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Monday, December 9, 2019

Herder and the Enlightenment

In his essay, “Herder and the Enlightenment,” Isaiah Berlin hammers new nails in the Enlightenment’s coffin by suggesting that the Enlightenment was a conformist, elitist, idealistic, and monolithic project, which contained the seeds that would one day germinate into totalitarian movements, while the counter-Enlightenment of thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder was essentially pluralistic and hence conducive for the rise of free societies. In section 9 of his essay, Berlin asks two questions: “What is the best life for men?” and “What is the most perfect society?” A few paragraphs later, Berlin makes the following comment: “If Herder’s notion of the equal validity of incommensurable cultures is accepted, the concepts of an ideal State of or an ideal man become incoherent. This is a far more radical denial of the foundations of traditional Western morality than any that Hume ever uttered.” I am convinced by Berlin’s view that the Counter-Enlightenment, and not the Enlightenment, was the epitome of the spirit of enlightenment.

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