Monday, September 17, 2007

Maturity, Enlightenment, and Liberalism

Somewhere between the time of Kant’s ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ and today, something happened to the link between liberalism and enlightenment. I’m not quite sure what this was, but I’m not too happy with it. Here is my best estimation.

Let me be upfront about my position. I do not consider myself to be a liberal. I am sensitive to critiques of liberalism leveled by feminism, certain versions of Marxism, critical theory and post-modernism. That said, I am not anti-liberal. Frankly, I don’t know how to label myself, mainly because I have to admit that in the end, I have no coherent set of political beliefs or attitudes. Take that for what it’s worth.

But I do get frustrated with liberals. Mainly this is because I think that they often fail to make as strong a case for their own position as they should. Moreover, I think that they misunderstand their own theory. As someone who does no work professionally in the field of political philosophy, this is probably a stupid claim to make. So be it. At the very least, I am quite sure that non-academic liberals mis-represent what is best about their own position.

There is a certain story told about the meaning and theory of liberalism that finds expression in Berlin’s essay on the two freedoms. Given the complexity of human life, especially in modern, variegated societies, any commensurability between conflicting conceptions of the good is highly unlikely. We are wise, therefore, to cease striving for such commensurability and instead work towards constructing rule-sets and procedures that allow different individuals amassed in a single society to pursue each their own conception of the good so long as interference with others pursuing their own projects is kept at the absolute minimum commensurate with the maintenance of society.

This finds idea finds its most systematic and sophisticated expression in Rawl’s theory of justice. Rawlsian liberalism is defined by a neutral framework for arbitration consistent with a base level of a redistributive welfare state. Conflicting agents resort to the adjudicative powers of the state in the case of noncriminal conflict. Criminal conduct is defined as conduct that violates the rules-set of this framework. For instance, the state allows me to open a large Walmart franchise that puts your papa’s small frame-shop out of business, but it penalizes me if my Walmart pollutes the local water supply. Justice defined by compliance with accepted rule-sets is said to be procedural, rather than substantive.

Rawlsian liberalism pretends that it does not promote any particular vision or understanding of the good life over any other. It promotes tolerance and choice, but these are supposed to be abstract principles requisite for following the rules, and therefore are not values particular to any particular or parochial vision of the good life. This of course has opened Rawlsian liberalism to communitarian and similarly argued critiques to the effect that in fact liberalism does promote particular, parochial visions of the good, despite its pretensions otherwise.

These charges are of course correct. Liberalism is not in fact neutral as to how individuals ought to conduct and understand their lives. But this is not necessarily a problem. My own reading is that liberalism, especially in the Anglophone countries, took its own rhetoric about proceduralism and neutrality too seriously. It adheres to neutrality to the point of performative contradiction. It has also convinced itself—without, it might be said, much argument—that promoting some version of what Berlin called ‘positive freedom’ will ineluctably, and despite the best of intentions, lead to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and eventually, to some sort of nasty Gulag.

One reason for this development in liberal thinking was the loss of any obvious connection between liberalism and enlightenment. I would advise liberals to reclaim this connection.

Of course, there is some lip-service to enlightenment and progress in some liberal circles, but it is as an historical, societal predicate. Modern liberal societies are ‘enlightened’ or ‘progressive,’ but individuals are not. I would oppose this view to the Kantian, more continental versions of liberalism. For Kant, ‘enlightenment’, appled only in a derivative sense to societies as a whole. At bottom and essentially it was an individual predicate. Enlightenment is:

“the exiting of individuals from their self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the assistance of another. Immaturity is self-imposed when the cause is not any lack in understanding, but in lacking the decision and courage to use it without the assistance of another”

In other words, enlightenment is a positive value and a criterion for distinguishing good people from not so good people. A liberal of Kant’s kind escapes hypocrisy by denying neutrality: one should be tolerant, one should respect autonomy, and one should strive for intellectual maturity--and if one does this, one is a better person, on the whole.

A liberalism at the helm of enlightenment would not be embarrassed by this idea. It would for instance proudly argue that anyone emerging from the American education system should no longer believe that homosexuality is wrong or a perversion or unnatural; nor would anyone any longer believe that the earth is 6000 years old; but nor would anyone simply accept what an anthropologist or sociobiologist told them were the scientific pronouncements about human morality and community; science, like all other human accomplishments, would have to meet the bar of ‘self understanding.’ It would have self-conscious and assertive goal of producing citizens who sought self-consciously a place and role for themselves in society, and who could, hopefully, articulate why they were pursuing that goal. Liberalism in this Kantian, enlightenment sense would be based around a definite positive good, the good of maturity.


  1. Everybody likes to talk about the "enlightenment", but what does it mean?

    Look at the word en-LIGHTEN-ment.
    Literally to be lightened, that is filled with light.

    Paradoxically, despite all of the obvious freedoms etc that some of is have gained in the last 2-3 hundred years, the world is becoming progressively darker and darker. Why, how?

    The "enlightenment" was also a process of shutting down both the Divine Radiance and the possibility of Divine Life from the western cultural landscape.
    Nietzsche's famous "god is dead" statement was a testimony to this fact.

    Everyone and everything became rigidly objectified or reduced to an assemblage of hard edged clockwork parts in a cold heartless void. Or reduced to fear-saturated mortal meat bodies. No Light or Radiance or de-LIGHT allowed. In fact such de-LIGHT is fundamentally taboo.

    What is maturity? Is it the hard edged adolescent "independence" mis-informed by the machine language of Randian "objectivity"--in which the entire universe is centred around each such objectified and objectifying "individual"?

    Or is it something much more than that? Or something, which as I pointed out in my other posts,that most of us in our dreadful westernised "sanity" can hardly even begin to imagine---let alone freely be.

    Something which is a complete offense to our "normal" adolescent Western ideas of Truth and Realty.

  2. The mature man or woman is a Spiritually Awakened being who has transcended both the method of conventional religion and the mood of conventional scientific objectifying intellectualism. He or she is established in the PRIMARY disposition of humankind, which is the realization of Unity with cosmic Nature (or the world process) and heart-Communion with the Spiritual, Transcendental, and Divine Reality, in which the entire realm of cosmic Nature is arising, changing, and passing away. The mature man or woman is possessed neither by questions or answers. He or she transcends all knowledge and all experience in heart-Communion with the Divine Self-Condition and the Perfectly Subjective Source-Condition of all and All. Therefore, he or she is able to participate in the greater and developmental acculturation of his or her own body-mind without resorting to archaic belief systems and childish salvation schemes, and also without succumbing to the self-divided and subhuman fixation of non-particpatory doubt and intellectual impotence.

    Only the mature man or woman can provide the workable foundation for the establishment and survival of future human cultures. He and she must become the new man and woman to which every individual commomly aspires---or else the adolescent era of objectifying scientific and political materialism will destroy not only the child in mankind but also the mature adulthood of humanity.

  3. Anonymous--Did you say the world is becoming progressively darker and darker? I don't know; I'm pretty sure it's been getting lighter and lighter ever since the invention of the light bulb.

    Or did you mean something else? Sorry if I took your literal take on enlightenment too literally.