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4 August 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:08am

“A phantom far scarier than anything that ever really existed”

Susan Neiman on defending the Enlightenment

By Jonathan Derbyshire

There’s a nice interview at Spiked with Susan Neiman, author of the excellent Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. Like her philosophical hero Kant, Neiman sees something like “enlightenment” as consisting in humanity’s escape from self-incurred immaturity. “The Enlightenment,” she tells Tim Black, “gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.”

Moral Clarity is, among other things, a defence of the “Enlightenment values” I discussed in my previous post. Those who denounce “Enlightenment fundamentalism”, Neiman argues, are wrestling with a “phantom far scarier than anything that ever really existed”. The “Enlightenment” that Neiman defends acknowledges the limits of reason and the reality of human frailty (human evil, in fact; Neiman’s previous book was a brilliant exploration of the problem of evil in modern thought):

My goal is to take back the Enlightenment from the cliches that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable, reason to be unlimited and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology a solution to all the problems of the future. In fact, no era was more aware of the existence of evil; no era took more care in probing human limits and bounds. The Enlightenment took aim not at reverence, but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed progress is necessary, only that it is possible.

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