Guiding us into the light: A look at modern philosophy

Enlightenment thinking from less that 400 years ago transformed how we think ourselves to be human. JP O’Malley meets Anthony Gottlieb to discuss its ramifications
Guiding us into the light: A look at modern philosophy

THE great social theorists of the 19th century, including John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx , gleaned much of their inspiration from the 18th century Enlightenment.

Principally, their understanding of human culture and behaviour was linked to certain assumptions about human progress: where a universal civilisation would flourish and and freedom and liberty would be granted to everyone.

During the 20th century, however, those ideas appeared to change. A single definition of what the term ‘the Enlightenment’ meant exactly, became somewhat confusing and muddled.

Mainly because figures like Lenin, Mao, and Hitler began to bend ideals of human progress to suit their own totalitarian agendas. And so, consequently, the Enlightenment was criticised in certain intellectual circles.

Isaiah Berlin — considered by many scholars to be the greatest intellectual historian of the 20th century — for instance, rejected two of the Enlightenment’s fundamental ideas: that human behaviour was law-governed and that a rational society was the inevitable endgame of civilisation.

Still, Berlin remained committed to the Enlightenment values of toleration, liberty, and human emancipation from ignorance and repression.

Even the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud — whose work often plunged into the darker and more irrational side of romanticism — still defined himself as a rational thinker in the Enlightenment tradition.

So, given the multiple layers, numerous timelines, and various political allegiances of this vast intellectual project, how exactly should we define the term?

“I think one should limit the use of the word the Enlightenment to the 18th century French thinkers,” says the British author, Anthony Gottlieb, sipping an espresso in the courtyard of the British Library in Kings Cross.

“These people explicitly thought of themselves as living in a new century of light: And [coming out] of darkness.” Gottlieb has recently published The Dream of Enlightenment, The Rise of Modern Philosophy. It explores the story of Western philosophy in Northern Europe: stretching from the 1630s, to the eve of the French Revolution.

During those short 150 years, men like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau — a collective group today we know as the modern philosophers — made their mark on the world.

Their work asked questions like: what does the advance of science entail for our understanding of ourselves, and for our ideas of God? How is a government to deal with religious diversity? And what is the role of government itself?

In 1641, for instance, the French philosopher, René Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy: it turned out to be the most discussed philosophical work of the early modern period.

Crucially, Descartes urged his readers to focus on things that are objets of the intellect alone, and totally separate from matter.

“This is an ancient idea that’s reflecting the Greeks, and St Augustine too,” says Gottlieb.

“[In Meditations] Descartes is saying that there is something much higher about what the intellect produces when it’s contemplating ideas and abstract things.” In some instances, modern philosophy has the potential to sound abstract; something that’s seen as far removed from the every day, and confined instead to elitist university professors with corduroy jackets, smoking pipes.

However, it can still hold resonance in today’s world, especially in the world of politics. Take Thomas Hobbes, for example, whose best known treatise, Leviathan, was published in 1651.

In an article published last December in the New Statesman — which sought to make sense of the changing political atmosphere across Europe, pace the ISIS- Paris-murders — the British thinker and author, John Gray, argued that each citizen’s sense of individual freedom are not free-standing absolutes.

Nor are they — as is often assumed — a universal human right.

Instead, Gray argued that they are fragile constructions, which remain intact only under the shelter of state power.

Gray did not come up with this idea himself. He was simply quoting at length from the work of Hobbes: who was convinced that only government could provide security against sectarian strife.

In other words, if citizens want things like freedom, security, and safety, they must submit themselves to a sovereign power.

Doesn’t the idea, though, lean towards the darker sides of right wing thinking: where submission to power through the process of fear, and the threat of violence, is the end result?

“I don’t think so,” Gottlieb responds. “There is a case for saying that Hobbes was on the left in respect to egalitarianism,” he says.

“His idea on the importance of strong government isn’t intrinsically right wing either. Because there is no government stronger than totalitarian communist states.” So Hobbes thought the central point of government was to protect people?

