An unenlightened view of The Enlightenment

Let’s compare two very different descriptions of the period of 18th century intellectual history known as The Enlightenment.

First, a traditional definition at

The most fundamental concepts of the Enlightenment were faith in nature and belief in human progress. Nature was seen as a complex of interacting laws governing the universe. The individual human being, as part of that system, was designed to act rationally. If free to exercise their reason, people were naturally good and would act to further the happiness of others. Accordingly, both human righteousness and happiness required freedom from needless restraints, such as many of those imposed by the state or the church. The Enlightenment’s uncompromising hostility towards organized religion and established monarchy reflected a disdain for the past and an inclination to favor utopian reform schemes. Most of its thinkers believed passionately in human progress through education. They thought society would become perfect if people were free to use their reason.

And now, from Postcolonial Enlightenment, edited by Daniel Carey & Lynn Festa:

Irremediably Eurocentric, the ideas grouped under the rubric of Enlightenment are explicitly or implicitly bound up with imperialism. In its quest for the universal, Enlightenment occludes cultural difference and refuses moral and social relativity. Inasmuch as its values are identified as coextensive with modernity, the Enlightenment naturalizes a teleology in which all roads lead inexorably to an episteme associated with the West. Frozen in the dark backward and abysm of the ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’, non Western populations are stripped of the agency and historicity that underwrites civilized advancement. The doctrine of progress, in turn, legitimates imperial conquest under the guise of the civilizing mission, while the celebration of reason disqualifies other belief systems as irrational or superstitious. Enlightenment becomes alternately the engine of a relentlessly totalizing historical spirit and the ideological sugar coating designed to disguise the bitter nature of empire from both its victims and its perpetrators. Cast in these terms, any vestiges of ‘the Enlightenment’ that remain within a theory become a sign of insufficient liberation.

Does this read to you like the accounts of two sightless moles, one at the trunk and the other at the tail of the elephant? If does to me, too. What’s going on here?

I think that the chasm between the descriptions can be attributed primarily to a confused postmodernist analysis, in which ultimate ends are miscast as proximate causes. It makes no sense to argue that because colonialism was at its peak during the Enlightenment that it was, therefore, the Enlightenment which caused colonialism.

The goals, the ultimate ends, of the Enlightenment thinkers were transformative, especially when viewed in the context of their time. From the late 17th century to the end of the 18th century, new ideas about the source of natural law and the social applications of reason would both end the subjugation of colonists in the Americas and overthrow the aristocracy in France on the one hand, and provide the rational basis for the later emancipation of slaves and enfranchisement of women on the other. This Age of Reason, as Paine termed it, would end the medieval world and usher in the modern one. Without this transformation, none of the liberations of the late 18th or the 19th century would have occurred. Rather than the villain, Enlightenment thought was the eventual deliverer.

After all, colonialism of one kind or another pre-existed The Enlightenment by millennia. Slavery was virtually everywhere in the ancient world. The notion of civilizers and barbarians did not originate in the 18th century. In fact, the moral code which validated the dominance of one people by another, the replacement of one culture by another, the code that justified empire, clearly was a product of pre-Enlightenment religion. Infidels were spiritually inferior, and the impulse to bring civilization and its religion to the “savage,” especially to the “primitives” of non-European races, sprang from church doctrines which were promulgated centuries before The Enlightenment.

Concepts of universal human rights and the “self-evident” truth of human equality, combined with a passionate commitment to rationality—all Enlightenment centrepieces—were patently not the causes of colonial oppression. Why, then, are they viewed as such by Postcolonialism?

The simplest answer can be found in the language of the quotation. With full awareness of the irony involved, an  enlightened deconstruction of the terminology of the passage reveals a distorting intellectual bias.

According to the passage, The Enlightenment was “irremediably Eurocentric.” Translation: European writers thought as Europeans. Now, Europeans were the colonizers. Therefore, anything associated with them, even the obvious fact that European thinkers were European, is bad.

As well, the “Enlightenment occludes cultural difference” by seeking a single set of natural laws. Translation: Postcolonialism’s chief dogma is that cultural difference is a good thing; universality is a bad thing. Everything, and they mean everything, is relative. It’s ironic that a socio-historical discipline with a strong moral opposition to oppression damns the search for those truths which would erase the illusions of entitlement and superiority which justified oppression in the first place. Enlightenment universalism is damned because it “refuses moral and social relativity.” But wasn’t it precisely the relativism of the Eurocentric colonizers by which they claimed the right to empire in the first place? Wouldn’t replacing “moral relativity” with a belief in a universal humanity make colonialism impossible to support?

Then there’s “Inasmuch as its values are identified as coextensive with modernity, the Enlightenment naturalizes a teleology in which all roads lead inexorably to an episteme associated with the West.” Leaving aside the tortured prose which seems to be a required element of Postmodernist writing, I think that this, too, means “Eurocentric.”

