Course Notes – Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/What_is_Enlightenment.pdf

Another semester at Missouri State and another edition of Course Notes.  Up for consideration this time is Immanuel Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ ”

Having taught Introduction to Philosophy from a topical perspective for a substantial period of time, in recent years I have been teaching the course historically, with a few variations in the syllabus here and there to keep things fresh for me.  (I find that when a text has become too familiar, my teaching of it tends to suffer.) This semester, the reading list is as follows:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

St. Thomas Aquinas, Excerpts from the Summa Theologiae

Michel de Montaigne, “Of Pedantry”; “Of the Education of Children”

Blaise Pascal, “The Wager”

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

David Hume, “The Sceptic”

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic

Readers will notice that there is a slight looseness to the order of the texts midway through, and that’s because I wanted to present the Discourse on Method and “What is Enlightenment?” in direct succession.

In talking with students about Descartes and the Scientific Revolution, I distinguished between the scientific dimension of the revolution – i.e. the revolution in physics  – and its epistemic dimension, by which I mean its rejection of an epistemology grounded in the authority of great traditions, institutions, and texts, in favor of one grounded in the faculties of the individual human mind and particularly, perception and reason.  Descartes is quite explicit about this in the Discourse on Method, employing both arguments and metaphors to make the case that as individuals and as a civilization, we must critically examine our intellectual inheritance (through the dispassionate exercise of reason, by way of an uncompromising skepticism), if we are to ever have confidence that we are in possession of the truth, in science and elsewhere.

Descartes’ focus was primarily on science and providing it with epistemically sufficient foundations and a sound method by which to proceed from them, but as I explained to the class, in the century that came after, this epistemic revolution was exported from the scientific context to the moral and political arenas, resulting in what is commonly known as “the Enlightenment.”  As one would expect, what followed was a sea change in both areas, for just as an authority-based epistemology quite naturally supports aristocratic politics and divine command morality, a (small ‘r’) rationalistic approach to knowledge tends to support liberal, democratic political ideas and deontological and consequentialist ethical ones.

It is in this context that we take up Kant’s essay, which begins as follows:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred it its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another.  The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding! (p. 1)

This strong opening provided me with the opportunity to extend the discussion beyond philosophy and into our personal lives.  While Kant’s point is meant to be applied to whole civilizations, it resonates at the level of the individual as well.  Indeed, one can think of the processes by which a civilization matures and by which a child comes into adulthood  as parallel, along the axis set up by Kant (and by Descartes, whose Meditations, written as they are in an intimate first person, also provide an opportunity to personalize the relevant message).  Civilizational and individual maturity both, at their core, involve the adoption of a critical attitude towards our intellectual and sociopolitical inheritance, which not only is the means by which we develop ideas and practices that are genuinely our own, but is how we develop autonomy and the capacity for self-governance.  I told the students that I am very concerned about their generation and the generation immediately behind them, in this regard; that I see an increasing reluctance to take up the mantle of individual authority; and that I believe that this bodes ill, for them, personally, and for our civilization, as a whole.

Kant maintains that in the modern era, when we refuse to accept epistemic authority and reject self-governance, the reasons, typically, are laziness and cowardice.

It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.  I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me. (p. 1)

He also makes it clear that his case should not be confused with advocacy for a kind of knee-jerk oppositionalism.  The soldier, on the battlefield, shouldn’t disobey his commanding officer’s order to attack the enemy, and the clergyman, while conducting services, oughtn’t express his opposition to the practices of his religion.  But accepting external authority in such circumstances is entirely consistent with the idea of epistemic independence and self-governance, for the soldier, when he walks into the voting booth, can vote for candidates who will cease his country’s war-making, and the clergyman, when engaged in scholarship, can make a case for reforming the faith.  As autonomous, individual people, considered separately from our official roles and professional functions, we retain ultimate epistemic authority and have both a right and a duty to question and challenge.  In an age of enlightenment – in a modern age – there can be no unquestionable dogmas and no incontrovertible practices.

Kant directly relates the imperative to self-governance to social and political freedom, and I explained to students that he makes a parallel connection between metaphysical freedom and morality, the only action having any moral worth being that which comes from a free and rational will.  It is Kant’s view that this epistemic authority and the self-governance that follows from it reflects the fundamental, intrinsic value of the individual; indeed, that it is from the individual that all authority and value ultimately flow.  This represents a powerful, secular way of articulating fundamental human rights and of grounding morality, and it is worth noting that twice in the essay, Kant says in the strongest possible terms that to deny human beings the capacity to critically examine and judge the beliefs and practice under which they live, is to violate their most fundamental rights.

