Benighted in the Enlightenment

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Taking recent celebration of the Enlightenment as a cue, Yoram Hazony lays out some of the flaws and consequences from an overly zealous promotion of reason as a guide and source of meaning:

For Kant, reason is universal, infallible and a priori—meaning independent of experience. As far as reason is concerned, there is one eternally valid, unassailably correct answer to every question in science, morality and politics. Man is rational only to the extent that he recognizes this and spends his time trying to arrive at that one correct answer.

This astonishing arrogance is based on a powerful idea: that mathematics can produce universal truths by beginning with self-evident premises—or, as Rene Descartes had put it, “clear and distinct ideas”—and then proceeding by means of infallible deductions to what Kant called “apodictic certainty.” Since this method worked in mathematics, Descartes had insisted, it could be applied to all other disciplines. The idea was subsequently taken up and refined by Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as Kant.

In the popular imagination, the Enlightenment was a sort of stage in intellectual evolution.  To the contrary, Hazony suggests that the driving theories of the Enlightenment weren’t so much unknown prior to that era, but repeatedly rejected because of the obvious dangers.  The breakdown of the family, the lonely solipsism of the modern age, the devastation of secular ideologies over the past couple centuries — these and more grew out of the essentially mystical notion that individuals could tap into some fount of reason.  Gone is the wisdom of the ages and any cultural mechanism for learning and remembering truths that the average Joe or Jane would not bother or be able to conceive after some time with hand on chin.

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The “aim” of Enlightenment figures “was to create their own system of universal, certain truths, and in that pursuit they were as rigid as the most dogmatic medievals.”  Like other areas from which human beings strive to derive meaning — such as government and capitalism — reason is really just a tool.  Meaning must come from elsewhere… and will, for better or worse.



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