Thursday, August 26, 2010

SEP on ENlightenment

I love the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is why I try to read (well, scan) most of new and updated entries. You can, too:
So, I really don't want to be known for kvetching about SEP (as I did recently:

But while I picked on the Copernicus article because of my own (no doubt rather eccentric) pet-peeves, the entry on "Enlightenment" is based on claims that do not withstand scrutiny. It is also clearly informed by a self-serving German (if not outright Kantian as understood by certain Rawlsians) historiography of Enlightenment. (This dawned upon me when I read that "Only late in the development of the German Enlightenment, when the Enlightenment was near its end, does the movement become self-reflective." Such a bizarre claim is only possible because Rousseau, who famously challenged the value of Enlightenment, is treated as an entirely moral-political thinker; his three Discourses are not even mentioned in the bibliography! [The secondary literature bibliography is rather limited.]

In what follows, I have tried to emphasize the HPS relevance of my concern. (This is not a reach because Newton plays a crucial role in the narrative:
So when WIlliam Bristow writes, "It belongs centrally to the agenda of Enlightenment philosophy... to provide a metaphysical framework within which to place and interpret this new knowledge" he imposes the Kantian conception onto the subject; for many Enlightenment thinkers natural philosophy makes metaphysics irrelevant.)

Here are two claims from the entry's very first paragraph that reveal some of the article methodological and historical flaws:
I. "Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution." If we think in strict calendar-periods--then one might be inclined to agree. But a) now it looks like the French [why not American?] Revolution is a kind of teleological outcome of Enlightenment thought; this goes against the self-understanding of a lot of politically-gradualist Enlightenment thinkers (especially in Scotland). And b) if the Enlightenment is a kind of regulative ideal (for future-oriented action), then the French revolution may mark the real (as opposed to merely theoretical) possibility of Enlightenment, but by no means its completion. (Think of Lincoln at Gettysburg who turned the US Constitution into an open-ended project.) This option not irrelevant for those (i.e., many eighteenth century historians) that wish to have a *science of history* that can shape the future. C) Why think that Enlightenment must culminate in political events rather than in a change of attitudes or knowledge?

II "The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles."
Well, no. A lot of philosophy (including natural philosophy) remained in some respects a handmaiden of theology or natural theology. Newtonianism routinely got connected with theological (theo-cosmological) arguments. (It is as if Weber and Merton never wrote.) Many of the folk that are most eager to see philosophy end its handmaiden role (Spinoza, Hume, Diderot) are also most ambivalent about the course of mathematical natural philosophy. [Not to mention that there is now a very rich literature on Catholic Enlightenments.]
The whole article conflates secularization and the advancement of science (as well as the idea of progress).

I could go on and on, paragraph by paragraph (and maybe I will in future postings), but this is long enough for now.


  1. You should probably send the editors a note. I know other articles where there have been complaints have been rewritten.

  2. I mostly agree with the critic, however I'm not sure if looking for "change of attitudes or knowledge"is feasible. While a political event is pretty much identifiable, like the storming of the Bastille, a change of attitudes, even in a specific social group, and the emergence of a new knowledge are more then often not. In other words, I'm not sure if there is a problem with using a political event as historical guidepost rather then using any other event, and I'm not sure because I can't see another option to that practice. We would only change one kind of event for another kind, and would do it arbitrarily, without really grasping the completude of the historical movement.

  3. Rousseau as the first post-Enlightenment philosopher? Father to egalitarianist thinking?