One age cannot enter into an alliance on oath to put the next age in a position where it would be impossible for it to extend and correct its knowledge, particularly on such important matters… This would be a crime against human nature…

[I]t is absolutely impermissible to agree, even for a single lifetime, to a permanent religious constitution which no-one might publicly question.  For this would virtually nullify a phase in man’s upward progress… [T]o renounce such enlightenment completely … means violating and trampling underfoot those sacred rights of mankind. (p. 2)

36 Comments »

  1. Hi Dan,
    as usual another lucid, thought provoking essay. I would love it if you would give an account of your student’s responses. That would be fascinating.

    My own questions:
    Kant says in the strongest possible terms that to deny human beings the capacity to critically examine and judge the beliefs and practice under which they live, is to violate their most fundamental rights.

    He is asserting they have fundamental rights, but do they? Or is this just a convenient, self-serving societal agreement? What makes them fundamental and rights?

    violating and trampling underfoot those sacred rights of mankind.

    What does he mean by sacred? Does he simply mean rights that cannot be questioned? Why should we accept his authority for such a claim?

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  2. Accepting external authority in such circumstances is entirely consistent with the idea of epistemic independence and self-governance

    In this phrase lies a fatal uncertainty. In which circumstance shall we accept external authority? Who decides these circumstances? Is it myself, exercising my epistemic independence? In which case won’t external authority ultimately founder on the reef of self-interest?

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    • labnut,
      perhaps I can help here.

      Your implicit question I suspect concerns whether Kant derives his sense of immutable rights from a religious belief. Kant was raised in the Pietist tradition, which, as I understand it was something like the Quakerism that developed in England. (I don’t know if this still obtains, but in the eighties, when I was visiting Kansas, there was an “Old Quaker” sect, which had a church and a pastor, and a New Quaker sect, which most people know, who have a “House of Friends” where members gather to meditate and speak only as the spirit moves them. These Kansas Friends were very important to me at that time, and I remember them fondly.)

      At any event: By the time Kant began designing the Critical System, he had become very ambiguous on the question of God’s existence, and he never rested on a final belief, Instead he turned to the task of developing a morality that did not requires a religiousness foundation – a major issue among intellectuals of the 18th Century, who had become exhausted by the religious wars of the Reformation, and were no longer willing to submit to the dictates of either Pope or pastor. Part of the function of the Antinomies of the First Critique is to demonstrate that the debates over God’s existence or religious historiography were simply unresolvable on purely rationalistic terms. This seemed like a good idea – and frankly still does. But when Kant argued this, Frederick the Great was King, and Frederick the Great had very little interest in religion. His successor, on the contrary, came under the sway of the Lutheran hierarchy, and religious censorship came to be enforced, leading Kant to write more cautiously. But the damage had been done. Despite strident efforts by Kant’s disciples to interpret the Critical system in religious terms, it soon became obvious even to them that the rational implication of the Critical philosophy was that God was no longer necessary to assume as ‘prima causa’ or as foundation to morality. This doesn’t end religion, obviously, because true faith has nothing to do with rational foundations. But it not only destroyed Thomism, but also the neo-Augustinianism that Protestant theologians had depended on. Thenceforth, there could be a Christian theology, and there could be a Christian philosophy of religion (which has produced a number of striking and important thinkers, like Kierkegaard and Niebuhr) ; but there could never again be a sustainable Christian philosophy that could synthesize modern science and social developments with the doctrine or dogma of any of the established churches. (The differences between so-called Fundamentalism and so-called ‘liberal churches’ lie primarily here, in that liberal churches accept that, and Fundamentalists do not. The catholic Church has been straddling the fence since Vatican II which seems a safe position, but is actually fraught with risk, as controversies concerning clerical sexual abuse implies – the Church has not adequately acknowledged nor dealt with the psychology of its clergy.) .

      However. as to Kant: Stripping morality of its religious foundations, Kant nonetheless determined an strong ethical realism in what we now call “deontological ethics.” Basically, the source of deontological ethics doesn’t really matter – Kant’s ethics can fit certain religious schemas, but it is also open to a “natural law’ interpretation, that there just are certain rights and responsibilities with which we are born as human beings. Since we are each born thus, these rights and responsibilities accrue to the individual. As his writings on anthropology and aesthetics make clear, he was well aware of the nature of cultural influence and the effect of a sensus communis on our powers of judgment; but he was not only a firm believer in free will, but also held that free will was a necessary ingredient for personal responsibility. Thus Sapere aude! Think for yourself – for only the individual carries the burden of having to make moral decisions – and the individual has the right to do this – regardless of the origination. It just is, in the nature of being human.. .

