument these authors are having is over fundamental political values, and debating the Enlightenment has become — and will remain — an important way of having that argument. Last Fall, John Podhoretz felt he could not adequately comment on Harvey Weinstein without help from Thomas Hobbes. [6] The Enlightenment Wars™ are here to stay.

My main interest is in Bouie. I find I rarely agree with his conclusions, but he is not a man one can just dismiss. In the course of his comments, he cites a fair amount of scholarship and even more primary historical sources. Yet at crucial moments his claims seem to vacillate and shift. Following them often feels like trying to grab hold of fog. At one moment he will clearly claim one thing, then in the next say he was saying something else. Such ambiguities are always worth exploring, as they often end up speaking to deep-seated intellectual conflicts of which the author is only partly aware, and I believe this is true in the case of Bouie.


Bouie’s first comments came in April and were directed at Brooks’ essay, which begins with a discussion of Goldberg’s book defending the post-Enlightenment social order and especially capitalism and democracy. Brooks quotes Goldberg’s contention that the Enlightenment “ushered in a philosophy that says each person is to be judged and respected on account of their own merits, not the class or caste of their ancestors”. Brooks adds that “That belief, championed by John Locke, or a story we tell about Locke, paved the way for human equality, pluralism, democracy, capitalism and the idea that a person can have a plurality of identities and a society can contain a plurality of moral creeds.” He then goes on to attribute to this belief the economic boom Europe experienced in early modern times.

Bouie was having none of it. In an outraged series of tweets, he retorted that “any account of the Enlightenment that doesn’t acknowledge how those ideas helped build systems of racial and colonial domination is woefully incomplete at best.” Putting an even finer point on it, he continued: “to put it bluntly: racism is an enlightenment idea, whose foundations were laid by key thinkers like Locke and Kant.”

These are remarkable statements. Little wonder that they caused so much controversy. But I find that much of the controversy was misguided, or at least that it failed to identify the most interesting implications of Bouie’s ideas. A good deal of ink was spilt debating Bouie’s seeming contention that racism originated in the Enlightenment. Bouie later clarified that by “racism” he meant “racism in its modern sense,” which he plausibly argues began in the Enlightenment. He then, somewhat idiosyncratically, labels all racial bias and racial tribalism before the Enlightenment “racialism” rather than “racism”. This led to an unsatisfying war of words between Bouie and The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, in which Domenech argued several positions about racism before the Enlightenment, which were meant to highlight differences between Bouie and himself but on which Bouie and Domenech did not really disagree. [7] Bouie then expressed shock when people took his words in their ordinary senses rather than the technical senses in which he was using them, despite the fact that he never indicated as much. Bouie ascribed bad faith to Domenech and other critics. He might instead have looked within. [8]

But the more interesting matter is the relationship Bouie posits between racism and Enlightenment ideals. Bouie claimed that “those ideas helped build systems of racial and colonial domination.” (My emphasis.) In context he could only be referring to the core Enlightenment idea of liberal justice. Brooks and Goldberg were discussing Locke’s novel conception of justice, with its emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy. Such notions are generally considered central to Enlightenment thought. Bouie’s claim that “those ideas” result in racial oppression is then deeply interesting. He implies that central Enlightenment ideas entail unacceptable ideas about race. If true, this would be a serious objection to Enlightenment political thought, and would suggest an important problem for those contemporaries who turn to the Enlightenment in developing their own political thinking. Unfortunately, in these tweets, Bouie makes no argument for this entailment. He merely lets it stand as an assertion.

Of course tweets are tweets, and we can only expect so much of them. So I was quite happy to see Bouie post an article on Slate further expounding these ideas. [9] It started much as I expected it would, aiming to make trouble for contemporary advocates for the Enlightenment. In particular, he names Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker and Jonah Goldberg as targets. This is quite in keeping with the argument he suggested on Twitter. If the Enlightenment drags racism along with it, that will be a problem for those pushing for a return to Enlightenment principles. So far, so good.

But suddenly the argument changes. In his Slate essay, Bouie now maintains that modern racism arose out of what he calls “the paradox of the Enlightenment,” referring to the tension that arose between the Enlightenment’s philosophy of liberty and the realities of a still firmly hierarchical society. At times, Bouie ties this paradox very closely to slavery, at one point stating that “racism as we understand it now…developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery.” At other times he seems to see the tension as resulting from a more general clash between notions of individual freedom and an early modern tendency to assume social hierarchy. Either way, Bouie’s central claim is that the Enlightenment introduced the modern concept of race in order to ease the tension. Bouie describes the innovation:

These [racial] frameworks evolved into theories of racial difference, developed to square a conceptual circle. If natural rights are universal—if everyone has the capacity to reason—then what is the explanation for enslaved Africans or “savages” in the Americas, who do not seem to act and reason like white Europeans? The answer is biological inferiority, in accordance with those racial classifications.

