Archive for October, 2010

On the fitfulness of intellectual enlightenment

October 13, 2010

I’m reading Christian Thorne’s book, The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment. The book is, essentially, a history of anti-foundationalism (more broadly known as skepticism or post-modernism).

Contemporary anti-foundationalism is rampant—for example, consider recent skepticism about global warming, child vaccination, and evolution—and it’s easy to think that the counter-enlightenment is a relatively new phenomenon.  However, Christian Thorne points out in the introduction of his book that the counter-enlightenment movement has existed as long as the enlightenment movement—the counter-enlightenment has been the dark shadow of the enlightenment.  The enlightenment has not been a constant march towards knowledge, but rather a fitful cycle of awakening and forgetting.  Consider this quote from Thorne’s introduction:

The period’s conventional history designations, for England as for Western Europe more generally, seem to tell a single story: the Renaissance, the Revival of Learning, the Great Renewal, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. These names all conceive of Europe’s early modernity as a philosophical awakening. . . and yet there is something curious about these terms all the same, since on a second look, they don’t so much tell a single story as they tell the same story over and over again.  These designations, after all, may all come under the umbrella of early modernity, but they don’t really refer to the same period at all.  Reduced to their historical caricatures, they name distinct, if marginally overlapping, blocks of time: the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Renaissance (extended in England to the civil wars), the squarely seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  And what’s strange is this: these aren’t merely terms from intellectual history, christening each century after its distinctive doctrine of world view.  Each term suggests that its period was *newly* intellectual, *newly* philosophical, that knowledge began *then and there*, or at least began anew—as though knowledge needed first to be reborn, then revised, then renewed, then revolutionized, and only then, slowly, would enlightenment dawn.  These terms, arranged in series, suggest less the triumphant emergence of reason than an embarrassing intellectual fitfulness, less a scholarly awakening than a philosophical narcolepsy, so that we must imagine Europe dozing off, repeatedly, only to freshly awake after each new nodding.