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Dan-K,
    He argues elsewhere that as the source of all value, persons are intrinsically valuable.

    Diamonds are valuable, but they are not intrinsically valuable. Their value is conferred on them by human beliefs and practices. The same can be said of people. The phrase ‘intrinsically valuable’ is incoherent unless what we really mean by that is societal consensus. In that case we should say so instead of hiding behind noble, high flung phrases.

    What does ‘source of all value’ mean. Only humans can experience the emotion that something is valuable and make the cognitive judgement that something is valuable. That is a more precise statement which is hidden behind the sloppy claim of ‘the source of all value’. Once we see that, the question becomes this: Why does our ability to experience the emotion ‘value’ and make cognitive judgements of ‘value’ make us intrinsically valuable? I’m sorry, but that seems to me to be sloppy reasoning.

    The entire structure of the essay stands on an unfounded, ungrounded assumption that simply cannot withstand critical examination. And this is the supreme irony because the essay urges we do just that, subject claims to critical examination.

    EJ,
    thanks for your extended comment where you smuggled in all your usual anti-religious sentiments. I simply won’t reply to them because they are assertions and not arguments. I don’t see any cogent reply to my questions.

    Liked by 1 person

        • His characterization of the effect that Kant had — and indeed, the entire Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment prior to him — on the scope of religious authority in the modern world is simply, factually, historically correct. There is nothing anti-religious about it. It’s plain old intellectual history. I teach it every semester.

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        • Labnut: It’s very late here and I’m going to bed, so I’ll only be able to approve further comments tomorrow morning. Didn’t want you to think I was letting them languish, because we disagree.

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  4. Dan-K,
    I don’t know that I can provide any sort of formula for this. The sorts of examples I gave seem somewhat clear and one could then reason from them to suitably similar cases.

    You are appealing to your intuition. But whose intuition rules? You trust your intuition and I trust my intuition but they give contradictory results. Now whose intuition should we trust? We need a better reply than ‘I don’t know that I can provide any sort of formula for this.’

    Do you see what I am doing in my comments? As you said:

    we must critically examine our intellectual inheritance (through the dispassionate exercise of reason, by way of an uncompromising skepticism)

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  5. The phrases ‘intrinsically valuable’, fundamental rights’, ‘sacred rights’ sound noble but they really are ungrounded assertions that indicate attitudes derived from societal consensus and not something inherent. I am fine with that but we should rather say what we mean and not hide behind noble pretences.

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  6. His characterization of the effect that Kant had — and indeed, the entire Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment prior to him — on the scope of religious authority in the modern world is simply, factually, historically correct.

    He posed it as a reply to my questions but I don’t see any answer to my questions.

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  7. Dan-K,
    Now for a meta comment.

    I suggest that people like EJ quote the exact words to which they are replying and then actually engage with those words. This keeps the conversation clear and on point without irrelevant digressions. It also has the benefit of preventing the misrepresentation of a person’s viewpoint, something which I have often seen.

    I have a keyboard macro to quote and italicise text, “making them stand out more clearly.” I find this very convenient to show what I am replying to.

    You will by now have noted that I almost always try quote the exact words to which I am replying, whether in the essay or in the comments. I know, sometimes I have been sloppy about this but will endeavour to improve :).

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  8. Kant can be read as specifying the assumptions behind the “safe spaces” of modern liberal society. However, there’s a possible counter-argument, as follows.

    Let’s agree with him that we should dare to be wise, etc. But (as Kant knows) a wise person respects the expertise of specialists. We don’t argue with the electrician if she tells us the wiring diagram of our house is incorrect. So, likewise, it can be argued, we should respect the expertise of specialists in matters of religion and the ultimate meaning of life. The relevant experts are the learned theologians. So if they tell us that X, we should agree that X.

    To escape this argument, I think Kant has to contend that theology is not a true science. Which (as EJ said) is what he is contending in his wider philosophy. But this doesn’t help the ordinary citizen very much. For few ordinary citizens can hope to master “The Critique of Pure Reason”. So from his viewpoint, whether Kant is right or the theologians are right is a matter beyond his competence. So he is left with the conclusion that the experts are undecided. He therefore can’t decide whether to believe X. And his attempts to be daring and wise have gone nowhere.

    (Trying to make up one’s mind about the theory of climate catastrophe has a similar structure.)

    Alan

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    • I think Alan raises a nice point. I also think Kant would have something of a reply. Not a solution, but a reply.

