Sunday, March 01, 2015

Gitlin: "Why ‘The Enlightenment Project’ Is Necessary and Unending"

The whole thing is worth a careful read. A taste:
Subsequent philosophers and historians have made plain that the Enlightenment was not, and is not, a monolith. It was not even a proposition. Rather, it was a force-field of often conflicting arguments (Peter Gay), and it came in two main flavors, “moderate” and “radical” (Jonathan Israel). But what these variants of Enlightenment share is a commitment to reason—not as a cure-all or a final curriculum but as a means to know the world and, in the process, increase human well-being. This is not to say that a religious person is intrinsically unenlightened. It is to say that religious belief is not the way to ascertain, for example, the paths of the planets or the value of measles shots. It is also to say, whatever climate-change-denying cranks and perpetual-motion machine designers may think, that science does not produce graven tablets for eternal truths. It rightly revises ideas previously held firmly, even by scientists themselves. It’s not an end-point; it’s a journey.

... None of the attempts to build Enlightenment into the political world were without grave flaws. The American Constitution accepted the abomination of slavery, while the French abolished it on their territory, as did the Haitians, whose Constitution of 1801 fell rather far short of democracy by installing Toussaint Louverture as governor general for Life. So it goes in the Age of Enlightenment. ...
I think George Washington, who I see as a man of the moderate Enlightenment, had some of these folks in mind when he referred to "minds of peculiar structure" who didn't need conventional religion in order to behave morally. But some of those minds were really freakin' "peculiar." 
It is also true that Newton was a devout Christian who found secret messages hidden in the Bible and that the great mathematician Kurt Gödel was obsessed with the fear that he would be poisoned if he ate any food not cooked by his wife—so much so that, when she was hospitalized, he starved himself to death.

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