“In the movement from Boehme to Bacon, there is a great step forward in precision and an equally great step backward in sensuousness”.
G.F.W. Hegel, History of Philosophy
Few people in the Western left today are very enthusiastic about defending the Enlightenment per se. And with good reason: its social legacy is in a shambles. In the 1945-1975 postwar expansion East, West, South and North, the “enlightened planner” (whatever the sordid reality) had cachet. Today, from Novossibirsk and Chernobyl to the dynamited high rise towers of St. Louis, by way of the giganticism of the semi-abandoned steel plants and superhighways built with Western and Soviet aid for now-forgotten Third World dictators, the planet is littered with the ruins of the bureaucratic appropriation of the Enlightenment project. A vigorous defense of the Enlightenment, as put forward by figures such as Habermas and his followers, might seem a breath of fresh air in the contemporary climate of post-modernism and “identity politics”, whose hostility to the Enlightenment, drawing on Nietzsche and Heidegger (often without knowing it) the Habermasians rightly decry. To seriously defend the Enlightenment today means to draw on a historical culture which is totally unfashionable, suspiciously “white male”, in the trendy academic radicalism of today. But such defenses also shows signs of not realizing how serious the problem is. One cannot today defend the Enlightenment (and we agree that a defense is necessary) with the ideas of the Enlightenment alone. However unpalatable it may be to do so in the contemporary climate, where the Enlightenment project is everywhere under attack by Nietzscheans, “cultural studies” ideologues, Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, Foucaultians, Afrocentrists and (most) ecologists, it is necessary to discuss the limits of the Enlightenment in order to defend it, and to go beyond it.
One of the more serious errors today, of those on the left who wish to critically defend the Enlightenment, is their hurry to draw a line of direct continuity from the Enlightenment to Marx.
The Enlightenment, following the French revolution, has always had its critics, such as Burke, de Maistre, Chamberlain and other figures of te 19th century counter- revolution. . But there was another critique of the Enlightenment afoot in Europe well before the French Revolution, the German Sturm und Drang movement, which included figures of no less stature than Herder and Goethe, and which prepared the way for another critique of the Enlightenment, romanticism. It is true that there are few romantics today, and consequently few post-modernist nihilists waste any breath attacking “the dialectic of romanticism”. The proto-romantic Sturm und Drang, and the romantic movement throughout Europe after 1800, added many elements to the revolutionary tradition. Winckelmann’s study of Greek art founded a Hellenophilism which was foreign to the Latin-Roman contours of the Enlightenment in France, and pointed toward a vision of community in the polis which inspired Hoelderlin (hardly an “Enlightenment” figure) and the early Hegel, in pointed rejection of the statism of most of the French Aufklärer. Out of the work of Herder (and the lesser-known Vico) came an understanding foreign to the Enlightenment that social institutions do not derive from abstract principles but are the factum, the product of history. Marx studied the work of the conservative German historical school of law, in order to appropriate elements of its organicist critique of the abstraction of the Enlightenment for the revolutionary movement. The romantic philosophers Schelling and Fichte developed an idea that also exists nowhere in the Enlightenment, except as adumbrated (at its end) by Kant: that human activity constitutes reality through its praxis. G.F.W. Hegel, who critiqued both the limits of Enlightenment and of romanticism, pulled all these elements into a philosophy of history that was, as Herzen said, the “algebra” of revolution. There would have been no “Theses on Feuerbach” without these figures, and hence no Marx as we know him today. What did the “Theses on Feuerbach” say? They said “all previous materialisms, including Feuerbach’s, do not understand activity as objective”. Marx here is explicitly referring to Enlightenment materialists such as Hobbes, Mersenne, and Holbach, emphasizing the importance of the “active side developed by idealism”, by which he means Schelling, Fichte and Hegel, none of whom can be considered “Enlightenment” thinkers, even if they are also not “anti-Enlightenment” , in the same way as figures such as Maistre, for whom the Enlightenment and then the French Revolution were quite simply the eruption of the satanic in history.
Another major distinction between the Enlightenment and Marx is the attitude toward religion. This is particularly important since most Marxists have tended to think that Marx’s view is basically identical with that of Voltaire: religion is “wrong”, “false”, l’infâme. But Marx, coming after 50 years of the rich philosophical discussion of religion in German idealism and then in his materialist predecessor Feuerbach, saw religion “as the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of a world without spirit”. Religion for Marx was a prime case of what he called alienation, whereby human beings invert dreams of a better life into an other-worldly form. But a Voltairean would never have said, as Marx did, that “you cannot abolish religion without realizing it”. Simple Enlightenment atheism never asserted there was anything to “realize”, because such a view accords its (alienated) truth to religion.