Thus an Enlightenment philosopher can affirm both individual liberty and hierarchy by positing races. Rational individuals, the thought runs, deserve individual liberty. But some races are biologically inferior and produce only imperfectly rational individuals. Therefore the inferior individuals are deserving of lesser, or perhaps no individual liberty. With this the two ideas are reconciled.

Having laid out this argument, it is crucial to see how different it is from the argument implied in Bouie’s first Twitter comments. In his original comments Bouie asserted, but did not argue, that Enlightenment ideas — those ideas — entailed racist commitments. But Bouie’s article argues that the racist doctrines in question result out of a tension between belief in racial hierarchy and belief in individual liberties. The difference may seem subtle, but it is enormously consequential. Bouie, as we noted, is out to make trouble for contemporary advocates for Enlightenment thinking. If he can prove a connection between the Enlightenment and racist ideas, he is in a position to do that. But if all that he can show is that Enlightenment ideas imply racist ideas, when combined with a belief in racial hierarchy, his job is much harder. This is because contemporaries availing themselves of Enlightenment principles can resolve this “paradox” in a much more straightforward way. They can just discard the belief in racial hierarchy. Given that all of them seem explicitly willing to do so, it is not clear what points Bouie is really scoring.

Of course Bouie is allowed to change his mind. No one is beholden to a foolish consistency. But it is not always clear that he has or that he takes himself to have changed his mind. Witness Bouie’s discussion of Kant. First he quotes some of Kant’s unfortunate statements about race. Then he remarks that “this racial theorizing can’t simply be divorced from the moral philosophy for which he’s hailed, since, as the late Emmanuel Eze has noted, it comprised a substantial portion of Kant’s career.”

This statement is bizarre. Arguing about phlogistic chemistry constituted “a substantial portion of Kant’s career,” but modern philosophers of science are free to ignore that in turning to Kant for inspiration. And in general, it is perfectly possible, even necessary, to plunder the great philosophies of the past, taking some ideas and leaving others. Unless, of course, there exists the crucial relationship of entailment. If one idea entails another it is impossible to take the first and leave the second. But, as we noted, Bouie does not actually argue for any such entailment, though often he acts as though he did.

So at the crucial moment, Bouie’s arguments fail. His ultimate goal was to raise objections to contemporary political thinking, but I fail to see how he has done so. Should Pinker or Goldberg be concerned that Kant or Locke held racist views? Not that I can tell. Nothing is more common than taking some of a thinker’s ideas and leaving others behind, and a great many figures in intellectual history held racist views and simultaneously had important views on other subjects. So just what is Bouie up to?

In answering this, I can explain my ambivalence about these recurring Enlightenment Wars, and why seeing influential opinion leaders citing the greats of political philosophy often makes me queasy, rather than excited.


As I said at the start, these battles over intellectual history fill me with ambivalence. There are a number of reasons for this, but two stand out as particularly important. The first concerns the way that everyone seems to have their own version of history, based on their own political ideology. This is, of course, nothing new. But it’s also nothing good.

Bouie ably demonstrates the dangers. After his article was published and criticized, Bouie ran up and down Twitter assuring everyone that the opinions expressed therein were not just his views but also the views of scholars. He seemed to feel strongly that this should compel everyone to admit he was right. But just who were these scholars?. One philosopher, Robert Bernasconi, specializes in critical theory and has been teaching classes on Jean-Paul Sarte and Franz Fanon. [10] Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze is the author of On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism. [11] According to Duke University Press, Eze “demonstrates that rationality, and by extension philosophy, need not be renounced as manifestations or tools of Western imperialism.” That is a relief, but one wonders why such a proclamation was necessary. Bouie also cites a book by Italian Marxist Domenico Losurdo with the eyebrow raising title Liberalism: A Counter-History, published on —you guessed it— Verso Books. [12] Probably the best published and least radical scholar Bouie cites is George Fredrickson, But some question his objectivity, including Fredrickson himself. [13] As he reflected on his career: “I tried to study racism in a rather clinical way, but when confronted with racism I have a rather strong reaction. And there’s a side of me that says that you shouldn’t just study it.” Really note that “tried”.

