Friday, May 19, 2017

Why I am not a fan of “the radical Enlightenment”

Invocations of Enlightenment, Reason, and Universalism too often substitute the name for the thing. Trumpeting Reason is too often a substitute for offering reasoned arguments.

Take, for instance, the recent claim by Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim that “core Enlightenment principles” are “the original basis for modern political emancipation,” and that the contemporary Left should “ground” its politics in these principles once again.

According to Fluss and Frim, the “Enlightenment worldview” comprises five essential principles: rationalism, materialism, humanism, hedonism, and perfectionism. I am immediately suspicious. Materialism and humanism are not obviously harmonious, insofar as humanism so often relies upon an implicit spiritualism. Why wouldn’t a rigorous materialism undermine any strict species distinction between humans and non-human animals, for instance? (On this, see the work of Hasana  Sharp.) Perfectionism is just as awkward a fit. Most versions of perfectionism rely upon a teleological conception of human nature that runs afoul of both materialism about causality and rationalism about the order of nature.

Are these doubts just a consequence of the rough-and-ready form of a popular presentation? Maybe this “Enlightenment worldview” just needs to be more fully fleshed out.

Perhaps, but I also have concerns rooted in what Fluss and Frim actually say about the implications of these principles. They claim, for instance, that “the overriding principle of rationalism implies that people ought to have conscious control over the greater part of their lives, the perfection of their talents, the ways they contribute to society, and how they cooperate with others.”

No, it doesn’t. Rationalism is, according to Fluss and Frim, the thesis “that the universe is essentially knowable and that all limits to knowledge are merely provisional.” The knowability of the universe does not imply that people ought to have conscious control over their lives. The universe remains knowable whether or not its is actually known, and whether or not that knowledge gives any individuals actual control over their lives. The rational explicability of all phenomena does not even secure the possibility of conscious control. Knowledge may just as well reveal the limits of our power as extend that power.

Fluss and Frim also claim that “Since all people are conditioned by common, natural laws, then there can be no stark separation between different peoples, sexes, races, etc.” As mentioned above, this claim can just as easily undermine the stark separation between different species, and so does not guarantee humanism. But if it proves too much, it also proves too little, since the common conditioning of all human beings by natural laws does not in any way entail a set of common interests. We can affirm that all human beings are equally human and then turn around and wage war on other human beings over scarce resources or ideological disagreements. That “diverse needs, desires, and conditions of flourishing are ultimately translatable across all parochial boundaries” does not mean that our needs, desires, and conditions of flourishing are compatible. I can understand you and still want to kill you.

As Fluss and Frim would have it, “it is only a movement steeped in Radical Enlightenment principles that will develop ever more coherent political demands.” I don’t think this is right, and I think my arguments above show why. Adherence to abstract principles does not produce political demands. Politics is not derived from principles. Principles are not foundational, but guiding. If you are committed to rationalism, then you should keep that commitment in mind as you make your arguments, not try to make your arguments follow from your rationalism.

My inclination is to say that the Left needs more and better arguments, not more rationalism. It needs more and better explanations, not more materialism. It needs more and better organizational and institutional ties, not more humanism.