Tuesday, 19 November 2019

On Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment

Isaiah Berlin popularized the term “Counter-Enlightenment” with his 1973 essay, “The Counter-Enlightenment.” By “Counter-Enlightenment,” he is referring to the German Romanticism (specifically to the thought of Herder, Fichte, and J. G. Hamann), which he holds was far more liberal (value pluralistic) than the Enlightenment thought. The Counter-Enlightenment originated in the middle of the 18th century and is coeval with the Enlightenment. Berlin was appalled by the absurdity of the Enlightenment agenda and he is sympathetic to the Counter-Enlightenment rebellion even though he finds a number of flaws in its viewpoints.

Here’s an excerpt from his essay in which he is comparing the thought of Enlightenment thinkers with that of Herder:

“For Voltaire, Diderot, Helvdtius, Holbach, Condorcet, there is only universal civilization, of which now one nation, now another, represents the richest flowering. For Herder there is a plurality of incommensurable cultures. To belong to a given community, to be connected with its members by indissoluble and impalpable ties of common language, historical memory, habit, tradition and feeling, is a basic human need no less natural than that for food or drink or security or procreation. One nation can understand and sympathize with the institutions of another only because it knows how much its own mean to itself. Cosmopolitanism is the shedding of all that makes one most human, most oneself.”

Berlin notes that the Enlightenment project was centered on remaking society and man by using reason and science. The philosophes wanted to purge society of all political and cultural traditions and man’s mind of all that is irrational and unscientific. But such a project, Berlin points out, is not liberal because it entails forcing people to transform their way of life. Therefore, the Counter-Enlightenment rebellion was justified in calling for a reversal of the political and cultural excesses that the Enlightenment philosophes had inspired.

If the Enlightenment is seen as a progressive movement that was aimed at recreating society and man, then the Counter-Enlightenment can, in a broad sense, be seen as having a conservative character. However, the Counter-Enlightenment was reactionary conservatism, which is not a part of the modern conservative tradition that is found in countries like the UK and the USA. By the 1870s, the Counter-Enlightenment rebellion had come to an end, but its anti-enlightenment thinking has had a seminal impact on modern conservatism.

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