20 thoughts on “The dialectic of Enlightenment”

  1. Excellent entry
    VERY concise and excellent summary of your basic thoughts Mr. Kalb. I like it.

    Looking forward to reading your book.

  2. Scope
    I really must take exception to the notion that some monolithic structure of ideas called “The Enlightenment” was supposed to in some absolute way make everything perfectly clear. Seems a bit of a straw man.

    Let’s define the term first. By The Enlightenment do you mean to refer specifically to European political philosophy of the 18th Century? If not restricted to that, then do you also mean other realms of inquiry such as science? Would you include thinkers prior to 1700 or do you exclude Hobbes, Locke, and Newton? Later than 1800 or would you exclude much of the social engineering (Jeremy Bentham, John Dewey, Karl Marx) and the engineers (Napolean Bonaparte, Lincoln, FDR, Barack Obama perhaps) that implemented Enlightenment principles?

    Perhaps limiting your critique to a specific philosopher might be a more fruitful take off point for conversation.

    • I didn’t say “The Enlightenment”
      I said “enlightenment.” The entry identifies a defect in a strategy of thought. How can that be a straw man?

      • Even worse
        That seems an even more general and less meaningful statement. Do you mean Buddhist transcendence of the cycle of re-incarnation? Or that any acquisition of knowledge at all is defective? Use of the scientific method to shine a metaphorical light of insight upon the causes of heretofore unexplained physical phenomenon is certainly one of the working definitions. What exactly is defective with say, Ohm’s law? Where is it said that becoming enlightened in the particulars of something implies that all things are knowable? Science does not make that claim. Please, er, enlighten me.

        • My guess
          I guess I didn’t read the entry as just or particuarly referring to the natural sciences. Rather I think it refers to a pattern of thought that’s now fairly dominant. Anything that’s not explicitly demonstrable (demonstrability sometimes including but not limited to the hard sciences) is excluded as a possible source of authority, with the one exception being liberal principles themsleves. Many things are still allowable (provided they meet certain criteria) but merely as what you or I “like.” My interactions with real people every day more or less validates (at least in my mind) Mr. Kalb’s view. I’d think this is basically why traditional sources of authority were discarded. This is also why the rhetorical “why not?” was and is so effective.

          • The liberal principle
            Traditional sources of authority were discarded not in the least way because they were based on falsifiable superstitions that did not provide tangible material benefits to the peasant masses. Industrial capitalism did and the only liberal principle left in the industrial world is a degenerate utilitarianism best described as the greatest number of consumer goods for the greatest number of consumers. Political discourse centers around factions promoting more efficiency of production versus those more concerned with fairness of distribution. The only illiberal principle with any significant number of adherents among elites today is a vaguely paganistic environmentalism and even that only in those societies that already enjoy a surfeit of goods.

            I don’t think most technocrats running industrial society are particularly interested in enlightenment per se unless it directly aids in increasing production and I don’t think they ever did.

          • Discourse is highly ordered
            Very few people are interested in grammar but they can’t communicate at all well without language and every language has a complex and exacting grammar. The same applies to basic philosophical understandings. People can’t discuss things unless they have common principles that tell them what’s real and what makes sense.

          • Superstition vs metaphor
            Chemical analysis showing wine is not blood after it is prayed over. Double blind tests of drug therapies that show patients cured of infectious diseases by anti-biotics while showing that prayer has no more effect on curing the same disease than any other placebo. Edwin Hubble discovering the red shift and thereby proving that the universe is quite a bit older than 6000 years.

            I’m not necessarily trying to play the village atheist in the manner of a Dawkins or Hitchens here. I think religious practices contain quite a bit of culturally acquired folk wisdom and indeed are a useful way for many to navigate their lives in a communal fashion as long as the religion retreats from literal interpretations of ancient texts and declares that these beliefs are just metaphors. Catholicism has gotten into the habit in the last hundred years or so of doing this very well. They are currently rehabilitating Galileo and to the extant that the church fathers have argued for the existence of God by the existence of natural law I think they are at least in the ballpark of credibility. However when James Hagee or some other fundamentalist bible thumping lunatic declares that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment against the city fathers of New Orleans for allowing homosexuals to stage a parade within the city limits, I don’t think it does much to further the religious cause.

          • Transubstantiation is NOT a superstition.
            It has a solid philosophical basis. People always had chemical detectors called taste buds. The fact that people didn’t taste blood/flesh didn’t/doesn’t stop them from believing.

            Miracles are, by definition, rare.

            God did/does/will punish homosexuality though I have no reason to believe Katrina was a specific example of this.

            Take up the rest of your issues with the fundies.

          • Stupid or insane?
            What “philosophical” basis is that? Certainly not one based on reality. And those that believe are either so stupid as to ignore their own functioning sense organs or they are insane, although we mustn’t rule out the possibility that they may very well be lying when they say they believe.

          • You don’t know what you are talking about
            I am not Catholic and do not believe in transsubstantiation of the elements of the Eucharist/communion. Even so, I understand enough of the concept to know why it is ignorant to think that chemical analysis of the wine would be relevant.

            You really should learn what you are talking about before boring everyone with your verbosity.

        • An aphorism is illuminating or not
          Explaining one is like explaining a joke, so I’m not sure the discussion is going to be worth the effort.

