Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Finding the proper place for The Enlightenment

Some Catholic commentators have taken to referring to the period our history books laudingly call "the Enlightenment" as "the Endarkenment". I sympathize with their desire to prick the balloons of intellectual hot air that academics with axes to grind of their own have made of that period of time. But I hesitate to relegate any period of history to intellectual condemnation. Isn't using a term like The Endarkenment akin to calling medieval society and culture The Dark Ages?

Godspy has a nice article called "Philosopher Charles Taylor wins the Templeton Prize for his work on bridging the gap between faith and reason". His approach seems more fruitful than consigning the post-medieval centuries to the lower rings of the Inferno.

It is difficult to condense 300 years of philosophy into a few sentences. But since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the social sciences have focused almost exclusively on "the individual" as the bearer of truth and dignity. In turn, this has lead to the identification of truth with an abstract domain of objective reason in opposition to history and tradition. As a consequence, moral principles have been recast as a social contract between rationally consenting individuals in a situation of idealised deliberation.

Hence, the ideal Enlightenment man is an isolated individual. He stands sceptically aloof from his church, community, and ancestry. By the same token, state and society are merely service-providers who protect his liberties and rights, manage conflict and competition, and provide various options for individual self-definition and atomistic consumption.

In the past, justice involved a shared conception of the moral good. Today, however, justice is a function of society's ability to provide for the material needs of citizens and safeguard their freedoms. The big questions of religion and the meaning of life have are dismissed as issues in which the state has no interest. The consequence of this excessive individualism, Taylor persistently argues, is that philosophers and social scientists have lost sight of the social and historical dimensions of truth and human personality.

He complains that contemporary moral theories are abstract and bloodless. They divorce the truth of moral principles from a proper understanding of what constitutes a good life for us human beings. Hence, they forget how central for us all is the question of meaning. What is the purpose of existence? From where have we come? Where will we go? What does it mean to live a good life? These are often dismissed as non-issues by contemporary philosophers.

But we cannot ignore spiritual realities in public life, Taylor argues: "A blindness to the spiritual dimension of human life makes us incapable of exploring issues which are vital to our lives. Or to turn it around and state the positive: bringing the spiritual back in opens domains in which important and even exciting discoveries become possible."

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