Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Exchange with Jonathan Derbyshire

Keen readers of this blog (are there any, I wonder?) will recall that Jonathan Derbyshire reviewed my book for the New Humanist. We had a brief exchange about the review, which I reproduce here:


27 June, 2007

Dear Mr Derbyshire,

I have just seen your review of my book, The Threat to Reason. It is the first I have seen, so I read it with great interest, as you can imagine.

I am glad you thought it was breezy; I did want to write something that would be accessible to non-experts.

I am sorry that that you found it hard to tell what kind of Enlightenment-sceptic I am, or if I even am one. For the record, I like lots of things we associate with the Enlightenment; free inquiry, a commitment to material progress through the advancement of knowledge, and so on. But as you are aware the history of the Enlightenment is complex and cannot be defended (or attacked) as an indivisible whole. We shouldn't be forced to choose whether to be for or against the Enlightenment; indeed I don’t know what it would mean to be for or against a historical period.

I wish I could have been clearer about this in the book, but there it is. I was conscious while writing that I was operating at the very limit of, and sometimes beyond, my powers.

One thing did puzzle me, and I wanted to ask you about it. In the conclusion to the review you write that:

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it criticizes the dupes of military or corporate might on the basis of principles (justice, say) that, by its own lights, cannot be anything but the ideological residue of power politics. But the ‘betrayal of the Enlightenment’ that Hind denounces wouldn’t be real if its principles themselves weren’t real.

Why do you think that my analysis requires me to believe that moral principles ‘can’t be anything other than the ideological residue of power politics’? I certainly don’t believe that, and I would be very disappointed (horrified, in fact) if I had written anything that gave the impression that I did. I’d be very keen to know what prompted you to think this.

It would be fun to have a bit of a discussion about this and related topics. What with Hitchens’s call for a new Enlightenment the other day and the current vogue for atheist polemic, I would welcome a conversation about what it would mean to be enlightened now, and about what we can learn from the history of the Age of Reason. If you like we could aspire to one of those public debates that Kant was so keen on.

Yours sincerely,

Dan Hind


2 July, 2007

Dear Dan (if I may?)

Very sorry not to have replied to your email sooner - I've been away.
I'm sorry you're puzzled by that paragraph in my review, so let me try to clarify the point I was trying to make. You argue that Enlightenment principles have been "betrayed" (p134). As I point out, this entails that those principles are real, that they have substantive content and are not just ideological epiphenomena. However, you also argue that Enlightenment ideals routinely provide cover for power politics (see, for example, p105).

Now, you could quite reasonably reply that those two claims are perfectly compatible and that what you mean by "betrayal" is just the latter. But if that's the case, I don't understand why you insist on using the notion of the "Occult Enlightenment". If it's a "betrayal" of the Enlightenment, why use the term at all? It seems to me that you're tempted here, perhaps for polemical purposes, by what can plausibly be described as an Enlightenment-scepticism too strong for the rest of your argument to bear.

Does that help?

All best,



14 August, 2007

I have thought about Jonathan's point for a while now and can understand how he could see a problem with my position.

He is right, I think, that I should have worked harder to distinguish between two ways in which the state-corporate system relates to the Enlightenment.

Firstly, states and corporations exploit enlightened rhetoric to maginalise and discredit their enemies, as when corporate-friendly think tanks set up a confrontation between enlightened experts and an irrational, risk-averse public.

Secondly states and corporations support scientific institutions under conditions of secrecy, or at least commercial confidentiality. I call this the Occult Enlightenment in the book.

The work of the Occult Enlightenment remains recognisably in the Enlightenment tradition. The work of scientists developing biological weapons may well be scientifically impeccable, albeit morally disgusting. It doesn't make sense to declare that this work is simply a 'betrayal of the Enlightenment'. It is too close to the program for knowledge suggested by Bacon and indeed too close to the program of the Royal Society. On the other hand I do think it should be resisted, should indeed be the focus of enlightened public inquiry. In the Occult Enlightenment, open sincere debate takes place behind closed doors. Hence the attempt to contrast an Open with an Occult Enlightenment.

Of course the two approaches do sometimes coincide, as when an intelligence agency market-tests and then deploys enlightened rhetoric to damage the reputation of their enemies - as when an official enemy is declared to be an enemy of freedom of speech, a strong theme in CIA propaganda against the Sandinistas in the 80s, for example.

So, for the record, activities can both plausibly inhabit the tradition of the Enlightenment in one sense, and at the same time undermine it in another.

Exciting, isn't it?

(15 August, 2007 - I have decided to change the wording on page 134 in future editions of the book to remove any ambiguity. I do try to distinguish throughout between Enlightenment as a moral commitment to truth and Enlightenment as a set of rational techniques deployed in an institutional setting, so I don't think that Derbyshire's point generalises, but as I say, I can see why he might have been confused by this particular sentence)


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