The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Enlightenment
On intellectual savagery
Theories about the inevitable progress of history are legion.
Perhaps the most famous, and most hated, is the Hegelian Weltgeist dialectically rumbling through history, spawning ages, nations, and philosophies.
A lesser-known, but most fascinating one, is British philosopher R. G. Collingwood’s theory of the development of consciousness from art, religion, science, culminating in philosophy and history.1
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Perhaps the most bare bone and non-controversial form of such a theory of progress looks something like this:
New ideas come to the scene, which combine with historical developments to blow up the conventional belief system that holds society together at a given time—a set of beliefs that now seems fossilized, inadequate, and full of contradictions.
A phase of turmoil follows, intellectual and otherwise, that generates a whole generation (or more) of renegade thinkers, new takes, new experiments. The old chains of a stifling orthodoxy are broken; conformists are suffering and confused.
Eventually, out of this heterodox melee emerges a new set of fundamental beliefs, coupled with unshakable and often unconscious metaphysical assumptions. Over time, this new orthodoxy is codified and enforced, dissenters shunned, and a founding myth is established and projected back into the past. This new belief system then becomes ever-more stifling, its contradictions apparent, until the cycle repeats.
Let’s take a look at the Enlightenment from this perspective.
Enlightenment as Aufbruch
In most people’s minds, the Enlightenment represents the triumph of reason over superstition, the abandoning of religion in favor of proto-science, the turning point towards our golden age of rationality, facts, the scientific method, progress.
But this is largely a myth—and like any myth, it comes complete with heroes and villains, with epic battles, with martyrdom and saints.
Having internalized this myth, which took its modern form during the science-worshiping 19th century, it is easy to overlook that like any intellectual watershed moment, the Enlightenment was a time of non-conformists, of contrarians.
It wasn’t about adopting a new set of beliefs; it was a time of Aufbruch, of leaving behind the old world, of an influx of new creative energy.
Kant’s battle cry wasn’t “let’s do science instead of religion,” or “my facts don’t care about your Jesus,” but “Sapere aude! Do have the guts to use your own mind!”2
If Kant hadn't been such a, well, Prussian, he might have said: up yours, institutional group-think, I don’t need my thinking to be supervised by a bunch of patronizing experts, thank you very much.
Kant’s battle cry wasn’t “let’s do science instead of religion,” or “my facts don’t care about your Jesus,” but “Sapere aude! Do have the guts to use your own mind!”
And oh boy, did some of the Enlightenment folks use their own minds.
Freed from the shackles of orthodoxy, they wanted to know, to really know. A whole vista of inquiry opened up, the mind freed from the eternal archetype of the conformist, current-thing-spitting NPC who hates nothing more than those who dare venturing off the beaten paths—the violent code that binds society together—and whose pitiful irrationality is forever invisible to most members of the society at hand.
The Enlightenment was an age of daring intellectual turmoil.
But as it always happens, sooner or later such times give rise to a new orthodoxy, a new codified belief system. And so, the later Enlightenment myth-makers needed to de-emphasize the daring and adventurous aspect, at least where it didn’t jive with their story, and over-emphasize those features of the Enlightenment that underpinned their new set of beliefs.
From their perspective, Giordano Bruno's hermeticism, Newton’s alchemy, Goethe’s gnosticism, the legions of Catholic monk-scientists, and the new religious thinking of the time, needed to be regarded as mere footnotes, explained with an embarrassed sigh, a muted murmur about “children of their time.”
The truth is, however, that these guys really did want to figure things out without some conformist zeitgeist telling them what to think and what to read. That Newton wouldn’t make much sense without his alchemy, and that Goethe couldn’t have written Faust without his esoteric insights, and that Blake wouldn’t have been the genius that he was without thinking for himself as a deeply religious man interested in esoteric ideas. Even when you read such kind and calm a soul as Adam Smith, you can sense the liberated spirit of the time: here’s someone who can think deeply and in fresh ways about the human condition, without regard for the old religious orthodoxy, but without regard for any “scientific” or “Enlightenment” orthodoxy either, which didn’t yet exist at the time.
Importantly, these thinkers weren’t stifled by the reductionist dogma that conditions the mind to seek some mechanism, some explanation, for everything, even if it means jumping to conclusions and severely limiting the scope and depth of one’s thoughts. No, they could just observe and think and come out and state their thoughts. What a concept!
The science-worship, retrojected into the intellectual past by later spin doctors, is only one aspect of the 19th century Enlightenment myth. The other is the genesis of bourgeois culture: together, scientism and strict bourgeois mores form the bedrock of 19th century orthodoxy.
This bourgeois culture can be seen in light of the minimalist theory of progress outlined above as well: the canonization of the original renegades and their transfer into the conformist zeitgeist. For example, the “classical” epoch of music is largely a later invention; in reality, what we now call Viennese Classicism was already part of Romanticism—that is, sort of the counter-culture of the day. After all, Beethoven was quite the punk, and Mozart an innovative entrepreneur who was among the first to finance and organize what amounts to the 18th century equivalent of pop concerts.3
The Enlightenment was about the courage to think against the grain, and “do your own research” as we might say today, and to not just trust some high priests, whatever they call themselves and wherever they are.
