Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Secondary Source for The Concept of Enlightenment

by Aramis Miranda-Reyes

Bronner, Stephen Eric. “Interpreting The Enlightenment: Metaphysics, Tradition and Politics.” Reclaiming The Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. ix-16.

“…historical epochs can generate an ethos, an existential stance toward reality, or what might even be termed a “project” uniting the diverse participants in a broader intellectual trend or movement.” – Peter Gay, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (1954).

From the very first page of Reclaiming the Enlightenment, Stephen Bronner states his purpose clearly and unambiguously – “What follows is an attempt to reclaim the Enlightenment” – he says. But, we might ask, reclaim it from what? Does the Enlightenment need reclaiming? And what in fact does this reclaiming entail? These are the essential questions Bronner attempts to answer in his text. His quest begins first and foremost by yanking the Enlightenment movement and its participants out of the clutches of what he calls “the late brand of critical theory associated with Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno” (x). In fact he goes as far as stating that to view Enlightenment intellectuals as “utopians or totalitarians is philosophically untenable and historically absurd” (x). And though he recognizes the remarkable power of the work and the enduring effect it has had over the past half-century, the truth is it is “neither a work of history, anthropology, sociology, nor politics” (2). Instead it is an interdisciplinary experiment that resulted from “a period marked by previously unimaginable slaughter of two world wars, the emergence of mass culture, bureaucratic states and…the concentration camp universe” (2). In essence, Horkheimer and Adorno’s seminal work was a product of a particular point in history through which its authors expressed their existential crisis.

As such, Bronner argues, if we are to reconnect with the Enlightenment in a context that is apropos of the 21st century, we first have to set aside the pronouncements of those like Horkheimer and Adorno that characterize it as some sort of a disembodied ideology or “a historical epoch grounded in an anthropological understanding of civilization that, from the first, projected the opposite of progress… [in service of] the totally administered society” (3).   Subsequently, we need to understand and acknowledge the invaluable contributions the Enlightenment made to modern political discourse. After all, some of the most important political products and paramount values in the modern world are rooted in the Enlightenment, such as – liberalism, socialism, political liberty, social justice, and cosmopolitanism.   Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are to frame the Enlightenment for what it actually was, a socio-political and intellectual movement set on protesting the status quo and declaring a re- conception of physical and social realities based on new discoveries of the time. As Bronner states “…the philosophes were clear about the basic values underlying their enterprise. They shared a fundamental concern with constricting the exercise of arbitrary institutional power and expanding the realm of individual autonomy” (8). In other words, they were attempting to reform and redress the dogmas of the old feudal order, its prejudices and traditionalism in favor of a more egalitarian approach to government and life.

For that purpose Bronner, much like Enlightenment philosophes did before him, further removes the concept of enlightenment from the language of “pseudo-universalism” he attributes to Horkheimer and Adorno and places it within the vernacular so as to properly allow “the subject under discussion (politics) to define the language in which it is discussed” (5). In other words, he engages the subject of enlightenment in the proper political and linguistic terms so as to situate, identify and clarify the subject (political history) being discussed rather than confusing the issue by “substituting the affirmation of subjectivity, through aesthetic-philosophic criticism” (6). This lack of linguistic engagement with the subject at hand and the inherent separation of politics and philosophy in their critical analysis of the Enlightenment led Horkheimer and Adorno (and other post-modernists of the same ilk) to their two gravest mistakes. First, is their lack of acknowledgement of the simple fact that “different practices and ideals are appropriate to different spheres of activity” and second, they ignored “the institutional preconditions for the free exercise of individual capacities” (6). In simple terms, by refusing to directly engage with the subject of politics by using political terms and political language, Horkheimer and Adorno failed to grasp the essence of the subject and thereby take into account the obstacles existing (conservative and dogmatic) state institutions would form on the way to reforming or “enlightening” western societies at the time. This conception is key to the application of political theory and philosophy at any given time.

Ultimately, Bronner’s reclamation project is as much a reconstitution of the Enlightenment movement, in and away from the generic philosophical musings of Horkheimer and Adorno as well as a concrete recontextualization of its importance to modern political thought. Its ideals, its achievements and its failures on the whole still provide the template from which modern Western democratic thought still functions. In a nutshell, reclaiming the Enlightenment must be accomplished based on the political and social realities of the time, the movement’s ideals and what it essentially tried to achieve. Two of the best examples of Enlightenment’s goals are: “Attack upon received traditions, popular prejudices, and religious superstitions” (2) and decensoring of “…intellectuals who debated first principles in public, who introduced freelance writing, who employed satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma, and who were preoccupied with reaching a general audience of educated readers…(5)” There is no question that such aspirations are still very much relevant today.

Discussion Questions for The Concept of Enlightenment

by Aramis Miranda-Reyes

  1. It is clear that at its core, The Concept of Enlightenment (1947) by Horkheimer and Adorno is a complete and utter rejection of the course and the aims of modern society as heralded by Francis Bacon in The Novum Organum. In their view, the aims of the Enlightenment have given birth to a status quo which is rooted in an ideology of alienation and domination and is thus “radiant with triumphant calamity” (1). Given their assertions and extreme characterizations, is it possible to find today some value in the Enlightenment as an intellectual or as a socio-political movement? Is it a concept at all worth reclaiming? If so, what positive aspects can we recognize? What is their dynamic in 21st century society?
  2. Enlightenment as we understand it today refers to an intellectual movement in which various figures of the 17th and 18th centuries sought to topple the existing hegemony of medieval law and church doctrine in favor of secular authority and new approaches to living based on scientific discoveries of the time. One of those figures was Francis Bacon whose Novum Organum Horkheimer and Adorno posit as the herald text of Enlightenment ideology. As a movement, it is understood that Enlightenment is in no way uniform or unified – or so modern social theory tells us. No one figure in the movement ever defines others completely. And yet The Concept of Enlightenment provides little or no mention of any additional Enlightenment writers, thinkers or philosophers to support their assertions regarding said movement. Where is Locke? Rousseau? Adam Smith? Doesn’t this lack of representation send an erroneous message that society has moved exactly in the direction Francis Bacon laid out in the Novum Organum, as if it were a script? Is such a conception of human culture realistic? Does this not stain Horkheimer and Adorno’s logos with the very dynamic they are attempting to deconstruct? e.g. “Whatever might be different is made the same. That is the verdict which critically sets the boundaries to possible experience” (8).
  3. Horkheimer and Adorno postulate that while the Enlightenment’s main goal was to eliminate the burden of ancient mythologies’ from modern societies, Enlightenment itself was a replacement mythology which operated in just as totalitarian a manner. They also state that ancient mythologies had inherent limitations which the Enlightenment “mythology” seemed to lack: “The magician [man] imitates demons; to frighten or placate them he makes intimidating or appeasing gestures. Although his task was impersonation he did not claim to be made in the image of the invisible power, as does civilized man, whose modest hunting ground then shrinks to the unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey” (6). In essence, primitive man in the role of magician imitated the powerful entities of the forest to protect himself from evil but never actually believed himself to have their power or authority over the universe so as to treat it as his own playground. What correlation, if any, can be made between this critique of Enlightenment ontological positioning and Utopian discourse? Are all creators of Utopias ultimately complicit in this dynamic of power hungry predators bent on world domination? Or is there perhaps a different way of considering this ontology?
  4. One of the more interesting points of critique Horkheimer and Adorno make relates directly to the utopian writer as creator of imagined societies. They state – “For positivism, which has assumed the judicial office of enlightened reason, to speculate about intelligible worlds is no longer merely forbidden but senseless prattle…For the scientific temper, any deviation of thought from the business of manipulating the actual, any stepping outside the jurisdiction of existence, is no less senseless and self-destructive than it would be for the magician to step outside the magic circle drawn for his incantation; and in both cases violation of the taboo carries a heavy price for the offender” (19). If systematic thinking has indeed limited artistic and creative possibilities to the degree they claim, what evidence of such constraints, in terms of affect or effect, have we, as students of Enlightenment Utopias, found in our readings?
  5. In Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Professor John Abromeit states that Horkheimer, and later Adorno, “insist that nature and history are in and of themselves meaningless, and can be given meaning only through conscious human interaction. Any attempt to claim otherwise would be tantamount to post facto justification of past and present suffering. Although [neither] mentions Voltaire explicitly in this context, his merciless parody in Candide of Leibniz’s praise of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds, is a fitting example of [their] argument.” (Abromeit, 230). In view of this philosophy, which we clearly see brought to its logical conclusion in The Concept of Enlightenment, and the evident connection to Voltaire, I think it is worth engaging with the ongoing interpretation of the famous final line of Candide – “…we must cultivate our garden“. What can we speculate given this context?

The Political and Existentialist Dimensions of Utopian Discourse during the Enlightenment

by Aramis Miranda-Reyes

From the beginning of our course there have been three particular aspects of Utopian discourse at play in our readings which have fascinated me. First there is the political, second is the existentialist as it relates to the metaphysical and finally, there is the philosophical as it relates to the historical. The interplay between these expansive sections of Enlightenment “human sciences” as Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to them in his seminal work Truth and Method, are I believe the foundation of a type of literary discourse which not only satirized and criticized but also analyzed, prescribed and historicized in ways that are unique to this period in history.  My proposed examination of this interplay of “human sciences” will flow along the following lines: Political reality leading to author perception, conversation and understanding in the existentialist sense which then leads to authorship in the literary sense.  In essence, and just as Maurice Merlau-Ponty describes in The Primacy of Perception, Enlightenment authors like Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Voltaire (Candide) used social and economic realities influencing them to perceive and express their intentions in the world based on the humoral infrastructure (as secret affective moments) of their individual selves.  Consequently Enlightenment Utopian literature, as we will see specifically expressed by the aforementioned authors, can be seen and understood as a dialogue or conversation between the external (socio-political) and the internal (deeply personal) of human existence.

The examination of this “alternative cognitive comportment” during the Enlightenment as Lawrence E. Klein refers to it in his book What’s Left of Enlightenment? – A Postmodern Question, will be firmly rooted in the theoretical works of Gadamer (Truth and Method, Reason in the Age of Science), Merlau-Ponty (The Primacy of Perception), Sullivan (Political Hermeneutics), John Locke (The Two Treatises of Government), Hobbes (Leviathan), and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s Sensus Communis (1709).  Sensus Communis in particular is a central concept which deeply affects the writings of all these theorists and authors thereby expanding their frame of reference beyond the more typical scientific and oppressive concerns which are consistently attributed to the Enlightenment.  In many ways it is the tie that binds their philosophical conceptions and informs the literature of Swift and Voltaire to a great extent.  But what specifically is sensus comunis?  For his definition, Gadamer relies on the 1708 oration of Humanist Gianbattista Vico titled “De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione”, in which he states “what gives the human will its direction is not the abstract universality of reason but the concrete universality represented by the community of a group, a people, a nation, or the whole human race. Hence developing this communal sense is of decisive importance for living.” In simple terms, Intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity in its most generic sense is defined by British Sociologist Professor Clive Seale as the “shared meanings constructed by people in their interactions with each other and used as an everyday resource to interpret the meaning of elements of social and cultural life. If people share common sense, then they share a definition of the situation.”

Hence, from this informed perspective, we will examine certain scenes and aspects of Gulliver’s Travels (ex. encounters with the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms) and Candide (ex. Chapter XXVIII where Candide talks with Pangloss ) to come up with an expression of the Enlightenment as conversation which reveals the intellectual landscape of the time in terms of human nature. Other invaluable sources identified so far relating to this topic are: Enlightenment Contested by Jonathan I. Israel, Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson by Daniel Carey and Reclaiming the Enlightenment by Stephen Eric Bronner.

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