      To use Kant’s vocabulary in The Doctrine of Method, thinking for oneself requires “rational” rather than merely “historical” cognition. The difference is something like the difference between seeing the reasonableness of what you’re introduced to rather than just memorizing it or agreeing with it. The latter kind of learning, in one of Kant’s myriad memorable phrases, renders one “a plaster cast of a human being.” (Mill, I take it, uses a different vocabulary to make a similar point in “On Liberty”: thinking for oneself requires “adopting” rather than “inheriting” opinions, active reception and integration rather than passive reception and aggregation.)

      So even though Kant surely respects the wisdom of expertise, I’m not sure he would be comfortable recommending something of the form “If the expert tells us that X, we should agree that X.” Beyond its seeming resistance to universalization, it’s too close to the “plaster cast” notion of just accepting what experts say. Surely, respecting expertise calls for giving expert opinion its due consideration rather than for agreeing with it just because it’s expert opinion. Part of Kant’s point, I assume, is that the move from my listening to an expert to my agreeing with her opinion should be mediated either by my seeing the reasonability of her opinion or by my seeing the reasonability of simply agreeing with her opinion. Either way, my agreeing with her opinion should be mediated by my seeing the reasonability of something, rather than just incorporating an opinion into my mental economy.

      And it’s the commitment to a view or the holding of an opinion *because I see its reasonability according to public, humanly shareable criteria* that was daring for Kant. Accordingly, it’s equally daring to withhold commitment because I *don’t* see the reasonability of it. (Of course, I need to freely communicate with others in order to check whether the reasonability I see or don’t see is actually “there.”)

      Realizing you don’t yet know what to believe, realizing you don’t yet see the (publicly communicable) reasonableness of the opinions on offer, might just be an achievement, a manifestation of the daring, virtuous mind. And if it’s an exercise of a healthy habit of mind, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to characterize your “attempts at being daring and wise” to “have gone nowhere.” Your realization represents not an impasse but a datum: it’s one more thing to think about and discuss with others as we all try to make sense of the world.

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  9. If one is skeptical of Kant’s fundamental rights talk — as labnut seems to be — one might look to the debilitatingly under-read section of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason called The Doctrine of Method, where Kant takes up a different perspective in order to explain the significance of critique.

    He says there that reason has no “dictatorial authority,” meaning that our reasoning functions not by directing us to a specific, preordained understanding of things to whose authority our reasoning must submit but by governing itself, “from the inside,” as it were. (Even reason itself must be subject to its own critique.) The “verdict” of reason — any understanding we reasoners come to — is “always simply the agreement of free citizens, each one of whom must be permitted to express, without let or hindrance, his objection or veto.” Because reason is not subject to an authority beyond the agreement of free citizens, Kant thinks, “reason depends for its very existence” on the freedom of citizens.

    Put roughly, Kant’s idea here seems to be that the freedom to do one’s own thinking (which also involves, as he says in his Anthropology, thinking into the place of another and thinking consistently) is good because it contributes to the preservation of reason.

    (Indeed, in a surprising little footnote to his essay, “What Is It to Orient Oneself in Thinking,” Kant writes that the categorical imperative — to accept only those justifications and explanations whose reasonability is in principle recognizable by any reasoner, regardless of religion, creed, or tradition — is “the rule for reason’s self-preservation.” The many limitations of the CI aside, this is a striking claim.)

    I’m not saying this is the whole of Kant’s story. But I think it’s a different, fruitful way to think about what, from Kant’s perspective, might make critique a good thing.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. (1/4)
    Dan-K,
    with respect for you and your fine essay, I am going to give a radically contrarian reply. Please bear with me.

    1. “ its epistemic dimension, by which I mean its rejection of an epistemology grounded in the authority of great traditions, institutions, and texts, in favor of one grounded in the faculties of the individual human mind and particularly, perception and reason.

    2. “we must critically examine our intellectual inheritance (through the dispassionate exercise of reason, by way of an uncompromising skepticism), if we are to ever have confidence that we are in possession of the truth, in science and elsewhere.

    Here we have the two major themes of your essay. They seem plausible. indeed so plausible that I accepted them without thought, thereby betraying the second premise. Then I re-read the essay and doubts began to creep in, causing me to re-examine these premises carefully. My conclusion is that they are quite simply a self-congratulatory myth about the enlightenment. The truth is much more messy and not nearly so noble. And it is a dangerous myth because this myth creates a class of people, smug in their own intellectual superiority, despising other classes. Such a class is blind to its own shortcomings and repellent to others, creating anger and resentment. One of the results we see is the so-called culture war.