People who are familiar with the academy will understand what’s going on here. All these scholars come from that strange, incestuous community which the likes of Jordan Peterson, Claire Lehmann and The Federalist like to pretend is the whole academy. In this community, racism and sexism are discovered everywhere, all the great writers of Western civilization are exposed and undermined, and Foucault is worshipped as a god. Some members are post-modernist, not in the free-wheeling and meaningless sense in which Peterson uses the term, but real, honest-to-God post-modernists. I am obviously not sympathetic to what goes on in this world, but I don’t want to dismiss everyone in it. They are, after all, recognized and credentialed scholars, and sometimes work by radical thinkers published on radical presses is influential far beyond the small community of radicals (Gabriel Kolko comes to mind). But what is absolutely certain is that no one can come to a reasonable understanding of a historical period by reading only these kinds of scholars.

This is the problem with using historical periods as proxy battles for conflicts in political ideology. Everyone invents their own narrative, and the loser is history. My superficial research suggests that Ben Domenech was engaged in the same thing from the Right as Bouie was doing from the Left: citing historians who shared his ideological proclivities in order to develop a convenient narrative. Ultimately this is worse than no historical engagement at all. Each side can walk away from the debate with a distorted sense of the past designed to reinforce their political opinions. It makes political disagreement more intractable, not less.

My second major concern regards the style of Bouie’s attack, which has become so familiar as to be commonplace. As I have interpreted him, Bouie does not try to argue that Enlightenment ideals entail some racist view. I also argued that in view of this fact, his arguments against Enlightenment-style political thinking fail. But Bouie is not only making arguments. It might even be wondered if he is primarily making arguments. Apart from making arguments, he is raising suspicions.

Raising suspicions is a subtle business, and one that is distinctive of our current intellectual moment, crying out for closer study. It is noteworthy, for instance that  in order to raise suspicions about someone, it is not necessary to be definite regarding what he or she is suspected of. After all, what does Bouie suspect about his targets? Racism certainly. But that is rather amorphous. What racist view does he suspect them of holding? What racist effect of their ideas does he suspect them of abetting? The really striking thing about Bouie’s writing is how unconcerned he is to answer such questions and how much his readers mirror this indifference. We are now so schooled in suspicion that the accusation is enough, and the burden of proof shifts seamlessly to the accused. They must now prove, by elaborate displays, that they are not racist (sexist, homophobic, heteronormative etc) or suffer the consequences.

We are used to discussing and debating these dynamics in the political sphere. We are less used to discussing how they operate in the intellectual realm, but they clearly operate there as well. Just as people can become tainted by suspicion in today’s culture, so too can ideas. This process is unhealthy in the intellectual sphere for reasons parallel to those that make it unhealthy in the political sphere. In brief, suspicion is not a good mechanism by which to sort the innocent from the guilty. It is one thing to hold Kant and Locke and others of the mighty dead responsible for their racist views. Indeed there is much for which to hold them responsible. But it is another to treat all their ideas as radioactively contaminated by this racism. Those who wish to argue that Kant’s ethical ideas, for instance, are connected to his unfortunate racial views, will have to demonstrate such a connection.  Ideas, just like people, must be innocent until proven guilty and have their day in court.


The Enlightenment still has much to teach us about the practice of politics. One hopes that it will remain a part of our conversation. But we may be sure that it is neither the repository of all the solutions to our political problems, nor the source of all our political woes. We can be sure of this because it is a period in history, and periods in history do not exist for the use of future generations, whether good or bad. The Enlightenment and its thought existed for the men and women of the seventeenth century who lived it and thought it. We will make better use of this period once we respect that.




















48 responses to “The Enlightenment Wars”

  1. Zac

    Great essay, David.

  2. Lucy

    Yes, great essay!

  3. s. wallerstein

    Almost everyone in the past was racist in the sense that the word “racist” is used today.

    I recall reading some essays by Bertrand Russell, who in the 1920’s and 30’s was in the forefront of progressive thought, and he talked about Africans in what today we would consider racist terms. Russell was not intentionally racist nor would he have been considered racist in 1930: he was a product of his time like all of us.

  4. There is an argument to be made that the Enlightenment cannot be uncritically used as a “cure” for identity politics (part of the Peterson-Goldberg-Pinker project) because it, in ways spelled out by Bouie, created identity politics. Bouie kept getting close to making it (perhaps even thought he had) it’s a shame he never quite did.

  5. davidlduffy

    A nice essay, but I think you are too harsh on Bouie’s Slate article. It is true that he quotes Locke’s actions (I believe his writings are more ambiguous, as per Kant “what he teaches as a consequence of his office as an agent of his [Company], he presents as something about which he does not have free rein to teach according to his own discretion, but rather is engaged to expound according to another’s precept and in another’s name”), and Kant “who chose to take up Tobin’s view of congenitally lazy Negroes…and never expressly opposed [the slave trade]…though well aware of the debate” (Bernasconi Kant as an unfamiliar source of racism). But his main target is the amorphous Whiggish-Progressivist-Scientific-Colonialist retconned Enlightenment. The point is that these elements are implicit as per Mill in The Racial Contract, and hypocritical, not explicitly written down anywhere (even say the US constitution), viz Bouie’s quote of the taunt against Franklin. Kant’s musing on race did not really influence even 19th century German scientific racism – they just voice the “common wisdom” of the time.

