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The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Big enlightenment thinkers as opposed to today's little postmodernist seekers


ANOTHER, more purely rationalist objection to the Enlightenment program remains. Grant for argument's sake that the most extravagant claims of the Enlightenment's supporters proved true and scientists could look into the future to see what course of action was best for humanity. Wouldn't that trap us in a cage of logic and revealed fate? The thrust of the Enlightenment, like the Greek humanism that prefigured it, was Promethean: the knowledge it generated was to liberate mankind by lifting it above the savage world. But the opposite might occur: if scientific inquiry diminishes the conception of divinity while prescribing immutable natural laws, then humanity can lose what freedom it already possesses. Perhaps only one social order is "perfect" and scientists will find it -- or, worse, falsely claim to have found it. Religious authority, the Hadrian's Wall of civilization, will be breached, and the barbarians of totalitarian ideology will pour in. Such is the dark side of Enlightenment secular thought, unveiled in the French Revolution and expressed more recently by theories of "scientific" socialism and racialist fascism.
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From the archives:

  • "Moving Toward the Clonal Man," by James D. Watson (May, 1971)
    The Nobel-prize winner James D. Watson took on the issue of cloning more than a quarter-century before Dolly the sheep was "born."

  • Still another concern is that a science-driven society risks upsetting the natural order of the world set in place by God, or by billions of years of evolution. Science given too much authority risks conversion into a self-destroying impiety. The godless creations of science and technology are in fact powerful and arresting images of modern culture. Frankenstein's monster and Hollywood's Terminator (an all-metal, microchip-guided Frankenstein's monster) wreak destruction on their creators, including the naive geniuses in lab coats who arrogantly forecast a new age ruled by science. Storms rage, hostile mutants spread, life dies. Nations menace one another with world-destroying technology. Even Winston Churchill, whose country was saved by radar, worried after the atom-bombing of Japan that the Stone Age might return "on the gleaming wings of Science."


    FOR those who thus feared science as Faustian rather than Promethean, the Enlightenment program posed a grave threat to spiritual freedom -- even to life itself. What is the answer to such a threat? Revolt! Return to natural man, reassert the primacy of individual imagination and confidence in immortality. Find an escape to a higher realm through art; promote a Romantic revolution. In 1807 William Wordsworth, in words typical of the movement then spreading over Europe, evoked the aura of a primal and serene existence beyond reason's grasp.

    Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
    Which brought us hither,
    Can in a moment travel thither,
    And see the Children sport upon the shore,
    And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

    With Wordworth's "breathings for incommunicable powers" the eyes close, the mind soars, the inverse square distance law of gravity falls away. The spirit enters another reality, beyond the reach of weight and measure. If the constraining universe of matter and energy cannot be denied, at least it can be ignored with splendid contempt. Beyond question, Wordsworth and his fellow English Romantic poets of the first half of the nineteenth century conjured works of great beauty. They spoke truths in another tongue, and guided the arts still further from the sciences.

    Romanticism also flowered in philosophy, where it placed a premium on rebellion, spontaneity, intense emotion, and heroic vision. Searching for aspirations available only to the heart, its practitioners dreamed of mankind as part of boundless nature. Rousseau, although often listed as an Enlightenment philosophe, was actually the founder and most extreme visionary of the Romantic philosophical movement. To him, learning and social order were the enemies of humanity. In works from 1750 (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts) to 1762 (Emile) he extolled the "sleep of reason." His utopia is a minimalist state in which people abandon books and other accouterments of intellect in order to cultivate good health and enjoyment of the senses. Humanity, Rousseau claimed, was originally a race of noble savages in a peaceful state of nature, and was later corrupted by civilization -- and by scholarship. Religion, marriage, law, and government are deceptions created by the powerful for their own selfish ends. The price paid by the common man for this high-level chicanery is vice and unhappiness.

    No inherent "Reality" for postmodernists Where Rousseau invented a stunningly inaccurate form of anthropology, the German Romantics, led by Goethe, Hegel, Herder, and Schelling, set out to reinsert metaphysics into science and philosophy. The product, Naturphilosophie, was a hybrid of sentiment, mysticism, and quasi-scientific hypothesis. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, pre-eminent among its expositors, wanted most of all to be a great scientist. He placed that ambition above literature, to which he became an immortal contributor. His respect for science as an idea, an approach to tangible reality, was unreserved, and he understood its basic tenets. Analysis and synthesis, he liked to say, should alternate as naturally as breathing in and breathing out. At the same time, he was critical of the mathematical abstractions of Newtonian science, thinking physics far too ambitious in its goal of explaining the universe.

