My hunch about why we feel the post-Enlightenment pinch as acutely as we do is that the Enlightenment most of us know is the French Enlightenment. And those French, forever pushing things to absurd extremes. A Frenchman is apparently incapable of saying, “Hey, cool: Reason!” and then adding it to his repertory. No, he has to believe in it, make a substitute religion of it, live it out to its logical conclusions … And what does Reason lead to when it’s pushed fanatically out as far as it can go? Barrenness, cafe existentialism, suicide, bizarre buildings, Catherine Breillat movies. (Little joke, given that I love many of her movies.)
But there was another Enlightenment altogether, one that had its feet well-planted on the ground — the Scottish Englightenment. In 50ish years, from circa 1700 to the mid-1700s, Edinburgh transformed itself from a religion-oppressed backwater into one of the happening-ist cities in Europe. Giants walked Edinburgh’s streets: Thomas Reid, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, many others.
The post is full of good thoughts and incredibly useful links. His inspiration was this David Denby article from the New Yorker, which was itself largely inspired by a reading of James Buchan’s Crowded With Genius. I can’t do the Denby article justice by excerpting it; it’s very good and thought-provoking, and worth a full read.
I plan to go read all of these sources, to bolster my understanding of the two different Enlightenment experiences. My simple-minded notion of them is that they had very different conceptions of reason and rationality: the French notion was very Cartesian and constructivist, the Scottish notion more organic and evolutionary. Perhaps that’s why, as Michael at Two Blowhards says,
Reading Adam Smith himself, I was struck by what a respectful, trenchant, and complex thinker he was — anything but the simple-minded apostle for corporatism and greed that he’s sometimes taken to be today. Passages in his works anticipate Hayek and chaos theory; other passages anticipate Marx in their vision of how deadening division-of-labor-style labor can be.