Long live the Enlightenment

Jeremy, someone who sings in the same group I do, passed along a photocopy of an article, “The Enlightenment, Naturalism, and the Secularization of Values,” from the magazine Free Inquiry. It’s a historical overview of the Enlightenment by historian Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania. During the break in singing tonight, I told him that I finally read the article.

“What did you think?” he said.

“I liked it,” I said. I told him I had been expecting the article to come down on one side or the other of the argument going on right now about whether the Enlightenment is a good thing, or something we have to move past; that is, I had been expecting a modernist/postmodernist argument. Instead, Kors gives a pretty straightforward overview of the Enlightenment from his perspective as a historian.

We both agreed that we’re of the party who would like to continue the values of the Enlightenment. “But we can’t go back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment,” I said.

Jeremy wondered aloud: “Why not?”

I argued that the insights we have gotten in the twentieth century from psychology, particularly developmental psychology, pose a major challenge to at least one eighteenth century Enlightenment assumption: we now know that children think differently than do adults; they are not rational in the way that adults may be said to be rational. Furthermore, beginning in the lat twentieth century we began to learn from neuroscience and cognitive science that human beings may not be as rational as we’d like to think they are, or perhaps not rational in the same way that we have imagined them to be.

Jeremy argued that the insights of developmental psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science do not fundamentally contradict the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophers. But I said we can’t yet be sure of that. The field of neuroscience, for example, is changing so rapidly that we really only have preliminary hypotheses of how the brain works; new experiments could change our ideas even further. And developmental psychology is still trying to reconcile the two very different approaches of Piagetian and Vygotskian (more individualistic and more communal) developmental psychology.

The only conclusion we came to was that we both were happy to have moved beyond the excesses of Romanticism. Although Jeremy loves that quintessential Romantic composer, Beethoven, while I don’t; and I still remain at heart an Transcendentalist. So maybe we haven’t escaped Romanticism as much as we thought we have.