    Goethe can easily be forgiven. After all, he had a noble purpose -- nothing less than the coupling of the soul of the humanities to the engine of science. He would have grieved had he foreseen history's verdict: great poet, poor scientist. He failed in his synthesis through lack of what is today called the scientist's instinct -- not to mention the necessary technical skills. Calculus baffled him, and some said he could not tell a lark from a sparrow. But he loved nature in a profoundly spiritual way. One must cultivate a close, deep feeling for Nature, he proclaimed. "She loves illusion. She shrouds man in mist, and she spurs him toward the light. Those who will not partake of her illusions she punishes as a tyrant would punish. Those who accept her illusions she presses to her heart. To love her is the only way to approach her." In the philosophers' empyrean, I imagine, Bacon has long since lectured Goethe on the idols of the mind. Newton will have lost patience immediately.

    Friedrich Schelling, the leading philosopher of the German Romantics, attempted to immobilize the scientific Prometheus not with poetry but with reason. He proposed a cosmic unity of all things, beyond the understanding of man. Facts by themselves can never be more than partial truths. Those we perceive are only fragments of the universal flux. Nature, Schelling concluded, is alive -- a creative spirit that unites knower and known, progressing through greater and greater understanding and feeling toward an eventual state of complete self-realization.
    From the archives:

  • "Chesuncook," by Henry David Thoreau (June - August, 1858)
    "After a dinner, at which apple-sauce was the greatest luxury to me, but our moose meat was oftenest called for by the lumberers, I walked across the clearing into the forest, southward returning along the shore. For my dessert, I helped myself to a large slice of the Chesuncook woods, and took a hearty draught of its waters with all my senses.... "

  • In America, German philosophical Romanticism was mirrored in New England Transcendentalism, whose most celebrated adherents were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendentalists were radical individualists who rejected the overwhelmingly commercial nature of American society that came to prevail during the Jacksonian era. They envisioned a spiritual universe built entirely within their personal ethos. They were nevertheless more congenial to science than their European counterparts -- witness the many accurate natural-history observations in Faith in a Seed and other writings by Thoreau.


    NATURAL scientists, chastened by such robust objections to the Enlightenment agenda, mostly abandoned the examination of human mental life, yielding to philosophers and poets another century of free play. In fact, the concession proved to be a healthy decision for the profession of science, because it steered researchers away from the pitfalls of metaphysics. Throughout the nineteenth century knowledge in the physical and biological sciences grew at an exponential rate. At the same time, newly risen like upstart duchies and earldoms, the social sciences -- sociology, anthropology, economics, and political theory -- vied for territory in the space created between the hard sciences and the humanities. The great branches of learning emerged in their present form -- natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities -- out of the unified Enlightenment vision.

    The Enlightenment, defiantly secular in orientation while indebted and attentive to theology, had brought the Western mind to the threshold of a new freedom. It waved aside everything, every form of religious and civil authority, every imaginable fear, to give precedence to the ethic of free inquiry. It pictured a universe in which humanity plays the role of perpetual adventurer. For two centuries God seemed to speak in a new voice to humankind.

    By the early 1800s, however, the splendid image was fading. Reason fractured, intellectuals lost faith in the leadership of science, and the prospects for a unity of knowledge sharply declined. The spirit of the Enlightenment lived on in political idealism and the hopes of individual thinkers. In the ensuing decades new schools sprang up like shoots from the base of a shattered tree: the utilitarian ethics of Bentham and Mill, the historical materialism of Marx and Engels, the pragmatism of Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. But the core agenda seemed irretrievably abandoned. The grand conception that had riveted thinkers during the previous two centuries lost most of its credibility.

    Science traveled on its own way. It continued to double every fifteen years in practitioners, discoveries, and technical journals, as it had since the early 1700s, finally starting to level off only around 1970. Its continuously escalating success began to give credence again to the idea of an ordered, explainable universe. This essential Enlightenment premise gained ground in the disciplines of mathematics, physics, and biology, where it had first been conceived by Bacon and Descartes. Yet the enormous success of reductionism, its key method, worked perversely against any recovery of the Enlightenment program as a whole. Precisely because scientific information was increasing at a geometric pace, most researchers thought little about unification, and even less about philosophy. They thought, What works, works. They were still slower to address the taboo-laden physical basis for the workings of the mind, a concept hailed in the late 1700s as the gateway from biology to the social sciences.

