Giles Fraser: Enlightened thinking still raises queries

16 June 2010

“For over 250 years the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Man­u­factures and Commerce (RSA) has been a cradle of enlightenment think­ing and a force for social progress.” So says the RSA on its website. This week, it launches a new initiative, calling for a 21st-century enlighten­ment.

Matthew Taylor, the RSA’s chief executive, argues that the three great benefits of the late-17th/early-18th-century Enlightenment was that it represented: (1) a revolution of the mind (often understood to be a revo­lution against obscurantism and reli­gion); (2) the beginnings of indi­vidual rights as an ethical imperative; and (3) an insistence on universalism: that moral rights and obligations apply to all, irrespective of culture, na­tion­ality, gender, and so on.

Mr Taylor wants a 21st-century renewal of this tradition. And there will be many, especially on the Left, who agree with him. As the Labour Party seeks to reinvent itself after its recent election defeat, the ideas of a person such as Mr Taylor — who was head of Tony Blair’s policy unit — will carry weight.

Here’s the problem. The Enlight­enment has become one of those things that it is impossible to ques­tion, without being cast as someone who wants to bring back the burning of witches. For some, the Enlight­enment has been placed beyond critical scrutiny. This lack of critical analysis is, I suspect, at the heart of Labour’s recent electoral defeat.

This (1) “revolution of the mind” has not only become a pretext for scientific hubris: it has also led to the refusal of any sort of argument that does not have an empirical or evid­ential base. This revolution has given us an obsession with league-tables and the squeezing of human life into the measurable and the countable.

The insistence on rights language (2) has given us an individualised moral­ity and an explosion of legis­lation through which rights-based morality has come to be codified.

Then (3) the concern for uni­versalism has often meant that the sense in which morality is rooted in the ways of a particular community has been ignored. In philosophical terms, this is a list of New Labour’s main failings.

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached a brilliant sermon for the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society (see He spoke of the early English Enlightenment as wanting to keep open many different sorts of ques­tion. In contrast, modern appropri­ations of the Enlightenment legacy have turned it into a means of closing down questions — especially (but not only) religious ones.

Mr Taylor is right, however, that this is the most significant political battleground of our times.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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