[This is talk 1, session 1 of 2, first day of The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]
Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University, is the first of two historians to open the Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 conference. He was asked to open with a "bomb" and, as the author of "Enemies of the Enlightenment", one could presume that he is well able to do this. The topic he chose for his talk was "Does the Enlightenment need an upgrade?". This is a clear response to the whole idea of the conference of Enlightenment 2.0, maybe Enlightenment 1.0 is still working fine...
The first question is "What is the Enlightenment?" and his initial answer is it is the art of posing questions rather than providing hard and fast answers," a discursive, disputatious theorizing way of life" - some might say the Enlightenment relished throwing bombs. To follow on with this enigmatic point, he then focuses on the French Enlightenment of the 18th century culminating in the French Revolution of 1798 and examines Catholic critics of this "modern philosophy" as it was known then. Indeed their apocalyptic vision, rhetoric and paranoid ranting against, what would later be called, the Enlightenment, was surprisingly prescient: some of their fears were "everywhere philosophy lights discord in the course of war...orders murder, massacre and carnage.. it directs lances and swords at the heads of sovereigns... overturning of alters... " and so on. (Of course amongst their fears that were the result of the French Revolution were some such as "Jews, Protestants and atheists were allowed to vote"). How credible were these claims given how France and the rest of Europe became steeped in revolution, dictatorship and war - is the Enlightenment a "bomb" that its critics claim?
He explores this theme beyond the views of apocalyptic Catholic critics through more sympathetic writers, such as Isiah Berlin, who could still apply similar causes and argument to the rising and evils of the Soviet Union. He ends this survey with left wing writers, Marxists through to the Post Modernists , all criticizing the Enlightenment and claiming that it is totalitarian and responsible for not only the French Revolution, the Terrors, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Gulag (excluding the Marxists here of course) but also the Nazis and the Shoah, that is the Enlightenment is responsible for the greatest ills of modernity - tyranny, racism and imperialism. In spite of these "silly causal claims" he accepts the Enlightenment was disruptive, challenging and revolutionary and that we do need to take these claims seriously.
By contrast, modern and sympathetic views on the Enlightenment emphasize it's moderate character and focuses on the guiding dispositions such as 2to live without fear, to chart our own course..., to subject our most cherished assumptions to criticism, to take nothing on faith". He lists many outcomes of these dispositions such as "reason as the criterion of truth, the reject of supernaturalism and revelation, freedom of expression, secular ethics, democratic republicanism [and sexual freedom]" and so on. These are still radical values to keepers of tradition and can still can be disruptive to such societies, especially those the lack the maturity to take control of their own lives. He concludes by answering that the Enlightenment is still in progress and does not need to be revised, just completed, so the Enlightenment does not need an upgrade.
Unfortunately the way he has presented his case his conclusion is not so much the result of an argument but an unsubstantiated assertion. He does not answer those critics, indeed it is quite unclear whether he thinks that the French Revolution or rather the following the Terrors; the Russian Revolution and the Gulag; the Nazis and the Shoah and so on, are either the outcome of the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment gone wrong, better than what would have occurred without the Enlightenment or another alternative. Now the modern and moderate formulation of the Enlightenment that he makes would reject any of these as part of the Enlightenment and maybe this is the point he implicitly thinks he is making. On the other hand he does take seriously it's disruptive and possibly revolutionary nature, with the implication that there can be some (considerable) cost in such processes.
It is not sufficient just to assert or imply that these events are not part of the Enlightenment. There are at least two problems with this, the first is a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy - as much used by Marxists to avoid the many empirical failures of communism from condemning their theories - they claim it has never actually been tried. The other is hindsight bias and ad hoc reasoning - does the Enlightenment have to learn by its errors in such a horrendous way and has it dealt with all these issues so it really will not happen again? Given this, it seems very difficult to conclude that the Enlightenment is not broken and lets keep it as it is, allowing for some more upheavals but we should carry on anyway.
So can we do better than this? I think we can. If we revisit his moderate modern version with his set of dispositions what they all have together is a worldview. Indeed I would argue, and I think he would agree, that this worldview is very similar to the original Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. My emphasis is different though. The key elements of this worldview are questioning the world rather than asserting the way it is, questioning the means of questioning the world, and imposing less restraints to give everyone more freedom to explore and express themselves, that is assuming less rather than more. Now deriving the worldviews instantiated in the Bolshevik revolution and the Nazis rise to power and the resultant Gulag and Shoah (and the Terrors in the aftermath of the French Revolution), these three Enlightenment features are all rejected - so none of these are part of an Enlightenment worldview. Instead the wordlview derived from events states such dispositions as do not question the world but accept the way it claimed to be by the new leaders, do not question the leaders, and in order to mold this new world many constraints, at the cost of freedom and lives, needed to be applied. That is, whether they claim it themselves or it is just their critics that call them part of the Enlightenment, they are, in fact, Pseudo-Enlightenment movements.
Now the historical challenge is to see how such Pseudo-Enlightenment movements came about, especially what were the antecedents and how does this relate to Enlightenment principles. To the degree that it is responsible, not in the use of its lingo and ideas, but, in reality, what can we learn to prevent these movements rising again. Indeed, I would argue it is very much by identifying the confusion between the espousal or borrowing of Enlightenment ideas as rhetoric to engage the target group as revolutionaries or equivalent, but specifically without the actual instantiation of these ideas in the relevant institutions and organizations, that one can detect, in advance, dangerous movements, to help nip them in the bud before they wreak havoc on the world. Such an analysis is a suitable task for a historian interested in the Enlightenment...
This analysis leads to the opposite conclusion to McMahon's, that if this is the best attempt at understanding these Pseudo-Enlightenment movements, as I call them, then Enlightenment is in need of revision and, I have hopefully illustrated, we do have the tools and means to successfully upgrade it.