Day By Day

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Perversion of the Enlightenment

That word..., "enlightenment", I do not think it means what you think it does....

Today, all sorts of people -- from militant secularists to environmental activists -- claim to be the inheritors of the traditions of the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual ferment that culminated in the French Revolution and its aftermath. Tzvetan Todorov disagrees. Instead, he argues, the self-styled "enlightened" thinkers represent a perversion of the basic principles of the Enlightenment.

Prominent among those Todorov denounces are militant secularists who never tire of quoting Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire in their attacks on religion. What they miss is the fact that Voltaire and his cohorts were not attacking the substance of religion, but rather the fusion of religion with the state which they found to be oppressive. Modern secularists, rather than freeing people from intellectual tyranny, are simply substituting secular ideology for religion and, like their Catholic predecessors, are using the power of the state to enforce intellectual dogma.

Tim Black explains:
[T]he current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’, [represents] ‘a distortion of the Enlightenment, its enemy not its avatar’. We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth). In effect, the values by which one ought to live arise, as if by magic, from the existence of facts. In the hands of politicians this becomes authoritarian: ‘Values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deduction.’ There need be no debate, no reasoned argument, because the science tells us what to do.
What is at stake, Todorov argues, is nothing less than the freedom of the individual, which he holds to be the fundamental principle upon which Enlightenment thought was predicated. He's right! Today elite and "expert" opinion increasingly substitutes for reasoned argument and moral discourse. The result is intellectual authoritarianism of the worst sort. Todorov has produced a valuable critique of the drift toward intellectual tyranny. Read Black's review of the work [here], or listen to the man himself talk on the subject:

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