Today we bring you a special feature by James Cowles, our resident skeptic. You may or may not agree, but you will be forced to think. / J.D.
To a few of you, the following sentence will be like saying “Elvis has left the building”, i.e., old news. But to many others, it will be very much in the vein of “Main bites dog,” i.e., novel to the point of being revolutionary. Anyway, here goes … the European Enlightenment is now officially over. “Over” as in “dead as last week’s oatmeal” or “as passé as disco fever and bell-bottom pants” or “As useless as invitations to Hillary Clinton’s inaugural ball”. (Yeah, I know … too soon … sorry … apologies!) Probably many fewer of you are aware of the likely – not strictly certain, but this is the way to bet – replacement ideology: (some form of) postmodernism. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the operative word in the third sentence (beginning “Anyway, here goes … “) above is officially. In academe, of course, places like Ivy League English and philosophy and the Frankfurt School, the European Enlightenment has been over for some time, supplanted by some species of postmodernism. Rather, what makes the end of the Enlightenment “officially official” is that, for the first time, it has actually determined the outcome of the election, at the level of retail popular politics, of senior executives in the very nations that originated and sustained the Enlightenment, and whose political and constitutional systems would be unimaginable without it. You know … nations like the United States. We (meaning “all such nations”) are now not only post-industrial and post-Christian, both of which have been true for some time, but now, in addition, we are increasingly post-modern, even in terms of our “retail politics”. In the following, I will argue that, insofar as it is possible to talk about the “principles of post-modernism,” these principles undergird and underwrite that might accurately be described as a “para-fascist” ideology deeply inimical to the corresponding principles of the European Enlightenment.
In many ways, making sense of post-modernism is like trying to make sense of an M. C. Escher drawing, most of which are “post-perspectival”. So the following will of necessity be only a superficial, hasty thumbnail sketch of three of the more important parameters that distinguish (what I believe to be) the coming post-Enlightenment / post-modern culture, because the following three were especially crucial to the election of Donald Trump as the Nation’s first post-Enlightenment / post-modern President. These factors also bid fair to be important elements in the burgeoning nationalist movements in Europe led by people like Nigel Farage in the UK, Marine LePen in France, and Viktor Orban in Hungary (whose rhetoric on the necessity of “ethnic homogeneity” eerily echoes similar sentiments by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf). In future columns, I will describe the historical and ideological roots in more detail. But for now …
o The Enlightenment conception of fact as a datum supported and confirmed, usually by multiple independent observers, by actual empirical evidence vs. the post-modern conception “fact” (in quotes) as an expression of what a community needs to be true in order to function
As an example of the latter, there is no evidence whatsoever that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey stood and cheered upon receiving news of the World Trade Center collapsing, nor is there any evidence that Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the Kennedy assassination. Facts – as in “quantifiable data corroborated by empirically derived statistics” – indicate that, contrary to Trump’s assertion, the United States as a whole — local exceptions like Chicago notwithstanding — is experiencing an almost unprecedented period of law-compliance, not lawlessness. Despite being corroborated by no fewer than sixteen agencies in the US intelligence community, Trump persists in manufacturing his own “fact” that Russia was not involved in the “cyber-jimmying” of his recent election to the Presidency. Nor is there any indication – based on actual facts, in the “pre-post-modernist” / Enlightenment sense – that immigrants to the US are exceptionally crime prone, and some evidence indicating the opposite.
What runs as a common thread through all these allegations is that all such assertions involve, basically, articles of faith that Trump supporters, as a community, need to affirm in order to be a community. To be a Trump supporter is to be a member of what is, in all essentials, a fundamentalist religious cult. Given the sheer absence of evidence, affirming that thousands of Muslims cheered the fall of the Twin Towers is in no way essentially different from an observant Roman Catholic affirming that, with a duly ordained priest’s Words of Institution, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Both are about equally contrary to empirical experience, are therefore matters of pure faith, yet both are required – “required” as in absolutely sine qua non — for membership in the community. Ditto the Virgin Birth. Ditto the Resurrection. Ditto three million fraudulent votes. Ditto 47% unemployment. Religious sects have actually been practicing most of the principles of post-modernism for several centuries, at least 500 years in the case of Christianity. (More about this in the future, too.) Mass politics in established classical democracies is just now belatedly getting the hang of it.