    Koyama is good on Bouie in

  6. A very necessary essay at this time. Ah but even if Bouie is right, and I am prepared for the sake of argument to give him assent, that very same Enlightenment gives us indispensable tools with which to eliminate the very same racism that it “created.” In that sense is it not only for the 18th century?

  7. Rich Thompson

    This seems exactly right. One might expect Bouie’s thinking to continue to evolve and sharpen in this direction. There IS something to be said just about the resistance to true universalism as it sits beside a belief in universalism. While belief in universality of say rights is an unmitigated good, in the context of some of the race science and just circumstantial inequalities that coincided with universalism, it’s easy to see how quickly even relatively enlightened thinkers were to say something to the effect of “when I say all people, I don’t really mean THAT particular set”

    In terms of practical politics (which I think is Bouie’s starting point), you can see how recently universalist thought and policies were explicitly racially limited- see the New Deal as a very salient example.

  8. Both of these can be true:

    A. There is good thought and bad thought from the time period of “The Enlightenment”.
    B. The bad thought should not be excused because it “existed for the men and women of [that time period]”.

    In the current time, I don’t think geographical and cultural relativism is right. I don’t think historical relativism is right, either.

  9. This would seem to be relevant.

    As someone who has been teaching the history of ideas for 25 years now, it is both ignorant and stupid to evaluate people of past eras — and especially long past ones — by contemporary standards. Ignorant, because it reflects a lack of understanding of how mores and values evolve over time and stupid because it often leads to our failing to learn from or rejecting outright past wisdom.

    W.E.B. DuBois wrote the following:

    “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?”

    Sadly, ironically, *pathetically* that is precisely what so-called progressives are calling for today. People with 1/100,000th to complain about in comparison to DuBois.

    I wonder when the hell this nonsense is going to stop. Or whether we are just going to insist on remaining ignorant and stupid forever.

    Thanks for an important essay, David.

  10. Classical liberalism is the only solution for identity politics. And for civil rights and social justice more generally.

  11. Actually, David is far too kind to Bouie. I would have been a lot tougher.

  12. I liked this is a very much because it touches on a topic that I am very much interested in. I agree wholeheartedly that “everyone seems to have their own version of history, based on their own political ideology.”

    I would say that everyone DOES have their own theory of history. This is inevitable since our views are almost entirely preconditioned on our cultural environment. Everyone is tainted by ‘presentism’, ie the application of present day norms and understandings to bygone eras.

    Slavery is an example of an important historical fact that is paid little honest attention to nowadays. Along with serfdom, feudalism and mass exploitation, slavery has been around forever. Probably it was a requirement of most economic systems. Racism, on the other hand, is a very recent cultural acquisition: European technology made it possible for very large numbers of people to move all over the globe, exposing them to a much unanticipated variation in human adaptation. The Enlightenment actually was a step away from our past of individual enslavement.

    Our culture has become so vast and complicated that it is extremely difficult for anyone to make sense of what is going on. The interpretation of history is a very good example.

    Certainly, capitalism and individual freedom have led to the most successful systems of human interaction so far. The alternatives that have been tried have been miserable failures.

  13. And contemporary authors are getting it too.

    The narcissism and self-righteousness — on top of its ignorance, thin-skinnedness, and apparent desire to remain ignorant on purpose — of the current geist is just breathtaking.

  14. Bouie would do himself a favor reading some of her stuff. As would Coates. Though I doubt either would learn very much.

  15. Zac

    Are you citing the Charles Mills piece as part of the problem or part of the solution, Daniel? Sorry, didn’t follow that part.

  16. Mills strikes me as a little bit of both. That said, I am going on what was in the article. I have not read the work, so I would be hesitant to say much about it. Hence, my indicating only that the link “seems relevant.”

  17. Hi all,

    Thank you all for the kind comments. I’m not getting too much pushback so I’m not sure there’s much for me to say. A few quick thoughts.

    By saying that the Enlightenment was thought up for a certain time period I did not meant to say and don’t believe I said that it is irrelevant to us. It’s just that we must repurpose it and bring it into contact with circumstances that no one alive three hundred years ago could foresee. It’s not that Enlightenment thought is irrelevant or useless to us but it is certainly not addressed to us.

    David Duffy

    Bouie did not comment on the Whigishness of some other narrative. He offered his own narrative which I criticized above.

    Also people may be interested that since publishing Bouie kind of whined at me then ignored me completely. Ah well.

  18. In the end: I am happy to be a “nonsense” progressive, “ignorant” of history.

  19. Rich Thompson

    That’s a great link. I really like how the discussion was framed for the woman who came in hate-reading Wallace. Not an immediate leaping into camps of “oh, you’re politically correct and destroying America” but “yes, you’re right about this and this, but how about this?”

  20. The problem with saying of a moral philosopher of the past “He was a man of his time but we can discard the bad and learn from the good” is that it presupposes that we now have a moral philosophy that allows us to distinguish the bad from the good, in which case why don’t we just go with that moral philosophy?

  21. Bharath Vallabha

    Great essay. Wish public dialogue reflected your balance of thought. I am all for enlightenment values as a response to identity politics. Also agree racial baggage in Kant can be separated from his philosophy; otherwise, we can’t read any philosophers from any tradition.

    Yet, how to separate Kant’s philosophy from his racism seems thorny, since the racism infects his history of philosophy. The link between, say, “What is Enlightenment?” and Kant’s views on non-Europeans is his view that only whites discovered philosophy. This allows Kant to affirm universal rights for humans and affirm slavery: rights apply to those who are capable of recognizing those rights. You have rights if you can think philosophically; if you can’t, you don’t know what you are missing and slavery is your natural state. If you are a slave to your passions, having an enlightened white master is an improvement. In modern lingo, non-whites don’t have the internal hardware for reflection, and need whites as their extended rational mind.

    This is of course nonsense. But, and here seems the issue between people like Pinker and Bouie: is the Western Enlightenment, and Western philosophy more generally, unique in helping us avoid identity politics? If one says it is, then Kant’s claim that non-whites are biologically dependent on whites for philosophy is discarded only to make it a cultural dependence. As if to say, left to themselves non-whites will fall into identity politics, and they need European philosophy to avoid that. You can see how this would rub the wrong way.

    You are right about shifting ambiguities in Bouie. There is an analogous ambiguity in Peterson and Pinker: between saying we all need philosophy (globally understood) to avoid identity politics, and saying we all need Western philosophy in particular to avoid identity politics. The former claim is right; the latter is not. Making claims, even implicitly, of the cultural superiority of the modern West is not a good way to avoid identity politics. Intentionally or not, Pinker reenforces the cultural superiority narrative that something magical and totally unique happened in 5th century Greece and then in 17th century Europe. Roughly the same magical narrative Kant had (though Christianity played more of a role in Kant’s). So to separate out Kant’s philosophy from his racism it isn’t enough to deny racism; one has to reject his view of the history of philosophy and fill in a better one. Would you agree?

  22. I don’t see anything in classical liberal philosophy that entails the cultural superiority of the modern West. It’s strength in combating identity politics lies in its focus on a somewhat abstracted individual and his/her agency.

    Seems to me that critiques like Bouie’s are essentially complex exercises in the genetic fallacy (or some variety of it).

  23. Because unlike science, culture is much more a cumulative process, rather than a succession of revolutions. Indeed, I argued that there is an inherent conservatism to culture that contrasts sharply with science, in a paper I published some time ago.

  24. Bharath Vallabha

    Re first comment: I agree classical liberal philosophy understood just as an position doesn’t entail western cultural superiority. That’s why I like it, and believe it is a good antidote to identity politics. But there is still the issue of Locke and Kant’s limits. Kant’s own view of abstracted individuality was combined with a false view of the history of how humans came to that abstracted individuality. I am happy to read Kant and be inspired by his work, because (a) I ignore his racist comments about what Asians or Africans are capable of, and (b) as an instance of such racism, I also ignore his comments about non-European philosophical traditions, which is just silliness. If Pinker or you highlighted (b), it would be much easier to focus on the merits of classical liberalism as a position and Kant’s positive role in it.

    Re second comment: David’s essay was great because he treated Bouie with some sympathy and attempted to get at what is bothering Bouie, which made his criticism of Bouie that much more effective, and I felt genuinely moved the conversation.

  25. I don’t think we disagree on anything. I also ignore Kant’s ridiculous remarks on masturbation. But Bouie’s arguments just struck me as obviously fallacious and representing a type of critique that unfortunately today is all too common.

  26. Bharath Vallabha

    Cool re not disagreeing. This website is one of the places that helped me better appreciate classical liberalism.

