Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Three Enlightenments

Previously I've referred to "the Enlightenment" as a single movement or phenomenon. Here I want to revise that picture.

Recently -- though separately -- Hilary Putnam and Robert Brandom have underscored the need to think of American pragmatism (Peirce, James, and Dewey) as comprising the beginnings of a "second" Enlightenment, a pragmatist enlightenment. (Putnam present his case in Part II of Ethics without Ontology. Brandom makes his case in "When Philosophy Paints Its Blue on Gray: Irony and the Pragmatist Enlightenment".

Putnam further complicates the story by noting that there was an earlier Enlightenment in ancient Greece. Here, too, I think that Putnam is right. But like almost all philosophers, Putnam mistakenly thinks that Plato can be regarded as an unambiguous champion of truth and reason. (If one considers Plato in relation to contemporaries such as Thucydides or Democritus, one can begin to see how problematic it is to regard Plato as an Enlightenment thinker. More on this later.)

Suffice it to say, then, that we can talk about "the three Enlightenments":

- ancient Greek Enlightenment (Xenophon, Democritus, Thucydides, Aristophanes)
- the classical Enlightenment (Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant)
- the pragmatist Enlightenment (Peirce, James, Dewey)

Now, I want to go further than Putnam in one crucial respect -- I want to broaden the scope of the pragmatist Enlightenment to include some of the most important "Continental philosophers" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Nietzsche, the members of the Frankfurt School (esp. Adorno), Foucault, and Deleuze.

Does this mean that all these thinkers are "pragmatists"? No; doing so would stretch the term beyond usefulness. But I do want to say that there are important advocates of "the pragmatist Enlightenment" on both sides of the Atlantic, including Nietzsche, Adorno, and Foucault, who are usually read (on this side of the Atlantic!) as romantic crypto-reactionaries. (So I will want to distinguish between this lineage and that of Husserl-Heidegger, where one really does see a persistence of mythologization.)

I agree with Putnam and Brandom that the neglect of the pragmatist Enlightenment has fuelled widespread skepticism about the Enlightenment project per se -- esp. on the left, and even more specifically, on the part of leftist intellectuals who belong to university departments of literature, communications, etc. (I shall refrain from commenting on the well-known Sokal hoax, since it's been done to death.) But unlike Brandom and Putnam, I want to "rescue" a significant portion of the work of Nietzsche, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, and Deleuze for the pragmatist Enlightenment.

How precisely that will work is part of the task of the Enlightenment Underground.


Blogger Kirby Olson said...

Carl, I look forward to reading your blog assiduously.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why exclude Heidegger? Is there not a significant portion of his work that could be rescued for you "pragmatist Enlightenment?

Gary Sauer-Thompson
philosophical conversations

11:04 AM  

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