    In my next, the second comment, I will examine Premise One, what Dan-K calls the epistemic dimension, the so-called demolition of authority. Following that I will examine Premise Two, the so called primacy of reason. In my fourth and last comment I will put forward an alternative explanation for the enlightenment, one I think better fits the facts.

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    • My conclusion is that they are quite simply a self-congratulatory myth about the enlightenment. The truth is much more messy and not nearly so noble.
      = = =
      This is fair, at least as a general characterization. I should be clear that in Course Notes, I simply try to give an account of how I’ve taught certain important texts to students. My aim is not to advance my own views, which sometimes are in line with these texts and sometimes not. With regard to Kant, it would be both — sometimes in line, sometimes not.

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  11. (2/4)
    1. “ its epistemic dimension, by which I mean its rejection of an epistemology grounded in the authority of great traditions, institutions, and texts, in favor of one grounded in the faculties of the individual human mind and particularly, perception and reason.

    Hurrah, everyone says, we have demolished stultifying authority. But have we? How much of your knowledge of the world is first hand? It is hard to put a number to it but your first hand knowledge of the world is possibly less than five percent. The rest of your knowledge, ~95% or so, is vicarious knowledge. You have accepted this knowledge from other sources, on the authority of other people. It can’t be otherwise because we can only verify a fraction of the incoming knowledge. You accept knowledge on the authority of your text books, your teachers, your peers, the media, books, magazines, papers, your friends, the advertisers, etc, etc.

    OK, you might reply, but we choose the sources of our knowledge by using the critical faculties of the human mind. But on what grounds do you make that choice? You can only do that by appealing to still other authorities. We are back where we started, making humble obeisance to authorities.

    There is no way out of this dilemma unless you live in a remote cave and only deal with your direct experiences of the world. So much for the demolition of authority. It hasn’t happened and we have merely changed our authorities the way we do our socks. We don’t like the smell so we make a change and put on another pair of socks.

    But the new pair of socks can be more constrictive than the last pair of socks. The best example of that is the new manifestation of liberalism, which has become a new authority. For example, this new authority dictates who may speak at the universities(de-platforming, dis-inviting) or by silencing unwanted voices. They hound unwanted voices through Twitter storms(witch hunts, anyone?) Someone in the comments called it the liberal hegemony. That is a euphemism for a coercive authority. We have exchanged one stultifying authority for another stultifying authority.

    Premise One is a myth. We live as much with authority today as we did in earlier times, though today’s authority does not have the strong hold it did in earlier times. On the other hand let a conservative academic voice his opinions on his liberal campus and see what happens. Most do not dare speak up.

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    • Hurrah, everyone says, we have demolished stultifying authority. But have we? How much of your knowledge of the world is first hand?
      = = =
      This is also fair.

      On the conservative/liberal stuff, though, I’m more hesitant. I don’t think that Kant’s piece cuts along those lines.

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  12. (3/4)
    2. “we must critically examine our intellectual inheritance (through the dispassionate exercise of reason, by way of an uncompromising skepticism), if we are to ever have confidence that we are in possession of the truth, in science and elsewhere.

    Here we deal with the so-called ‘dispassionate exercise of reason.‘ Like the first premise, this has the shiny sheen of plausibility, but is it really so? If you stop to listen to the debates in academia you find it is roiled in confrontational dissension. Fine minds, employing the finest reasoning processes, reach profoundly different conclusions. A lovely exhibit is the way Dan-K disagrees with the APA. Or think of the way Nagle, a very fine thinker, has come in for strident criticism for publishing a dissident view. The atheist, Anthony Flew, was similarly vilified because he finally concluded that God did exist. I can go on, giving many more examples. The so-called ‘dispassionate exercise of reason‘ is seemingly an unreliable guide to the truth.

    Now if this is the case in the present, what was it like in the past? Are we using sanitised memories of the past to preserve our smug self-image? If you look back to the records of the time, another, very different image emerges. The world of ideas was like a bubbling pot, with many contending ideas engaged in a fierce struggle to rise to the top. It was dominated by huge egos, arrogant men and the drive for power. The clean, clinical exercise of reason is hardly to be seen. The struggle of ideas is more political than intellectual. With the benefit of hindsight we describe the result and conveniently ignore the process. Unless, of course, it gives us an opportunity to pillory some of our favourite bete noirs, something not uncommon on these pages 🙂

    So we have two myths about the enlightenment but it is undoubtedly true that impressively beneficial changes took place during the enlightenment. How then do we explain it. My next comment will address this.