Sapere aude! The Enlightenment was about the courage to think against the grain, and “do your own research” as we might say today, and to not just trust some high priests or the dominant metaphysical ideas of the time.
The Postmodern Counterrevolution
So, by the late 19th century, what had begun as the cyclical liberation from conformist thought became fossilized into a new orthodoxy based on a mythologized history—complete with oppressing dissenters, especially when it comes to sacred science and sacred culture. And thus, a new cycle began.
The postmodern counterrevolution, then, consequently targeted both pillars of the new authoritarian zeitgeist: science worship and bourgeois culture.
This was facilitated by the fact that every set of propositional beliefs, every orthodoxy, inevitably plays itself out at some point and becomes hopelessly entangled in its own contradictions. As Collingwood put it, the absolute presuppositions of a given time come “under strain,” and ultimately break, to make room for something new.
A good example of this dynamic is the rise of the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle in the early 20th century, whose science-worshiping system ultimately self-destructed, while analytic philosophy went on to analyze itself into oblivion (until it later embraced a new substance while trying to keep its form). Meanwhile, quantum mechanics blew a huge hole into 19th century materialism and the confidence that Homo Scientificus was just one experiment away from figuring out the Mystery of the Ages. Science worship as an ersatz religion became increasingly untenable.
Science worship as an ersatz religion became increasingly untenable.
Culturally, Neo-Rennaissance could only go so far, and the era of “classical” composers seemed to have come to an end. Modernity and post-modernity kicked in. The First and Second World Wars, of course, violently shook everything up. It is in this context that we need to understand postwar contrarian thought and its implications for today.
The Rise of Proto-Wokeism
The postwar era saw a profound conflict between the empirical science worship of the still powerful Enlightenment myth and the (mostly) leftist intellectuals who wanted to bring consciousness, morality, and theory back into focus. We see here the roots of the modern-day conflict between biology and wokeism, between “facts” and “feelings,” between reality and morality, between theory unhinged from empirical reality and the simplistic idea of empirical reality unhinged from mind and consciousness.
Part of this postwar conflict was merely temperamental: not all people are number crunchers. A society needs philosophers, novelists, poets, and daring theorists too. But these two types, the conscientious number cruncher and the more creative and dashing type, can come into conflict: one side then gets insulted as silly calculating machines lacking genuine insight and creativity, while the other gets insulted as too dumb to do math, or too lazy to do quantitative research.
Part of this postwar conflict was merely temperamental: not all people are number crunchers. A society needs philosophers, novelists, poets, and daring theorists too.
But a number cruncher does not a great academic make, just as there is a difference between a lab technician and a real man of science. (Neither can great prose and grand ideas alone cut it in science, obviously.) And so, it’s no coincidence that Max Planck and Nils Bohr wrote books about religion or philosophy, that Einstein and Heisenberg not only liked to go on long walks philosophizing, but played classical music at a very high level, or that Wolfgang Pauli deeply engaged with Jungian thought and heavily criticized Darwinism and materialism. Pure number crunchers they were not.
Part of the postwar revolt, then, was an uneasiness with science worship, as represented by the positivists of the Vienna Circle and analytic philosophy. The famous Positivismusstreit between the Frankfurt School and the logical positivists, and later between the Frankfurt School and Karl Popper, is instructive in that regard.4
While the anti-scientism sentiment was justified and a new cycle of non-conformity was in order, tragically, the postwar intellectuals were handicapped by their simultaneous opposition to bourgeois culture. To bring back consciousness, mind, and contrarian ideas to science, perhaps they should have ushered in a renaissance of the classical humanities and classical education, combining the cosmological ideas of Goethe with modern science,5 British idealism with a new form of moral realism, or classical virtue ethics with a non-materialist theory of social change—creatively rediscovering the ideas of previous generations while going further, broader, and wider.
But this the postwar generation could not do. To their minds, classical education was bourgeois, reactionary, and stale. Besides, these left intellectuals saw both bourgeois culture and positivist science as partly to blame for the rise of Nazism.6
Instead, they sought their salvation in a mixture of Marxism and the psychoanalytic movement. The problem is that the die-hard materialists Marx and Freud are not your best bet if you want to bring consciousness, poetry, and morality back into the picture. As a consequence, all that the postwar left intellectuals could do was psychologize, problematize, deconstruct.
In that, they oddly resembled their enemies, the logical positivists and analytic philosophers, except that they turned their weaponry not just against traditional metaphysics, but against science, the social order, and classical morality itself. The result was a morally hypercharged de(con)structive mode of thought that lacked any metaphysical foundation to speak of.7
This contradiction inherent in the anti-scientism impulses of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, to my mind, are a huge factor in the genesis of later wokeism: you instinctively revolt against too narrow a materialist-empiricist dogma of science, yet you are knee-deep into materialism yourself. So, you cannot go deeper; you cannot reconnect with the diversity of views and thoughts that came before and the transcendent elements of both the Enlightenment and the classical periods.