History vs. abstract principles, polis community vs. statism, the alienated human truth of religion vs. 18th-century atheism, , constitution of the world by activity vs. a mere contemplative vision of reality as “out there”: all these key concepts were developed not by the Enlightenment but by Sturm and Drang, and then romanticism and idealism, they were all fundamental for Marx. A straight line from the Enlightenment to socialism which does not exist, makes both an easier target for the post-modernists as a “master narrative” of “domination”, resting on schoolboy notions of “materialism” which derive from Newton’s atomism.This telescoping of Enlightenment and socialism is actually (and usually quite unintentionally) reminiscent of Stalinism, which did not have much use for the post-Enlightenment (not to mention pre-Enlightenment) sources of Marx (as sketched above)either.1
Enlightenment political thought moves, at its “commanding heights”, from Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Kant. But it is exactly here that the problems arise. The Enlightenment is not just, not even primarily, a body of thought; it is that, but it is still more a social project and a social practice that was, in the majority of cases, taken up and implemented by state civil servants. This was not the case in England, where Enlightenment thought of the 17th and 18th century, the work of Bacon, Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Hooke, Boyle, Smith, Gibbon, Hume and Paine unfolded in a new civil society which had successfully freed itself from absolutism by the revolutions of 1640 and 1688. Nor was this the case in America, where Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and Madison were just as much at the cutting edge, freeing America from colonial domination. But the Enlightenment on the continent, to a great extent as ideology and above all as the practice of Enlightened absolutism, was statist through and through, from the philosophes and their dreams of benign Asian despots, to the Jacobins, to the Prussian reformers of 1808. In France, Spain, Portugal, the Italian states, Prussia, Sweden, Austria and Russia, (and in the Iberian and French colonies in the New World), the Enlightenment was the theory and practice of civil servants working for absolutist states. Voltaire at the Prussian court of Frederick II or Diderot at the Russian court of Catherine the Great are only the most memorable instances of the intertwining of the philosophes and the Enlightened absolutisms of their time. Even Napoleon, in a warped way, was spreading Enlightened statist reform through his conquest of Europe.
It may well be the case that the best of the thought of Voltaire and Diderot was “in contradiction” with their idea of influencing powerful monarchs to do the right thing.To point out the realities of their statism is not to fall into a Foucaultian view of the Enlightenment as about nothing but “power”, nor is it to echo a Frankfurt School view of the Enlightenment as mere “domination”. One is quite right to reject these Nietzschean and Weberian views of rationality. The problem of many contemporary defenders of the Enlightenment is their failure to see that the bedrock foundation, what the Enlightenment itself accepted as its undisputed point of departure and its model of the power of rational thought was Newton’s physics. But Newton’s physics (which were, in their time, undoubtedly revolutionary) were not merely about physics, or nature: they stood for 150 years, and in reality for 300 years, as the very model of what “science” was and ought to be. For most figures of the Enlightenment (important exceptions are Diderot and Rousseau) the rigor and exactness of mathematical physics stood as a model for all realms of human endeavour, including the psyche and the arts. Figures such as Condillac and Holbach spent decades trying to work out a psychology (as Hobbes had earlier done with politics) based on the central Newtonian concept of “force”, and Condorcet dreamed of a “social mathematics”. LaMettrie went from “la nature machine” to “l’homme machine”, and this was generalized by LaPlace and LaGrange into “l’univers machine”. And, lest one get the impression that these were mainly late Enlightenment aberrations, one should recall the great impact of Euclid and Galileo on Hobbes, Voltaire’s pamphleteering for Newton, or finally Kant’s statement, just about the time that Gauss was realizing otherwise, that Euclidean space was the only possible space.
These strong metaphors, and the program they inspired, generalized from a powerful breakthrough in the dynamics of physical bodies in the new abstract space and time, to the totality of science and culture, died out very recently. Only a generation ago psychological behaviourism, which has to be seen as a very degenerate heir of the late Enlightenment of Condillac, LaMettrie and Holbach, still got a serious hearing in Anglo-American universities, and Talcott Parsons in the 1940’s boasted that he was “close to splitting the sociological atom”.
Thus, while completely supporting their desire to do battle with the post-modernists, one must ask today’s Aufklärer: what are you going to do with the Enlightenment today? What conceivable intellectual, political and social program is possible today built on the Enlightenment alone? (This is a very separate question from its defense against those who deny its once-radical edge.)
Newton’s physics were, once again, not merely a physics, (the latter undoubtedly being of great power, a guiding research program for over 200 years), they were little less than an ontology, and they were unquestioned by the Enlightenment. Few contemporary defenders of the Enlightenment have much to say about Newton’s alchemy, astrology, Biblical commentary, history (attempting to confirm the truth of Old Testament chronology), anti-Trinitarian theology or search for the Egyptian cubit, a body of work which Newton himself placed on an equal footing with his physics and of which, for him, his physics was only a part. (Interestingly, and revealingly, the Frankfurt School and the Foucaultian critics of the Enlightenment have little to say about them either.) Many of these pursuits were already becoming unfashionable in Newton’s own time, and Voltaire’s popularization of Newton on the continent after 1730 already passed them over in total silence. But the discovery of this Newton is already enough to show that he was not exactly, or certainly not only, an “Enlightenment” thinker. It is quite right to date the Enlightenment not from the 18th century French philosophes but from 17th century English figures such as Bacon. But in rightly situating the question in the 17th century, the typical defender of the Enlightenment also steps into the quagmire in which received ideas about the Enlightenment and its origins disappear.
Newtonian science, and hence the Enlightenment, defeated the kind of church-sponsored obscurantism represented by the trial of Galileo, or the earlier trial and execution of Giordano Bruno. But it also defeated what I would call Renaissance- Reformation cosmobiology, as the latter is associated with names such as Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno , Paracelsus, John Dee, Robert Fludd, Boehme and above all Kepler. Elements of it persist as late as Leibniz, co-inventor with Newton of the calculus, and who already polemicized against Newton’s mechanism. Newton, as sketched above, still had much of the Renaissance magus about him. This cosmobiological world view further found its cultural expression in figures such as Dürer, the Brueghels, Bosch, Shakespeare and Rabelais, just as later Pope and Dryden attempted to create a literature in keeping with Newtonian science. In this transition, an empty , atomistic space and time, based on an infinity understood as mere repetition (the infinitesmal) deflated and expelled a universe brimming with life, in which, further, human imagination was central. One need only think of Paracelsus, the peripatetic alchemist, astrologer, chemist, herbalist , tireless researcher and medical practicioner who called the human imagination “the star in man” (astrum in homine) and who placed it higher than the mere stars which preoccupied astronomers. But no figure is more exemplary than Kepler, who looked for the Platonic solids in the order of the solar system and who attempted to demonstrate that the distance between the planets was in accordance with the well-tempered tuning of the “music of the spheres”. This was the world view– the cosmology– which was deflated and replaced by Newton’s colorless, tasteless, odorless space and time, and the latter deflation reached into every domain of culture for 300 years. And this cosmobiological world view was an indisputable precursor of Marx’s “sensuous transformative praxis” (sinnliche unwälzende Tätigkeit) and hence of modern socialism. By its notion of human participation of the constitutition of the world (whereby it smacked of heresy for the Church), it was closer to Marx than any of the intervening Enlightenment views.
Until quite recently, it was customary to acknowledge many of these figures, and Paracelsus and Kepler in particular, as pioneers who contributed to the transition “from alchemy to chemistry”, “from astrology to astronomy”. But the Enlightenment vision of their advance was completely linear, as if nothing of importance had been lost. But already a figure of the stature of Leibniz, who himself made a major contribution to the new science, argued in his polemics against Newton’s publicist Clarke that something had been lost: life, not as the random result of a billiard ball universe, but as a phenomenon central to the meaning of the universe, as it had been for Paracelsus and Kepler.
The Enlightenment did not shed light on this transition; on the contrary, it was mainly totally oblivious to it, when it was not actively obscuring it. The Enlightenment created the myth of the “dark ages” of religion between Greco-Roman antiquity and the 17th century (one need only think, by contrast, of the brilliant culture, including the scientific culture, of Islam). It saw a monolithic Christianity completely hostile to science and thereby fashioned the modern (and modernist) myth that history prior to Newtonian science was strictly a battle between “religion” and “materialist atheism”, the latter being exactly the kind of materialism which Marx rejected in the “Theses on Feuerbach”. (This is not to suggest that Marx was not an atheist but merely to insist on the distinction, developed earlier, between his critique of religion and Voltaire’s.)
In reality, while most of the figures of Renaissance-Reformation cosmobiology were at least nominally Christian believers of one kind or another (although in the case of Bruno, one wonders) their significance is precisely that they represented a “third stream”, an alternative to both the dominant Aristotelian scholasticism propogated by the Church and to the atomistic materialism that congealed in the Enlightenment. This “third stream” was also often combatted, along with atheist materialism, by the Church as the highest heresy.2 And this “third stream” and its significance were essentially hidden for three centuries by the Manichean portrait of the past developed by the Enlightenment and taken over in the ideology of modernity.
This “third stream”, of which again Kepler is the culminating figure, was hardly, as Enlightenment ideology portrayed it by assimilating it to “religion”, hostile to science or to scientific research. Indeed, Kepler’s work provided one part of the key to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. The “third stream” was of course characterized by many untenable a priori views such as the correspondance of the microcosm-man and the macrocosm-universe, or by Kepler’s own search for Platonic form, as in a perfect Platonic circle in the orbit of the planets. Kepler passed over into modern science by abandoning that form for the empirically-discovered ellipse, but he got there by looking for it. The “third stream” had little or nothing to counter the successes of the Newtonian- atomist program, until the latter had exhausted itself. Nevertheless, a history of the science since Newton which has attempted to revive the “third stream”, too complex to concern us here, would include names of the stature of Baader, Schelling, Oersted, Davy, Faraday, Goethe, W.R. Hamilton, Georg Cantor and Joseph Needham, and the issues they raise are far from settled.
It is significant that neither the pro-Enlightenment Habermasians or the anti-Enlightenment deconstructionists and Foucaultians have much use for Renaissance- Reformation cosmobiology, and the reason is that all of them tacitly accept the Enlightenment linear view of history and progress as the sole possible kind of progress, in which the “third stream” disappears into the “religion” of the “dark ages”. There is an unacknowledged agreement here between opposing sides which makes possible a recasting of the debate. This largely unspoken agreement accepts the division of the world between culture and nature, (or Geist and Natur as the Germans would say) and, however differently various figures may treat the world of consciousness, they concede the world of nature to the mechanists. Such a division was only possible after Newton and the ideological suppression of the cosmobiological “third stream”, which, whatever its flaws, presented a unitary vision of consciousness and nature. The reaction to the implications, for consciousness, of the Enlightenment program was quick in coming, and many took up Donne’s lament of “all coherence gone”. But from Pascal to Rousseau to Hegel (for whom nature was “boring”, the world of repetition) to Nietzsche to Heidegger, all the different formulations on the impossibility of treating human consciousness on the model of mathematical physics (which is indeed impossible) took off from the assumption of dead nature, in which “life” had to appear not as Paracelsus’ astrum in homine or Leibniz’s vis vitae but as some “irrational” “vitalistic” force.
Nor should the reader get the impression that Renaissance- Reformation cosmobiology did not have political implications, as atomism and mechanism shaped the political thought of the Enlightenment. Its first and major political implication stems from the fact that it was decidely an ideology of “interregnum”, appearing between the collapse of the medieval Holy Roman Empire and the consolidation of English capitalism and above all continental absolutism, both of which eradicated it everywhere. In a meaningful sense, the Renaissance and Reformation as a whole can be understood as an interregnum phenomena, but many other currents within them competed with what I call cosmobiology. These political implications were not as well articulated by its theoreticians as was the Enlightenment, partly because the concept of the “political” (itself recognized by Marx as an alienated separation) only autonomized itself later and partly because these movements, unlike the Enlightenment, were primarily of the lower classes, and thus were completely defeated, and their history mainly written by the victors. Their finest hours were the radical wing of the Reformation (essentially, the Anabaptists and their leader Thomas Münzer) and the radical wing of the English Revolution, the Levellers, Diggers and smaller sects. (Gerard Winstanley stands out as a spokesman for this milieu.) One only fully appreciates Newton’s political meaning when one understands the importance of his tirades against these “enthusiasts”, as they were called. Here it can be seen clearly that the English Enlightenment triumphed not merely by defeating reactionary Stuart absolutism but also by defeating radical currents to its left.
When the interregnum was over, ca. 1650, the radical social base of the “third stream” was socially and politically defeated, and the Enlightenment could begin, with its two contending models of English constitutional monarchy and French absolutism, the latter becoming the model for most of the continent. But left defenders of the Enlightenment, pass over in silence the fact that the Anglo-French Enlightenment triumphed over a radical as well as a reactionary rival, and always bore the markings that fact.
