Introducing the Enlightenment by Spencer & Krauze. There is a second sense of the term.

The Age of Enlightenment was an 18th century movement that started in Paris and spread across Europe to the American colonies. It was shaped by scientists like Bacon and Newton, advancing the application of natural laws to the understanding of all phenomena. John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was an essential work arguing, against Descartes, that all knowledge is derived from experience. It mapped the foundations for scientific psychology. The novel emerged in philosophy and literature, including writers like Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire advocated for civil liberties and was influential in the American and French revolutions.

These thinkers and many more are surveyed in a fun little book called, Introducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze. I often enjoy these short guides, either as an introduction to a subject or a review of it. You can get the same information from Wikipedia, but not the clever graphics. I was previously well-served by a book with a similar format, Introducing Critical Theory by Stuart Sim.

The Enlightenment was an important movement. It introduced the first encyclopedia, the collection of many branches of knowledge into a single place. It advanced scientific knowledge and the arts, atheism and religious movements, economics and industrialism. Secular and intellectual, it was the foundation of modern Western philosophy. It can be credited or blamed with the advance of technologies that characterize modern life. Some say that this movement concluded in tragedy with our two world wars. Many still struggle to invent new disciplines and technologies, hoping they will yet save us from the increasing complexity of life.

There is a second sense of the term, enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was known for its application of reason and analysis. The second sense is not rational in the same way, but refers to a complete apprehension or gestalt experience that transforms a person or situation. Call it spiritual enlightenment. Note though that the rise and decline of Christianity maps better to the Age of Enlightenment. Spiritual enlightenment is associated with Eastern philosophy.

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. The most important book never finished.

Being and timeBeing and Time by Martin Heidegger is a pillar of post-modernist thought, an essential reference for understanding the philosophy of mind and technology. Reading it is no small undertaking. Ontology is an abstract subject, requiring prior reading in the philosophy of mind, and familiarization with the new language introduced by Heidegger. On the first day of my existentialism class in 1990, the prof wagged her wise old head over the reading list, intoning, “it’s a tough slog”, debating whether or not to inflict the book on us. She did. Reading Being and Time was my real initiation into the art of slow reading. I pored over the book page by page, making careful notes as I read. I made good progress but I confess I stopped after two hundred pages, less than halfway through the book. I did not finish the book, but neither did Heidegger. A third part and a second book were supposed to follow but instead Heidegger retired to the Black Woods. Ontology does that to people.

Understanding Heidegger is essential as technology plays an increasing role in our lives. I rounded out my understanding of Heidegger in later years. Some excellent essays may be found in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited by Charles Guignon. If you want to read a small introduction, I recommend Heidegger, an excellent 56-page summary by Jonathan Rée. What follows is my own summary of the main concepts.

Ready-to-hand. Before we can inquire about the being of things, we must take a look at the inquirer — people, you and me, who ask about these things. Prior to any kind of inquiry about anything, people are just going about doing what they are doing, busy using the things of the world, carrying on their business, like reading this article. You are immersed in a stream of experience. Heidegger calls this state, “ready-to-hand.”

Presence-at-hand. It is only when something is askew that we reflectively notice a thing, and begin the activity of inquiry. You’re reading this article, and you notice a word misspelled or a concept you disagree with. Your focus then moves in on the thing, and you begin to analyze it. You regard the object of your attention as a “thing” that can be objectified and theorized about. Heidegger calls this state, “presence-at-hand.”

Inauthenticity. There is a natural tendency to apply this same kind of theoretical approach to ourselves and others. Descartes took this tendency to the extreme, depicting people as entities isolated from the world, looking out upon it. By extension, others are entities, distinctly separated from our viewpoint. Heidegger calls this perspective the “they-self”, a distortion of ourselves and our relations with others and the world, leading to a preoccupation with gossip, entertainment, and other triviality that reinforces or advances our status relative to others, trying to secure the substantiveness of fragile selves. Heidegger calls this state, “inauthenticity”.

Dasein. Heidegger argues that we are not isolated entities, distinct from others and the world. He introduces the concept of “Dasein”. We are first existences in the world, doing our business, involved in activities. We have being in the world before we do any kind of theoretical inquiry. In contrast to Cartesian solipsism, he coins the word, “Dasein”. We are openings to the world, having access to phenomena. We are fundamentally linked to the stream of experience. We must have this link, or it makes no sense to inquire into the nature of phenomena. It would be impossible to say anything sensible at all about phenomena without first having some kind of qualitative relationship. We are Dasein, windows to others and the world. Dasein is always “thown” into some circumstance. Where it is thrown, it cares about what is going on, and it projects into the future its plans for dealing with its circumstances. Dasein is first a window to its experience, and then a theorizer, planning a way to handle its experience.