You end up combining the worst of both worlds: the narrow metaphysical view of materialist science, but without the grounding in empirical reality. The result is a freewheeling mind, unhinged both from tradition and from the part of experience that consists of obvious empirical facts.
You end up combining the worst of both worlds: the narrow metaphysical view of materialist science, but without the grounding in empirical reality.
All that’s left is a new and disconnected kind of theory, which, because of its solipsistic nature, must become crazier and crazier.
We Are Entering a New Era of Intellectual Turmoil
Where do we stand today?
On the one hand, there are the descendants of the postwar leftist intellectuals, who, shocked by the Nazi experience and hypnotized by late 19th century secular theories, found themselves in a hall of mirrors with no escape.
On the other hand, there are those who desperately cling to the Enlightenment myth, long obliterated by the best thinkers and scientists going back to the 1920s and 1930s, partly because they don’t know better, partly simply in reaction to the other camp, as another instance of an unholy dialectic playing itself out.
The academy, and the greater part of mainstream public intellectual life, are still trapped between the Enlightenment myth and the postmodern counter-revolution.
It is high time this stifling nonsense come to an end. Which, indeed, it is about to, as I have argued in We Are at a Metaphysical Nexus.
“Oh no,” some on the Enlightenment side might say, “this would undo our progress! See how far we have finally come with our science! We will all regress into irrationality and superstition!” Those who say such things, however, don’t realize that they are voicing the timeless battle cry of the terrified conformist—the very same battle cry expressed at the onset of the Enlightenment by the reactionary forces at the time.
But ours is not a time for safe rails and codified wisdom.
Once again, we are entering a time of intellectual turmoil.
Like many others, I have enough of mythological Enlightenment dogma, scientism, wokeism, thought crime, the word heresy, tribalism, positivism, lazy categories, lazy thinking, and irrational fears of deeper insights into our history, the nature of the universe, and the big questions.
I want to see Whiteheadian teleologocial evolutionists exchanging letters with the best thinkers of the Intelligent Design community.
I want to see Electric Universe theorists writing papers together with mainstream astronomers to figure out what the hell is going on.
I want to see the results of ESP and paranormal research incorporated into hyperdimensional physics.
I want to see an end to a priori dismissals of anything that doesn’t fit in with people’s sacred pet theories and the stale and idiotic zeitgeist.
I want to see philosophers who say screw all modern presuppositions and go back to Zoroastrianism and compare it with Bergson, Steiner, and Heisenberg.
I want to see supernatural theism combined with evolutionary psychology.
I want to see non-supernatural theism combined with ufology.
I want to see morphogenetic fields interpreted in light of Thomistic Angeology.
I want every theory, every model, every morality reinterpreted under the assumption that there is, in fact, an afterlife—just as an experiment to see what that yields.
I want to see Christians ready to question the bodily resurrection and the historical truth of the gospels without losing their faith, if that’s where it goes.
I want to see entirely new metaphysical systems that go beyond the modern “short list”—and that combine poetry with hyper-abstraction.
I want to see scientists brazenly defying orthodoxy and explore outrageous theories, not to “deconstruct” or “debunk,” but to build.
In fact, I see a lot of that already happening. It’s just well-hidden from the institutional gaze, from the realm of conformity, from the forever hopeless defenders of belief systems about to be swept away as an era reaches its natural conclusion.
Some will be so terrified of this that they will double down on whatever the authorities say, even as their utterances must, by the eternal logic of how things go, become ever-more absurd.
Others will heed Kant’s advice and start thinking for themselves.
Better fasten your seat belts, folks, because it will only get wilder.
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R G. Collingwood, Speculum Mentis or The Map of Knowledge, Read Books, 2011
See Immanuel Kant, Was ist Aufklärung?, online here for example: https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/159_kant.pdf
For a superb and fascinating take on the history of Western (classical) music, which corrects much of the later mythology, see Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music: Volume 2, Oxford University Press, 2005
See Hans-Joachim Dahms, Positivismusstreit: Die Auseinandersetzungen der Frankfurter Schule mit dem logischen Positivismus, dem amerikanischen Pragmatismus und dem kritischen Rationalismus, suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft, 2016 (1994)
That is, in fact, what Werner Heisenberg attempted in his Der Teil und das Ganze (Engl. Physics and Beyond)—many thinkers and scientists of the 1920s and the 1930s were on the right track, I think, with many creative and unusual ideas. After WWII, these were largely forgotten in the super-charged politicized intellectual life that characterized the postwar era.
Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s influential 1962 play Die Physiker can be seen as emblematic of how central the relation between science and morality was in the intellectual life at the time.
It must be said that the Frankfurt School was somewhat ambivalent when it came to mysticism and a metaphysical view of the world, which obviously clashes with Marxism. Walter Benjamin, for example, is sometimes seen as a mystic and metaphysician trying to express himself in more Marxist language. However, the lack of metaphysical foundation and the emphasis on Marx and Freud was clearly there in left revolt of ‘68 and its aftermath.