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Post-modernism as a Crisis of the Enlightenment

Richard Ostrofsky
(April, 2006)
The period known as the “Enlightenment” (Eclairissement in French,
Aufklärung in German) made the modern world as we know it; and Peter
Gay of Yale University is perhaps that period’s preeminent scholar today. I
have been a fan of his for some years now – since I read his biography of
Sigmund Freud, whom he interprets as the last of the great Enlightenment
philosophes: a thinker who carried scientific inquiry into the darkness of the
unconscious mind, thereby sending the Enlightenment project in a new
direction while undermining both its conception of human nature and its
core program. I am now reading the second volume of Prof. Gay’s history
of that movement; and what becomes increasingly obvious is that what we
call “the post-modern” represents both a continuation and a crisis of the
Enlightenment’s modernism. Gay’s history of the philosophes’ aspirations,
and of the uptake and resistance their ideas encountered, illuminates many
features of our present intellectual condition. In effect, what happened was
that the Enlightenment program succeeded beyond all expectation – to such
a point that most of the problems we face today are unanticipated side
effects of its very success.
The anti-clerical philosophes discounted our prospects for a hereafter,
and focussed their concerns on human welfare in this world. In particular,
they endorsed the pursuit of secular happiness and economic prosperity.
Many of them (notably Mandeville, Locke, La Mettrie, and a host of lesser
names) were physicians who called for, and actually participated in the
development of a scientific medicine. They also called for a more humane
and just penal system, for the rational administration of business and
government, and for the radical, almost unprecedented idea of government
with the consent of the governed.
We today have gotten most of what they wanted – good and hard.
Their insistence on empirically-grounded Reason led to the scandal of
interpretation (the discovery of Reason’s limitations), and to post-
modernism. Their rejection of superstition led to an explosion of knowledge
in every field and to the current battles of scientific knowledge with
religious tradition. Their scientific medicine led to a population explosion,
to unsustainable pressure on the environment, and to a spiral of increasingly
vicious competition for increasingly scarce resources. Our political system
is as close to a democracy as we have so far been able to achieve – and it is
manifestly a farce.
In the face of these Pyrrhic successes, nostalgia is a mistake and a cop-
out. We will not save ourselves by turning the clock back to the beliefs and
institutions of the world as it was before the rise of modern science and its
uptake into technology, politics, education and culture. On the other hand,
the Enlightenment faith in human intelligence, good will and reason, seems
both naive and Eurocentric these days. Where does that leave us? Probably,
we need to think more carefully about what the philosophes got wrong –
and what they got right:
For a start, these thinkers knew nothing yet of the unconscious, with its
complete indifference to any notion of reason. They also overlooked what
Hegel termed “the cunning of reason” – how the strategic interaction of
individually rational opponents can easily lead to outcomes that no one
wants. They saw, correctly, that human society was organized in the pursuit
of private interests by private individuals, and not by any kind of over-
arching plan or intention. But they failed to anticipate how vicious and
ecologically disastrous untrammeled economic activity could become –
especially with the new machines and weapons that reason was supplying.
They were not pluralists: they believed in universal Truths that were the
same for everyone, and made too little of people’s legitimate differences of
value and culture. They saw religion and superstition as inseparable, and
overlooked both the need and the possibility of any non-superstitious modes
of spiritual and religious practice.
But they saw – correctly, I would say – that “no man is good enough to
be another man’s master,” and that the myths on offer as substitutes for real
understanding and human respect were beneath the dignity of an adult
mind. They flatly rejected the ideal of “faith” in any “revealed truth,” and
insisted that nothing whatever could be superior to or exempt from reasoned
criticism. They understood science not as a new priesthood of over-
specialized careerists, nor as a rigid methodology, nor as a grab bag of
technological tricks, but as a commitment to disciplined inquiry and
reflection. The great mass of humanity has still to make itself worthy of
their vision.; and it remains for us to correct their errors while holding
firmly to their tremendous gains.