Furthermore, analogous remarks would apply to all authoritarian political and ideological personality cults centered on, e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, with religious equivalents ranging from the Shabbetai Tzvi in the 17th century to Joseph Smith in the 19th to Aum Shinrikyo in the 20th. (The breathtaking devotion of followers of Chairman Mao to Mao’s Thoughts – the little red book everyone carried during the Cultural Revolution – is in no essential way different from the corresponding devotion of fundamentalist Christians for the text of the [usually King James] Bible.) All require a radical sacrifice of the critical faculty and its replacement with the ostensibly a priori true ideology of the group, as defined by its leader. The differences are so trivial as to be beside the point – and all are the diametric opposite of the valorization of the critical intellect characteristic of the Enlightenment. We may reasonably expect the senior leadership of the Trump organization to declare The Art of the Deal literal holy writ.
o The post-modern conception of morality as an “infinitely fungible” and indefinitely negotiable parameter of a community vs. the Enlightenment conception of human beings as embodying a certain ontology – call it “human nature” — respect for the integrity of which is encoded in universally applicable moral principles
I mean fungible in the sense of “one is just as good as another, depending on the end-in-view, hence interchangeable”. For example, I have owned several houses and pieces of real estate in my life, and while I liked all of them for various reasons, all were “fungible” in the sense of being equally subject to sale or exchange, given the exigencies of the moment. My wife and I liked our house in Wichita, KS, but when we decided to move to Boston so I could go to graduate school, we sold it because the house was less important than the end-in-view (going to grad school). The house / real estate was fungible as a token of exchange.
Trump’s sexual and commercial escapades have conclusively proven just how similarly fungible conservative Christian, especially evangelical, moral codes are. No doubt under many circumstances, self-proclaimed arbiters of public morals like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., would condemn men who grabbed women by their genitals and defrauded middle-aged people out of their savings. But when the end-in-view is renewed access to the Oval Office, their version of Christian morality proved eminently fungible, and they were eager to trade in their morality for political leverage. Evangelical morality turned out to be just a rather more genteel form of harlotry. The only difference turned out to be that evangelical-Christian bordellos displayed a Cross out front.
Again, as with virtually all things post-modern, as it was with facts, so it is with morality: the needs of the community are paramount, even in terms of right and wrong. The ultimate criterion, with any moral principle, is the principle’s utility for defining and sustaining the community. I find this especially troubling. If the needs of the community – what the community perceives that it needs in order to be a community – is the supreme defining parameter of permissible vs. impermissible conduct, then, if a given Muslim community decides that, in order to be a community, it must practice, say, female genital mutilation or allow husbands to beat their wives (neither of which is a teaching of qur’anic Islam as I understand it) … well … pubescent girls will be mutilated and wives will be beaten.
By contrast, and as James Madison argued in characterizing the Constitution as a guarantee of the rights of the minority, the Enlightenment idea was that even the needs of the community must often be held as secondary to certain human rights at the individual level. So the community’s felt need for segregated schools vs. “equal protection” of the law, the community’s revulsion at certain religious beliefs vs. the individual’s right of “free exercise”, the community’s disagreement with certain unpopular opinions vs. an individual’s right to free speech, etc., etc., etc. (Mr. Spock’s Star Trek maxim that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is pristinely, quintessentially post-modern. That distant rumbling sound you hear is James Madison turning over in his grave!) The post-modernist “needs of the community” criterion basically amounts to underwriting mob rule. What renders this principle acceptable to conservative Christians is that, with Donald Trump in the White House, evangelical Christians may reasonably hope to be the mob. With that change, the moral calculus changes accordingly from one that is recognizably Christian to one that is explicitly post-modern.
The post-modernist idea of the preeminence of the needs of the community is not at the end of the path to, e.g., Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will , but it is headed in that direction. If the post-modernist criterion of the needs of the community is to be the final arbiter of morality, both public and private, then it is not clear — to me, anyway — what stands in the way of a 21st-century version of half-million-strong torchlight parades in Nuremberg, c. 1935.
o The post-modernist conception of science as merely one more “meta-narrative” among many others vs. the Enlightenment conception of science as ascertaining objective truth about the Universe-as-such
This is one we should have — and could have — seen coming, at least those of us who have read, say, the late Jean-Francois Lyotard, who did the most (in, e.g., The Postmodern Condition) to popularize the term, and the late Michel Foucault. In a nutshell, a “meta-narrative” is a “story about stories”, i.e., an overarching story that validates a given culture’s “sub-stories” that, collectively, lend coherence and some kind of unity to a culture. The Christian meta-narrative unified and made rational the political hierarchy of the Middle Ages whereby the liege lord, like God, was at the top of the pyramid. The Christian meta-narrative even rationalized the horror of the Black Death in the middle 1300s: God was punishing the human race for its history of infidelity and immorality. Etc., etc.., etc. Under the umbrella of the Christian meta-narrative, history, politics, and morality — and even deviations from those norms — all made sense.
