Monday, September 3, 2012

A piecemeal Enlightenment

I've a column in today's Canberra Times, 'Much in human nature that is dim, blind and cruel'.

Partly in reply to Martin McKenzie-Murray's recent column in The Age, I'm recognising our human, all-too-human tribalism and irrationality--but also pointing to the possibility of a more reasoned outlook.

This is unashamedly an Enlightenment project--but without the hubris and utopianism this often suggests. A sample:
To be human is to be a bundle of dispositions, competing and colluding. Even the self, as Hume noted, is more a tangle of impressions and ideas than anything simple and solid. 
However, we can also, as Hume added, have dispositions of analysis, speculation and invention. We can develop, in other words, habits of reason. They cannot take away our irrational urges, but they can make us more mindful of them. We can evaluate our claims, and the anxieties and appetites that give them their psychological vivacity. We can introduce mature plans, checklists, theories, all of which can nudge us to think more patiently and distinctly about ourselves, and the world. 
If this smacks of Enlightenment propaganda to you, you are half right: it is an Enlightenment ideal. The finest thinkers of the eighteenth-century, like Voltaire, were certainly committed to reason. But they were not blithe apologists for false rationalism, believing in some utopian world governed purely by reason. They were sceptics, cosmic pessimists, who believed that the world was broken, but could be fixed up, piece by piece. Not because of some inexorable march of logical progress, or because God wanted it thus, but because we are capable of slowly, patiently improving ourselves and the world.
(Image: Houdon's bust of Voltaire, photograph by Sarah Stierch)

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