For a new Enlightenment
Much of the horror of the present moment lies in its relentless assault on what little social and cultural progress we have made in the last 250 years. The renewed valorization of fundamentalism, the rapid proliferation and unashamed advocacy of torture, the strengthening of patriarchy, the resurrected specter of fascism and the assault on science, rationality, and even the reality-based approach to the world all hark back to the terrors of the medieval world.
The Enlightenment has long been in disrepute because of its supposed excessive focus on instrumental rationality, and it has been criticized on the left "as imperialist in its intent and a form of domination that privileges the white, male, bourgeois scientific, capitalist and imperialist worldview associated with the West." More recently, the misappropriation of its heritage as the foundation for a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West or as justification for bloody "humanitarian interventionism" by opportunitstic imperialists such as Samuel Huntington and Christopher Hitchens has poisoned its vocabulary.
In this context, Stephen Eric Bronner has written a very interesting and thought provoking article Enlightenment Revival for the latest issue of Axess. He argues that a renewed commitment to enlightenment and a reappropriation of its history is a necessary starting point for fighting our way out of the current cultural and political slaughterhouse.
As terror and war stalk our world in the aftermath of 9/11, as human rights are so often employed as an excuse for the exercise of arbitrary power, and ever more varieties of intolerant fundamentalism contest the hope for an open society, it has become ever more important for progressive activists and thinkers to understand their philosophical and political roots. Ideas long associated with reactionary movements the privileging of experience over reason, national or ethnic identity over internationalism and cosmopolitanism, the community over the individual, custom over innovation, myth over science have become pervasive on the left. Its partisans have thus become increasingly unclear about the tradition into which they fit and the purposes their politics should serve. This collapse of intellectual coherence reflects the collapse of a purposeful politics. That is why reclaiming the Enlightenment has become a matter of such importance...The whole issue of Axess in which this article appears is devoted to a discussion of Enlightenment and its discontents, including Godless States by Meera Nanda, comparing the dilemmas of secularism in India and America.
Understanding the current clash between secularism and religious fundamentalism in the present, no less than the most profound political conflicts of the past, calls for recognizing that the counter-Enlightenment was not some dialectical response to the success of the Enlightenment but an immediate response, born of fear and loathing, against everything associated with its spirit...the political spirit of the Enlightenment crystallised around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform...
Illuminating the spirit of the Enlightenment, the best that it had to offer, is the point at which a new critical theory begins. But this involves less a philosophical than a political, social, and economic commitment to challenge the arbitrary exercise of power. Especially when the salience of the Enlightenment can no longer be taken for granted, when its values have come under attack from both the right and the left, more is necessary than analysing a few thinkers or some abstract philosophical propositions, let alone embracing a clash of civilisations. For any new understanding of critical theory, indeed, it is now a matter of presenting the Enlightenment as an overarching political enterprise and a living tradition not merely in its ideas but in the actions it inspires.
Earlier: The Idea of Progress