Yesterday a good friend and colleague of mine remarked,

I don’t understand people who valorize the Enlightenment, as if Cartesian rationality is the be all, end all of philosophy.

He then went on to wonder whether Jonathan Israel’s books are worth reading. The answer to the second question is an emphatic “yes!” I would especially recommend his book Radical Enlightenment. As for the first remark, Enlightenment, for me, does not mean Cartesian rationality, nor even necessarily a particular period in history, but something like a virtual tendency within human social collectives that exists, to use Badiou’s language in Logics of Worlds, with greater or lesser intensity or brightness at all times and places.

What, then, is the nature of this tendency and intensity? For me– and others will differ –Enlightenment is a synonym for immanence. This immanence unfolds along three axis and can develop unevenly, referring to the ontological, the epistemological, and the political. For this to be understood, immanence must be contrasted with transcendence. Transcendence, as an ontological orientation, refers to any orientation premised on vertical being where some being or entity stands above everything else, affecting all other things without itself being affected. The most obvious instance of transcendence would be something like Plato’s forms or certain conceptions of God, where the forms and God stand above all being, giving it form and structure, legislating being, without themselves being affected in return. In the domain of politics, transcendence is the transcendence of authority, of the sovereign, the transcendence of the father, the transcendence of the leader, where legislation issues absolutely from this being, where this being is above the law himself, and where absolute obedience is commanded. Political transcendence is de-libidinalized Oedipalism. Here we should think of Schmitt. Finally, epistemological transcendence is any thesis of knowledge based on revelation, special mystical insight, or the authority of sacred figures as in the case of how the Scholastics talked about Aristotle and the Bible.

read on!

By contrast, immanence, I believe, is the thesis that the world is enough. At the ontological level, Enlightenment or immanence means that there is no “extra-being”, no “supplementary being” in the form of a transcendent God, forms, or essences, but rather that there is only a single flat plane of being where entities act and react to one another. Here we should think of Lucretius’s interacting atoms, Spinoza’s monism, or Darwin’s ecology. Within these frameworks there is no ontological legislator that stands above being. At the political level, Enlightenment means communism in the strict sense of the “common”. Politically, Enlightenment is the view that it is the people (and nonhumans!) that make society, that there are no transcendent legislators entitled to rule by virtue of some innate superiority, and that even where there are sovereigns, the authority of these sovereigns only issues from the people and nonhumans and not any intrinsic feature of their being such as blood, divine will, money, superior intelligence, or superior military prowess. Finally, in the domain of knowledge, Enlightenment or immanence means that everyone deserves an argument or a demonstration, that everyone can participate in argument and demonstrate, and that we don’t take someone’s word for it just because they’re a king, church father, respected scholar, etc. Here Enlightenment means that even a young and unknown upstart like Einstein can challenge a giant like Newton.

I don’t see Enlightenment as Cartesian (or Humean!) rationality, though I do believe these forms of rationality have been indispensable in challenging priests and despots, and in helping to promote communism where people both come to know the world together and where they form society together rather than simply taking orders. Enlightenment has meant that popes don’t get to decide who rules based on blood lines, family alliances, and treaties in ways that don’t work to the interests of the people, but rather that the people get to decide these issues. When a Spinoza, Hume, Descartes, or Freud explore the “passions” or affects, untangling what comes from us rather than from the world, they are practicing the ideal of enlightenment by rationally approaching affects and finding ways to free us from the sad passions that haunt us and render us miserable and that generate so much human cruelty. I also see the project of pursuing equality, the participation of all regardless of gender, race, and religion, and the struggle for economic equality as lying at the heart of enlightenment. All of these struggles are premised, once again, on immanence and the thesis that our qualities are not intrinsic, but that we make ourselves who we are. With Kant I agree that Enlightenment consists in humankind freeing itself from its self-imposed immaturity. That immaturity consists of our need for fathers to govern us and in mythological thinking about the world. Against Kant, I reject the thesis that enlightenment should not challenge despots or authorities. Enlightenment has taken a number of knocks, being blamed for environmental devastation, war, human cruelty, colonial cruelty, capitalist inequality, etc. To my thinking, these things aren’t the result of enlightenment but of not being enlightened enough. Indeed, the very fact that we critique enlightenment in this way is central to enlightenment.