Postcolonialism, like all Postmodernisms, demonizes rationalism’s search for truth. To the Postcolonialist, “the celebration of reason disqualifies other belief systems as irrational or superstitious.” Well, what are these “other belief systems,” if they’re not rational? They’re irrational or superstitious, that’s what they are. Even allowing the term “non-rational” merely begs the question of what, if anything, that means. But Postmodernists don’t “privilege” empirical descriptions of external reality. If there is one reality, then cultural relativism loses much of its already limited force and suasion. The violent hatred of the Postmodernist for the empirical is often expressed in particularly provocative language. I shouldn’t really invoke the infamous claim that Newton’s Principia constitutes a “rape manual” for defiling non-rational Nature, or the less well known assertion that the Copernican Revolution “murdered the Earth Mother” by replacing geocentrism with heliocentrism, but I can’t resist the opportunity.

Was colonialism oppressive? Absolutely. Did non-Europeans suffer great harm because of it? Definitely. Are second- and third-world people today still struggling to overcome the economic structures and psychological stunting colonialism produced? No doubt. No one disputes these facts. But The Enlightenment was not the cause of colonialism. In truth, it prefigured colonialism’s end.

The passage from Postcolonial Enlightenment ends with the claim that “any vestiges of ‘the Enlightenment’ that remain within a theory become a sign of insufficient liberation.” This claim, at least, is true, for to embrace the Postcolonialist’s topsy-turvy indictment of The Enlightenment requires a particularly strong dose of liberation—from historical reality.

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7 thoughts on “An unenlightened view of The Enlightenment

  1. What is so bad about Eurocentrism, anyways? If we understand “Eurocentrism” as the doctrine that European culture is better or superior than non-European culture, then it seems to me that Eurocentrism is the plain truth.
    You mention colonialism was a terrible crime against Third World peoples. I disagree. Colonialism was bad in as much as it placed the colonized in a position of social and economic inferiority. But, it was colonialism itself that spread ideas of egalitarianism. Although the concrete historical experience of colonialism was harmful, not all colonialism need be harmful. If you are willing to spread European culture worldwide through peaceful means (a project that no doubt the Enlightenment had in mind), then that would also be colonialism, but a good sort of colonialism.

    • The short counter is to disagree with the assumption “that European culture is better or superior.” Better how? Who judges? If Jefferson was right that it is self-evident that all are created equal, by what criteria does one person judge his or her culture superior to another’s? Enlightenment ideals and Eurocentric colonialism are not the same thing, as I tried to point out in the article.

      • European culture is better by a great number of standards. Europe is the birthplace of democracy, capitalism, science, egalitarianism, logic, etc. You ask who judges culture. I answer: universal human reason. If Jefferson was right that all men are created equal, then there you have yet another reason to claim the superiority of European culture. For, European egalitarianism must be superior to Oriental despotism.
        We may judge that one culture is better than another by common-sense criteria. If you refuse to accept that no culture is superior to another culture, then you are a cultural relativist. After all, it seems to me that contrary to what you claim, you are indeed a postmodernist.
        As for Enlightenment and imperialism, I think you are wrong. Enlightenment did promote the ideology of imperialism. But, imperialism is not necessarily a bad thing. If you promote universal values (as the philosophes did), you are practicing a sort of cultural imperialism. But, I insist, that is good imperialism.

  2. This is the first time that anyone’s ever accused me of being a postmodernist — you’ve managed to take me aback for a moment! I think that a better word would be anti-imperialist.

    I believe that it’s quite possible to be both a rationalist and an anti-imperialist. I agree that there are universal values, but they are seldom to be found in the history of Western culture. And I believe that they should be spread not by might but by reason and example. Actual and economic slavery, mercantile resource stripping, imposed religion — these are but a few of the evils of colonialism. It’s one thing to share your ideals and your culture with new neighbours; it’s quite another to use material superiority to force your control onto savages. Not much equality or democracy there. As I wrote in the article, I lay the blame for these excesses at the feet of Christian exceptionalism.

    If you’re not already familiar with it, you might want to take a look at Why the West Rules — for Now, which I reviewed here recently. It has much to say about the notion that Western culture dominated because it is somehow superior.

    • Ok, so let me get you straight. You agree that there are universal human values (and, in principle, some cultures could be better than others), but that Europe is really not all that great when compared to other cultures. And, you also claim that such values must be universalized, but not by force.
      If that is what you believe, then I grant you are not a postmodernist. However, I disagree with you on a few points. First, I think that, after a detailed comparison with other cultures, the West is best. I may partly agree that it is better to spread universal values through reason, persuasion and example, and not through force. But, I do not think this always works. Chamberlain tried to persuade Hitler to adopt Enlightenment values. That did not work. I will not deny that imperialists used Enlightenment ideas as a cheap excuse for depredation. But, we must not reject out of hand that, sometimes the bayonet is a legitimate means for the spread of Enlightenment values. Napoleon’s invasions brought an end to progroms, the Inquisition, and a great deal of feudal institutions.
      You claim to be anti-imperialist. I understand what you mean (I suppose you condemn the Scramble for Africa, and so on). But, it seems to me the Enlightenment entails at least CULTURAL imperialism, and we should not be ashamed to be cultural imperialists. The Enlightenment tries to destroy pre-modern culture, and replace it with modernity. That is a form of cultural imperialism, but I insist, that is good imperialism. Not all imperialism is bad.

      • We’re coming down to semantic differences now, except for one point: “… sometimes the bayonet is a legitimate means for the spread of Enlightenment values” — no, we very much disagree on this point.
        I’ve posted my views on versions of this topic: Conquistadors, communists and the blame for atrocity and Keep your hands off! are two instances.

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