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  13. (4/4)
    And now the last of my series of four comments where I address the question of what really accounts for the enlightenment. I consider the two conventional explanations put forward by Dan-K to be false, or self-congratulatory myths.

    So what did happen?

    What is especially notable about the enlightenment is that it coincided with
    1) the birth of the printing press
    2) rapid growth of the free enterprise system resulting in growing trade
    3) this in turn resulted in the growth of transport networks
    4) the early stages of the industrial revolution, the proto-industrial revolution, speeding up the growth of the printing industry.
    5) the rule of law was in the early stages of consolidating its hold in Europe, though its precepts had been known since the time of Cicero.

    The solicitous combination of these five things are what really explains the birth of the enlightenment.

    From the rule of law we get the idea that the best, indeed the only way of arriving at truth in human affairs was to create a stage for contending ideas. We still have no better way for determining the truth of the matter between two contending parties. This is known as the adversary system. For this to work outside the courtroom, in the broader field of ideas, we need a larger stage that facilitated the contention of ideas. In turn, for this to work, we needed a way to cheaply record ideas(the printing press and the proto-industrial revolution) and to rapidly disseminate the ideas(improved transport networks). Without printing, the spread of ideas was laborious, slow and expensive, restricting them to a tiny circle of people. Europe, with its growing middle class and network of universities created by the Church, eagerly consumed these ideas that were so quickly and cheaply spread by the printing press. Something truly novel and exciting was happening and it found a rapt audience. The rapid spread of ideas, enabled by the printing press, improved transport networks, and its avid reception, quickly and inevitably created debate, controversy and dissension, just as it does today.

    And when this happened, a new force appeared. Just as in the courts, the strenuous competition between ideas and their protagonists, proved to be a refining force, eliminating bad ideas so that good ideas rise to the top. It was a messy and unpleasant process with many casualties but it worked, leading to the rapid growth of better and better ideas. It was in part a political process and in part an intellectual process. It had nothing to do with us being smarter, dispassionate, and more critical thinkers. It had everything to do with the solicitous combination of the five factors listed above that enabled the adversary system in the field of ideas. It was the birth of this vigorous adversary system in the field of ideas that really gave rise to the enlightenment.

    With that in mind, what should we make of liberalism’s desire to silence unauthorised speech? If they succeed they will have killed the enlightenment. The enlightenment will have died because a new, more coercive authority has taken hold. The enlightenment will have died because the primary force that gave birth to it, the vigorous, free and fierce competition of ideas, has been stifled.

    But do we care? Satiated by sex, drugs and over consumption, what more could we want from life? OK, there is a lot of pleasure to be had in silencing unwanted voices.

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    • Labnut, your account of the Enlightenment is interesting. It reads like the work of an economic materialist, possibly a Marxist, possibly a Chicago schooler. For a different Chicago school approach, I recommend Deirdre McCloskey’s interpretation, especially in “Bourgeois Dignity”. This puts culture and ideas at the heart of the Enlightenment and the proto-Industrial revolution. She gives good arguments why the materialist account doesn’t work.

      From her website:

      The book explores the reputational rise of the bourgeoisie, that is, a Bourgeois Revaluation overtaking Holland and then Britain from Shakespeare’s time to Adam Smith. It made the modern world, by giving a reason for ordinary people to innovate. The material changes—empire, trade—were shown in Bourgeois Dignity (2010) to be wholly inadequate to explain the explosion of incomes 1800 to the present. What pushed the world into frenetic innovation were the slowly changing ideas 1600–1848 about the urban middle class and about their material and institutional innovations. A class long scorned by barons and bishops, and regulated into stagnation by its very own guilds and city councils and state-sponsored monopolies, came to be treasured—at least by the standard of earlier, implacable scorn—from 1600 to the present, first in Holland and then in Britain and then the wider world. And when the Amsterdamers after 1600 or so, and the Londoners and Bostonians after 1700 or so, commenced innovating, more people commenced admiring them. The new valuation of the bourgeoisie, a new dignity and liberty for ordinary people was a change peculiar to northwestern Europe in how people applied to economic behavior the seven old words of virtue—prudence, justice, courage, temperance, faith, hope, and love. With more or less good grace the people around the North Sea began to accept the outcome of trade-tested betterment. Then people did so in Europe generally and its offshoots, and finally in our own day in China and India. Most came for the first time to regard creative destruction as just, and were courageous about responding to it, and hopeful in promoting it. Most people, with the exception of the angry clerisy of artists and intellectuals (and even them only after 1848), stopped hating the bourgeoisie as much as their ancestors had for so very long before. Many started loving it. In consequence during a century or two the northwest Europeans became shockingly richer in goods and in spirit. That is, not economics but “humanomics” explains our riches.

      http://deirdremccloskey.com/books/index.php

      Apologies if you already know this.

