Today is a sombre event for us. We are reminded that the Enlightenment is a distant memory; the project of universal reason applying to political economy, science, society, metaphysics and religion has long gone, and replacing it, is the dynamic of populism, democracy, tolerance and difference. Not to say that all of the latter are bad things; but an enlightenment world which we have learned so much from, and has given us so many fruitful things, has ended.
Kant once said, that we do not live in an enlightened age, but we are in an age of enlightenment. The former claim has always been true, but the latter claim, which is our hope, is not true either. Kant does have attributions of misogyny and racism, he lived during the time when colonial oppression was growing, slavery was the norm, and discourses of mental illness, sexual difference or disability were not even on the radar! There is no doubt that we don’t want those things to return.
However, isn’t it wonderful to imagine the age of universal gravitation, infinitessimal calculus, l’Encyclopedie, Adam Smith, social contract theory, empiricism, Rationalism [notice capitalisation!], and the Cartesian dream of a complete system of everything, unifying mathematics with physics, art with science, to marry the world of feeling and the mental, is to be truly embracing one’s humanity.
Kant’s time has long gone, and so has, it seems, the old enlightenment vision. What future do we have? For you, on this day it was done. But not for us, and our ideas.
Thinking of you, teacher Immanuel…