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Definitions, Professions, and Theodicy August 8, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Methods.

One of the most spectacular debates that has emerged since the late 1970s has been those concerning the taxonomy and ontology of two interrelated historical periodizations, that of the “enlightenment” and that of “modernity.” In the history of ideas in both Europe and America, the duel question of “What is enlightenment?” and “What is modernity?” has been the subject of innumerable books, articles, dissertations, and conferences. The conjoining of both these questions and the interrogation of the reality of the intellectual movements they contend to signify has been the focus of recent work by James Schmidt and Graeme Garrard. Garrard, like Isaiah Berlin a generation before him, has linked the end of enlightenment and the arrival of modernity with the failure of rationality, cosmopolitanism, representative government, and the consequent rise of the totalitarian state. Thus, in this context, to define is to also narrate, explain, and defend oneself against the explanations of others.

For Garrard, political theorist Eric Vogelin, Richard Wolin, Ira Katznelson in his Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge After Total War, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust, as well as Zygmunt Bauman in his Modernity and the Holocaust, all of whom in some ways follow Hannah Arendt, the failure of the enlightenment and the advent of modernity can help, in no small measure, to explain the ensuing failure of reason and democracy in the twentieth century. The cataclysms of the First World War, the advent of secularization, the supremacy of the “degeneration” model of biology and criminality, the collapse of the Weimar republic, and the question of “responsibility” for totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, both in terms of intellectual genealogies and the actions of men, are the consequence of the ruins of the enlightenment project and the advent of “barbarism and modernity,” to appropriate the phrase of sociologist S. N. Eisenstadt (see his Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities.)

The persistence of these types of debates point to a communal desire for grouping and definition among communities of scholars and to an unacknowledged metaphysics. Discussions of “modernity” (what it is and what it is not) allow historians and philosophers to not only define their craft but to define their craft against the objections of others. Such discussions also allow for the working out of “disciplinarily,” helping to define not only how historians write for themselves and for their peers but also how they engage with the work of others. The specificity, use, conflict over terms, and what those terms intend to signify, may tell us not only a great deal about the philosophic background of a profession but may also provide an idea of what questions and concepts a specific profession or discipline deems most crucial for it to address. Intellectual historians will define the enlightenment (or attempt to do so) in a manner which allows them as a group to write about this period in a certain manner and to address a specific set of questions. Philosophers of science or sociologists of science will define the problem differently in an effort to narrate a specific understanding of the enlightenment that is distinct from but mimetic of the construction of historians.

The longevity of the debate over what exactly the “enlightenment” was or is and what exactly “modernity” consisted of or consists in also reveals a deeply problematic consequence of narrative explanation and the ways in which communities of professionals address specific questions of past causality. To view the rise of Hitler or the advent of the industrial killing which defined the Holocaust as a consequence of the failure of the enlightenment and the advent of modernity, indeed, as Baumann argues, as a constituent feature of modernity, is not only a thesis or a narrative ordering of events in order to show cause, but emerges, particularly in its general formulations, as a form of theodicy. The attempt to address the question of “What is the Enlightenment?” is not only an attempt at historical periodization but also, particularly in the context as a system of claims and explanations about the twentieth century, a metaphysical explanation for why there is evil in the world. It is metaphysical in the sense that it presumes a reality in which ideas function in a specific manner in relation to human will and activity and in which the interaction between ideas and the process of decision is static enough so that it may be reconstructed generations later. It is a theodicy in the further sense that the transcendent principle emerges not as a deity but as the failure of a system of ideas and its attendant social program, which place individuals in a series of situations that affect their responsibility and that help explain their actions.



1. Will Thomas - August 8, 2008

Is this guy great, or what? Welcome aboard the blogging train, Christopher!

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