The Christian meta-narrative gave way in the 1500s to the science meta-narrative — the world as a system governed by natural laws discoverable by reason and empirical investigation, and even useful in improving the physical circumstances of life — that has been dominant ever since, at least up until the advent of the post-modernist world-view. (This is how I conceive the contrast between Lyotard’s conception of discourse-as-story vs. discourse-as-science in Condition.) I say we should have seen this coming because we saw early symptoms, even in the popular culture, of the breakdown of the strictly scientific meta-narrative, followed by its replacement among many people by what can only be termed some form of “magical thinking”. (That, in a nutshell, is a good hip-pocket description of New Age culture. Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan’s widow, had some trenchant comments about magical thinking when she appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time a few years ago, and said that a dismaying number of people are convinced that it is possible to effect change in the world just by sitting down, thinking about it, and “sending out good thoughts”.) Perhaps the most recent example is all the kerfuffle about the implications of the Mayan “Long Count” Calendar predicting a dire alignment of planets and the sun with the center of the Milky Way Galaxy that, for all manner of half-baked and misunderstood pseudo-scientific reasons, portended some kind of apocalyptic, perhaps even physical, upheaval on a cosmic scale. Which never happened, of course. But never mind. People still believe Jesus could return a week from next Thursday … and have been saying so for 2000 years.
The difference is that now the post-modernist critique of meta-narratives, hitherto restricted to academic debates in classrooms and proseminar courses – several of which I have facilitated — has escaped from the magic lamp and become a genie that may render impossible meaningful action to mitigate the exhaustively corroborated reality of climate change, to name perhaps the most obvious example. The rational, “pre-post-modern”, Enlightenment-centric response would be that, you are quite welcome to your New Age superstitions, as long as they don’t leave Miami underwater. But that’s just me, still benighted by being caught in the “pre-post-modern” Enlightenment Weltanschauung. The much more contemporary attitude would seem to be the belief, on the part of Trump and his devotees, that the gradual increase in the mean ambient global temperature, even supposing it to be real, is due to China indiscriminately dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere … which, to fit the data, would have to have been happening since, at the very least, quite early in the 18th century. But there I go again. And that is just one example. If you don’t like that one, pick another. A good alternative might be the imaginary link between vaccinations and autism. But again, the question should be “What does the community need?” Certainly not a belief, however well-grounded, in anthropogenic climate change! As the mandarins of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry often told me back in “The Day”,”There goes Jim again, being too left-brained!”
This is one of those rare occasions when academic philosophy — e.g., Lyotard and Foucault — bids fair to destroy one of the cornerstones of Western civilization: in this case, its characteristic and hard-earned virtuosity with science, and therefore technology. (The last such occasion was Marx / Engels and Marxism.) So, in terms of practical consequences, if a given community — never mind which one — needs to believe that vaccinations cause autism, should that community be allowed to forego vaccinating its kids — who presumably don’t have a choice — thereby penalizing the pro-vaccination community by turning the non-vaccinated kids into tiny biological weapons of mass destruction? Good post-modernist practice, sustained by Lyotard, Foucault, and their arguments of “meta-narrative as instrumentality of oppression,” would presumably argue “Not only ‘Yes’, but ‘Hell yes’.” Thus the slow-motion suicide of Western civilization proceeds apace.
Well … is there nothing we can do? Is there no longer a place for the values, beliefs, and principles of the European Enlightenment? My answer is “Yes but … ” During the early 1940s, there was also a place for the population of London during the German blitzkrieg: the tunnels and caverns of the London Underground. If we propose to remain a technological civilization, there must be a place — and not just in “science proper,” science in the narrowly technical sense — for the principles of the European Enlightenment. But, at least for a while, that place will not be above ground culturally. The Enlightenment must henceforth be practiced sub rosa, in a clandestine discursive space of intellectual Tube tunnels where it will be safe.
Where might that be? Funny you should ask …
It is quite possible to critique the Enlightenment as at least implicitly biased in terms of race, culture, and class. The Enlightenment, like all things human, suffered from its own imperfections. For example, many of the heirs of the Enlightenment among the American Founders were member of the aristocracy (though even the American aristocracy were little more than upper middle class, compared to their British counterparts), were racists and therefore usually slave owners (Washington, Madison, and Jefferson) or former slave owners (Franklin), and most believed in a form of Euro-centric cultural bias. However, subsequent history shows that the architects of the Enlightenment were these things, not because of the Enlightenment, but despite it, and that their descendants addressed these issues, not by repudiating the principles of the European Enlightenment, but by getting better at practicing those principles. To cite just one example, the ongoing civil rights movement in the United States originates, not from a disavowal of the principles of the Enlightenment, as embodied in the US Constitution, but by implementing those principles more radically and consistently, as with the application of the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. The flaws of the Enlightenment argue for more of the Enlightenment, not less. When practiced with uncompromising consistency, the principles of the Enlightenment are all self-correcting. Rather like science.
