Sunday, December 15, 2013

How the Enlightenment turned out the lights on learning.

I think that the Enlightenment, at least in the U.S., has, far from helping us, in fact hindered us in many ways. Now, the Enlightenment itself, taken on the whole, isn't the problem. Instead, it's a particular subset of it that has gotten the upper hand in society. And this isn't necessarily the radical enlightenment either. No, it's the orientation in the "Battle of the Books", as Jonathan Swift called it, towards jettisoning the past and all of the previous accumulations of learning for a quick fix explanation of humanity and human society.

What the Enlightenment has unfortunately bequeathed to us is the idea that if you have a formalistic understanding of human nature and human society, say as being made of atomic individuals who behave in ways that their biology tells them, you don't need to put much effort into thinking about the meaning of it all. Updated to the present, we have science, biology, psychology, and a notion of individuals as being autonomous to one degree or another, and all of that presents a scaffolding for the interpretation of life that allows people to shut off their critical thinking skills and go on auto pilot.

Jonathan Swift's battle of the books, between classics and moderns, was between people who were part of the Enlightenment who believed that in order to understand society and humanity in general, you had to draw on lots of sources from the past and carefully develop a perspective and understanding, and those who thought that you could just read a few books of modern philosophy that explained it all and not have to think about it further. Swift, being a partisan for the classic, derided the moderns as being immature adolescents who were glomming onto the next best thing.

We might not have that same zeitgeist of explanation these days, but the consequences of it are there: instead of considering society or questions about humanity ourselves, we let science take care of it, or socio-biology, and wait for the latest bit of news about a study about our supposed behavior as shaped by evolution to explain life for us. And besides, what matters is the market, right? Someone else can think about those things because they don't get you very far in life.

We just assume we know what's out there, and that assumption of certainty leads to laziness and consequent superficiality, as we disengage from thinking about the world and look to whatever transitory things are in front of us. And the state of society follows, at least in the United States, where we get on a path to reducing society to the least common denominator, culturally speaking.

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