    There was another, humbler reason for the lack of interest in the big picture: scientists simply didn't have the requisite intellectual energy. The vast majority of scientists have never been more than journeymen prospectors. That is truer than ever today. They are professionally focused; their education does not open them to the wide contours of the world. They acquire the training they need to travel to the frontier and make discoveries of their own -- and make them as fast as possible, because life at the edge is expensive and chancy. The most productive scientists, installed in million-dollar laboratories, have no time to think about the big picture, and see little profit in it. The rosette of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which the 2,100 elected members wear on their lapels as a mark of achievement, contains a center of scientific gold surrounded by the purple of natural philosophy. The eyes of most leading scientists, alas, are fixed on the gold.

    We should not be surprised, therefore, to find physicists who do not know what a gene is, and biologists who guess that string theory has something to do with violins. Grants and honors are given in science for discoveries, not for scholarship and wisdom. And so it has ever been. Francis Bacon, using the political skills that lofted him to the Lord Chancellorship, personally importuned the English monarchs for funds to carry forth his great scheme of unifying knowledge. He never got a penny. At the height of his fame Descartes was ceremoniously awarded a stipend by the French court. But the account remained unfunded, helping to drive him to the more generous Swedish court, in the "land of bears between rock and ice," where he soon died of pneumonia.

    The same professional atomization afflicts the social sciences and the humanities. The faculties of higher education around the world are a congeries of experts. To be an original scholar is to be a highly specialized world authority in a polyglot Calcutta of similarly focused world authorities. In 1797, when Jefferson took the president's chair at the American Philosophical Society, all American scientists of professional caliber and their colleagues in the humanities could be seated comfortably in the lecture room of Philosophical Hall. Most could discourse reasonably well on the entire world of learning, which was still small enough to be seen whole. Their successors today, including 450,000 holders of the doctorate in science and engineering alone, would overcrowd Philadelphia. Professional scholars in general have little choice but to dice up research expertise and research agendas among themselves. To be a successful scholar means spending a career on membrane biophysics, the Romantic poets, early American history, or some other such constricted area of formal study.

    Humanities and sciences lying close together Fragmentation of expertise was furthered in the twentieth century by modernism in the arts, including architecture. The work of the masters -- Braque, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Joyce, Martha Graham, Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and their peers -- was so novel and discursive as to thwart generic classification, except perhaps for this: The modernists tried to achieve the new and provocative at any cost. They identified the constraining bonds of tradition and self-consciously broke them. Many rejected realism of expression in order to explore the unconscious. Freud, as much a literary stylist as a scientist, inspired them and can justifiably be included in their ranks. Psychoanalysis was a force that shifted the attention of modernist intellectuals and artists from the social and political to the private and psychological. Subjecting every topic within their domain to the "ruthless centrifuge of change," in the American historian Carl Schorske's phrase, they meant proudly to assert the independence of twentieth-century high culture from the past. They were not nihilists; rather, they sought to create a new level of order and meaning. They were complete experimentalists who wished to participate in a century of radical technological and political change and to fashion part of it entirely on their own terms.

    Thus the free flight bequeathed by the Enlightenment, which disengaged the humanities during the Romantic era, had by the middle of the twentieth century all but erased hope for the unification of knowledge with the aid of science. The two cultures described by C. P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture, the literary and the scientific, were no longer on speaking terms.


    ALL movements tend toward extremes, which is approximately where we are today. The exuberant self-realization that ran from Romanticism to modernism has given rise now to philosophical postmodernism (often called post-structuralism, especially in its more political and sociological expressions). Postmodernism is the ultimate antithesis of the Enlightenment. The difference between the two can be expressed roughly as follows: Enlightenment thinkers believed we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.

    The philosophical postmodernists, a rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy, challenge the very foundations of science and traditional philosophy. Reality, the radicals among them propose, is a state constructed by the mind. In the exaggerated version of this constructivism one can discern no "real" reality, no objective truths external to mental activity, only prevailing versions disseminated by ruling social groups. Nor can ethics be firmly grounded, given that each society creates its own codes for the benefit of equivalent oppressive forces.

    If these premises are correct, it follows that one culture is as good as any other in the expression of truth and morality, each in its own special way. Political multiculturalism is justified; each ethnic group and sexual preference in the community has equal validity and deserves communal support and mandated representation in educational agendas -- that is, again, if the premises are correct. And they must be correct, say their promoters, because to suggest otherwise is bigotry, which is a cardinal sin. Cardinal, that is, if we agree to waive in this one instance the postmodernist prohibition against universal truth, and all agree to agree for the common good. Thus Rousseau redivivus.

