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The battle to define the “21st Century Enlightenment”


Here is an animated video of a recent speech by Matthew Taylor, director of the Royal Society of the Arts, on the "21st Century Enlightenment".

I'm all in favor of Enlightenment values, and think that they are lacking today. Therefore, I welcome Taylor raising the subject. However, his argument  that we are "in thrall to animal spirits" and that we need to "recognize our frailties and limitations" is directly opposed to the underlying basis of the Enlightenment - humans as autonomous subjects. Taylor's use of recent findings from neurology, psychology and sociology does not enhance Enlightenment thinking; it represents an attack in the guise of support.

As Tim Black wrote in his review of Tzvetan Todorov's In Defence of the Enlightenment in the spiked review of books, today we have an army of supposed heirs to the Enlightenment, such as "militant secularists, New Atheists, advocates of evidence-based policy, human rights champions". But their embrace of the Enlightenment is a strange one:

Principles that were central – albeit contested – to the Enlightenment have been reversed, turned in on themselves. Secularism, as we have seen recently in the French government’s decision to ban the burqa, has been transformed from state toleration of religious beliefs into their selective persecution; scientific knowledge, having been emancipated from theology, has now become the politician’s article of faith; even freedom itself, that integral Enlightenment impulse, has been reconceived as the enemy of the people. As the Enlightened critics of Enlightenment naivete would have it, in the symbolic shapes of our ever distending guts and CO2-belching cars, we may be a little too free.

Let the battle to define the 21st Century Enlightenment commence!

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