Director’s Note ~ Volume 11 / Spring 2008
Some years ago, writing about Stonehenge, archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes said that “every age gets the Stonehenge it desires, and,” she added, “deserves.” The subject may be different here, but the paraphrase is worth thinking about: every age gets the “Enlightenment” it wants. As the ambitious undertaking of this issue of the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs has shown, it is not easy to agree on precisely what we should think of when we think of the Enlightenment.
And that is no small matter. If we are to answer the question of whether we have reached the end of the Enlightenment, we have to know what to look for. If we are to answer the implied question, “Is it a good or bad thing?” it will surely depend on what we may believe were—or are—the defining characteristics of that era.
For most of us, our first introduction to the Enlightenment came in our undergraduate exposure to the writings of the eighteenth century philosophers who, motivated by the scientific successes of the seventeenth century—the empiricism of the English tradition and the logic of the French tradition (with many cross-Channel contributions)—argued that the “methods” of science could and should be extended to other aspects of life and to its social and political organization.
It was, of course, a reaction to what had gone before: religious wars, corruption, serfdom, and mysticism, with its attendant sense of helplessness to control one’s own destiny. But there was no inexorable logic to its consequences. Many view the American constitution, the development of our form of government, and the origins of religious freedom as natural outcomes of the Age of Enlightenment. So too, however, were the failed utopias of the nineteenth century. We recall that Karl Marx described his goal as “scientific socialism.” Indeed, the social problems of the industrial revolution gave rise to a nineteenth century push-back against “science” and its worldview, whether in the form of the Luddite protests or back-to-nature movements such as Thoreau’s. Moreover, even the powerful reasoning of René Descartes did not save him from propounding quaintly wrong science as well as failing to prove convincingly the existence of God.
So we are left to decide whether the Enlightenment refers to the triumph of reason, the declaration of the rights of man, the birth of democracy, the separation of church and state, the market economy, some combination of these developments, or some additional virtuous ideal. If I may ask, purely for the sake of argument, how would one distinguish a triumph of reason from a tyranny of reason? I recall a colleague of mine responding to what I thought was my reasoned dissection of the antagonistic questioning I had received while testifying before a state legislative committee by observing that I seemed to be approaching things from a “rational bias.”
And, of course, I do. But in the twenty-first century, subtle and troubling questions are being raised. Even in science, there is a serious discussion about the relative reliability of empiricism versus thought experiments—the latter really referring to intuition, though informed intuition. In the arena of political organization, we find it necessary to look more closely at what we may mean or should mean by separation of church and state, as evidenced by the great differences we find even within such similar societies as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Some of the developments in Asia force us to think about how closely success in a market economy depends upon political democracy. Some of the advances in science lead us to question how best to integrate reason, culture, aesthetics, ethical beliefs, and religious convictions in our legal and political structures.
The essays in this issue of the Journal, linked under the thematic question, “The End of the Enlightenment?” address a number, though certainly not all, of these issues: culture and group identity, economic development, religion, the meaning of modernity, and the ethical obligations of nations. The aim is not to answer the question, but to explore it, and to use the question to structure the exploration. These essays attest to the value of this approach, each related to the theme, each a contribution on its own.
It is notable, but not surprising, that the student staff of the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs has presented to us, in this collection of essays, a stimulating and valuable contribution. In the process the staff has engaged many of us in the Bologna Center community, myself included, in a dialogue about these issues. And if, in my earlier comments, there was a hint of skepticism about the slightly question-begging term “enlightenment,” let me admit to my own bias. For it is institutional structures and systems of belief that allow for open and questioning discourse, driven by curiosity about other people and other ways of thinking, constantly testing ideas, sometimes refining beliefs. That, after all, is what draws many of us to the study of international affairs. Without question, this issue of the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs enriches that dialogue.
Kenneth H. Keller
Director of the Bologna Center