The Books Interview: Tzvetan Todorov

Is the Enlightenment a historical category, or does it better describe an attitude towards the world?
The Enlightenment was a period of many conflicting debates. So my version of the Enlightenment is not the true version - my book The Defence of the Enlightenment has more to do with what kind of lessons I think the modern-day world can draw from the Enlightenment.

So you wouldn't deny that there wasn't one Enlightenment, but several?
I definitely wouldn't deny that. I strongly affirm it. I suggest some of the contradictions or tensions within the Enlightenment in the book. Just to mention one: the idea of progress is frequently attached to the Enlightenment. But I remind readers that, in fact, most Enlightenment thinkers did not believe in a mechanical theory of progress - though some of them did, of course.

Indeed, you argue that Enlightenment values, far from being established once and for all, are always under threat.
I think that Enlightenment values are based on some basic human aspirations. But so are many other ideologies. People are afraid of freedom, as the title of a book written 60 years ago by Erich Fromm put it. They also need protection and hate autonomy, because autonomy involves taking responsibility for one's own fate, and that is a heavy burden to carry.

So I don't think there's anything automatic about promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment. But I think that they provide us with a reasonable framework for common life, so we should do what we can to promote them.

Enlightenment for you is fundamentally a moral and political outlook, therefore?
Yes - although a respect for science and the search for knowledge was definitely one characteristic of the Enlightenment. The
cult of science, so to speak, is therefore part of the Enlightenment heritage. But in general, the Enlightenment was more of a framework of moral and political values that could orient common action.

You identify something you call "scientism" as one of the principal distortions of the Enlightenment. What do you mean by that?
Scientism, as I understand it, is not part of science. It is a kind of ideology. A major point of this ideology is that science will produce values and thus indicate the way society ought to develop. And, in a way, this was already present in Marxism, which is one form of scientism (though there were defenders of scientism before Marx - Condorcet and others). In the so-called "scientific" analysis of history, values were treated as a by-product of knowledge. Today, there is a fanatical view of the Enlightenment, a sort of ultra-materialism, which reduces all debate to its cognitive, neurological or behavioural ingredients. And I think there is a leap, in such cases, from knowledge to values.

You argue that a secular society need not be inhospitable to a sense of the sacred. Where does the sacred reside in such a society?
It resides in values that we adhere to, our sacred rights, which we sometimes qualify as "human" rights - rights inscribed in constitutions, bills of rights, rights of free expression and so on, which we are ready to fight for. We have also sacralised our personal relationships.

For many of us, the objects for which we would conceive of sacrificing our lives are our loved ones - our children, our lovers, our parents. This very concrete embodiment of the sacred is something new. But I don't think we should have contempt for it.

So you would deny that the removal of a transcendent ground for our values empties human lives of all meaning?
I think it empties them only if we forget about our collective and social existence, and conceive of humanity as a collection of self-sufficient individuals. Then, indeed, there is no foundation for common values, because each one of us is a monad, enclosed on him or herself. But that is a completely fantastic view of humanity. The humanist idea is that autonomy is limited by, if not actually based on, our belonging to a social group.

Why do you think religion has proved seemingly so resistant to purging by Enlightenment values?

Religion corresponds to a basic human need to ask questions that science, by its very nature, cannot answer.


“The Defence of the Enlightenment" is published by Atlantic Books (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously