California Literary Review

The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Cultureby Louis Dupre

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June 10th, 2007 at 4:09 pm

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The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture
by Louis Dupre
Yale University Press, 397 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

Light of Reason or Heart of Darkness?

The seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical movement that came to be known as the Enlightenment was once the crown jewel of the western intellectual heritage. It promised lives based on order and reason. It seemed to offer the promise of human perfectibility. Such claims, however, have for some time not gone unchallenged. In the middle of the last century, especially during the cold war, the Enlightenment came to be viewed as the precursor of vast and bloody attempts to re-order social and political life. It was scorned as the intellectual underpinning for cruel, fumbling, self-assured idiocies such as fascism and communism. Now, with the growth of postmodernist thought, the Enlightenment is seen as the source of the depredations visited upon the world by evil westerners—the iron cages of materialism, racism, imperialism, economic rapacity, and the subjugation of minorities.

There is much that must be surrendered to these points of view. There can be no doubt that the more vociferous of Enlightenment philosophers often overstated the value of reason, consequently undervaluing other important human capacities and modes of experience. Just as seriously, one must acknowledge that various forms of Enlightenment rationalism and rationalization (its evil twin) have served as props for illegitimate power and deeds so shameful they make one blush for being human. The problem becomes, then, where do we draw the line? What can reason accomplish? Must we jettison the entire project, abandoning our faith in our rational capacities and our dream of progress toward a world that would be freer, more egalitarian, and more spiritually and materially prosperous? What can be saved? Surely, coming to terms with the glories and failures of Enlightenment thought might bring us to greater self-consciousness, both as individuals and as a species, and could possibly sober us when we tend toward hubris and encourage us when we are apt to sink into timidity.

With so much hanging in the balance, reassessment is always in order, and interested readers can only welcome such a sturdy and thoroughgoing contribution as Louis Dupre’s The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. Within the confines of a single volume, Mr. Dupre takes up a wide range of issues related to the value of the Enlightenment, surveying the works of scores of thinkers who revolutionized western thought from the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth. Although this sort of approach usually forces an author into easy and glib generalization, Mr. Dupre has refused to fall victim. His single volume is carefully and warmly argued, and it is based on vigorous research. This survey is not only a valuable contribution to the literature of the Enlightenment. It is also a bracing, extended essay on how, for better or worse, our mental horizons continue to be set by boundaries established in airy, philosophical discussions and polemics that now lie more than two centuries from us. For Mr. Dupre, there is no escaping the Enlightenment. As moderns, we are its creatures.

In Dupre’s judgment, a sea change occurred in western thought around the middle of the seventeenth century, that is, around the time of Descartes and the spread of cartesianism. Previously, the ancient Greeks and the premoderns had believed reason to be embedded in the natural order of things. These earlier thinkers had believed that discovering the reason that lay beneath the surface of reality was an essential expression of our human nature. Enlightenment philosophers, according to Dupre, fatefully departed from this course, making the human mind solely constitutive of meaning and the sole source of reason. Cartesian duality placed reality at a discount. It existed merely to answer our questions and submit to our manipulations. Whatever did not conform to human rational constructions could be ignored or swept away. In its most extreme manifestations, man’s material environment, indigenous peoples, socialists, kulaks, Jews, the bourgeoisie–anything or anyone that might slow the holy trajectory of history and progress–could be either exploited or expunged, with nary a twinge of conscience.

Dupre believes that this all resulted from unwarranted intellectual confidence. Drunk with possibility, many Enlightenment thinkers, as well as their heirs, simply lacked the humility that would have helped them recognize how tied their ideas were to time and place. They were too naïve to acknowledge that the particular historical conditions that give rise to an idea rob it of its universal applicability. Kant, for example, yearned for universal truths because there was no universal truth in pre-Bismarckian Germany. The region that later became the nation of Germany was sunk in particularity. Indeed, it was a welter of petty principalities and divergent customs, and Kant’s ceaseless pining for universal truth can now be seen as a historically conditioned overreaction to his time and place. The career of Karl Marx, a child of the Enlightenment and the holder of a PhD in philosophy, is similarly instructive. Marx’s work was conditioned by his experiences in industrialized western Europe, and his insights were, for the most part, particular to his time and place. His claims for the universality of his doctrine and his insistence that it would bring about a new millennium of freedom and social justice later crashed against the social and political realities of Russia, China, and Cuba. Those nations did not conform to his hopeful, universal schemes, they became prison camps.

Mr. Dupre relates how the intellectual overconfidence of Enlightenment polemicists also sprang from the prestige gained by science among those who prized rationality so highly. In an increasingly secular world, Newton and Franklin were very nearly worshipped as gods. The quest for the unification of the sciences was a quasi-religious quest for certainty. Science reigned supreme. That is why Darwinist capitalism, socialist fantasy, and fascist racial doctrine, so divergent in their premises and goals, all claimed to be based on scientific, therefore unchallengeable, world-views. Opposition to these thundering locomotives of history was seen as backward, ignorant, unscientific obstructionism. Of course, all of these grandiose ideological claims were entirely bogus for they were scientistic, not scientific. They were merely decked out in the trappings of science. Dupre chillingly quotes Karl Mannheim with: “Nothing is more removed from actual events than the closed rational system. Under certain circumstances, nothing contains more irrational drive than a fully self-contained, intellectualistic world-view.”

All of his criticisms aside, however, Mr. Dupre is chiefly a defender of the Enlightenment tradition. He believes, for example, that Enlightenment values seeped into religious discourse resulting in outlooks that were still fundamentally religious, but more ecumenical and tolerant. He also maintains that enlightenment political doctrines were essentially emancipatory and, in their less doctrinaire forms, still serve as the theoretical foundations for modern democratic projects. Even more crucially, Mr. Dupre puts forth the clever argument that critics of the Enlightenment operate within the Enlightenment world-view, attack it with its own tools, and still pay allegiance to the same ideals. Even when we attack it, we show our stripes as followers of what Peter Gay has referred to as the “party of humanity.”

Dupre’s defenses are based, in large part, on the notion that the Romantic corrective to the Enlightenment, from Rousseau and Herder forward, was an example of the Enlightenment’s capacity for self-correction, an extension of the original project. Even if not entirely wrongheaded, this viewpoint is controversial and readily assailable. Thinkers from Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke through Vilfedo Pareto and Michael Oakeshott have viewed Enlightenment rationalist political doctrines as morally repugnant and crippled by an infantile optimism. There really was a highly self-conscious Romantic counter-Enlightenment that sought to promote countervailing values. Many Romantics, from Southey and Coleridge through Ernst Juenger and D. H. Lawrence promoted the primacy of intuition and emotion at the expense of reason, as well as obedience to traditional forms of authority at the expense of the moral autonomy of the individual. Mr. Dupre’s thesis is provocative, but the Enlightenment, in all its doctrinaire glory, would lose its identity under his latitudinarian definition.
Despite its flaws, The Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture is a hard-headed attempt to assay the very foundation of modern western intellectual history and our relationship to it. One of its chief merits is that it offers us the curious example of a work whose weaknesses are as instructive as its strengths. The questions raised by Mr. Dupre, though not definitively answered, still ring with significance for every person. Reason is at stake. Human possibility is at stake. What greater drama?

  • Don L. Smithers

    An excellent, succinct and trenchant critique of a penetrating analysis of an era that is very much with us.

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