Monday, September 08, 2008

Talk at the Institute for Public Policy Research

Below is the text of the talk I gave at the IPPR last Friday. Well, it is the text of the talk I prepared, not the talk I actually ended up giving, which was a much more ad hoc affair.

An interesting point was raised in the questions afterwards, which I hope to address here at some point.


The idea is that I will talk for 20 or 25 minutes. I’ll describe what I think is the most pervasive and influential way of thinking and talking about the Enlightenment – the genre of stories we tell ourselves about the threats to an enlightened polity.

And then I’ll talk about what I think are the problems with this way of talking and thinking about Enlightenment and I’ll suggest another way.

Once I’ve done there’ll be some time for questions.


First of all I want to emphasise the central role that Enlightenment plays in modern politics.

We constantly hear politicians justify themselves through appeals to the great figures of the Enlightenment. So, for example, talking in London in November of 2003, Bush responded to critics of his foreign policy -

We’re sometimes faulted for a naive faith that liberty can change the world. If that's an error it began with reading too much John Locke and Adam Smith.

One can criticise George Bush for many things – but perhaps an excessive enthusiasm for the works of John Locke and Adam Smith isn’t the most obvious of them. But for Bush and his speech-writers, it was important, vital even, to establish title to the legacy of the British Enlightenment.

And Bush’s choice of reading material wasn’t arbitrary. John Locke’s doctrine of terra nullius had an important influence both on British colonial policy in the Americas and on the framers of the United States Constitution. Mention of him was perhaps a very sly wink at the deep background of the ‘special relationship’.

Adam Smith is a staple in contemporary discussions of economics. Since the late forties his was prestigious name to conjure with in struggles with the regulatory, Keynesian state. Supporters of Thatcher and Reagan both invoked his ideas – and some of them may actually have believed that free market policies had made Britain and America rich.

(it is a belief that flies in the face of the evidence, alas)

The concepts associated with the Enlightenment - progress, secularism, modernity – are central to the legitimacy of the liberal democracies. Even Bush, who built his popular appeal on his professed Christian faith, felt the need to lay claim to them. Gordon Brown also makes much of his Enlightenment credentials – going so far as to let it be known that he has read and found uplift in the works of Gertrude Himmelfarb, a neoconservative admirer of the British Enlightenment.

This is before we mention the Conservative Party’s recent attempts to appropriate the language of liberty, equality and fraternity as part of its reinvention – an act of political chutzpah that Burke would have looked on with a degree of distress. Brown laying claim to the legacy of Hume and Smith, Cameron embracing the principles of the French Revolution - across the ideological spectrum, the Enlightenment in Britain has become something of a free-for-all in recent years.

More generally the enlightened ideal of evidence-based reasoning has been at the centre of political debate since the seventeenth century. Legitimacy has depended to a very large extent, at least in elite discussions, on demonstrating that one is acting in an enlightened fashion. As reverence for inherited authority has declined, and the constitution has become more democratic, the Enlightenment has only become more central. In place of God and monarchy we make do with appeals to evidence.

So the Enlightenment matters – it matters a great deal. If you can convince key audiences that your opponents stand opposed to rationality and scientific progress, you have gone a long way to securing consent for your agenda. Look at the political struggles over globalization and the environment - there is a very lively effort on all sides to paint opponents as irrational, unscientific and so on.


This leads me to the Enlightenment as it plays out in contemporary discussion. Enlightenment recurs as part of a language of crisis, of imminent disaster; rational modernity is threatened with annihilation by the forces of unreason.

A clear binary division is made in most invocations of the concept, between those who belong to the Enlightenment tradition on the one hand, and the enemies of truth and reason on the other. So, for example, Richard Dawkins has declared that ‘the enlightenment is under threat, so is reason, so is truth’. And the threats to reason and truth that concern him are those that come from the irrational – from Christians, and homeopaths and faith healers. ‘Primitive darkness’, he says, ‘is on the rise’.

And this confrontation is taken to be one of world-historical significance. As far back as 1945, Karl Popper warned that ‘the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism has become the most important intellectual, and perhaps even moral, issue of our time’. Nowadays we sometimes hear that the opposition between Right and Left has been replaced by the conflict between Reason and Unreason.

