Debate: The real enemies of reason

Ophelia Benson and Dan Hind go head-to-head on the threat to Enlightenment values

Dear Ophelia,

You and I disagree about how the concept of Enlightenment should be understood and used in contemporary political debate. Perhaps I should start with a sketch of how I think we differ.

newage200Most writers who invoke the concept of Enlightenment situate it on one side of a titanic clash between the forces of light (good) and the forces of darkness (bad). This “great divide” between reason and unreason generates and gives colour to a varied and influential rhetoric. Atheist polemicists situate their campaign against religious faith in an intellectual tradition that they trace back to Spinoza and Voltaire. The defenders of philosophical realism describe their commitments in terms of fidelity to the Enlightenment tradition. The enemies of quack medicine likewise identify themselves with the Enlightenment commitment to basing beliefs on sound evidence.

The structure of Enlightenment that all this implies is best illustrated by a phrase of Dick Taverne’s. He has claimed that “the new Rome that science built is under siege by the barbarians.” The Enlightenment resembles a walled city under attack and its enemies are irrational or anti-rational barbarians, a coalition of the untutored and the modishly sophisticated.

But there is a problem with this formulation. For all its clarity, it obscures the emancipatory potential of the historical Enlightenment and indeed enlists the prestige of the word and the ideas associated with it, to a campaign of mystification.

Your own work gives us some clue as to how this alchemy-in-reverse is worked, how base metal can be made from the gold of Enlightenment. In Why Truth Matters, the book you co-wrote with Jeremy Stangroom, you state that counter-Enlightenment and reaction “are all about the rejection of reason, inquiry, logic and evidence, in favour of tradition, religion, instinct, blood and soil, The Nation, The Fatherland.” By identifying reaction with the forces of unreason I am afraid that you obscure the enthusiastic embrace of the scientific method by illegitimate, secret, and tyrannical power.

By focussing on irrational threats to the enlightened inheritance, and by identifying reaction with these irrational threats, this model, your model, shifts attention away from what, it seems to me at least, should be the central conflict of our time: the struggle between two contending models of Enlightenment. One the one hand we can trace a tradition of Enlightenment that asserts the sovereignty of truth, of sincere public debate, and a commitment to the open exchange of information. This we might call the Open Enlightenment. It has many sources in the historical Enlightenment, and is perhaps most perfectly articulated by Kant in his famous, though not always closely studied, short piece What is Enlightenment? On the other hand, there is a tradition of Enlightenment that situates the pursuit of knowledge within, and subordinates it to, state and later corporate power. Here the commitment to truth takes place under cover of official secrecy and commercial confidentiality. Political and economic power provides a venue for scientific inquiry only in order to take advantage of the knowledge thus generated. Among the technologies developed are methods to manipulate the public by estranging them from a clear understanding of reality. Rationally planned campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public take many forms. Often they consciously mobilize or exploit the forces of unreason. Just as often they seek to take advantage of the intellectual prestige of the Enlightenment sciences to present their chosen policies as uncontroversial common sense and to marginalise their opponents as benighted enemies of progress and evidence-based thinking.

The Enlightenment should not be treated as an unexamined unity, a good that must be defended. Rather we should see it as precisely the point on which to concentrate our powers of discrimination. It is surely better to describe Enlightenment as a city at war with itself than as a city under siege. Civil conflict bewilders and confuses participants and onlookers. The lines of conflict are not drawn with the clear, childish lines of a cartoon. Enemies are eager to appear as friends, friends can appear at first in the guise of enemies. The central conflict of our time is not between light and darkness, but between the light that illuminates and the light that blinds – between knowledge in the service of justice and knowledge in the service of tyranny.

Enlightenment understood in this way is fraught with confusion and difficulty. It does not offer us a simple way to advertise our intellectual daring and tough-mindedness, Instead its vocabulary is unstable and uncertain. All our efforts to describe this conflict within the Enlightenment jar with the lovingly maintained oppositions and affinities that do so much to guide, to sweeten, and to limit, our thinking.

Perhaps you disagree with my description of your position, perhaps you do take broadly the position I describe but think it defensible.

Let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Dear Dan,

I don’t think we disagree about how the concept of Enlightenment should be understood and used in contemporary political debate, because I don’t really have an opinion about it. I don’t use the concept much (if at all) myself, and I’m not sure I have a worked-out view on the matter. I’m also not sure if you mean enlightenment, or the Enlightenment.

At any rate, I’m quite sure that I never talk about titanic clashes between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I have a strong aversion to journalistic clichés of that kind, and I would only mention them to deride or dispute or analyze them. I do see a difference (if not a “great divide”) between reason and unreason, but I don’t feel any need to recruit either the Enlightenment (much less enlightenment, which sounds too Buddhist for the purpose) or the forces of light and darkness in order to discuss them.

I don’t recognize this picture of atheist polemicists and realists and enemies of quack medicine who base all their claims on the Enlightenment. I know of some who write about the Enlightenment for particular purposes, but none who routinely “describe their commitments in terms of fidelity to the Enlightenment tradition” as if they were reciting an oath of allegiance. I think that picture has a whiff of the straw man, to tell the truth.

