Thursday, May 28, 2015

Isaiah Berlin: What is Counter-Enlightenment?

“Opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciplines in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself.”

According to the British philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997), the central premise of the Enlightenment was that “human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places … [and that] a logically connected structure of laws and generalizations susceptible of demonstration and verification could be constructed and replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, mental laziness, guesswork, superstition [etc.] maintained by the rulers of mankind and largely responsible for the blunders, vices, and misfortunes of humanity.” While objections which appealed to the authority of revelation and of the ancient philosophers could easily be brushed aside, a much more serious challenge was posed by the skeptical and romantic movement, which denied that there could be such universals as the Enlightenment posited. This is a movement which Isaiah Berlin called “The Counter-Enlightenment” (also the name of a famous essay), and which he associated with reactionary tendencies, the German intellectual tradition, and, through them, with fascism.

The first figure in this movement was Giambattista Vico (1668 - 1744), an Italian philosopher who drew a sharp distinction between the human and the natural worlds. The human world, encompassing the realms of art and literature, politics and history, and in general human creations, could be known precisely because they were human creations – for whatever we are the author of, that we can fully understand. The natural world, however, could not be fully known, because it was not made by man, but by God, and only He could know it completely. If this view was accepted, it destroyed the universalizing pretensions of the Enlightenment philosophers, for it meant that each particular culture had produced a particular way of looking at the world, and that these needed to be appreciated on their own merits in order to be understood – not mashed together into a universal synthesis which could only be achieved by mutilating the ideas that were supposed to be explained. This view necessarily encompassed the Enlightenment. It, no less than Homeric poetry or Vedic philosophy, expressed one of an infinite variety of possible viewpoints.

Vico’s ideas were mirrored in those of the German romantics, and in particular the theology of Johann Hamann (1730 - 1788). Hamann was a Lutheran minister who argued that all truth was particular, never general. Everything had to be understood for itself, not as part of a universal system which obscured or denied the uniqueness of each particular thing. All concepts were imposed on top of a reality that was full of infinite variability, and could not be fully known – only experienced. Therefor the principle object of genuine inquiry was to deepen and to understand experience. His disciple, Johan Herder, applied this idea to cultures. Each one had, he argued, emerged from particular circumstances, and in its own particular way, and each was an equally valid expression of the human spirit. This view, Berlin argued, lent itself to the creation of nationalist ideologies which saw the French, British, Germans, Americans, etc., as distinct peoples, all possessing their own legitimate institutions. On this assumption it might be perfectly legitimate for the French or the Americans to establish Republics, but for the Germans, or the Russians, autocratic regimes were more in keeping with the national spirit.

Another strand of the Counter-Enlightenment was the thought of Joseph de Maistre (1753 - 1821, subject of an earlier article, here:, a French aristocrat and reactionary who argued that human nature was irredeemably wicked, that only the power of the monarch and the church made civilization possible, and that it was therefore madness to turn the freedom of the individual into a sacred principle of government. On this view it was no surprise that the French Revolution had been characterized, almost from the beginning, by bloody chaos. The people, being stupid, irrational, violent, and wicked, had naturally created a government that shared all their worst qualities. Only a combination of theological terrors and overwhelming earthly force could keep the peace. (de Maistre was the subject of an earlier article, here: )

Such were the doctrines, Berlin argued, that characterized the irrationalist response to the Enlightenment – a dark, defiant, bitter denunciation of mankind’s noblest ideals, which found its logical culmination in the totalitarian regimes of the 1930’s.

The full essay: (it’s highly readable and not terribly long)

Part of a Series on The Enlightenment

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