Richard Taverne, the politician and writer, claims that ‘the new Rome that science built is under siege by the barbarians’. And again, the New Scientist worried in 2005 that ‘after two centuries in the ascendancy, the Enlightenment project is under threat. Religious movements are sweeping the globe preaching unreason, intolerance and dogma, and challenging the idea that rational, secular enquiry is the best way to understand the world’.

So when we hear about the collapse of rationality we almost always hear about the public’s appetite for New Age philosophy, about the growing popularity of alternative medicine, about the pernicious effects of post-modernism in our universities.

Columnists like Charlie Brooker and Melanie Phillips worry about the credence given to fantastical conspiracy theories.

There is a mini-genre of books that offers us variations on this theme of an Enlightenment in danger from the forces of unreason. Taverne’s The March of Unreason I’ve just quoted from. Contributions by journalists include Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, and Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge. Stephen Bronner’s Reclaiming the Enlightenment is more interesting than those two, but it adopts the same basic structure.

The atheist polemic of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens also distinguishes between the Enlightenment and it external enemies. The faithful are throwbacks to the counter-Enlightenment, they stand outside the Enlightenment and they seek to destroy it.

We find the same opposition being described in the debates about human health. Modern medicine embodies the virtues of the Enlightenment and its opponents are fantasists who base their beliefs on wishful thinking or cranky metaphysics. That is to say, the threats to the freedom of researchers to pursue interesting and useful lines of inquiry come from those who openly declare their hostility to science and evidence-based medicine.

In sum, the Enlightenment overwhelmingly features in our culture as a city under siege. Its defenders man the battlements staring steely-eyed into the gathering darkness as its enemies gather.

The conception of Enlightenment, as a city locked in conflict with external enemies I call the Folk Enlightenment. In part I call it that because of its versatility – you can change the lyrics to taste, but the tune, the intellectual mood music comes through loud and clear.


Now all this stuff has a certainly attraction. It lends colour to the intellectual landscape and it isn’t always wrong as far as it goes. Fundamentalism Christianity can promote intolerance, after all.

But there are important problems with it. For one thing it often depends on a wholly inadequate account of what the Enlightenment was. For example, atheists like to claim the mantle of Voltaire and Jefferson and somehow identify Enlightenment with the struggle against religious faith. But Francis Bacon and Immanuel Kant, who are arguably the alpha and omega of Enlightenment thought, were both Christians.

More seriously, though its exponents insist that we to base our beliefs on evidence and reason, not one of them has, as far as I know, provided a clear explanation as to why the enemies of reason they identify are the ones we should worry about most. Endless books, articles and documentary sound the alarm. The irrationalists are coming! The irrationalists are coming!

But why do these particular enemies – I’ll list them again – postmodernists, fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, alternative healers, crystal-peddling hucksters – why do these coalitions of the Old Testament and the New Age pose the most serious threat to the enlightened ideal of a reasonable public sphere? Because they say so?

I agree with Dawkins, Taverne and their many allies. The best ideals of the Enlightenment – a commitment to free inquiry and free speech – the very possibility of a sovereign and rational public - are threatened. I agree that this threat – this threat to reason – is extremely serious. But the notion that the most serious threats come from external, avowedly irrational, enemies cannot stand sustained inquiry.
The threats to reason that matter – the threats to the public’s capacity to make informed judgments – do not come for the most part come from irrational enemies. They come from institutions that noisily insist on their enlightened credentials. These institutions act rationally to promote unreason, false beliefs and magical thinking in target populations.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, 3% of Americans mentioned Iraq or Saddam Hussein when asked who they thought might have launched the attacks. By March 2003, just before the invasion, 52% of Americans thought that the US government had found clear evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In June of 2003, 70% of Americans thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved. And last year 90% of troops in Iraq thought the war was retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s role in 9/11.

From 2001 onwards, and at an accelerating pace after September of 2002, the Bush administration and its allies in the media used every trick of juxtaposition and insinuation to link the proposed invasion to the 9/11 attacks. Where necessary they resorted to outright deception, as in their claims about Atta’s meeting with Iraqi intelligence in Prague.

Iraqi complicity in 9/11 was only one strand of a propaganda campaign that also included the famous exaggerations of Saddam Hussein’s WMD program and enlightened rhetoric about bringing democracy to the region.

The results were measurable and they were by any standards impressive.

This manipulation of the public was integral to process by which the American people were inured to the need for war. Casualties from that war are now measured in the hundreds of thousands, responsible researchers have put the number at a million premature deaths.

