peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 12 01 GenevieveLloyd EnlightenmentShadows

Genevieve Lloyd: Enlightenment Shadows.

/noise/books | Link

Gen was my philosophy prof at UNSW. The best class I took for that degree was hers on 18th Century Philosophy, largely because of Hume (the first philosopher in history to make substantial sense from a twentieth-century empirical/rationalist viewpoint) and her insights into Kant's Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose. The second best was hers on the ancient Greeks. I bought her book at the time it was released, about two years ago, and have been lugging it around with me ever since. I finally committed to finishing it last week after about three starts — on three continents — and the end came at one of the few remaining authentic Trung Nguyên cafés, near Chợ Rẫy hospital, in Hồ Chí Minh City.

The introduction and blurb suggest that this text canvasses similar topics to David Malouf in his recent Quarterly Essay, viz the Enlightenment as the creator of future tense and the intellectual framework/process we currently inhabit. (Charles Yu is therefore observing regressive behaviour with his "present indefinite", though — with my limited understanding — I wonder if it's not the default mode of the Vietnamese language.) The reality is somewhat different however: Gen provides a close reading of several Enlightenment classics and highlights particular common themes, such as empathy and slaughtering sacred cows but not getting lynched for doing so. Therefore, instead of an overview of this tradition (which she is as capable as anyone of providing) we get something somewhat quixotic.

I took a few notes along the way, but nowhere enough to do justice to the whole text. Gen (p4) cites Derrida's Spectres of Marx as an example of the necessity to repeatedly critique what many economists are now calling "zombie ideas". One such is Kant's demand that (p9) "nations will stand to one another in relations similar to those in which individuals stand to one another in civil society." — a concept that Krugman et al reject as naive, as governments have concerns and powers that no individual has. Consider, for instance, a state monopoly on violence, the ability to print money, and a notional stewards-for-coming-generations role. I don't think there's enough slack in "similar" to cover these types of things.

Gen (p120) dug up this great quote from d'Alembert:

The art of reasoning is a gift which Nature bestows of her own accord upon men of intelligence, and it can be said that the books which treat this subject are hardly useful except to those who can get along without them. People reasoned validly long before Logic, reduced to principles, taught how to recognize false reasonings, and sometimes even how to cloak them in a subtle and deceiving form.

Cough, ahem, yes. Another of her common themes is the idea of objectivity arising collectively, but not therefore becoming a species of subjectivity or a view from nowhere. I think we could call it crowdsourcing or the wisdom of crowds, or gesture at the coherence theory of truth if we need a fig leaf. Yeah, then Hegelian thesis/antithesis leads to balls up and so forth.

Gen observes that Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch is so mired in teleology that it is beyond redemption. Adam Smith's invisible hand plays a similar role, somehow benignly picking out a better destination and not just a more efficient route. Kant's ideas of the relations between nations is woefully naive, being of the Kissinger-like realpolitik ilk (Gen p147):

[...] in relation to international rights Kant observes that, although the preferred route for states or rulers to lasting peace may be world domination, Nature wills it otherwise. Peace between nations is created and guaranteed by "an equilibrium of forces and a most vigorous rivalry."

... which didn't work out so well for colonized countries for quite a while. Interestingly Kant also advocates for limited human rights, a sort-of mutual obligation while-visiting sort of thing.

The introduction and conclusion are very strong, and it is unfortunate that the intervening "close readings" are not as interesting to this non-specialist. Gen also fails to achieve Krugman levels of polemics, which is to say that she's too polite and scrupulous to slaughter her fellow ponderers for minor infractions. That she needs to if she was to gain any traction in the modern debates around refugees, climate, etc. is a shame. As always she speaks authoritatively about Kant's political philosophy, and I would have dearly liked to hear more about that.

Mark Collier. I concur with his conclusion: I had hoped this book would provide an overview of the entire Enlightenment project.

In a timely coincidence, here is Jason Wilson mining a similar vein, and Mehdi Hasan on those who call for an Islamic reformation. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, cited by Gen, does not cover herself with glory in her interview with Jon Stewart.) Roman Krznaric tries to argue that Peter Singer is ignorant of empathy, but does not himself account for the imagination it requires.