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      • I posted the blurb for “Bourgeois Equality” above. I meant to post the one for “Bourgeois Dignity”. Here it is.

        What made us modern, and rich, was a change in ideology, or “rhetoric.” First in little Holland and then in Britain a new dignity and liberty for the middle class freed innovation. A unique wave of gadgets, and then a tsunami, raised incomes from $3 a day to $30 a day and beyond. In her brilliant, engaging survey of what we thought we knew about the shocking enrichment since 1776, McCloskey shows that the usual materialist explanations don’t work—coal, slavery, investment, foreign trade, surplus value, imperialism, division of labor, education, property rights, climate, genetics. Ranging from Adam Smith to the latest theories of economic growth, she details what went wrong with the routine explanations. The most important secular event since the domestication of plants and animals depended on more than routine. It arose from liberties around the North Sea achieved in the civil and anti-imperial wars from 1568 to 1688, and above all from a resulting revaluation of bourgeois life. In recent decades China and then India have revalued their business people, and have thereby given hundreds of millions of people radically fuller lives. The modern world began in northwestern Europe, in the same way: ideas led. Bourgeois Dignity reshapes our thinking about economic history. It will require a reshaping of a good deal of other history as well, turning the story of our times away from the materialism typical of Marxist or economic approaches. It introduces a humanistic science of the economy—”humanomics”—directing attention to meaning without abandoning behavior, using literary sources without ignoring numbers, combining the insights of the human and the mathematical sciences.

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        • Wow, Alan, you get it. You are well informed. Deirdre McCloskey’s interpretation is very interesting and I certainly agree with much of it.

          I particularly related to this

          and then this

          First in little Holland and then in Britain a new dignity and liberty for the middle class freed innovation

          And then we have:

          Most people, with the exception of the angry clerisy of artists and intellectuals (and even them only after 1848), stopped hating the bourgeoisie as much as their ancestors had for so very long before

          The ‘angry clerisy of intellectuals‘ expresses the problem very well.

          Alan, thanks for your contribution. It was a breath of fresh wind in the debate.

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        • Oops, finger problems. The first part of my comment should have read:

          I particularly related to this
          The new valuation of the bourgeoisie, a new dignity and liberty for ordinary people was a change peculiar to northwestern Europe in how people applied to economic behavior the seven old words of virtue—prudence, justice, courage, temperance, faith, hope, and love.

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  14. I think Alan raises a nice point. I also think Kant would have something of a reply. Not a solution, but a reply.

    To use Kant’s vocabulary in The Doctrine of Method, thinking for oneself requires “rational” rather than merely “historical” cognition. The difference is something like the difference between seeing the reasonableness of what you’re introduced to rather than just memorizing it or agreeing with it. The latter kind of learning, in one of Kant’s myriad memorable phrases, renders one “a plaster cast of a human being.” (Mill, I take it, uses a different vocabulary to make a similar point in “On Liberty”: thinking for oneself requires “adopting” rather than “inheriting” opinions, active reception and integration rather than passive reception and aggregation.)

    So even though Kant surely respects the wisdom of expertise, I’m not sure he would be comfortable recommending something of the form “If the expert tells us that X, we should agree that X.” Beyond its seeming resistance to universalization, it’s too close to the “plaster cast” notion of just accepting what experts say. Surely, respecting expertise calls for giving expert opinion its due consideration rather than for agreeing with it just because it’s expert opinion. Part of Kant’s point, I assume, is that the move from my listening to an expert to my agreeing with her opinion should be mediated either by my seeing the reasonability of her opinion or by my seeing the reasonability of simply agreeing with her opinion. Either way, my agreeing with her opinion should be mediated by my seeing the reasonability of something, rather than just incorporating an opinion into my mental economy.

    And it’s the commitment to a view or the holding of an opinion *because I see its reasonability according to public, humanly shareable criteria* that was daring for Kant. Accordingly, it’s equally daring to withhold commitment because I *don’t* see the reasonability of it. (Of course, I need to freely communicate with others in order to check whether the reasonability I see or don’t see is actually “there.”)

    Realizing you don’t yet know what to believe, realizing you don’t yet see the (publicly communicable) reasonableness of the opinions on offer, might just be an achievement, a manifestation of the daring, virtuous mind. And if it’s an exercise of a healthy habit of mind, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to characterize your “attempts at being daring and wise” to “have gone nowhere.” Your realization represents not an impasse but a datum: it’s one more thing to think about and discuss with others as we all try to make sense of the world.