So was the American public able to make a reasonable assessment of the justice or even the prudence of an invasion? Every effort was made to prevent them from doing so.

Nor did this poetry of insinuation stop after the Iraq invasion. There are always new enemies, it seems. Last year the the Republican Congressman Mark Kirk said in a BBC interview that Iran has for 15 years been, and I quote, ‘probably the top funder of terrorism around the world’. Now that’s arguable, but this is where the magic happens. He went on to say –

These terrorist organizations operate no just in New York City, they operate in London, they operate in Madrid. We’ve seen attacks in Saudi Arabia etc and the number one financier is the government of Iran.

To repeat – the number one financier is the government of Iran. So now it was Iran, not Iraq, that was behind 9/11 and much else besides.

Next time to read a journalist complaining about the public’s irrational appetite for conspiracy theories, take care that you are not being led in that well populated fantasyland where conspiracy theories are only ever concocted by confused individuals with too much time on their hands and an internet connection.

It isn’t only states that work assiduously to undermine the public’s capacity to make reasoned judgments. Corporations spend more than $400 billion every year advertising their products. Again, every form of insinuation and intellectual sleight of hand is employed to associate these products with desirable qualities – we are invited to have an emotional connection with an imaginary brand or an inanimate object – the sort of idolatry that doesn’t seem to trouble those brave atheist polemicists.

And again corporations spend large sums trying to persuade us that they can be responsible ‘corporate citizens’ – the term is itself a lavishly gold-plated contradiction in terms. Corporations are not citizens – they are entities designed to serve the economic interests of their shareholders (even allowing for the slight difference in law between US and UK corporations). Indeed for all the money spent assuring us that corporations can be trusted to act in the public interest, it is demonstrably the case that they do not. On a subject such as global warming, for example, the oil lobby has recklessly sought to obscure the state of the scientific consensus.

The state and the corporation are in some senses heirs to one particular Enlightenment tradition – indeed, perhaps the most venerable tradition, the one associated with Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke, in which the pursuit of knowledge coincided with an enthusiasm for a powerful and, where necessary, secretive state.

And note that states and corporations use rational means – market-testing, polling, trial-and-error – to promote irrationality in the public. And they can even be pro-science and pro-Enlightenment, as long as they don’t get in the way. After all, it makes for good public relations.

It is no good pretending that we can fit state and corporate power in to the neat binary division offered by the Folk Enlightenment.

So states and corporations promote outright fiction and fantasy. They also artificially promote doubt and they suppress inconvenient information. There are, arguably, more subtle forms of mystification, which are not necessarily seen as such by those who promote them.

(Power worship can often be a sincere form of religious expression, after all)


Compared with state-corporate assaults on the public’s ability to understand matters of deep importance, the chosen targets of the Folk Enlightenment pale into insignificance. While the folksy defenders of the Enlightenment are quick to denounce fantasy and paranoia, they give us precious few grounds to believe that they are not themselves lost in a sort of intellectual fugue.

Why on earth should one limit one’s concerns to enemies of the Enlightenment who sportingly identify themselves as such?

By insisting that the division that matters most is that between the rational and the irrational they all too often end up ignoring or misunderstanding the entirely rational, and often impressively scientific, efforts by states to undermine the public’s capacity to make reasoned judgments.

In these circumstances, the Enlightenment becomes at best a part of the entertainment economy. Dawkins and others can defend science against astrology and the New Age as if he were Francis Bacon. Christopher Hitchens can denounce Christian fundamentalism as though he were Voltaire railing l’infame of Catholic superstition. It amount to a kind of historical – or hysterical – re-enactment.

At worst the Folk Enlightenment I have described becomes a resource that can be used by the powerful to suppress legitimate criticism of state and corporate power, and to support its own policies. We see this when those who reject the Hollywood-ready hallucinations of the War on Terror are attacked for betraying the Enlightenment. We see this when the intellectual defenders of pharmaceutical medicine, maliciously or not, mistake serious calls for transparency and reform with a demand for more homeopathy.

I want to emphasise that I am not suggesting we ignore the irrational threats to the Enlightenment. Rather, I want to suggest that we construct a rationally defensible order of priorities when we come to consider the threats to reason.

Furthermore we need to recognise the extent to which legitimacy today rests on claims about material reality rather than what God wants. Exploding theological claims is fish-in-a-barrel easy compared with the business of unpicking scientific description from boosterism and bullshit in the productions of the pharmaceutical research-and-marketing complex.