    Do I wish someone with Bouie’s platform could write with the nuance of David’s essay? Absolutely. I wish the same re Pinker. But not all silly views are of a piece. It is one thing to ignore Kant’s silly remarks on masturbation. Kant’s silly remarks about how only Europeans can do philosophy is harder to ignore, because they had enormous institutional influence. Peter K Park’s book about the philosophical canon from 1780-1830 is great. I am no scholar of that period, and maybe there are mistakes in it. But on the surface, it is striking how Kant, neo-Kantians and Hegel made a conscious, intellectual decision to affirm philosophy as unique to the Europe, as opposed to others at the time who were pushing for more of a pluralistic view. If one feels the influence of Kant’s silly views on non-European traditions all around one institutionally, much harder to ignore it. Doesn’t justify Bouie’s conflations; it is hard to ignore not the same as can’t ignore. But just saying.

  27. I don’t necessarily disagree on the institutional influence, but this brings us pretty far away from the initial critique of classical liberalism, which it seems to me has nothing to do with institutionally preferring Western philosophy.

  28. Bharath Vallabha

    Daniel, There was no reply button to your last comment, hence replying here.

    “Nothing to do with…” seems pretty strong. Agree it has nothing to do with classical liberalism as a view in the abstract – which is perhaps all we need in our public dialogue. But it has plenty to do with classical liberalism as a tradition, which is what Pinker and Peterson seem interested in. The tradition of classical liberalism went hand in hand with institutionally preferring Western philosophy. Now if Pinker were to say, “This – the position of classical liberalism – is the essence of the tradition, and we can get rid of all this other stuff about uniqueness of Western philosophy,” fantastic! But if one says, as Pinker tends to, that the Enlightenment was a beacon of all that is good and wonderful, and we just need to hold on to that, then well, it is perpetuating an unhelpful ambiguity: conflating the view with the tradition, which gives cover for white supremacists and annoys easily triggered liberals. It adds to the sense that the Enlightenment is a matter of take all of it or leave all of it – an assumption central to how both Bouie and Pinker talk. When David in his piece concludes by saying that the Enlightenment existed primarily for the people of that time, he seems to be creating exactly the conceptual space needed to avoid this take it all or leave it all mentality.

  29. It seems to me that given Pinker’s thesis, the relevant point concerns the *ideas* of the Enlightenment, in the sense of classical liberalism. And these strike me as giving no support whatsoever to racism or tribalist inclinations.

  30. I should also say that I’ve been quite critical of Pinker and what strikes me as a somewhat naive optimism. You can read what I had to say about him here.

  31. s. wallerstein

    We can never be sure that we’ve advanced morally. Maybe in some aspects our moral concepts are worse than those of our predecessors, so it’s a good idea to read older moral philosophers just in case, to remind us that we are very fallible in our moral judgments and concepts.

  32. Classic Liberalism can’t combat identity politics.

    If classical liberalism says that group A have the right to deny goods, services, employment etc to group B based on some characteristic of which they disapprove then how is that not creating identity groups?

    Do group B have to say “Yeah, there must be something wrong with us” or does classic liberalism allow that group B might say “Nothing wrong with us mate, it is group A who have the problem”?

    Can group B make alternative arrangement for their needs? Identify shops, service providers, employers who are group A, so that they can steer clear of places they are not welcome?

    So how can classic liberalism combat the conditions it inevitably creates?

  33. Bharath Vallabha

    Nice post on Pinker.

    Re your comment about Pinker’s thesis, even in these comments – as in the broader dialogue in Pinker and others – there seems to be a moving back and forth between “Classical liberalism”, “the Enlightenment”, “Locke and Kant’s philosophies.” Surely, none of these are synonymous. The move of pointing to some event in the past (the Enlightenment) that we are supposed to align with to get over identity politics strikes me as very confusing. If you say, pointing to a thesis or set of views, “THIS is what I like most in Kant, and what we should hold on to overcome identity politics”, I am quite on board. But pointing to Kant or the Enlightenment and expecting one to understand it is about classical liberalism is perhaps not appreciating how many people are introduced to these philosophers.

    In undergrad I took classes on the modern period with Zoltan Szabo and Fred Neuhousor on Rousseau. In grad school with Alison Simmons, and on Kant with Charles Parsons and Christine Korsgaard. Not name dropping, nor that I have anywhere close to their level of expertise. My point is: the classes were mainly about Descartes through Kant on metaphysics, or ethics. Even when it was about their political philosophy, it seemed very disconnected from day to day politics, let alone anything about its consequences for identity politics. It took me a long time, reading on my own websites like this and European history and thinkers like Roger Scruton, to get a sense for what to appreciate about Kant for my life, and that has not much to do with transcendental aperception.

    It was illuminating for me to realize that white men, such as some of the authors of this site, can help me learn about how best I can respond to my concerns. This was made possible not by general gesturing to the Enlightenment, as in Pinker, but by the kind of nuanced thinking as in David’s essay. Perhaps to you and your friends it is obvious how Locke and Kant can help with identity politics. As someone who struggled with identity politics, and who read those thinkers, it was not obvious to me for years. And I am sure it is not obvious to those 20 year olds now protesting and can’t get past Kant’s skin color and racist quotes. If, like David in this essay, people engage without being dismissive, I think many more people of color can come to appreciate Locke and Kant as you do. That can really make a difference in the public discourse.

  34. Hi Bharath,

    Thanks for the kind words. You give me a great deal to respond to. I hope I do justice to it.

    ” is the Western Enlightenment, and Western philosophy more generally, unique in helping us avoid identity politics?”
    I suppose that in order to be functioning and just, any society, or at least any society broadly like our own, would have to incorporate some elements of liberal philosophy. I suppose that makes liberal philosophy unique in some sense. Now is it unique in the sense that the West was the first and only civilization to arrive at these insights? Frankly I don’t know. I am not familiar enough with other traditions to be aware of the extent to which they reached the same conclusions. But even if liberalism was discovered in the West this does not necessarily commit us to a view which takes Western civilization as superior in any vicious sense. Which brings me to my next comment.

    ” is the Western Enlightenment, and Western philosophy more generally, unique in helping us avoid identity politics? If one says it is, then Kant’s claim that non-whites are biologically dependent on whites for philosophy is discarded only to make it a cultural dependence.”
    I don’t see that that follows. Let’s assume that liberalism was a philosophical system developed only in the West. It follows that Western culture is superior in that respect. It contains something of great value that other traditions do not. But it does not follow that Western culture is superior tout court, much less that is superior in a way which justify all other cultures becoming its dependents. Indian culture is superior to Western culture for containing the Buddha and the Upanishads (Western culture does not contain the Buddha or the Upanishads). Anyway, if other cultures adopt Western insights, then those insights become part of their own culture, ending the superiority and removing any temptation to make one “dependent”.

    It is also important to realize that if we believe that liberalism should spread to the four corners of the world (as I do), we do not believe that it should do so because it is Western, but because it is philosophically justified. It is not an arbitrary judgment of taste.

    “So to separate out Kant’s philosophy from his racism it isn’t enough to deny racism; one has to reject his view of the history of philosophy and fill in a better one. Would you agree?”
    Sure. I suppose so.

    ” Pinker reenforces the cultural superiority narrative that something magical and totally unique happened in 5th century Greece and then in 17th century Europe.”
    Yes, and its part of a larger historical narrative of the West which thoroughly loathe. It attributes everything good that ever happened to reason and science (both narrowly defined) and vilifies religion, the Catholic church and the supposed dark ages. All historical nonsense. But that would takes us very far afield indeed! We’ve probably bitten off enough.

  35. Bharath Vallabha

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with your various points.

    I very much hope that classical liberalism does spread, or in the West, remains strong; and, as you say, for that it is not relevant whether it uniquely originated in the West. Part of what confuses things, I think, is liberalism getting identified with the Enlightenment or with particular thinkers like Locke and Kant. The Enlightenment is way too broad a category, and appreciating it doesn’t magically imply how we can avoid identity politics. Similarly, appreciating Locke or Kant’s views on personal identity or metaphysics or ethics doesn’t imply either how to avoid identity politics.

    It seems to me that for some people, perhaps like yourself, classical liberalism is deeply tied in to their understanding of modern Western philosophy. For others, like myself, my education and engagement with modern Western philosophy happened on an axis altogether different from that of classical liberalism (it just never came up). If to my undergrad or grad self someone said, “Overcome identity politics by being more like early modern thinkers”, I would have had no idea what that meant. To me early modern philosophers were defined either by what we talked in classes (secondary qualities, utilitarianism, Kant’s categories), or what was left our of the classes (racism, slavery). It was a revelation to see these thinkers from the classical liberal perspective. Maybe that is just me coming very late to something very obvious. But something about the way the classes are taught really made that very hard for me; and I suspect for many others. All this as a way to say, I hope your ideas blossom and get traction, for I think they can reorient the public debates in helpful ways.

  36. The conversation so far has made frequent reference to multiple cultures or racism.

    Kant said and did what he did. He was one of the best at it during his time. He saw himself framed in the western/Greek narrative – a narrative that was integral to the culture of his period. He probably had no other choice. Looking back through the prism of 21st century culture, Kant was ignorant and stupid in some things. There is no way h anyone could accurately recreate the past. We can not imagine what it was like living then. We can look back with interest and may even learn much, but ultimately it is all about dealing with the here and now.

    Today there is only one global culture. Someone in Shunk can instantly exchange words with someone in Bendigo or Bulawayo using a smartphone with little effort. So, I think that talking of Western Culture or Indian Culture, white culture or black culture might be of historical interest, it tells us little of what is going on in these various places or communities today. The one global culture marches on, perhaps headless and rudderless.