    Postmodernism is expressed more explicitly still in deconstruction, a technique of literary criticism. Its underlying premise is that each author's meaning is unique to himself; neither his true intention nor anything else connected to objective reality can reliably be determined. His text is therefore open to fresh analysis and commentary from the equally solipsistic world in the head of the reviewer. But the reviewer, too, is subject to deconstruction, as is the reviewer of the reviewer, and so on in infinite regress. That is what Jacques Derrida, the creator of deconstruction, meant when he stated the formula "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("There is nothing outside the text"). At least, that is what I think he meant, after reading him, his defenders, and his critics with some care. If the radical postmodernist premise is correct, we can never be sure what he meant. Conversely, if that is what he meant, perhaps we are not obliged to consider his arguments further. This puzzle, which I am inclined to set aside as the "Derrida paradox," is similar to the Cretan paradox (a Cretan says "All Cretans are liars"). It awaits solution, but one should not feel any great sense of urgency in the matter.

    Scientists, held responsible for what they say, have not found postmodernism useful. The postmodernist posture toward science, in turn, is one of subversion. It contains what appears to be a provisional acceptance of gravity, the periodic table, astrophysics, and similar stanchions of the external world, but in general the scientific culture is viewed as just another way of knowing, and, moreover, a mental posture contrived mostly by European and American white males.

    One is tempted to place postmodernism in history's curiosity cabinet, alongside theosophy and transcendental idealism, but it has seeped by now into the mainstream of the social sciences and the humanities. It is viewed there as a technique of metatheory (theory about theories), by which scholars analyze not so much the subject matter of a scientific discipline as the cultural and psychological factors that explain why particular scientists think the way they do. The analyst places emphasis on "root metaphors," those ruling images in the thinker's mind whereby he designs theories and experiments. Here, for example, is the psychologist Kenneth Gergen explaining how modern psychology is dominated by the metaphor of human beings as machines:
    Regardless of the character of the person's behavior, the mechanist theorist is virtually obliged to segment him from the environment, to view the environment in terms of stimulus or input elements, to view the person as reactive to and dependent on these input elements, to view the domain of the mental as structured (constituted of interacting elements), to segment behavior into units that can be coordinated to the stimulus inputs, and so on.
    Put briefly, and to face the issue squarely, psychology is at risk of becoming a natural science. As a possible remedy for those who wish to keep it otherwise, and many scholars do, Gergen cites other, perhaps less pernicious root metaphors of mental life that might be considered, such as dramaturgy, the marketplace, and rule-following. Psychology, if not allowed to be contaminated with too much biology, can accommodate endless numbers of theoreticians in the future.

    As diversity of metaphors has been added to ethnic diversity and gender dualism and then politicized, schools and ideologies have multiplied explosively. Usually leftist in orientation, the more familiar modes of general postmodernist thought include Afrocentrism, constructivist social anthropology, "critical" (that is, socialist) science, deep ecology, ecofeminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Latourian sociology of science, and neo-Marxism -- to which must be added all the bewildering varieties of deconstructionism and New Age holism swirling round about and through them.

    Their adherents fret upon the field of play, sometimes brilliantly, usually not, jargon-prone and elusive. Each in his own way seems to be drifting toward that mysterium tremendum abandoned in the seventeenth century by the Enlightenment -- and not without the expression of considerable personal anguish. Of the late Michel Foucault, the great interpreter of political power in the history of ideas, poised "at the summit of Western intellectual life," the literary critic George Scialabba has perceptively written,

    Foucault was grappling with the deepest, most intractable dilemmas of modern identity.... For those who believe that neither God nor natural law nor transcendent Reason exists, and who recognize the varied and subtle ways in which material interest -- power -- has corrupted, even constituted, every previous morality, how is one to live, to what values can one hold fast?
    How and to what indeed? To solve these disturbing problems, let us begin by simply walking away from Foucault, and existentialist despair. Consider this rule of thumb: to the extent that philosophical positions both confuse us and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong.

    To Foucault I would say, if I could (and I do not mean to sound patronizing), it's not so bad. Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we might wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are the same species and possess biologically similar brains.

    To those concerned about the growing dissolution and irrelevance of the intelligentsia, which is indeed alarming, I suggest that there have always been two kinds of original thinkers -- those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order try to protest it by creating disorder. The tension between the two is what drives learning forward. It lifts us upward on a zigzagging trajectory of progress. And in the Darwinian contest of ideas order always wins, because -- simply -- that is the way the real world works.