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  15. labnut,
    well, I wasn’t going to respond to your comments, after your reply to my last comment. You effectively shut down the conversation, after all – not impinging on my free speech, but certainly impinging on further discussion. And I’m sure that may happen again here.

    However, I suggest you are barking up a couple of wrong trees in your latest remarks. First all Dan is doing here is introducing Kant’s text – with which he has some sympathies, no doubt; but really, your argument is with Kant, not Dan’s essay. And such an argument requires a reading of Kant’s essay, not Dan’s introduction to it.

    Secondly, your historiography has some serious problems – two are striking: it doesn’t account for how the intellectual revolution in the sciences brought about the industrial revolution; and it can’t account for the two great political revolutions that effectively assured the rise to dominance of the rule of law, the American and the French – and neither of these revolutions could possibly have happened without the Enlightenment in the humanities and philosophies of the time.

    Finally I can’t see how you would be able to trace your history back before Modernity to the wars of the Reformation, which is when institutional authority itself came under question, often in bloody conflict, disrupting the political and social structures to such an extent that the kind of questioning and reliance on personal decision making became optional, even necessary. It is the rise of Protestant dependence on a personal relationship with God through independent reading of the Bible that initiates the individualism of Modernity – and thus the printing press came as a religious and politically revolutionary device for disseminating the Bible in regional languages, when before it had been restricted not just only to those who could read Greek or Latin, but specifically to the Roman Clergy..

    Finally, you keep railing about liberals trying to prohibit free speech. I know you live in another country, and you seem to be confusing American liberalism with the fringe left SJWs. But in America it has always been the liberals who have advocated, fought for, and gone to court for defense of the freedom of speech. And I happen to be a liberal, and though I stand somewhat to his left on certain issues, I believe Dan is too.

    I’m afraid your historiography needs more facts and greater explanatory power than it has now. I also suggest that if you want to debate with Kant, that you read Kant. Finally, I suggest rethinking the target and the structure of your attacks on liberals. Liberals aren’t punching out or murdering journalists, or cackling at rallies over harm done to such. The SJWs are not liberal in my book – no fanatic could be..

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    • EJ, this remark by Labnut strikes me as fair:

      “My conclusion is that they are quite simply a self-congratulatory myth about the enlightenment. The truth is much more messy and not nearly so noble.”

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      • Dan,
        Well, I saw no point commenting on what I agree with in what labnut said. The problem of epistemic reliance on experts, for instance, is an important problem worth wrestling with. I don’t think one can charge this against Kant as helping to create the problem. And even if all we do is trust authorities a little less than in former times, as labnut claims, I suggest this remains a step forward.

        The Enlightenment was a revolution. As such, there was going to some myth-making on the part of those engaged in it. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Jefferson knew this was mere statement of faith – hope, really. Yet he asserts this boldly, and as a first premise for an argument of justification. One could suggest that the whole American Revolution begins in a fallacy. But so what? it has provided a great many people hope, while also providing grounds for intense and useful debate as to its validity and worth. Revolutions are always “more messy and not nearly as noble” as the revolutionaries make them out to be. And some have led to disaster, and others has led to important improvements. But they will inspire myth-making in the process. That is why we have historical scholars, to unravel those myths.

        And the Scientific Revolution was also itself revolutionary. Descartes, the subject of the sentences supposed to be self-congratulatory myth, knew his situation and the risks involved. He had fought as a mercenary in Reformation wars – on both sides – was later effectively banished from Utrecht. To the south, Galileo was taken into house arrest, and across the channel a king had been beheaded leading to intellectual efforts to come to terms with the brief Republic and its Restoration aftermath. These were dangerous times, and we should be grateful for those who dared speak out for the ability to reason one’s place in the world for one’s self – Descartes, Hobbes, Bacon, even Milton – the first argument for freedom of speech. The writings of such thinkers I suppose did lean rhetorically to self- congratulation, but why not? All church trained, many familiar with the Scholastics and the Greek classics, they had been taught to think one way, and had found ways to think another way, and see the world anew.

        Finally, my main concern in my reply to labnut, was to correct the history he presented – he actually didn’t remark the real mess or the real nobility of the early decades of Modernity. And I think we lose a lot in intellectual history if we don’t account for the Reformation that preceded it. Luther’s “here I stand, I can do no other” continues to thunder through history, in some ways encouraging, in some ways deeply troubling.

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    • EJ, you take yourself too seriously. Recognise the spirit in which the comments were made. I did after all leave a trail of clues.
      Whisky Tango Foxtrot

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