Philosophy Hammer
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The Counter-Enlightenment
Original Article By: Isaiah Berlin
The Proper Study of Mankind An Anthology of Essays
Major Topic: Philosophy
Minor Topic: History


         Two of the most foundational convictions of the French Enlightenment were: (1) the sovereignty of reason and (2) observation as the only method to knowledge. In short: rationalism, empiricism and universalism. These ideas were opposed by religious thinkers and their institutions. However these ideas were most powerfully challenged by the relativist and skeptical tradition which had their origin in the ancient Greek world.

         These two main ideas of the French Enlightenment presupposed and were dependent on a more fundamental idea; that of Natural Law. The essence of Natural Law is made up of three assumptions: (1) that human nature is unchanging in both time and place, (2) that there are true and logically connected laws that can be objectively validated and can cover every aspect of the world and of the human condition and (3) that the methods of physics could be applied to ethics, politics and all that is human.

         Against this Natural Law system of ideas, and dating back to the ancient Greek sophists, were ideas that morality, institutions and laws were based on fluctuating human customs and practice. Later in the 16th and 17th centuries, ideas skeptical of the Enlightenment were famously presented by many authors. For example: (1) Cornelius Agrippa who wrote “Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and Arts” in 1526. It was a skeptical satire denouncing the pathetic state of science at his time. (2) Michel de Montaigne who wrote in his 1580 “Essais” about the inability of humans to find certainty. (3) Pierre Charron who in 1601 published “De la Sagesse” and concludes that outside of revealed religion a wise man doubts everything. These writers' influences extended to the protestant reformers and the Jansenist of the Catholic Church. (4) Jean Bodin who in 1576 in his work “Six Books of the Commonwealth” wrote about climate shaping people's characters and institutions. Later he also wrote a dialogue between members of different religions who could only agree to peacefully co-exist. (5) Montesquieu who in 1721 in his “Persian Letters” wrote a satire on the absurdities of French customs and society. These last two writers laid a profound challenge to the universality presumption of the Enlightenment and of Natural Law. (6) Most influential and most damaging to the premises of Natural Law and the Enlightenment was David Hume. He challenged the doctrine causality and severed the supposed links between fact and value.

         Up to this point, all these thinkers did believe that there were universal and ultimate ends for men and that we could know them. What these ends were, how to know them and how to arrive at them was the point of contention.

         Giambattista Vico radically disagreed. Mathematics, he claimed, was a method not a body of truths. It helps us map out some regularities but it cannot help us find the “why” and the “what for” of things. Therefore we cannot really know the external world. Essential human activities are first and most importantly naturally expressive (they are not first and most importantly useful). We do not work to live – rather we live to express ourselves. Each culture speaks to itself, to its own common life with its own genuine means of expression – which may not be easily understood to an outsider.

         For Vico all cultures were unique, therefore there could not be one standard of truth. Without a standard of truth Vico denied the eternality of Natural Law. Without an eternal Natural Law, the author claims, the entire project of the Enlightenment falls apart.

         Johann Georg Hamann went further: all truth is particular never general. Reason is not able to discover anything but is useful for categorizing. To comprehend is to be spoken to. Real experience comes from direct comprehension. Accordingly anyone who has anything important to say must speak to the senses (or more romantically: they must speak to the heart).

         Hamann claimed that analysis twists, misshapes and in fact destroys reality. So rationalism and science were paradoxical in that their stated claim was contradicted and subverted by their method. Rules are deadly; they may have some social utility but nothing great ever came from following them. Hamann criticized utility and utilitarianism; men are not solely utilitarian, men do not merely seek pleasure and avoid pain; rather men seek activity, they want to live and create, to love and hate, to eat and drink, to worship and sacrifice all often without good reason. To understand men one must consider, participate in, become a party to and a component of, the distinct situation in which men find themselves.

         Johann Gottfried Herder spurned the idea of progress. Societies do not progress; they merely change. They cannot be judged except by their own internal criterion.

         Justus Mцser supported Herder's thesis by claiming that every event has its own fashion, mood, guise, character and local reason that cannot be universal.

         Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi claimed that the soul and the intellect are incompatible.

         For Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling there was a central non-rational force in the universe that must be grasped through intuition.

         These Counter-Enlightenment ideas supported a branch of Romanticism that claims all human activity is a form of self-expression. This spirit of Romanticism facilitated the emergence of dangerous nationalism and class identification – both of which are counter to the Enlightenment project.

         This self expressing spirit can have a purpose or not. The Idea that there is no purpose was championed by Schopenhauer and existentialism. These notions, rejecting the Enlightenment, occurred over a wide spectrum both conservative and liberal as well as reactionary and revolutionary.

         The self expressing spirit's purpose with conservative and reactionaries tended to look back nostalgically on an “Idea” of the creative spirit. The Liberals and/or revolutionaries and some Romantics broke off into two wings. The left wing sought to radically reform society and the other wing, were those who, looking at the inner life, sought to radically cultivate the self.

         All Enlightenment thinkers rejected the Christian dogma of original sin. Men were born good or at least neutral and could be taught to be good.

         Counter-Enlightenment thinkers often did not believe that men were naturally good rather they more commonly believed men were naturally evil. Joseph de Maistre claimed that man is not naturally good nor is it possible to educate him to be good. History and biology show otherwise. Men want to sacrifice themselves or others – that is what men find fulfilling. Men are evil, self-destructive and full of opposing passions. Men need an unreasonable all powerful church or state. It must be unreasonable because reasonableness leads to questions and doubt. He believed that the human nature championed by the Enlightenment was a make-believe pipe dream. The freedom and peace that men have known has only happened under authoritarian governments. Education was not enough to control the passions – but fear of the executioner – that was enough.

         Nations have a common soul visible in their language claimed L.G.A. Bonald who also believed that family, language and God were all that was real and enduring. Specifically he was against commercial society and the new bonds of the contract. Only the church should and could hold back the best so that all may have a chance to prosper.

         Monarchist politics, Romantic heroism, nationalism, imperialism were the outgrowths of counter-enlightenment ideas. In the worst cases the fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century.

Added on: 2009-05-03 11:14:27
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren