There are many ways of stating the value of the Enlightenment outlook both for society and for philosophy. Immanuel Kant’s way, with its emphasis on the freedom of thought is one good way:
“For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don’t argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe! (Only one ruler in the world says: Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!). . All this means restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which sort of restriction prevents enlightenment, and which, instead of hindering it, can actually promote it? I reply: The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; . . . . If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can ever be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and well in religious matters, without outside guidance. But we do have distinct indications that the way is now being cleared for them to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer”
Other statements emphasize the scientific, rational character of the perspective of the enlightenment:
“Enlightenment thinkers combined the philosophic tradition of abstract rational thought (Descartes and other philosophers) with the tradition of experimentation or empirical philosophy (from Galileo, Newton, Bacon and others). The result was a new system of human inquiry that attacked the old order and privileges, put emphasis and faith on science, the scientific method and education… . . . ,The new approach was an empirical and scientific one at the same time that it was philosophical. The world was an object of study, and the Enlightenment thinkers thought that people could understand and control the world by means of reason and empirical research. Social laws could be discovered, and society could be improved by means of rational and empirical inquiry. This form of thought was reformist, and one that challenged the old order. Enlightenment thinkers were generally optimistic in outlook, looking on their system of thought as a way of improving the social world.”
Kant’s view and that of other proponents of the Enlightenment may have been overly optimistic and over-stated, but the positive value of the philosophy implied is beyond question.
The rational, scientific approach —- the ideal of the Enlightenment —-is our best way of getting at whatever truth may be accessible to human minds and the best way for operating intelligently in the world; furthermore, there are very few good reasons for exempting any area of our lives from a rational, empirical approach.
I advance the following considerations in support of the preceding assertions:
- Education: what is education if not the effort to operate rationally, scientifically, and intelligently in the world?
- Settling disputes: When people disagree the best hope for resolving the dispute is to use neutral, objective, rational deliberation.
- Distinguishing facts from non-facts: When we need to learn the truth about something, to separate fact from fiction (fantasy, lies, myths, legends, false rumors, etc.) our best bets are an empirical investigation and application of rational criteria to discover the truth.
- Accomplishments of science, technology and engineering: Any educated, intelligent person will agree that the great achievements of science and technology utilize rational thinking and the method of science.
- Clear distinction between scientific enterprise and religious/political ideology: A minimal understanding of the scientific methodology shows that it differs categorically from all forms of religious/political ideology. One works tentatively requiring testable hypotheses, subject to confirmation or disconfirmation by other investigators; the other starts with certain truths of faith which can never be subject to question or rational inquiry.
- A common sense point about ordinary, intelligent conduct in the world. To the extent that we achieve intelligent behavior and thought in the world, our thought and behavior will resemble a rational, empirical, scientific approach. (See John Dewey’s thought on this point.) To reject this way of acting in the world is to invite folly, chaos, and eventual social insanity.
Yes, historically religion, Romanticism and Existentialism, and currently Postmodernism, have raised challenges against scientific-based, rational philosophy. But those challenges are more in way of denying that science-reason say everything that can be said about human experience; and claims about the superiority of literary-poetic-religious expression of human reality. In reply, I would remind the reader that the scientific-rational approach does not claim a final, complete account of human reality; and it is not in the business of a literary, poetic, religious expression of human reality. It simply attempts to clarify, resolve, and articulate answers to a host of problems faced by the human race; and it does this far better than any other philosophy that has ever attempted the task.