Philosophy

A New Enlightenment?

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 14, 2007

So I was reading today about US President Bush explaining why his administration is not going to support a lawsuit by investors against companies that commit securities fraud (as in the Enron scandal); and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that it's long past the point at which it becomes impossible to believe the United States government is doing anything simply because it's the right thing to do, and not because it scores partisan or jingoistic or cronyist or cognitive-framing points.

That Rubicon lies in the past. The US political culture seems to have shifted permanently from an Enlightenment-era belief in the power of rational discourse to solve problems into what we might call a Psychometrics-era belief in the power of full-spectrum manipulation to frame reality in one's interests.

(The political situation in Canada is not much different, with a federal government that seems incapable of drawing a distinction between sound policy and cynical vote-buying.)

Of course, the Enlightenment demonstrated all kinds of unreason, from patronage to class divisions to attempts by sovereign heads of state to assume the absolute power implied in the phrase attributed to King Louis XIV: "L'etat, c'est moi." (Thomas Jefferson, who supported liberty and democracy but kept slaves and advocated wiping out the indigenous people of North America, may be the archetypal hypocrite in this case.)

In fact, the Enlightenment was explicitly a principled and practical response to such arbitrary and self-serving conditions.

It's true that Enlightenment philosphers and demagogues were also subject to patronage, partisanship and so on, but the underlying goal of reason and openness was always present, and the frequent backlashes from people in power were backlashes against the adoption of reason as a principal method of governing oneself and one's country.

Today, the concept of reason has been abandoned in public discourse. It simply is no longer present, obliterated by the relentless psychological manipulation, demographic analysis, propaganda, jingoism, tribalism, and rank politicization that has overtaken discourse across the board. (Of course it's still possible to find countervailing examples of reasoned discourse, but to borrow a concept from Paul Graham, the people forming policy no longer have to think about them.)

It may yet be possible to reinvent reason for the age of psychometrics. I certainly hope that's the case, and some early signs suggest that it has already begun. Take the popularity of a program like The Daily Show, which wraps a candy coating of cynical humour around their surprisingly astute analysis. Against all expectations, and notwithstanding their own biases, they've made it fashionable to think critically again.

Perhaps the future will offer a New Enlightenment, based not on a naive faith in mechanical rationalism as a sword to cut through heredity, mysticism and other irrational entanglements but on a mature system of thought that accounts for and addresses the many ways in which humans are susceptible to magical thinking, bias and dogma.

Alfred Korzybski thought he was doing this with his system of General Semantics, which sought among other things to bring the rigor of hard science to social studies, but his ideas never really took hold except among a few science fiction writers and media theorists.

There may be some promise in his methods yet, although as understanding of how the brain works progresses, our understanding of how to identify and work around our blind spots must progress as well.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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