Hence the begged question: what can we do to “ride out” the current disillusionment with the principles of (classical!) liberal small-“r”-republican and small-“d”-democratic politics, and the concomitant belief in principles like free inquiry, a secular / religion-neutral public square, respect for rational and evidence-based reasoning, equality before the law, and freedom of expression? The short answer is that the latter-day London Underground I mentioned earlier is us ourselves. (In fact, before you read any farther in this article, I urgently recommend you read David Brooks’ superlative New York Times column on just this issue.)
Acting to preserve the principles of the European Enlightenment in the shelter of our own intellects and moral consciences is a many-splendored undertaking, involving action on several different fronts.
One of the more obvious areas where the Enlightenment project is being challenged today is in the area of science. The post-modern challenge to the Enlightenment incorporates a certain skepticism about science, the scientific method, the epistemological foundations of science, and consequently the utility of science as a means of ascertaining true knowledge about the external world. Post-modernist critiques of science are often written by people – Lyotard, Foucault, et al., come to mind immediately – whose attainments in other fields are undisputed, but whose knowledge of science, and scientific methodology affords them just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One thinks, in particular, of science skepticism based on the belief that ancient myths and belief systems, and contemporary spirituality, are just as revelatory of the Universe as empirical science. So learning involves:
— Familiarizing oneself with contemporary findings in the sciences, especially biology and physics.
This does not mean becoming a biologist or a physicist, but it does involve cultivating a degree of working-knowledge-level familiarity that enables one to penetrate the superficially attractive but shallow façade of contemporary pseudo-sciences like intelligent design, creationism, and the supposed “proofs” in quantum physics of the existence of God.
— Developing a working knowledge, not of particular sciences, but of the scientific method itself, and the role of data and methodology. For example, one often hears it alleged that science requires “just as much faith” as religion. Like many other skeptical arguments, this is just true enough to be dangerously misleading. There is a sense in which science presupposes a certain type of faith, but any attempt to equate the two dies the death of a thousand qualifications, and it is only an unfortunate accident of language that the same word “faith” is used to connote both. Learn and develop an ability to discuss the differences.
— For Americans, one of the most useful elements of learning would be a close and sustained study of how the principles of the European Enlightenment became instantiated, first, in the Declaration of Independence, and later in the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. In particular, pay special attention to both “religion” clauses of the First Amendment about the equality of all religious traditions before the civil law, and how such a principle decisively disposes of arguments to the effect that the United States is a “Christian nation” in any sense but the purely cultural. Such a consideration is especially pertinent in light of the “needs of the community” criterion for truth often prevalent in post-modernist writings.
There are many worthy causes that are dedicated to upholding various aspects of the Enlightenment consensus. The following are suggestions only, intended to give you some idea of where one’s monetary contributions could be expected to maximize “bang for the buck”:
— Scientific organizations like the Keck Telescope Foundation
— One’s university and / or various particular departments therein (e.g., my wife and I contribute to my old Oxford University college, Exeter)
— Organizations dedicated to the defense and preservation of the founding principles of various Enlightenment-grounded values and practices like free speech / press, due process, etc., e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Constitution Center, and the Center for the First Amendment
— One’s local museums, symphony orchestras, and arts organizations as practitioners of First Amendment liberties
I have found that one of the most effective ways of catching the overall “flavor” of the European Enlightenment, and catching it on an intuitive and affective level in a way that transcends words and “logo-centric” discourse, is through music. The music of Enlightenment composers – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Telemann … the pantheon goes on … – is, by turns and often simultaneously, elegant, reasoned, passionate, playful, yet always disciplined in a way that flows out of the music itself rather than being imposed extraneously from without. Listen to the gracefully galloping first movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G. Listen to Franz Josef Haydn’s matchlessly graceful String Quartet in F-Major. (The third movement alone could well serve as a kind of “theme music” for the entire European Enlightenment.) The hallmark of virtually all the music of the Enlightenment is grace and freedom within the bounds of an intrinsic discipline that does not constrict, but rather liberates … in other words, the diametric opposite of the characteristically post-modern hostility toward all forms of discipline as putative instruments of oppression.
Rather than compile a reading list, which would probably stretch for the length of a dozen ‘Zine articles, I will mention a few books, and recommend that those of you who want to do “deep dives” into the history and ideology of the Enlightenment read these books, and then sample the sources, both primary and secondary, in the footnotes and bibliographies.
