I’d like to return to Neal Gabler’s statement that I quoted in an earlier blog, where he said,
“It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.”
And just as I disagreed about the “big idea” being nearly extinct so I would disagree with him about his characterization of our age as being unenlightened.
- A “post-Enlightenment Age?” We actually live in the present, the only time in which anyone has ever lived. Therefore we live, as it were, in a “post-everything age.” For we come after everything that ever was. I live in a “post the live births of my five children age.” Makes it sound pretty impressive, doesn’t it. But it’s not. It’s just the way things are.
- Gabler by his post-Enlightenment Age means that those ideas that made up the so-called Age of Enlightenment no longer hold the sway the way they once did.
- Now one cannot do as Gabler has done, characterize the Age of Enlightenment, a time period considered to have begun with the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1648) and ended with the French Revolution (1789), in any simple manner, such as by his formula of “rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate.”
- Or, in other words, we might question whether any historical period can be separated in this manner. Sure, why not if it does no harm, and if it helps us to become more familiar with the history. Such times as the age of dinosaurs, of hunting and gathering, of the first printing press, of the steam engine… etc. Also wouldn’t you hope that you were living yourself, at least when you were at your best, in an age of rationality, evidence, logical argument…?
- The Stanford encyclopedia tells me that the task of characterizing philosophy in (or of) the Enlightenment confronts the obstacle of the wide diversity of Enlightenment thought. In other words to even speak of an age with just these characteristics may be to lose that rich and wide diversity of thought and opinion characteristic of any age.
- Furthermore, I’m sure there are those who would say that the Age of Enlightenment, if there was such, ended long before our time, as having come to an abrupt end with the coming onto the world stage of the unenlightened leaders, in fact, the murderers, of the French Revolution. And this was probably only the first of many “endings” to enlightened thought. And are we really any less enlightened today than at that earlier time, at any earlier time of recorded history?
- Isn’t it best to consider enlightenment as something that is always ending, always beginning, no less in the lives of individuals than in the lives of countries. That situation certainly holds today. Just in terms of numbers of people there are probably millions more today who are guided by reason, by evidence, by logical argument, than ever before. One need only to look at what man and science, with perhaps his greatest creation ever, the internet, together have accomplished and continue to accomplish.
- Most of all Gabler makes the all too common mistake of looking to a past era or period as somehow better, somehow superior to the present. Just as there never was an Age of Gold, so there never was an Age of Enlightenment (enlightened French philosophers, yes).
- In fact, a rational argument could be made for our age, with all its obvious imperfections, as being somehow the best age ever in which to live, if not an age of enlightenment. Sure there are, there will be times when superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy will out do reason and win people’s minds and hearts.
- If you don’t believe this just follow the news, from the Middle East and Pakistan, in particular. But such times as these may very well be occurring less often today than ever before, although we would need to go to the Pew Research Center to get an answer to the question, how less often. And we would need to find an appropriate place in our thinking for Russia and Putin.