Reinventing the Enlightenment

Reinventing the Enlightenment

The two previous columns (I and II) have suggested the limitations of ideologies and fundamentalisms, and the need to adopt an increasingly difficult, but increasingly important, individual authenticity in response to the challenge of the anthropogenic world. But we should also aim higher, seeking no less than the regeneration and reinvention of the Enlightenment.

The anthropogenic world is many things, but perhaps most importantly it is the culmination of the project of the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian Eurocentric West. Technologies and intellectual achievement from cultures around the world, from Islam to China to India, were gathered in the West, built into technologies and institutional inventions such as the nation-state and capitalism, and became the platform for the anthropogenic Earth. But while the Enlightenment and the concomitant scientific revolution represented the triumph of rationality and eventually modernity over a predominantly rural reactionary traditionalism, its brilliant colors are fading, predictably so.

For the Enlightenment goes forward now not as it finally expressed itself in the guise of technologically sophisticated high modernity, but as it is transcending itself, as the grounds of something new. And it does so because only a self-transcending culture can hope to be a globalizing culture. Thus, the Enlightenment prospered because its strongest critics were internal: Freud destroying the myth of the rational self; Marx destroying simplistic capitalism; Nietzsche destroying metaphysics; Darwin destroying the Bible as literal truth; the postmodernists destroying simplistic rationalism; environmentalism attacking materialism and consumerism. Thus the irony of cultural dominance: the Enlightenment succeeds only to the extent it negates itself as "truth". Hegel's dialectic is powerful: the genius of the Enlightenment culture was to internalize it.

But if this is the case, how can one possibly call for reinventing the Enlightenment? In today's tumultuous world, Voltaire and the Enlightenment faith in reason appear weak and, indeed, almost simplistically idealistic. And in fact the Enlightenment goes forward now only as it is able to become the ground of something new, as it transcends its European origins. The Eurocentric world evolved into modernity, but modernity, a brittle structure based on the nation-state and defined elites, has in turn fragmented into postmodernity, and a complexity that obsoletes existing intellectual and cultural systems. While one must be open about the dominance of Western eschatologies and values, for that is where we have come from, we must also realize that they carry within them self-transcendence, and embrace that dynamic. What grows from this point will not be the Enlightenment that has been, for that historical stage is past.

But the legacy is not just cultural, for the Enlightenment supported the evolution of the anthropogenic Earth, with its "natural" systems that increasingly are encompassed in cognitive networks grounded in human intentionality. To think of the carbon and nitrogen cycles, the biosphere, or the climate system without thinking of human institutions and systems is no longer realistic; they are increasingly elements of human economics, politics and cultures. Indeed, they can be perceived only through the lenses of our cultural constructs and mental models, and more important our technologies. Thus, the original Enlightenment itself shattered against the increasingly complexity of the cognitive systems it enabled, leaving the only ethical route available to us that of internalizing and transcending, not denying or oversimplifying, the complexity we have already wrought.

The challenge, then, is to create a new Enlightenment, not one that reflects only a single culture or tradition, but one that embraces multicultural patterns and mutually exclusive but valid ontologies; not one that assumes an increasingly unrealistic static stability, but one that internalizes constant dialog, change, and unpredictable evolution; not one that encourages reactionary fundamentalisms of any stripe, but one that demands authentic individuals and institutions. Such an Enlightenment arises from, but cannot be sought, in the past; it reflects, but must move beyond, obsolete and increasingly dysfunctional ideologies and wistful utopian fantasies. The choice is not, as some would have it, to deny the anthropogenic world that is already here, for that is simply moral cowardice in the face of challenge and complexity. Rather, it is to grow into our responsibilities, and to learn to be rational, ethical and authentic within a contingent and constantly evolving framework. In doing so, we reinvent yet again the vision of the human in a context undreamt of only a few hundred years ago by those who faced their own unknown, and at that time unprecedented, complexity. Perhaps, like them, we can grow ourselves to create a truly authentic world, and in our turn validate our promise as sentient beings.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.