          Anyway, the term “enlightenment” was intended to refer to a demand for clarity and perspicuity of thought as an overall guide to life. The problem is that

          “it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”

          [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.]

          So if you always demand complete clarity and perspicuity, and that’s your standard for what makes sense, you’re not going to be able to deal with everything intelligently. In fact, you’re likely to classify a lot of things as nonsense to be ignored that are nothing of the kind.

          BTW, the answers to your questions, in order, are:

          Nothing that I know of.
          No idea.

          • Reasoning
            Whether arrived at by induction or deduction a conclusion that is true for either the mathematician or the rhetorician is true for the other.

            Getting back to the point, it still seems that you are setting up a straw man with your propositions. “Enlightenment” is simply a mode of knowing the particular causes of something. Unless you still mean to imply that the term “enlightenment” starts with some sort of transcendent capital “E”, which you say it does not, then the statement that “Enlightenment was supposed to make everything perfectly clear.” is not valid as you admit when you say you have “no idea” where the idea came from.

            That some persons, who may or may not have achieved varying degrees of enlightenment about some particular matters, “always demand complete clarity and perspicuity” or “ignor(e) everything that can’t be made perfectly clear, acting as if such things don’t exist and can’t possibly exist” may very well be true and might possibly matter, but it in no way diminishes the enlightenment they may have reached about some other phenomenon. I have concluded that when traveling about the city on foot that it is unwise to step out in front of a speeding bus, that ascertaining loose correlations between a companies’ past performance and future earnings can be quite profitable, and I also don’t lose any sleep over what was the first cause of the “big bang.”

            It does not follow that the demand for clarity and perspicuity (enlightenment) is a demand for a “completeness” in same nor does it cause anyone to necessarily ignore things they oughtn’t to. If you really think the idea of “enlightenment” in and of itself does so then please come up with some concrete examples.

          • I’m puzzled
            You’ve written a lot, and left me in the dark as to what the issue is. I rather doubt that we’re discussing anything.

            Maybe it would help to say that clarity is a good thing, but it can’t be an ultimate standard or anything like an ultimate standard. The ultimate standards are truth, beauty, justice, etc. It seems to me that to take “enlightenment” as a leading standard is likely to mean an overemphasis on clarity and therefore a slighting of things that are important but not clear.

            Or maybe it wouldn’t help to say that. Human communication, and ways of thinking, remain to some degree a mystery. At least to me.

          • “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”
            But clarity is an ultimate standard and in fact is an integral part of both truth and beauty. To observe a rainbow for the first time as a child is to experience unenlightened beauty. To be enlightened to the fact that it is made up of billions of tiny water droplets acting as prisms just like the one in a sunny window only enhances the experience and provide an even greater sense of the beauty of the thing. William of Ockham’s principle that the simplest sufficient explanation is the truest holds for both mathematical proofs and explanations of physical phenomenon. The simpler proof is more elegant. Clarity is beauty.

            Your disparagement of enlightenment as something bad in that it causes a slighting of other important things seems very wrong to me. Where is this the case? Again, please give a concrete example of where the clear understanding of something causes a slighting of anything else.

          • Clarity is a good thing but
            Clarity is a good thing but subordinate. Reality comes first, and for us reality isn’t completely clear.

            Maximizing wealth is a clear personal and social goal. Achieving the good life is much less clear but superior as a goal.

          • Goals
            By stating that you have found the good life to be superior to maximizing wealth you are implying that you have defined what you mean by the good life well enough to make the distinction, otherwise how would you know that it is superior? I would maintain that it was the clarity of your definition of the good life that allowed you to do so.

            You also did not show how understanding with precision that what you mean by maximizing wealth, hampered in any way your ability to define, at any arbitrary level of necessary precision, what you mean by the good life.

            To be more concrete, let us assume you are the successful owner of a widget works and that you have a clear and precise understanding of what it takes to maximize your personal profits and that in the process of which you also clearly understand how it provides jobs for your workers and buys the products of your suppliers both of which are of obvious social benefit to your community. Current demand for your widgets would indicate factory expansion is in order in the pursuit of greater wealth for all concerned but to do so would require a greater amount of your time which is currently split between you and your wife raising your two children and you heading up fundraising for the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, both activities which you feel are of ultimately more “good” than turning out widgets. So much so in fact, that you are thinking of eliminating the second shift at the factory through attrition as that would in turn allow you to spend time meditating with an Indian guru who has just opened an ashram in the vicinity of your week-end place on the lake and in whose practice of philosophy you suspect may lie the answer to world peace.

            Firstly, how does your clarity in understanding what it takes to maximize wealth in the capitalist system (reality in this country if I’ve ever heard of any) hinder your ability to achieve understanding about what you need to do to in order to achieve the superior good life. Secondly, the superiority of your definition of the good life seems to allow a partial enlightenment in regards to it to trump maximizing wealth even as that enlightenment as to what is the maximal good life is, is not completely understood.

          • Common ground
            I’ve said clarity is a good thing. I’d agree that if we lack clarity so absolutely that we have no idea whatever about a thing then we can’t take the thing into account. It seems to me those two concessions, if they’re concessions, take care of the points you’ve raised.

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