Raymond Tallis on the Enlightenment

We are about defending the Enlightenment, its values, its ethos and its hopes. If I have any credentials, it is as the author of a 500 page blast called 'Enemies of Hope', published a few years ago, which was as, its subtitle stated, a critique of contemporary pessimism and an attack on the contemporary counter-enlightenment.

In these opening remarks I’d like first of all to say what I think we mean by the Enlightenment; next, note some of the lines taken by the contemporary counter-enlightenment; thirdly consider how we might address the arguments of these aficionados of the Endarkenment; and finally consider how this small group might get its own arguments heard. This last is the toughest challenge of all and I have little or nothing useful to say about this. I simply register it as a problem. Fortunately we have some very distinguished communicators in the room who will be able to give us some guidance.

Anyone who defends the Enlightenment must first of all acknowledge that the original Enlightenment philosophers had widely differing views; and secondly that our ‘take’ on Enlightenment thought has evolved – in particular we are more wary of the trap of scientism. Kant’s characterisation of Enlightenment in 'Was Ist Aufklarung?' still, however, remains helpful: it is man’s liberation from a self-imposed minority. This view is connected with the belief that happiness is to be sought and found this side of the grave; as Roy Porter put it, with seeing the pursuit of temporal happiness as the supreme good. At its heart is the sense that humans must and can take command of their destiny. This is linked to a positive reading of humanity and of human possibility. There is faith in the power of reason, guided by facts uncovered by appropriate methodology, contempt for argument from authority, and hostility of all claims to unaccountable authority.

The contemporary counter-enlightenment has dismissed this defiant optimism at many levels. At the deepest level, it has argued against what Lucien Goldman characterised as the core Enlightenment belief: that human beings are independent points of departure, who can change things. Many have argued that we are not conscious agents at all. We are in the grip of various modes of collective unconsciousness: the historical unconscious of Marx; the social unconscious of the sociologists such as Durkheim and social anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss; the psychological unconscious of Freud; and the symbolic, linguistic or semiotic unconscious of the structuralist, post-structuralist and postmodernist thinkers such as Lacan, Derrida, Foucault – who are all dead but seem to refuse to lie down. Consequently, we not know ourselves, and we cannot therefore be trusted to work together for the improvement of the lot of mankind. That is why the sum total of our efforts to improve the human estate will always be disastrous. It will all end in tears – endless war or ruination of the planet.

Ironically, science, the central tool of the enlightenment, is often invoked is support of pessimism. The combination of Darwinism and neuroscience is supposed to show us that our brains are hard-wired into the environment and, though we are unaware of it, our entire existence is devoted to ensuring replication of our genetic material. Homo sapiens is not wise but rapacious – Homo rapiens according to John Gray whose vicious but shallow attacks on the Enlightenment in particular and humanity in general have won him much celebrity and huge royalties. Human achievements to date are dismissed or are denigrated: the progress for the vast majority is overlooked and the still unalleviated suffering of the remainder focussed on. Where material progress is not denied as illusory or paltry, it is seen as spiritually damaging even to its beneficiaries: civilisation is intrinsically pathological.

And so on; and so bloody on.

It is, of course, easy to counteract most of these arguments. Material progress, driven by science, the application of practical reason, the questioning of practices established on the basis of tradition and custom, is undeniable. Many of the arguments of the prophets of Endarkenment, what’s more, are self-refuting. John Gray, for example, in 'Straw Dogs' tells us that science will not set us free because it has not grown out of its origin in 'faith, magic and trickery'(p21). And then he goes on to appeal to the authority of science for his views. At one point, he refutes himself within the span of a single sentence. Science will never grow up, will never arrive at truth, he says, for the Darwinian reason that 'The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth' (p26). And Freud, Marx, the post-Saussurean thinkers who argue that human consciousness is in the grip of unconsciousness write long (and presumably conscious) books expressing how and why they, along with their co specifics, are unconscious.

Again and again, we see people using a kind of reason – or the simulacrum of reason – to demonstrate the invalidity of reason.

That man is not to be trusted with his own fate is also supposed to be supported by the ghastly history of the 20th century, though these great catastrophes were the result of irrationalism and/or authoritarianism of a kind that is anathema to Enlightenment thought.
We also have to ask the critics of the Enlightenment what they have to offer as an alternative to evidence-based, reason-informed or reason-constrained, accountable strategies for making the world more bearable for those for whom life is short and unendurable. The regression to fundamentalist, authoritarian, religious belief or state-worship gives one some idea of what some of them pretend to prefer. I say pretend, because they choose to live in circumstances where they do not have to live with the consequences of their regressive beliefs.

There are many other counter-arguments but the question we need to address is how those counter-arguments are to win a hearing – the fourth issue I would like to touch upon. How would this currently small Manifesto Club get its signal heard among the vast well-placed noise of the counter-enlightenment? We have to remember the counter-enlightenment orthodoxy, in accordance with which anything that goes wrong is evidence that things are doomed to go wrong, dominates humanities departments in universities, which specialise in paranoia and schadenfreude. This is where many media commentators received their higher education – which may be why many journalists, when they are not calling wrong-doers in positions of responsibility to account – in the good old-fashioned Enlightenment tradition of ecrasez l’infame – seem to espouse the Promethean fallacy according to which mankind’s taking hold of his own destiny was always going to end in tears.

Let me make one final point. For over 30 years, I was a doctor. I see scientific medicine as a supreme manifestation of the Enlightenment ethos. But I am conscious also that all our efforts as doctors only postpone, rather than cancel, death. A melioristic approach has to be complemented by a tragic sense of life. And it is in trying to see how these can be reconciled or fitted together in rounded sense of what and who we are that Enlightenment optimism faces its most serious challenge.

This was the challenge that Isaiah Berlin – the Enlightenment’s candid friend – posed. He expressed it beautifully towards the end of his essay on ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’:

'Man is incapable of self-completion and therefore never wholly predictable; fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonious; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty or freedom but with no guarantee of being able to attain them.'