    As today's celebrants of unrestrained Romanticism, the postmodernists enrich culture. They say to the rest of us, Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong. Their ideas are like sparks from fireworks explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light in unexpected places. That is one reason to think well of postmodernism, even as it menaces rational thought. Another is the relief it affords those who have chosen not to encumber themselves with a scientific education. Another is the small industry it has created within philosophy and literary studies. Still another, the one that counts most, is the unyielding critique of traditional scholarship it provides. We will always need postmodernists or their rebellious equivalents. For what better way to strengthen organized knowledge than continually to defend it from hostile forces? John Stuart Mill correctly observed that teacher and learner alike fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field. And if somehow, against all the evidence, against all reason, the linchpin falls out and everything is reduced to epistemological confusion, we will find the courage to admit that the postmodernists were right, and in the best spirit of the Enlightenment we will start over again. Because, as the great mathematician David Hilbert once said, capturing so well that part of the human spirit expressed through the Enlightenment, "Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen." ("We must know, we will know.")


    Consilience will unite them IF contemporary scholars work to encourage the consilience of knowledge, I believe, the enterprises of culture will eventually devolve into science -- by which I mean the natural sciences -- and the humanities, particularly the creative arts. These domains will continue to be the two great branches of learning in the twenty-first century. Social science will split within each of its disciplines, a process already rancorously begun, with one part folding into or becoming continuous with biology, and the other fusing with the humanities. Its disciplines will continue to exist but in radically altered form. In the process the humanities, embracing philosophy, history, moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.

    The confidence of natural scientists, I grant, often seems overweening. Science offers the boldest metaphysics of the age: the faith that if we dream, press to discover, explain, and dream again, thereby plunging repeatedly into new terrain, the world will somehow become clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense.

    In his 1941 classic Man on His Nature, the British neurobiologist Charles Sherrington spoke of the brain as an "enchanted loom," perpetually weaving a picture of the external world, tearing down and reweaving, inventing other worlds, creating a miniature universe. The communal mind of literate societies -- world culture -- is an immensely larger loom. Through science it has gained the power to map external reality far beyond the reach of a single mind, and in the arts it finds the means to construct narratives, images, and rhythms immeasurably more diverse than the products of any solitary genius. The loom is the same for both enterprises, for science and for the arts, and there is a general explanation of its origin and nature and thence of the human condition.

    In education the search for consilience is the way to renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts. During the past thirty years the ideal of the unity of learning, bequeathed to us by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, has been largely abandoned. With rare exceptions American colleges and universities have dissolved their curricula into a slurry of minor disciplines and specialized courses. While the average number of undergraduate courses per institution has doubled, the percentage of mandatory courses in general education has dropped by more than half. Science was sequestered at the same time; as I write, only a third of colleges and universities require students to take at least one course in the natural sciences. The trend cannot be reversed by force-feeding students with some of this and some of that across the branches of learning; true reform will aim at the consilience of science with the social sciences and the humanities in scholarship and teaching. Every college student should be able to answer this question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?
    From the archives:

  • "The Reform of the Schools," by James L. Mursell (December, 1939)
    "The great source of weakness in conventional school education is that it has been dominated by the specialist.... The impediment has been an organization of material into endless narrow subdivisions; and this has meant that the material itself has been deprived of life and value."

  • Every public intellectual or political leader should be able to answer that question as well. Already half the legislation coming before Congress has important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily -- ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environmental destruction, and endemic poverty, to cite several of the most persistent -- can be solved only by integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that from the social sciences and the humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as it appears through the lens of ideology and religious dogma, or as a myopic response solely to immediate need. Yet the vast majority of our political leaders are trained primarily or exclusively in the social sciences and the humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences. The same is true of public intellectuals, columnists, media interrogators, and think-tank gurus. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is fragmented and lopsided.

    A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces; the consilience among them must be pursued. Such unification will be difficult to achieve. But I think it is inevitable. Intellectually it rings true, and it gratifies impulses that arise from the admirable side of human nature. To the extent that the gaps between the great branches of learning can be narrowed, diversity and depth of knowledge will increase. They will do so because of, not despite, the underlying cohesion achieved. The enterprise is important for yet another reason: It gives purpose to intellect. It promises that order, not chaos, lies beyond the horizon. Inevitably, I think, we will accept the adventure, go there, and find what we need to know.

    The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

    Edward O. Wilson is the Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard University. Two of his books have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category: On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990). Wilson's article in this issue is taken from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which is to be published next month by Knopf.

    Illustrations by Etienne Delessert

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; March 1998; Back From Chaos; Volume 281, No. 3; pages 41 - 62.

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