Saturday, November 06, 2004

Enlightenment's unfinished project

I am concerned to correct a certain misconception which might arise from my choice of title for this blog, and from some of the posts I’ve made to it.

As for its literal meaning, I noted in my inaugural post that the title Dem Wahren, Schönen, Guten is a German phrase which makes use of three abstract nouns: das Wahre, ‘the true’, das Schöne, ‘the beautiful’, and das Gute, ‘the good’. It puts these nouns into the dative case (the das becomes dem, the –e endings become –en endings). The dative is used in German to mean ‘to’ or ‘for’ or ‘for the sake of’. For example, a German writer would devote a book to her parents simply by writing ‘my parents’ in the dative form: meinen Eltern. Another prominent example is the inscription on the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin. It reads Dem deutschen Volke, ‘For the German people’.

But the misunderstanding I want to anticipate is not a linguistic one. Rather I am concerned that the title and the tenor of some of the posts, particularly where I speak of Kant and Hegel in an approving light, might give a one-sided impression of the philosophical position I would adhere to. Both the title and those references are to be taken in a rhetorical sense. I think particularly of the title as a response to certain prevalent characteristics of our so-called “post-modern” era, with its idolisation of democracy as it exists (as against what it would be, if one day it were to live up to its concept), its “everyone is entitled to their opinion” relativism, which betrays truth and the people in the name of the people. The critique of enlightenment rationality, itself a piece of enlightenment, has been put in the service of an apology for irrationalism. By devoting my blog to the good, the true and the beautiful I do not mean to go back on that critique and to make a Platonic statements about the existence of certain supra-historical categories that would answer to those descriptions. Rather I seek to put up a reminder that we have to start from enlightenment, the pursuit of reason, before we can recognise the value and function of its critique.

In Australia (and, I would venture, in the United States) we never had a strong enlightenment tradition such as thrived in France and Germany. There it was always clear that the critique of enlightenment meant its self-reflection. Here we started by throwing out the baby before swallowing the bath-water.

The great philosophies of radical enlightenment demand thorough critique. But we need to approach them, following Walter Benjamin's line, as lovingly as a cannibal spicing a baby.

Good old-fashioned enlightenment still has a lot to offer us.

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