Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Age of Reason

So... this is difficult. My research into dramaturgy has led me to the
eighteenth century, the 'Age of Enlightenment'. I am reading Diderot, Rosseau and a 1960s' Time/Life book that has lots of pictures of men in wigs. It might be a coincidence, but the legacy of that era seems to be turning up in the debates on YouTube. 

I call them debates, but that's generous. 

To reduce it down to a caricature, one group are progressive liberals, who support a variety of interest groups (including feminists, anti-racists and LGBTQI activists). Their opposition is a broad spectrum of conservatives and right-wing video-bloggers, who reject what they see as a 'social justice crusade'. In this conflict, there are arguments about the shape society ought to take, and the notion of 'Western Civilisation' is a hot topic. 

They accuse each other of racism quite a bit. 

Esoteric as it might seem (or, an attempt to claim that my research is relevant to everything, ever), the legacy of the Enlightenment
looms large in the discussion. Some conservatives even refer to themselves as 'classic liberals', harking back to Adam Smith. A recent article in The Telegraph claims that students at The School of African and Oriental Studies wanted to kick Kant off the curriculum. My own fatuous introduction to The Dialectic of Enlightenment addresses a text that might lurk behind much of the progressive agenda, since it attacks philosophy's bias towards oppression.

Interestingly, both sides of the discussion feature many atheists. It's almost as if this is a debate about how a post-religious society might move towards building a society based not on divine law but rational thought. If they'd all stop shouting, mind.

Much of my reading into the eighteenth century offers a similar scenario: following on from the success of the scientific method, many philosophers wanted to shift the state from its alliance with religion - a task most urgent in France, where the Vatican was in cahoots with the monarchy - and encourage, to paraphrase Kant, the species to grow up and stop using God as a father-figure.

The Enlightenment vision was not as simply rational as its
supporters might suggest: while it did place reason at the centre of its discourse, it manifested in different ways across Europe. Although some thinkers, like Voltaire or Diderot, advocated anti-clerical or atheistic positions, others, like my hero Lessing, maintained an interest in applying reason not to destroy theology but adapting religious belief. However, the shared concerned with the importance of reason over blind faith and tradition, as well as a politically motivated application of reason could be interpreted as marking a decisive change in the focus and function of philosophy. 

Both sides in the YouTube/Social Media war appear to be following certain Enlightenment principles: the conservative bloc aims to establish Western Civilisation as the product of reason and science, while the progressives are advancing the critique of society that evolved in the run-up to the French revolutions. The former emphasise the conclusions of the philosophers, the latter, the spirit.

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