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Blog: Humanist Voices

baron dholbach 2The Electronic Enlightenment is "the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century — reconstructing one of the world's great historical "conversations."" Alas, a subscription is required, but it may very well be worth the cost for students of this pivotal historical period.

(Picture: Baron D'Holbach, 1723-1789)

What is enlightenment?, asked Kant. In his famous essay he wrote, "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment."

Like a road whose end is continually out of sight, "What is enlightenment?" is a question we always walk with through time, with both the nature of the question and our answer to it changing in light of understanding. How do we define enlightenment today? What does it take to reach independent and reasoned judgments about things? How do we define independent? How many of us are really able to achieve a kind of autonomy in our reflections and judgments?

Contrary to the rhetoric of contemporary humanism, the French philosopher Foucault argued that, "I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity."[1] He cites various historical examples of humanism--scientific rationalism followed by romantic reaction, later Marxism, existentialism, and even National Socialism (this last--a questionable assertion, to say the least).

How might we characterize humanism, or humanisms, today? Are there forms, tendencies or discourses of humanism that take us closer or further from enlightenment? Does the hyper-rationalism of some expressions of organized secularism open itself up to the criticism of being a form of ironic unreason? Is religious humanism necessarily a partial regression?

However we answer these questions, the quest of enlightenment never ends, nor should it. We must be continually recreating ourselves and updating our human systems in light of the knowledge we acquire through science and experience generally. We emerge from and in turn recreate systems that either liberate or impede. Liberation is an active tense form of life, "nonage" in Kant's usage only requires we keep on doing that with which we're already familiar.

In the 17th through 19th centuries, the mail system, the affluence to buy books or receive education, having access to salons or intellectual forums--these may have been the chronometers according to which Enlightenment history set its pace. We now have the internet going for us. However, we are still relatively early in the historical process of universal liberation, and unprecedented access to information is just as likely to produce reinforcement of delusion and discovery of new error as it is to generate enlightened transformation. While the resources of the Electronic Enlightenment are intrinsically worthy of study, these earlier pioneers of Enlightenment rationalism no doubt still have something to teach us today.


[1] p. 44 in "What is Enlightenment?" in Foucault Reader (1984), edited by Paul Rabinow.



-Eric Snyder





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