“Absolutely,”says Gottlieb with enthusiasm. “Because there had been religious and civil wars during his lifetime. So he had seen people fighting and killing each other. “His diagnosis of what had gone wrong was that there wasn’t a strong enough government to keep these nasty impulses in check. “And since he was arguing for a particularly strong form of government — a single undivided powerful sovereignty — he needed to defend it by saying: it is for your protection and your benefit,” Gottlieb adds.

Before the Enlightenment, the culture and politics of Western civilisation was very much grounded in theological-absolutist-ideals. The typical trajectory leading back to hierarchical power was threefold: government, then monarchy, then God.

One character from Gottlieb’s book who was hugely influential in altering this way of thinking was a Dutch philosopher — of Sephardi/Portuguese origin — called Baruch Spinoza.

He treated the Bible as a collection of documents, rather than a divine book that relayed the direct word of God. He argued that the Bible should be examined in the same vein, as say, a work of literature or history book might be.

Did this pave the way for a secular Europe, which began to rear its head, sporadically, in the years following the French Revolution?

“I think it did,” says Gottlieb. “Spinoza was one of the first to come up with this idea that you have to look at the Bible as a literary text produced by humans. And explain it in terms of people’s motivation and limited knowledge. He wasn’t the first person to absolutely say it. But he was one of the first of those important thinkers to openly express this idea.”

If scientific reason and the waning of religious sensibility — in all facets of public and private life — were the two defining signature themes of the Enlightenment, is it possible to come up with a catchphrase that might summarise the term itself?

Gottlieb pauses for a moment before answering this.

“That people ought to think for themselves,” he says eventually.

He then reminds me that it was the English philosopher, John Locke, who really brought this idea to fruition in his work.

Locke is most famous for three major works that were all published in 1689: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Two Treatises of Government, and A Letter Concerning Toleration.

On the surface, Locke’s writings, Gottlieb suggests, are more direct and simpler than other philosophers of his time. The 20th century British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, for example, once called Locke ‘the spokesman of common sense’.

“We can bring Locke out in a contrast with Hobbes,” says Gottlieb, “who thought there was no right to rebel against the government, however badly that government behaved. Locke , however, thought there was a right to rebel if things got bad enough. Because his type of social contract was that you had a deal between the people and the ruler. And if the ruler is oppressing the people, well, that breaks the deal and you are allowed to get another leader.

“So that is the single most important thing in Locke’s thought that appealed to would-be revolutionaries,” says Gottlieb..

But it was a Scottish philosopher — born in Edinburgh in 1711 — called David Hume, who argued knowledge is predominately based on limited experience.

Hume’s train of thought, Gottlieb posits, ran exactly in the opposite direction to that of Hobbes: who felt that extrapolating from experience cannot amount to very much.

“Hume presented several skeptical problems to illustrate and stress the weakness and limitations of the human mind,” Gottlieb explains.

“All we have to depend on — in his view — is experience and material matters.” Hume was, Gottlieb insists, a man ahead of his time. More than a century before Charles Darwin had published The Descent of Man — which stipulated that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties — Hume had arrived at a similar conclusion.

“Hume was free of a fundamental religious prejudice: which holds that there must be a really important difference between [humans] and animals. There was very little in traditional religion that Hume bought into. So his scepticism of the Christian world helped him to open his mind to the fact that what animals do and say isn’t so different from us.”

The Enlightenment has at various times been found responsible — in the eyes of some of its opponents at least — for many negative epochs of history, including, The French Revolution’s reign of terror; for fascism; for Soviet style communism; for economic exploitation; and for other madcap utopian schemes. Even today, many skeptical thinkers scoff at The Enlightenment’s central premise of human progress. Gottlieb defies the naysayers. And says he still very much a firm believer in the value of human reason.

“Well I do believe in progress,” he says. “It seems to me very foolish to deny that there are various ways in which human life has got a lot better. Even the simple matter of people living longer, and far fewer of them starving to death.

“On the discussion of the Enlightenment though: it really depends on how you define it? On who you are looking at. To some extent it’s a value judgment on what you see as the real Enlightenment.”

The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy - Anthony Gottlieb, Allen Lane, €22.99

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