Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rationality and Totality, Part XIII

In a recent gold-tinged fog (or was it silver-tinged?) I mused on these statements by Carl,

“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.” –Carl Sachs, On the Very Idea of Enlightenment, March 4, 2007.


“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.” –Carl Sachs, On the Very Idea of Enlightenment, March 4, 2007.

I assume that to subject the Enlightenment to critical scrutiny from within it means to subject the Enlightenment to a critique which would be considered rational such that rationality is understood as it was understood by Enlightenment thinkers.

Of course, the “very idea of Enlightenment” is something which we broach only tangentially at the Enlightenment Underground, even now. My opinion is that part of the reason for this is that the relationship between rationality and totality has been too frightening for us to directly take up. We suspect this relationship to be very strong, and as we are for the one, rationality, and against the other, totality, we practice Enlightenment kiss and tell. The kiss is okay, but what’s best is telling about it.

I note the peculiarity of this attitude, here,

“What has me perplexed and fascinated at this point in the conversation is how to connect James and Wittgenstein (also Adorno) with "the Enlightenment." Part of the trick, I now think, is to see how the critique of "absolutism" and "intellectualism" in James is a critique of totality that belongs to a conversation shared with Wittgenstein, with Foucault, and even with Adorno.”—Carl Sachs, Pluralism as Critique of Totality, December 20, 2006.

I think that the critique of “absolutism” and “intellectualism” in James is indeed a critique of totality and that James’s critique of totality matches up with some ideas within Wittgenstein, Foucault, or “even with Adorno.” However, I would call it more than a trick if anything resembling James’s critiques of “absolutism” and “intellectualism” can be pulled from out of “the Enlightenment.”

If in order to pursue whether there is a critique of “absolutism” and “intellectualism” in the Enlightenment, I think we first need to be aware that we are on somewhat less than solid ground if we shift from the terms absolutism and intellectualism to the term totality. There is also tremendous danger of equivocation in trying to scrutinize the Enlightenment in terms of its attitude towards absolutism. If absolutism is to be understood in terms of monarchy and church (neither had many democratic features back then,) and the ideologies underlying them, there is no doubt of the existence of a critique of absolutism in Enlightenment thinking. On the other hand, I think there are very strong features of absolutism in the concept of rationality as rationality was understood by the Enlightenment. The problem of absolutism presents itself in Enlightenment thought, in a very different-- I would say disguised-- way. We miss this, though, if we think of absolutism ONLY as absolutism was thought back then.

This is the key problem we face at Enlightenment Underground: can we or can we not bring these strong features of absolutism to light if we MUST restrict ourselves to criticizing the Enlightenment using the critical terms of the Enlightenment?

We are asking ourselves, or trying to ask ourselves: to what extent is the rationality of the Enlightenment rational? If we MUST make the assumptions made by the Enlightenment thinkers themselves about what is or is not rational, the answer to our question comes back rather suddenly, if not instantaneously: of course Enlightenment rationality is completely rational! And then,if this is the answer, all of my own probing discontent, doubt, and dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment (amounting to aversion) is exposed for what it is: IRRATIONAL.

One thing more I want to add: whether we can or cannot be allowed to go “outside” the Enlightenment to question, challenge, and criticize the Enlightenment, has everything to do with whether the Enlightenment was or was not totalizing. If I can't allow myself to leave off with the critical resources provided by the Enlightenment to criticize the Enlightenment, I don't know about anyone else,but that sounds totalizing to me.


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