Kant’s question “What is Enlightenment?” has echoed down through Western social thought since late 18c, receiving many answers and prompting much debate. Kant suggested that the primary characteristic of Enlightenment was an intellectual self-reliance that eschewed traditional political and religious authority. His faith in the sovereignty of the human rational capacity, a capacity that could independently corroborate the order inherent in the moral world, would become one of the defining characteristics of modernity, and an object of debate for writers who followed him.
Enlightenment, according to the OED, refers both to the process of ‘bringing someone to a state of greater knowledge, understanding, or insight’ and to that subsequent state itself. Early recorded instances appear in 17c religious texts, such as Robert Aylett’s translation of the Song of Songs: “The Word, without the Spirits enlightenment, Is as good Seede sown on vntilled ground” (1621). While such attainment can refer to any sort of knowledge, it often carries a spiritual or charismatic charge, as in Buddhism where it is synonymous with “nirvana,” the spiritual awareness that releases a person from cycles of rebirth and suffering (cf. OED1c).
“The Enlightenment”—with definite article and capitalization—comes to stand for the project of rational and scientific inquiry that characterized eighteenth-century Europe (OED 1b). After the German ‘Aufklärung’, or illumination, it designated an intellectual movement that sought to schematize natural and social knowledge. Following on the Scientific Revolution and the work of Newton in particular, there was a general optimism about the power of man’s intellect, its ability to control nature, and to improve human life.
What one thinks of the Enlightenment often depends on how one interprets the values that come to be associated with it. While the unity of the “Enlightenment project” has rightfully been questioned by scholars such as J.G.A. Pocock and Jonathan Israel among others, several strains of social and political thought are usually identified with it. First among them would be a model of rationalism similar to that espoused by Kant: one in which a priori knowledge of the sensible world can serve as a sufficient platform from which to reconcile Newtonian science with traditional morality. While social contract theory had antecedents in the seventeenth century, Enlightenment writers such as Rousseau began to theorize notions of individual and communal consent as the primary basis of political legitimacy. This vision of contractual political affiliation was, in turn, based on an expanded notion of rights, both natural and legal, that were seen to undergird the sovereignty of the state (in contrast to the monarch). Perhaps the most radical idea to emerge was a confidence in the viability of political pluralism, an optimism that multiple independent constituencies could co-exist and could form an alternative to homogenous systems that had little tolerance for dissent or divergent ideologies.
While these values were celebrated by many Enlightenment writers, others criticized the philosophical temper of the time as individualistic, even atomistic, marked by an anti-religious empiricism that exacerbated the divide between science and faith. The drive to universalize experience, to look for what was common to human nature and then to extract a practical morality from it, was deemed dangerous since it was thought to lead to a moral relativism. Finally, the increased emphasis on rights was assumed by some to reduce human relations to “mere contract,” negating a framework of deeper ethical and interpersonal obligation.
To a large extent, the identity of the Enlightenment has been, according to James Schmidt, “the creature of its critics.” In this spirit, the reception of the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often devolved into a referendum on what a given writer thought about the French Revolution and its conception of human freedom. On its own account, the Revolution attempted to put into practice a political system based on the fundamental equality of all moral agents, to replace monarchy with an experiment in mass democracy. On Edmund Burke’s more hostile account, by contrast, the achievement of political liberty and anti-authoritarianism was purchased at the cost of traditional mores. When respect for religion and “natural” social distinction was lost, he argued, so too was the reformers’ ideal of human equality. For Hegel, another Revolutionary dissenter, the road of reason ran straight to the guillotine. For twentieth-century critics, the referendum is more frequently imagined to be on the idea of modernity itself (along with the teleological notion of progress which is seen to underwrite it). Horkheimer and Adorno lament that the project of the Enlightenment remains unfinished, because philosophers put too much stock in an “instrumental rationality”—the twin perils of technology and bureaucracy—that contributed to the violence of the twentieth century.
While some still champion the Enlightenment values that shaped the modern liberal subject, critics have laid a variety of ills at the Enlightenment’s rather broad front stoop: from slavery to colonialism to Nazi genocide. Edward Said long ago identified the Enlightenment as the master sign of both Orientalism and colonialism. While this critique is certainly valid for writers such as Locke, several Enlightenment philosophers (including Spinoza, Bayle, and even Kant) explicitly reject colonialist models that valued ends over means. Nonetheless, modern critics (such as John Gray and Alasdair Macintyre) have insisted that the standard of rational utility instituted by the Enlightenment makes it imperative that we continue to ask: whose reason? useful to whom? The flip-side of valuing individuals in terms of their democratic potential or social productivity (rather than birth or other natural endowments) was the tendency to view human bodies as if they were raw materials. In this way, the term’s legacy still activates the east-west binary insofar as the colonial project relied on a rhetoric of ‘enlightening’ that encouraged the ventriloquism of an individualistic rights-based liberalism.
Debate over the Enlightenment’s legacy was renewed in the wake of 9/11, when some commentators framed the emerging geopolitical situation as a battle between Enlightenment secularism and the irrational religious fundamentalism intent on destroying it. Those who did not rally to the Enlightenment barricades were dismissed misguided multiculturalists or postmodern relativists (the latter charge interestingly an echo of charges made against Enlightenment thinkers themselves by contemporaries). In such culture wars, the Enlightenment “has become an important emotional prop,” according to Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting (“Convenient myths: Trumpeting the Enlightenment as evidence for the superiority of western values is arrogant and misguided” The Guardian Weekly, April, 14, 2006, p. 6). The rhetoric of these culture wars is also found in Islamic sources; a Pakistani editorial lauds the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia for preaching that “some elements amongst the Muslims are propagating the ideas of enlightenment and socialism to distort the shape and teachings of Islam.” In the last 15 years, ‘enlightenment’ has become a new code word for tensions between east and west, secularism and faith.