Sunday, March 04, 2007

On the Very Idea of the Enlightenment

In a recent post, Yusef remarked that this blog was started by "two Nietzscheans." This struck a chord in me. In the time since the blog was started, while Yusef was continuing in a "Deleuzean" direction, I increasingly found myself more and more attracted to a much more "mainstream," even conservative orientation. For I have found that for me, as for Habermas, a critical social theory that is concerned with justice, or with freedom -- or even with happiness! -- needs to have something to say about rationality, justification, objectivity, and truth.

What has happened to me? Am I stuck inside "the Temple of Reason"? Or trapped within the "dogmatic image of thought"?

I don't know how exactly this happened . . . somewhere along the way I incorporated or accepted -- without so much as realizing what was happening to me -- that there is something right about Habermas' criticism of Nietzsche and of what takes its name from his (e.g. "Nietzscheanism").

Habermas insists that there is a distinction to be drawn between those who subject the Enlightenment to critical scrutiny from within it, and those who attempt to step outside of the Enlightenment by positing some standpoint that does not itself fall back into an Enlightenment problematic.

(I have come across similar variations of this criticism by Richard Wolin (The Seduction of Unreason), Joel Whitebook on Foucault vs. Freud, Charles Taylor on "Overcoming Epistemology," and more recently Espen Hammer in his Adorno and the Political.)

One curious feature of these criticisms is that the real target is almost always either Heidegger or Derrida. Nietzsche is assigned to this crew through "guilt by association" -- thus, he is either read as an anti-rationalist who appeals to mystical intuition a la Heidegger, or he is read as a frivolous punster a la Derrida -- in neither case, perhaps, is he really read at all.

On the other hand, what I have absorbed or accepted is the thought that the Enlightenment not only can but must be criticized from within the resources that are made possible by the Enlightenment itself. This is not to say that the Enlightenment owns a monopoly on critical self-reflection -- rather, that the Enlightenment can be read as a cipher for the attempt to democratize critical reflection.

It will be hard for me to say what I find in Adorno, Dewey, and the very late Foucault, what I don't find, or haven't yet found, in the Deleuzean discourse . . . which, for all its power and beauty, now strikes me as terribly limited.


Anonymous JRM said...

On the other hand, what I have absorbed or accepted is the thought that the Enlightenment not only can but must be criticized from within the resources that are made possible by the Enlightenment itself.

I'm wondering, when reading this, What is the shape of the landscape which is "the Enlightenment itself". It is here treated as a common ground, as something continuous with itself -- even if diverse in its particulars. Is this so?

Must *all* critical assesment of Enlightenment come from "within" its own "resources"? Why? And what are these resources which are common to "Enlightenment," and contained by it? What is its outside?

Must capitalism or communism or socialism--for example (or democracy, even?) derive all of their criticisms (or critical 'resources') from within themselves, as apart from the others, or any other?

I'm in agreement with you, Carl, that criticism is crucial, though I don't think it is *enough*. It is necessary and insufficient as a tool for the sorts of changes I'd hope to see. But let me emphaisize: it is crucial. And since it is crucial, I wonder why I can't, or shouldn't, derive my critical resources from wherever they may usefully come?

6:52 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

It's certainly worth pointing out that "Enlightenment" can be taken in the singular, without modification, only as a cipher or sign-post.

Intellectual honesty would require us to add a number of different modifiers in order to specify cultural or chronological context.

The Scottish Enlightenment differed from the French Enlightenment, and the "rationalist" Enlightenment of the 18th century was quite different from what Hilary Putnam and Bob Brandom have called the "pragmatist Enlightenment" of the late 19th-to-mid-20th centuries in America.

But what I take to be central to "the Enlightenment" -- returning now to this cipher or sign-post I'm constructing -- is the emphasis on rationality. What makes Dewey and Adorno different from, say, Jung or Heidegger is not that the former concur with Hume or Kant, and the latter do not. Rather, what makes the former different from the latter is that the former are committed to an immanent or internal critique of rationality -- that one engages in a critical appraisal of what it means to be rational.

By contrast, the ideal of a critical rationality is missing in Jung or Heidegger. Instead, one criticizes rationality from some standpoint outside of rationality -- e.g. from the symbology of the unconscious, or from listening to Being.

On the other hand, I do think that one element of a critical rationality is what the psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook calls "the dialogue with unreason." In an article by that title, Whitebook defends Freud against Foucault on the grounds that Freud's work is informed by a "dialogue" with the irrational -- a dialogue, that is, between reason and unreason -- whereas Foucault's work is basically a "valorization of the irrational."

Now, I don't think this is entirely fair to Foucault -- but it would be fair as applied to Jung, to Heidegger, or to Georges Bataille.

There do need to be voices in the conversation who speak on behalf of wildness and drunken ecstasy, but there is a dialogue, not a soliloquoy. And what I find in Adorno and Dewey is something close to that internalized dialogue between intoxication and sobriety.

At times both of them are too sober for my taste -- which is why I keep coming back to Nietzsche! -- but he is too drunken for my taste, so I come back to them.

10:59 AM  

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