'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,' Francisco Goya (1799)(Wikipedia)

The other day, at a university meeting, I heard a young professor refer scornfully to “the Enlightenment project,” which (she said) proclaimed that the growth of reason was conducive to a fantasy of ultimate perfection, a fantasy that in turn was used to justify colonial conquest.

For some 30 years now, this peculiar phrase has been bouncing around the academy: “the Enlightenment project.” It’s not meant, most of the time, as a compliment. Nor is it the name of Bob Dylan’s next album or Stephin Merritt’s latest band or the island park Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg propose to build (for a projected $140 million and change) over the Hudson River, though it might well serve for any or all.

To put it mildly, the phrase “Enlightenment project” is a term of indignant disavowal, as if it referred to a blueprint for the world’s biggest prison. By using it, the speaker casts an anathema, sometimes with a curl of the lip or a roll of the eyes. In this voice, “the Enlightenment project” means (more or less) the organization of thought, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe and its colonies, around a set of interlocked propositions:

1. the mind is a lone wolf;
2. its rational operations are predatory in that
3. they devalue women, people of color, and the colonized,
4. suppress ways of knowing other than the rational, Newtonian, Cartesian, and scientific,
5. and lead to seeing all of nature—the whole world outside the predatory ego, and in particular those seen as rightly subject to the domination of reason,
6. which is an ideological instrument cultivated by European males to rationalize their exercise of colonial and imperial power.

You might well ask what the Enlightenment had to say for itself? In 1784, its pivotal philosopher, Immanuel Kant, wrote a newspaper article, of all things, called “What Is Enlightenment?” proposing a rather different notion: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-inflicted immaturity. … ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.” Of all the ideas that clustered around the Enlightenment, infinite perfection through reason was one of the lesser strands. Far more important were critiques of unearned privilege, whether of throne, church, or property. Toward improvement? Surely. Perfection? Not hardly.

Subsequent philosophers and historians have made plain that the Enlightenment was not, and is not, a monolith. It was not even a proposition. Rather, it was a force-field of often conflicting arguments (Peter Gay), and it came in two main flavors, “moderate” and “radical” (Jonathan Israel). But what these variants of Enlightenment share is a commitment to reason—not as a cure-all or a final curriculum but as a means to know the world and, in the process, increase human well-being. This is not to say that a religious person is intrinsically unenlightened. It is to say that religious belief is not the way to ascertain, for example, the paths of the planets or the value of measles shots. It is also to say, whatever climate-change-denying cranks and perpetual-motion machine designers may think, that science does not produce graven tablets for eternal truths. It rightly revises ideas previously held firmly, even by scientists themselves. It’s not an end-point; it’s a journey.

For this reason, the Enlightenment is, to paraphrase German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, an “uncompleted project.” Crucially, it is self-correcting. The abominations that litter the history of modernity do not refute the value of the Enlightenment. To the contrary. They go to show that Enlightenment has to be fought for by those who believe in it, even when, as in much of the 18th century, it does not win popularity contests, and even when its practitioners commit gaffes.

In his article, Kant paid tribute to his sponsor, Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who planted the “enlightened” in the phrase “enlightened despot.” The Enlightenment moved on from such abject gratitude. It became the banner under which, in the name of liberty and equality, revolutions and reforms have been fought for since the American and the French. At first, its principles were indeed limited to white men of European origin. The Frenchwoman Olympe de Gouges (Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1791) and the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) immediately got the point: that they applied to women.

None of the attempts to build Enlightenment into the political world were without grave flaws. The American Constitution accepted the abomination of slavery, while the French abolished it on their territory, as did the Haitians, whose Constitution of 1801 fell rather far short of democracy by installing Toussaint Louverture as governor general for Life. So it goes in the Age of Enlightenment. The excluded accuse the authorities of hypocrisy and widen the circle of moral equality. The colonized fight Fraudulent Enlightenment with Inclusive Enlightenment. Gandhi was a partial exception, but even as he advocated deindustrialization he also fought furiously against Hindu extremism and clerical domination—the causes that got him assassinated.

So, it is true, but irrelevant, that Kant, among other Enlightenment luminaries, held the racist views that were the European staples of his time. It is also true that Newton was a devout Christian who found secret messages hidden in the Bible and that the great mathematician Kurt Gödel was obsessed with the fear that he would be poisoned if he ate any food not cooked by his wife—so much so that, when she was hospitalized, he starved himself to death. Kant’s arguments about the categorical imperative are no more contingent on his racism than Newton’s Laws are contingent on his religious views. Gödel’s proof that any mathematical system contained undecidable propositions is not canceled by his paranoia.

Those who scorn “the Enlightenment project” fail to realize how heavily they depend on the very reason they scorn or at least the reputation for reason, even as, instead of deep studies, they are encouraged to play games of citational gotcha: Pin the tail on Kant. They have little taste for the irony that the institutions that harbor them (such as the University of Illinois’ American Indian Studies Program), despite—or because of—their tendentious work, are places where the serious work of anticolonial scholarship gets done.

I teach at a university founded in 1754, smack dab in the middle of the Enlightenment, to provide an education that would “enlarge the Mind, improve the Understanding, polish the whole Man, and qualify them to support the brightest Characters in all the elevated stations in life.” Enlightenment permitted—indeed encouraged—the understanding that the Mind to be enlarged was not confined to males. The Enlightenment does not arrive fully formed on a platter of its own contrivance. People fight for it. Then ideas get corrupted, and the corruptions have to be resisted. The idea of higher education restricted to gentlemen is fought for in the name of meritocracy. And when an Enlightenment vocabulary is used to justify hereditary privilege (for example, in the tyranny of test scores), then it becomes necessary to fight against misuses of Enlightenment—in the name of more Enlightenment.

The scientific revolution established, as philosophers say, “conditions of possibility” for a vast expansion of the human life-span. It also made nuclear weapons possible. It’s dreadfully intertwined with a dominant growth fixation that overheats the atmosphere and melts the icecaps to such a degree as to threaten human civilization. And also—it’s the same scientific revolution that provides the tools to record the damage and clamor for a restart.

Will we take up those tools? Not if we toss away the Enlightenment with the bathwater.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.