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.  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.  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.  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.  Fairly soon, several famous and near-famous people had commented.  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.  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.  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. 
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.  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.  Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze is the author of On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism.  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.  Probably the best published and least radical scholar Bouie cites is George Fredrickson, But some question his objectivity, including Fredrickson himself.  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.