Ours is an Age of Destruction. The myriad crises that we face today --from global warming to global warring-- are a brutal but eloquent testimony to this destruction. How are we to make sense of these forces of destruction and combat the nihilism, the intellectual apathy, and lack of creativity that drive them?
The trend in the humanities over the last several decades has been to identify these forces of destruction with the Enlightenment. Enlightenment Reason, we are told, is not universal but Euro-centric; it is not a liberating force, but a dehumanizing, humiliating, and dominant force that is intimately tied up with colonialism, imperialism, and even fascism. This post-modern critique of the Enlightenment points to internal flaws in Enlightenment thought, to its underlying contradictions and weaknesses. Post-modern critics have reduced the Enlightenment --which was a transformative movement that helped modernize science, technology, politics, economics, and society-- to nothing more than a so-called “grand narrative” or “discourse” by means of which Enlightenment thinkers sought, not to liberate themselves and others from tyranny, ignorance, and superstition, but to place humanity under the tutelage of instrumental reason.
Although such post-modern critiques of Enlightenment point correctly to dogmatic features in Enlightenment thought, their caricature of this intellectual and political movement as strictly rationalist and the call that they make for a radical break with the universal moral and political values of Enlightenment, ignores the extent to which Enlightenment thought has failed to live up to its promise in large part because it has always and everywhere been opposed by very powerful enemies. Think, for example, of the absolutist Spanish monarchy and of the Inquisition; or, if you prefer, of the Salem witch hunts, or for that matter, of aspiring politicians who claim that evolution is but a theory and that global warming is but a delusion.
The Enlightenment, for all its internal contradictions and historical failures, still provides a needed model for projects of cultural theory and social reconstruction in the Americas and the world. Indeed, what post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment express, first and foremost, is the enlightened hope for a way to re-conceptualize progressive thought and practice. But because post-modernists throw the Enlightenment’s baby of universal human values out with the proverbial bath water of modernity, the would-be progressive programs of thought and practice that they espouse are mired in the skeptical relativism and historical nihilism that characterize post-modern perspectivism.
What is needed to ward off this nihilism is an alternative view of the Enlightenment and the ambiguity of its legacy in our own age of destruction. At its conception, the Enlightenment, with its new science based on inductive reasoning, promised to liberate men from superstition and ignorance and reveal to them the mysterious laws that govern nature. Today, it is fair to say, the Enlightenment has failed to deliver on this liberating promise. But this is because the Reason that was to set men free and help them understand nature has been reduced to its instrumental dimension: the scientific search for truth is no longer an end in and of itself, but a means to an end. And what is that end? Nothing short of the domination of nature by man and the creation of an all-too-human world that lords its technological power over the organic forces of nature. The Enlightenment also promised to set men free politically. When the colonists in New England fought against the tyranny of the English monarch, they justified their revolution for independence by appealing to Enlightenment ideals of democratic sovereignty and self-rule. Today, many peoples around the world see the US as a bully and a tyrant. Indeed, it would seem that as a people we Americans have regressed from our progressive political virtues of democratic self-government back toward more primitive forms of authoritarian rule. In the name of freedom, we now torture our enemies or assassinate them with unmanned drones, while at home our age-old right to habeas corpus has been suspended by the bureaucrats in the world’s single largest bureaucracy: the Department of Homeland Security.
The technological elimination of Enlightenment’s liberating power and the accompanying regression toward primitive forms of political power are the two most salient features of our age of destruction. Humanists would do well to keep this in mind when they venture their post-modern theories on modernity and its discontents.