Stated briefly, the spirit of Marx’s underlying world view is more truly the direct heir, the “realization” of the sensuousness of figures such as Shakespeare, the Brueghels and Paracelsus, than of any subsequent phase of the Anglo-French Enlightenment and its aftermath.
One might well ask what such a critique of the Enlightenment, from the vantage point of Renaissance-Reformation “cosmobiology” means today, in political terms.
What it means is this. From the French Revolution until the 1970’s, the dominant currents of the Western left, and the movements it influenced in the colonial and post- colonial world, were indeed heirs of the Enlightenment. They were this because, in practice if not always in rhetoric, they inherited the tasks of completing the bourgeois revolution, tasks for which the Enlightenment, as the most advanced outlook of that revolution, was eminently suitable. First Social Democracy, from the 1860’s onward, and then Stalinism, from the 1920’s, took over a large part of the Enlightenment attitudes toward science, the state, technology, heavy industry, rationality, nature, a linear view of progress, philosophy and religion. That view was at bottom atomistic and mechanistic, even when dressed up as “dialectical materialism”. Their statist development ideology and strategy was most successful in countries where no liberal bourgeoisie was strong enough to fight in its own name for the Enlightenment program against pre-capitalist social relations. Social Democracy and later Stalinism took over the full weight of Enlightenment statism of the continental variety. This was not surprising, since they gained influence mainly in the same backward countries in which Enlightenment statism had been successful, for essentially the same reasons. With the virtually universal spread of state bureaucracy for the century up to ca. 1975, whether in liberal democracy, Social Democracy, Stalinism or Third World nationalism, this Enlightenment ideology was rooted practically in a vast global stratum of middle-class state civil servants, whatever else they may have disagreed about. Not accidentally, their theory of history, when they felt they needed one, was articulated by the state civil servants par excellence Kant, Fichte and Hegel.
The crisis of the Enlightenment today is the world-wide crisis of that state civil service stratum, welfare-statist, Stalinist or Third Worldist, and its inability after the mid- 1970’s to continue to develop the productive forces and to advance their Enlightenment program, something they had done rather successfully in the previous century, particularly from 1945 to 1975. The international left is in crisis because it uncritically took over the Enlightenment, and thereby confused the tasks of the bourgeois revolution with those of the socialist revolution; the left’s claims to fight for social emancipation got completely entwined with the state bureaucracy and civil service, which are irreducible obstacles to full social emancipation. There is nothing more to be done with the Enlightenment, taken by itself, because there is no more bourgeois revolution to make. There is also nothing more to be done with the Enlightenment view of nature, derived as it is from Newton’s atomism and mechanism. The Enlightenment grasped in a one-sided way the impact of the natural environment on man but, lacking the idea of constitutive practice, has little to say in an era such as our own, so shaped by the problems of man’s impact on the environment. This is not because, as the post-modernists say, Western science and technology are nothing but “domination”, but because the unique role of humanity in the biosphere, its “species-being” to use Marx’s term, was articulated not by the Enlightenment but by the “active side developed by idealism” as Marx put it in the “Theses on Feuerbach”. The Enlightenment looked to Nature to underpin its abstract theories of Natural Man; it did not understand that human history constantly creates “new natures”, and hence new “human natures”, by its interraction with the biosphere.
The Foucaultian and Frankfurt School critics of the Enlightenment live off the impoverishment of the left by its extended romance with a one-sided appropriation of the Enlightenment, by the left’s century-long confusion of the completion of the bourgeois revolution by state civil servants with socialism, and by the worldwide crackup of that project. The pre-Enlightenment, Renaissance-Reformation cosmobiology which passed through German idealism into Marx’s species-being means even less to them than it does to figures such as Habermas. Yet the usual critique of them is undermined by the tacit agreement across the board that “nature is boring”, i.e. the realm of mechanism, as Hegel, articulating the ultimate state civil servant view, cut off from practice in nature, said. Both sides of this debate still inhabit the separation of culture and nature, Geist and Natur, which came into existence through the Enlightenment’s deflation of cosmobiology. It is the rehabilitation, in suitably contemporary form, of the outlook of Paracelsus and Kepler, not of Voltaire and Newton, which the left requires today for a (necessarily simultaneous) regeneration of nature, culture and society, out of Blake’s fallen world of Urizen and what he called “single vision and Newton’s sleep”.