Friday, November 15, 2019

The Incoherent Dream of The Enlightenment

In the final paragraph of his essay, “Vico and the Ideal of the Enlightenment,” Isaiah Berlin talks about the incoherence in the dream of the Enlightenment. Here’s an excerpt:

"To a disciple of Vico, the ideal of some of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the notion of even the abstract possibility of a perfect society, is necessarily an attempt to weld together incompatible attributes—characteristics, ideals, gifts, properties, values that belong to different patterns of thought, action, life, and therefore cannot be detached and sewn together into one garment. For a Vichian this notion must be literally absurd : absurd because there is a conceptual clash between, let us say, what gives splendour to Achilles and what causes Socrates or Michelangelo or Spinoza or Mozart or the Buddha to be admired; and since this applies to the respective cultures, in the context of which alone men's achievements can be understood and judged, this fact alone makes this particular dream of the Enlightenment incoherent. The scepticism or pessimism of a good many thinkers of the Enlightenment—Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon, Grimm, Rousseau—about the possibility of realizing this condition is beside the point. The point is that even they were animated by a conception of ideal possibilities, however unattainable in practice. In this, at least, they seem to be at one with the more optimistic Turgot and Condorcet. After Vico, the conflict of monism and pluralism, timeless values and historicism, was bound sooner or later to become a central issue."

The dream of the Enlightenment was based on the notion that human progress is certain and that human history will take a particular path. But Berlin rejects determinism and the possibility of a perfect human life. He points out that indeterminacy and pluralism, which are the essential features of human nature, make it impossible for any philosopher or historian to predict the future.

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