Future Philosophy

2006-03-06

Over at The Speculist, fellow Denverite Phil Bowermaster speculates on the desirability of formulating what he calls Enlightenment 3.0 -- a renewed commitment to reason and law that will provide "a philosophical/legal/intellectual arsenal of unprecedented scope and corrective qualities". Following Robert Conquest, Phil distinguishes between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Enlightenment. In general, thinkers in Scotland and England valued something like reasonableness over French and German Reason (with a capital "R"), leading to an emphasis on particulars (whether in science or society) whereas the Continental Enlightenment led to uncontrolled generalization and abstract theorizing. One result was a fairly dogmatic, systematic socialism on the Continent and a more pragmatic, flexible capitalism in the Anglosphere, a point made briefly by Jim Bennett here and at length in his book.

Given my status as a recovered Randian, it's interesting to me that several commenters at Phil's post adduced Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism as the answer. Yet, as I've argued in my essay Ayn Rand and the Ascent of Man, it's not clear that Rand was an Enlightnement thinker (or, for that matter, that the Enlightenment as traditionally conceived is any kind of panacea):

The second phase of Western expansion (roughly from 1450 to 1650) was followed by another period of conflict (roughly from 1650 to 1750) as the system of commercial capitalism based on trade became corrupted into mercantilism and an early kind of state capitalism. During that period arose a loose intellectual movement called the Enlightenment or the "Age of Reason". Because of the latter name, followers of Ayn Rand are rather attached to the idea that Objectivism is a philosophy of the Enlightenment. For example, a communication from The Objectivist Center made the following claim:

We identified ... a single idea that conveys, simply and clearly, Objectivism's distinctive outlook to people not already familiar with the philosophy. That theme is the concept of an "Enlightenment culture" opposed to both the cultural Right and the cultural Left. [emphasis in original]

However, even superficially, Rand's philosophy is not exactly the Enlightenment revisited. For one thing, Enlightenment thinkers were generally anti-Aristotelian but also quite rationalistic. For another, Rand's Romantic literary heroes, especially Victor Hugo, were virulent enemies of the culture of the Enlightenment. They held strongly that Enlightenment culture was characterized by a desiccated vision of reason, an elevation of etiquette over emotion, and a focus on rules and duties in life and in art. It appears that Rand accepted much of this critique, for in her essay "What is Romanticism?" (Rand 1969) she derided the "classicists" of Enlightenment times, who set concrete-bound rules for literary production and thereby descended from artistic creation to artistic imitation.

Probably the most famous characterization of the Enlightenment can be found in Immanuel Kant's essay "What Is Enlightenment?". There, he claims that "The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!" Kant's catchphrase "Dare to know!" captures one significant theme of the Enlightenment: the pursuit of knowledge. However, the Enlightenment focus on knowledge tended toward a certain kind of intellectualism unconcerned with practical matters such as material production (a rebirth, perhaps, of the old classical ideal). Partly this was no fault of Enlightenment thinkers, since before 1790 the industrial revolution did not have enough strength even in the most advanced countries to appear as a new age that would prove the value of applying knowledge to the creation of wealth. Yet even outside the economic realm, the Enlightenment was not focused strongly on action. For example, while Enlightenment intellectuals showed a certain irreverence towards established authorities and a humanitarian opposition to arbitrary power, by no means were they revolutionaries; in fact for the most part they believed in social stability, "being reasonable", and the legitimate power of benevolent despots and aristocrats as opposed to revolutionary transformation or the messy processes of popular democracy.

The Enlightement belief in order extended beyond society to its vision of nature. That vision can be summed up in one word: Newton. Newton's discovery of a fixed order of laws behind the apparent chaos of natural phenomena held endless fascination during the Enlightenment, and was championed by Voltaire and the other major figures of the time. These thinkers had great faith in the power of Providence, and they believed that a higher power -- no longer quite the God of Christian tradition, but an organizing force in the universe -- was necessary for the existence of natural order. Without a god of the deistic variety, it was believed that the forces of blind mechanism would lead to chaos. The choice was stark: fixed order or total flux. And the Enlightenment came down on the side of order -- not just in the sciences, but also in morals, manners, art, and life in general. As Isaiah Berlin noted in The Roots of Romanticism (Berlin 1999, 105):

The Enlightenment supposed that there was a closed, perfect pattern of life....[t]here was some particular form of life and of art, and of feeling and of thought, which was correct, which was right, which was true and objective and could be taught to people if only we knew enough.

Rand and her followers seem to think that they have found the one particular form of life and of art that is correct, right, true, and objective: namely, Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, especially as presented in her novels (after all, art is the technology of the soul). I have my doubts, not least because the idea of the one true path is not consistent with respect for the identities of individual human beings and specific human societies. That doesn't mean reason and law go out the window, or that relativism is the only option. It does mean that ihe long-developing Anglosphere values of the British Enlightenment -- individualism, particularism, voluntary relations, economic flexibility, societal resilience, decentralization, entrepreneurship, scientific induction, technological progress, industrial (and now informational) production, free inquiry, common law, etc. -- trump the more artificial values of the Continental Enlightenment. In my experience, Randians seem to be quite enamored of the Continental model (let's deduce it all from axioms, let's spin out theories of everything, let's split hairs, let's not tolerate anyone who disagrees with us, let's ignore science if we can, let's not get our hands dirty with the messy facts of reality but instead opine about how things ought to be). In short, they are hedgehogs, not foxes. And as we've seen from the success of the Anglosphere, it's the flexible foxes who fomented the Industrial Revolution and who are at the forefront of the Singularity revolutions (GRIN technologies, space travel, the ever-quickening pace of life, and all the rest).

Rand's Objectivism does not provide a strong, sustainable basis for Enlightenment 3.0 (although it may provide some of the inspiration). Indeed, I would argue that in general philosophy is a result rather than a cause of historical experience (e.g., the mechanistic philosophies of Enlightenment 1.0 emerged only after centuries of experience with machines in the West, starting as early as the 10th century). So I would expect a new philosophy to emerge from the personal and intellectual reflections of those who experience the Singularity revolutions first-hand. What form that philosophy will take no one can say right now. But I'd bet it will take account of the core values of the Anglosophere as adumbrated above, because it's those core values, habits, and practices that will have produced the Singularity in the first place.

May you live in interesting times.


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