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Post Enlightenment

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.

Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought.

I have a mixed response to this article by Neal Gabler. Perhaps because the author of a book entitled Walt Disney: the Triumph of American Imagination shouldn't really be hassling people for not being thoughtful enough anymore.

Yet, there were parts I did agree with. I do think that we are living in an anti-intellectual society, wherein there is such a thing as being too intelligent, and that a lot of people view this as a valid criticism of work (I don't, but I'll spare you the rant). It's not uncommon to see men and women who are intellectuals, be they scientists or philosophers, marginalised by groups and organisations that view these opinions to be in a war against their profits or faith. The 'debate' on global warming, for example, is one, but there's a long history of it. Tobacco companies organising studies to prove that smoking doesn't harm your health, is another. Without to much work, each one of us could find an example.

However, I don't think that social media is to blame, or has even a part of the lack of 'big thoughts' that Gabler laments. When he turns on twitter, he sounds like an old man, trying to get the kids off the lawn, and comes across as someone who hasn't had a serious experience with social media. Big thoughts, as he should well know, can be conveyed in 140 letters, should the person behind such ideas wish to put them in such a position. Sure, a lot of that big thought--the explanation, workings, detail--is kept elsewhere, in the head of the person responsible for the idea, but so what? It also ignores the fact that, while Gabler talks a lot about individuals, that there is a lot of communal big thinking. That, to be honest, a lot of big ideals and big theorists are aware of and influenced by, anyway. Nothing is born out of a vacuum.

Still, it was food for thought, and I do agree that sadly we give too much credit to unfounded and unreasoned and irresponsible information in the world.


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Aug. 18th, 2011 08:34 am (UTC)
Perhaps because the author of a book entitled Walt Disney: the Triumph of American Imagination shouldn't really be hassling people for not being thoughtful enough anymore.

You are aware that per your standard publishing contract contract the author almost never has the final say in the title of their book, right? Blame the marketing department: his original title was quite possibly something like "Taking the Mickey: Walt Disney and the Decline of the American Enlightenment".
Aug. 18th, 2011 09:07 am (UTC)
well, yes. i am aware.

it is, however, still a book on walt disney, which was the joke, really.
Aug. 18th, 2011 10:53 pm (UTC)
I say that the idea - the corrosive, seductive idea that is the basis of so many memes - that the truth is obvious and can accessed without effort by the "sane" or "good" is very, very old. Just how old would take some serious research, but for now I will merely offer this quote from the Practica Inquisitionis by Bernado Gui, the 14th century papal Inquisitor. (trans. Peter Amann, in The Medieval World and its Transformations, ed. Gerald M. Straka, McGraw Hill, NY 1967)

"... for they [the Faithful] believe that we have at our disposal luminous and certain arguments that cannot be refuted, and that they expect us to be able to vanquish [the heretics] in such a way that even a layman can clearly follow the arguments. It is therefore inexpedient to debate matters of faith with heretics who are so astute."
Aug. 23rd, 2011 02:07 pm (UTC)
That article was a thinly veiled attempt to coin a catchphrase - 'post-Enlightenment thinking' - that doesn't describe the modern world terribly well.

The Enlightenment and positivist thinking came under a sustained assault in the 20th century - we had Special and General Relativity, the Michelson-Morley experiment, Gödel's Theorem, the Turing machine and the Halting Problem, the theory of chaotic dynamical systems, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, etc. All in some way delineated the limits of measurement, reasoning and accurate prediction. We disrupted natural systems in ways we hadn't foreseen - causing ecological disasters with introduced species, destroying the upper atmosphere, warming the planet, contaminating the countryside with long-lived radioactive material - and also artificial systems like the stock market proved to be analytically intractable.

In terms of human affairs we had equally telling blows struck against holistic ideological systems - they failed, plus atrocities. Likewise absolute value systems - we found them out with existentialism, post-structuralism, ambiguity, sexual revolution, liberalism and secularism.

I do not, at all, believe that ideas have become passé or less common. We have more than ever before, if anything. The public sphere is simply more full of more of the individuals who, throughout history, haven't been the ones to have them. Commentators, bloggers, our friends and family.

At the moment we're in a position where the proverbial low-hanging fruit of intellectual endeavour are, for the most part, picked and eaten. But we're by no means devoid of ideas - we're simply refining them more and more slowly and with a view to the hard limits of their applicability which are by now well established.
Aug. 24th, 2011 04:50 am (UTC)
i thought the term was a bit of an attempt to coin it, much like you, but today it was also explained to me that the term has been round for a while in the more conservative and hardcore christian groups who argue for a return to a simpler, more 'honest' way of life.

weird, hey?
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