Time. The main cause of inauthenticity is our tendency to regard time as a series of “now-points”. We tend to regard birth and death as distant facts. We consider out lives a finite resource of discrete units of time which we must fill. Hence, we fashion an “I-point” (the Cartesian self) which is a certain quantity of “now-points”. We intend to fill our life with a certain quantity of experiences that will define who we are. In fact, death is an ever present reality. This fact causes us anxiety, but authentically, we cannot pretend that our self is defined apart from birth and death. Our being is not measured by the now-points we fill. Our authentic being is a constant incompleteness, at any time to be ended by death. (Heidegger sounds like a Buddhist.)

What does all this have to do with modern technology? Heidegger introduced the famous example of the broken hammer that stops a worker and causes reflection. It applies to all tools and technologies. What is to be done when the hammer or information technology breaks? We become unnerved as our 24/7 electric blanket of technology cools off. Without vigilance, our analyses become inauthentic, self-serving spirals of falsity, having nothing to do with the original need to hammer. We invent mighty technologies that seem pretty cool but belie our original purpose. Reflection must be grounded in Dasein’s open view on the stream of experience.

Introducing Critical Theory by Stuart Sim. The notion of history moving toward some grand end is suspect.

Critical theory is a way of understanding culture. It proposes a theory to analyze literature, music, entertainment, politics, religion, and so on. It is typically interested in political change. Marxism is a classic example, but there are many other theories, e.g., deconstructionism, feminism, queer theory, and black politics.

Alienation. A core concept in critical theory is alienation, a condition of existing on the outside, in estrangement from a community or nature or even one’s self.

Dialectic. The dialectic refers to the alienation or contradiction latent in all thinking. An idea inevitably provokes its opposite. For Hegel, opposites are resolved at a higher level of consciousness.

Narrative. Marx applied the concept of the dialectic to politics, with a grand narrative in which history is the struggle of the working class against property owners. According to Marx, the inevitable outcome is the overthrow of the property owners and the formation of a Communist state. Narrative is basic to the human condition, but grand narratives tend to be authoritarian. More recent theorists prefer to use small narratives to describe their distinctive experiences.

Subtext is a hidden level of narrative or meaning at which people are influenced or controlled. Marx pointed to the cultural ideology of consumerism to explain why the class revolution had not yet succeeded. Freud proposed the psychological unconscious from which repressed sexual desire influenced our behaviour. Structuralists examined how language shapes our interactions.

Structure and Totality. Subtext introduces the idea of hidden and shared structures. We may able to define a grammar or syntax of the unconscious, e.g., universal symbols such as male and female. The systems of Marx, Freud and the structuralists propose a horizon to knowledge, limiting human claims to enlightenment. At the same time, these theories make a claim on identity, a totality, transferring authority to those who understand them. Always a risky proposition.

Difference. Post-structuralists reject structuralism and systems, and emphasize the plurality of meaning. Derrida said there is no precise meaning to a word. It is better to talk about a field of meaning. Foucault rejected the idea of human essence. He described the plight of the mentally ill, homosexuals, prisoners and ethnic minorities. Lyotard coined the term, differends, intractable disputes, e.g., First Nation land claims, which tend toward marginalization of those with less power. Lyotard discussed how postmodern science — incompleteness theory, complexity theory — shows that the future is still open.

Perception. Art reflects the unconscious. Art can be used as propogranda, and it can be used to reveal ideology. Shklovsky contributed the concept of defamiliarization, the making strange of everyday objects to break fascination and perceive freshly. Defamiliarization is a defining quality of literature. Benjamin stated that original works of art have an aura, a context and history that cannot be mechanically reproduced. Barthes proclaimed the death of the author. It is readers who complete the narrative.

Evaluation. In the absense of a grand narrative, evaluations and ethical judgements can still be made on a case-by-case basis, much like our courts. Bentham prescribed “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and rejected the Ten Commandments.

Simulcra. Technology has changed the nature of the working class. Lyotard was concerned that technology was a last attempt to eliminate difference from the world. In contrast, Haraway saw the internet as a female friendly space, and said she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. Baudrillard said we now inhabit a world of hyperreal simulcra, “signs without referents” including the Gulf War and Disneyworld. With technology mediating all our relationships, are we simulcra of human beings?

History. Is there such a thing as progress? Hegel saw an evolution toward absolute spirit. Marx insisted that communism was inevitable. Kafka believed that alienation was an inescapable metaphysical condition. Witnessing WWII violence, Adorno and Marcuse rejected what they called the Enlightenment project, while Habermas said it is just an unfinished project.

An Opinion. To me, the dialectic suggests a two-step. Sometimes we can take two steps forward only to take three steps back. The notion of history moving toward some grand end is suspect. We undertake projects and glimpse meaning, but anyone who thinks they know the big picture with certainty is mistaken. Both memories and hopes are tainted by our fantasies and fears. The meaning I trust is local, actual moments in space and time. Perception is an end in itself. The future is open.