    The greatest stain on the Western tradition might be its invention of racism. The Europeans saw all these different body types and lifestyles and came to the astonishing conclusion that they were superior due to their ‘race’. They, of course, had no idea of genetics or evolution, or culture, but found the idea appealing from an politico-economic point of view. This was ignorance and stupidity of the highest order, although at the time it made a lot of sense to the people in that cultural moment. Our conversation is still poisoned today, and our culture is almost paralyzed by it. Race and culture is wound up in almost every discussion. Who of our intellectual ancestors were not corrupted by this idea that found wide acceptance in multiple societies?

    Our ancestors saw differences and assumed that these were due to biologic factors, thus indicating biologic superiority or inferiority. Wrong. There is one biologic race with no significant genetic difference amongst all the very diverse groups.

    Today we see cultural differences from region to region and many conclude that these render the members of these communities as more or less worthy. This attitude somewhat resembles the racist approach: people are discriminated against because of different cultural backgrounds. In fact, those that try to make an argument that certain cultural features are better than others, are routinely accused of racism, severely limiting a productive conversation in the process.

    All this should dissolve once we realize that the one very diverse human race expresses a very wide variety of traditions and behaviors, but they are all interconnected into a single web of everything; one culture. Thus, no human group has been shown to be unable to learn from other humans, or to come up with new approaches. The process of integration of this one culture can seem to be quite tumultuous.

  37. I was watching Morning Joe (MSNBC) this morning, and there was a segment on Charles Koch’s promotion of “classical liberalism” (the term used by Joe Scarborough and the panel) in an effort to “rescue” the GOP from Trump. “Koch is the principal supporter of [the Institute for Human Studies], which is dedicated to advancing the careers of aspiring educators, journalists, and policy professionals with an interest in classical liberal thought.”

  38. And what is your point?

  39. It’s a wake-up call. Charles Koch is the leader of promoting classical liberal thought today. There needs to be a counter (with money like Koch has) to classical liberalism.

  40. Right. Guilt by association. And Charles Koch is anything but a classical liberal, regardless of what he might be called or call himself. By ‘classical liberal’ is meant something along the lines of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. Hardly the Koch philosophy.

  41. That is one point of view. But what is going on in the real world? See the Koch-funded Institute for Human Studies: “The Institute for Humane Studies is the leading institute in higher education dedicated to championing classical liberal ideas and the scholars who advance them.”

  42. You believe their marketing? I don’t.

    Classical liberal political philosophy is the worst political philosophy, except for all the others.

  43. My own take: Social liberal political philosophy is the worst political philosophy, except for all the others.

    “The evolution from classical to social/welfare liberalism is for example reflected in Britain in the evolution of the thought of John Maynard Keynes.”

  44. Zac

    I don’t see that you can throw classical liberalism out the window on account of Charles Koch, but I don’t see that you can throw him out the window of classical liberalism either. He’s in the wheelhouse, but mainly because it’s a big wheelhouse. It’s largely been the war cry of libertarian-leaning types distancing themselves from social liberalism, and lately you’ve got some more of that from center-left liberals distancing themselves from more strident leftists. Pretty broad, baggy label though. What I see as right in the people who take the label is the claim that we should look for what’s valuable in these “classical” authors. I don’t think that’s the end of it though because I don’t see that these authors anticipated all the questions we’re dealing with today. I don’t think we should go back and pore through their holy texts to answer our every doubt. Read them, deal with them, but don’t idealize them. At best what we need is someone who can adapt them for today and that’ll involve an evolution of their thought, not simply an interpretation.

  45. No one said “On Liberty” is a “holy text.” And actually, Mill anticipated almost everything we are facing now. The problem is not that he has not been “updated,” but that most people are so ignorant and poorly educated that they haven’t ever read him and certainly never thought about the ideas he was advancing.

  46. Zac

    Well, right now you don’t sound far off from discussing a holy text, Dan, particularly in your conviction that Mill couldn’t possibly benefit an adaptation for present circumstances. That’s not even a revolutionary claim, I’d add, but a conservative call for piecemeal change at most. If even that whiffs of heresy and rankles you to your bones, then you’re running of the risk of “classical liberal” being your identity politics, framing every political dialogue into a Procrustean bed that cuts genuine dialogue at the ankles. I’d also repeat that your calling Koch a No True Scotsman hasn’t gone any further than that and doesn’t really show much understanding of the overwhelming use of the term “classical liberal” either. If Koch is truly an outlier, you’ll have to say why.

  47. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.,

    Thanks for the excellent dialogue with Leiter in Sophia TV.