— From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun
Barzun’s book can serve admirably as a kind of Baedecker guide-book to the European Enlightenment, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. Its bibliography is exhaustive and a comprehensive reading of it would be exhausting.
In terms of the Enlightenment roots of the US Constitution and of American constitutionalism, there are none better than:
— America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale
— The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction also by Amar
The latter is especially useful in terms of assessing how the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment affected the interpretation of the Constitution “proper” and the Bill of Rights
— The Invisible Constitution (Inalienable Rights) by Prof. Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law
A very instructive, but eminently readable, treatment of 10th Amendment un-enumerated rights
— On Reading the Constitution also by Prof. Tribe
Very useful “how-to” book on how to read – and not read – the Constitution
— Desperately Seeking Certainty: The Misguided Quest for Constitutional Foundations by Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry
The most sheerly entertaining book on constitutional theory – three words I never thought to find in the same sentence – I have ever read, in which interpretation theory is developed in parallel with a recipe for latkes. Please. Just read it.
— The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
For my money, the masterpiece of them all in terms of the Enlightenment, especially English / Scottish Enlightenment, roots of the American Revolution and Constitution
— A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz, Pioneer McDonald Professor of Baptist Heritage, Theology, and Ethics at Carey Theological College and Profess at Regent College in Vancouver, BC
For sheer clarity of exposition of an intrinsically murky subject, Prof. Grenz’s book cannot be beaten. The last few chapters are written from a conservative evangelical standpoint, from which those not like-minded may demur, but that does not alter the clarity of the preceding text.
— Basically, anything by Prof. Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School
But choose your text carefully. Habermas is widely – and justly — regarded as the greatest European philosopher since Immanuel Kant, and his texts are about as dense and impenetrable as those of his intellectual predecessor. Habermas is a voice in the wilderness in terms of his withering critiques of post-modernism, especially those written by his Frankfurt School Colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Good luck with this! When I first encountered the Frankfurt School, I had a full head of hair and weighed 50 pounds less.
People who defend the Enlightenment project have to be much more assertive, often aggressively so. This is an unaccustomed stance, because, up until approximately the middle of the 20th century, this consensus was essentially unchallenged. The Enlightenment premises of modernism seemed inscribed into reality like the value of pi. But now we have to learn to:
— Defend the value of science and the integrity of the scientific method by learning – to cite a few of the more pertinent examples – what the theory of evolution through natural selection really says (Hint: it does not say “humans came from monkeys” or that “evolution is random”)
— The United States is a “Christian nation” only in a purely cultural sense, not as a matter of law
— Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem is a double-edged sword: it cuts both ways. Asserting, as globally true, that verbal and written texts are subject to endless interpretation is itself an example of an attempt to “universalize” a text, and therefore – according to Goedel’s Theorem – render the text contradictory. Like any other universe of discourse, post-modern ideology is valid – at most – only locally, not as a universal principle.
Karl Marx began The Communist Manifesto with the statement “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”. My equivalent is “A spectre is haunting the West – the spectre of post-modernist nihilism”. Once contained within the biosafety-level-4 laboratories of English and philosophy departments of the academic world, the virus of post-modernism has escaped into the political ecosystem, with results that are most evident in the election of Donald Trump in the US – the first completely post-modern American President — but that are also afflicting the European nations that nurtured the Enlightenment and the constitutional socio-political order it engendered. (What a stinging historical irony that the nation that produced Adolf Hitler is also the same nation whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the modern-day Leonidas defending the Thermopylae of the West against the assault of the post-modern Persians.) If the heritage of the Enlightenment is to be preserved, along with the constitutional, latitudinarian, rights-centric socio-political order it engendered, it will be up to the beneficiaries of that order – us – to do so. No one else will. No one else can.
James R. Cowles
Jean-Francois Lyotard … Bracha L. Ettinger … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic
Michel Foucault … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Collatz fractal … Originator unknown … Public domain
“Metanarrative” quote … David Bentley Hart … Public domain
Franklin Graham … “Cornstalker” … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Jerry Falwell, Jr. … Liberty University … Public domain
Escher waterfall … M. C. Escher … Fair use
“The Milkmaid” … Johannes Vermeer … Public domain
“Flat earth” engraving … Camille Flammarion … Public domain
“Vitruvian Man” … Leonardo DaVinci … Public domain
William Herschel’s telescope … Artist unknown … Public domain
Johann Gutenberg reviewing a press proof … Artist unknown … Public domain
Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Jurgen Habermas … Wolfram Hake … CC-BY-SA-3.0