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The Dark Side of the Enlightenment - WSJ

This astonishing arrogance is based on a powerful idea: that mathematics can produce universal truths by beginning with self-evident premises—or, as Rene Descartes had put it, “clear and distinct ideas”—and then proceeding by means of infallible deductions to what Kant called “apodictic certainty.” Since this method worked in mathematics, Descartes had insisted, it could be applied to all other disciplines. The idea was subsequently taken up and refined by Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as Kant. This view of “reason”—and of its power, freed from the shackles of history, tradition and experience—is what Kant called “Enlightenment.” It is completely wrong. Human reason is incapable of reaching universally valid, unassailably correct answers to the problems of science, morality and politics by applying the methods of mathematics. The first warning of this was Descartes’s 1644 magnum opus, “The Principles of Philosophy,” which claimed to reach a final determination of the nature of the universe by moving from self-evident premises through infallible deductions. This voluminous work is so scandalously absurd that no unabridged English version is in print today. Yet Descartes’s masterpiece took Europe by storm and for decades was the main textbook of the Cartesian school of science. Kant followed this dubious example with his “Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science” (1786), in which he claimed to have deduced Newton’s laws of motion using pure reason, without empirical evidence.

Yale neuroscientists have debunked the idea that anyone's personality is normal — Quartz

trying to define people one way from a psychiatric perspective is a failure of imagination and opportunity, which hobbles people rather than empowering them to inhabit their full selves. Classic psychiatry categorizes people in limiting, linear ways, while the world is inherently wide-ranging, according to the researchers. They propose instead that each individual be assessed and understood singularly from a psychiatric perspective, but according to a wide range of fluctuating behaviors and tendencies.

Recentering the universe

It was this hierarchy—so central to Western cosmology for so long that, even today, a ten-year-old could intuitively get much of it right—that was challenged by the most famous compendium of all: Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s eighteen-thousand-page Encyclopédie. Published between 1751 and 1772, the Encyclopédie was sponsored by neither the Catholic Church nor the French monarchy and was covertly hostile to both. It was intended to secularize as well as to popularize knowledge, and it demonstrated those Enlightenment commitments most radically through its organizational scheme. Rather than being structured, as it were, God-down, with the whole world flowing forth from a divine creator, it was structured human-out, with the world divided according to the different ways in which the mind engages with it: “memory,” “reason,” and “imagination,” or what we might today call history, science and philosophy, and the arts. Like alphabetical order, which effectively democratizes topics by abolishing distinctions based on power and precedent in favor of subjecting them all to the same rule, this new structure had the effect of humbling even the most exalted subjects. In producing the Encyclopédie, Diderot did not look up to the heavens but out toward the future; his goal, he wrote, was “that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous and happier.”