The disaster of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was and still is a disaster because it irrationally privileges logic and analysis over other faculties of the human mind.  The imagination is allowed to wither and into the vacuum all kinds of nasty things surge and rush.  The first attempt to impose a rational order onto society was the French revolution.  The old wiggly boundaries between the départements in France were replaced by squares as they still are, the seven days of the week were replaced by a more rationally decimal ten, churches were replaced with temples of the Supreme Being.  The Terror was unleashed with astonishing speed.   Attempts to replace the old customary unfair ways in Russia, so praiseworthy in themselves, gave us Stalin.


Wittgenstein tells us that all attempts to find truth are necessarily partial because we all think and speak within limited language games. But because our language game is ours we are prone to think it the only one of significance.  Worst of all, he thought, was the language game he himself had previously inhabited, that of logical analysis to the exclusion of all else, for its prisoners not only think they are right but couldn’t possibly be wrong because their thoughts are so logical. In Descartes’ Error the neurologist Antonio Damasio tells us that reason cannot be separated from emotion because the same neurological processes underly both, and it is for that reason that attempts to separate them in the name of pure reason are themselves markedly irrational.


Perhaps it is no surprise then that our own society which has largely abandoned religion and supposedly puts its faith in the supposed certainties of science, has itself become so irrational.  The facts of science are certain but the meanings that even the greatest scientists impose onto their own great discoveries, for we are all metaphor making creatures, are not.  The history of science tells us that in every age people have taken the meanings to be as certain as the facts, and always the discoveries of later ages have shown them to have been wrong.  Who believes in the celestially harmonious universe or the Newtonian mechanical order now?  There is no reason to think that the myths that accompany the discovered facts of our own age, particularly in biology, will prove any less misleading.


Meanwhile fake news and conspiracy theories are rife.  Social media has many twitter ghettoes within which people re-assure each other of prejudices and fantasies of the most bizarre kind. Astute politicians have not been slow to realise that you can get people to believe almost anything provided you shout long and hard enough.  What is truth? said Pilate.  The question has never been more pertinent.  Are we really more enlightened than the peasants in Tolstoy who believed that the crops grew because the north wind blew, or the mechanicals of Midsummer Night’s Dream who thought that forests were inhabited by fairies?  Or perhaps even less?


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