If we take all this seriously, it does lead us to a certain discomfort. If it isn’t enough to rail against fanatics, what does it take to be enlightened?

Well, it might be an idea to start by reading all of Kant’s famous essay, What is Enlightenment? Many of you will be familiar with it – I knew the famous bits -

- Enlightenment is man’s liberation from his self-incurred immaturity of mind – Aude sapere! Dare to Know! This is the watchword of Enlightenment.

But after the ringing declarations and slogans, Kant spends much more of his time talking about how Enlightenment can be consistent with public order. Enlightenment can’t have been a recipe for chaos, as far as Kant is concerned. But how can we question everything without undermining civil authority?

The solution that Kant proposes is ingenious, and much more radical than it appears at first glance. He distinguishes between the public and private use of reason. In our private capacity as employees and economic agents, we have to accept the rules as we find them. We can’t morally promote what we believe to be untrue, but we can honourably accept claims that might be true. He gives the example of a priest, who may not wholly concur with the doctrines of his church but presents them faithfully, since it is not ‘in fact wholly impossible that they may contain truth’.

Obedience is necessary, virtuous even, when we are bound by our private undertakings. But Kant insists that we can also address one another as scholars before a reading a public. When we do so, we make public use of our reason – in such a context reason has no external limits. There is no fear of punishment, not hope of advancement. And there is no danger of civil disorder. What we decide on as self-consciously public agents cannot be at odds with the principles of universal justice and legitimate authority cannot be threatened by the decisions of such a public. Information is not traded, it is shared.

Kant’s idea of an objective public realm, in which we approach controversies not as self-interested partisans, but as disinterested researchers, suggests how we might reclaim Enlightenment as a matter of lived experience.

It is not a matter of aspiring to total Enlightenment, but of attending to reality for its own sake, without hope of reward, for some part of our time. At the level of the individual it seems kind of modest, timid even. It is certainly a far cry from romantic calls for total revolutionary commitment.

(Kant was unduly sanguine about how authority would react to his ideas, by the way; he was banned from political activity, which is more than can be said by the many smart-alecks who mock him for his caution).

Notice, by the way, that’s Kant’s notion of a public sphere excludes states and corporations and their representatives. It is only when we address one another unencumbered by our institutional commitments that we are acting publicly in Kant’s sense of the word.

Indeed it is in this public realm that we can hope to look at power relations in society, and our own entanglement with them, without flinching. The decision for Enlightenment reaches outward to comprehend society’s dominant institutions, and inward to a recognition of our participation in their workings.

Kant doesn’t offer us total liberation. There will always be a gap between the public and the private – between the arrangements we have and the arrangements we should have. Our responsibility is to narrow the gap between them, by the most appropriate means we have to hand, according to circumstances. We do not have to renounce our private identities. But we do have to recognise that our roles as employees and consumers do not constitute the full expression of our humanity.


Norman Hampson, the great historian of the Enlightenment once wrote that

Within limits the Enlightenment is what one thinks it was.

It is up to us to decide what we want to take from the philosophy of the Age of Reason, to decide what would constitute Enlightenment in the modern era.

It seems to me that the news from the Enlightenment that stays news is that power is illegitimate when it rests on untrue claims. Religious claims underpinned the monarchy in France in the 18th century. Accordingly the French philosophes attacked the Church. But what does secular power depend on now? Policy-making depends on claims about what is scientific, on claims about human nature, and on claims about the constitution of reality. The current order of things purports to be reasonable, inevitable, natural, and based on a scientific understanding.

In many ways it is not.

Progress to a more just and resilient civilization depends on our willingness to explore this system of material justifications in our capacity as public agents.

The notion that the forces of unreason are gathering seems to invite us to a world intellectual heroism. But I would urge you to resist. If you adopt the assumptions of the Folk Enlightenment you are entering the brightly lit world on infotainment.

The Enlightenment is not a city under siege.

The Enlightenment is a city in civil uproar.

To change the metaphor –

The struggle of our times is not between light and darkness. It is rather the struggle between illumination on the one hand and dazzlement on the other – the struggle between the use of rational methods to enlarge the province of human understanding, and the use of those same methods to manipulate and confuse in the service of tyrannical power. It is the light of the human spirit against the interrogator’s lamp.

So, let us be against the light that blinds.
And let us be for the light that reveals.

Thank you very much.