But never mind. Your basic point, I take it, is that corporations and governments – or state and corporate power, as you put it – make use of reason and evidence just as scientists, realists, and atheists do, and that the frankly irrational is not the only enemy of public debate and the open exchange of information. Of course I agree with you about that. It would be hard not to when (for instance) highly rational actors in the Bush White House come up with “signing statements” in which the president signs a bill into law but stipulates parts of it that he considers unconstitutional and which he instructs federal agencies to disobey. This is a classic example of the secrecy and deception you talk about: Bush avoided the political heat and journalistic attention that a veto would have triggered, and simply quietly authorized himself to ignore parts of the law that he himself signed. Congress could have monitored this and raised a fuss, but it didn’t; somehow the administration repeatedly slipped this dodge past thanks to mere Congressional inattention. It was one journalist – Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe – who went through the documents and broke the story.

I agree with you that powerful self-interested people can be highly rational and also immoral, unprincipled, dangerous, corrupt. But what I don’t see is why you think Why Truth Matters or atheist polemicists and enemies of quack medicine shift attention away from that problem. Of course, I see it in the most literal sense, that they talk about different things – but I don’t see why you consider that worth objecting to. Everything shifts attention away from whatever it’s not talking about, but what of it? A book about global warming shifts attention away from the war in Iraq, a book about Iraq shifts attention away from the Democratic Republic of Congo – and so on. There are a great many issues and problems in the world, and we have to break them down into manageable pieces in order to discuss them and think about them – so naturally no book is going to be about every possible problem. I fail to see the force of your objection, that people who worry about, say, irrationality, or hostility to science, or credulity about alternative medicine, are shifting attention away from other subjects. Perhaps if you could clarify that for me, we would find we don’t disagree on much after all.


Dear Ophelia,

You talk about both Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment in Why Truth Matters in ways that have important political implications, so I am surprised that you don’t have a “worked out view” about how we should understand and use the concept in this respect. And my note shows how your published views differ from mine in one respect at least. Perhaps we can talk again when you know what you think?

I have never said that atheists and so on “base all their claims on the Enlightenment” – a silly claim. The straw man here is of your own making. I offer a number of examples in The Threat to Reason of the way in which the clash between reason and unreason features in mainstream discussion of the Enlightenment. Readers can decide whether it is accurate or not to see this as the dominant current way of writing and thinking about the concept. It is a claim that finally depends on evidence.

My “basic point” isn’t quite how you describe it. States and corporations use scientists, realists and atheists, as well as reason and evidence, in pursuit of their interests. Enlightenment exists within these institutions in a highly circumscribed form – indeed in their modern form they are creatures, as well as captors, of the Enlightenment.

And this constrained and secret Enlightenment does far more to undermine the ideal of a rational public than the frankly irrational. Indeed it uses the frankly irrational as one instrument among many to secure its aims (when, for example, it encourages and promotes conspiratorial fantasies). It also exploits the prestige of science and Enlightenment and it endlessly invokes the clash between reason and unreason as part of its efforts to associate its critics with a noisy and embarrassing lunatic fringe (readers who attend to the operations of the public relations industry will see what I mean).

The frankly irrational is dwarfed by this secret Enlightenment. So it is disastrous that so much time and energy is expended on elaborating a concept of Enlightenment that ignores the tension within it; all this fussing about the attack of the irrationalists misses a much more serious threat and furthermore misunderstands the phenomenon it thinks it is being so brave about.

Now, of course it is worthwhile to challenge the frankly irrational. But it is wrong to ignore the ways in which rational agents animate and exploit Evangelicals, neo-fascists and so on. To talk about the Enlightenment without registering its (at least) dual nature is to collaborate in a cliché of thought far more pernicious than the clichés of language that so jangle your sensibilities.

I hope you’ll agree, once you’ve given it a little thought, that there is some factual basis for, and some substance in, what I am saying. I also hope that readers of our exchange will see that the ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth century have more to offer us than the stale oppositions beloved of so many of the Enlightenment’s self-styled defenders.

With best wishes,

Dear Dan,

Why Truth Matters has two authors, so the few places where it mentions the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment are not necessarily attributable to me, and in fact they’re not all my doing. I don’t use “the concept of Enlightenment” much myself, as I said, and to the extent that I do, I don’t have a worked out view of “how the concept of Enlightenment should be understood and used in contemporary political debate” because it doesn’t stand out for me as problematic – as widely misused, misunderstood, misappropriated. I have a default view of the concept, as it were. Different words stand out as problematic for different people (and for the same people at different times), and most words are unproblematic for all of us; we’d be unable to communicate otherwise. I don’t use the concept much myself but I assume I know what is meant when other people use it; I don’t (so far) share your view of the way other people use it, but I’m not sure that not sharing a particular view necessarily amounts to disagreeing with it.

True, you didn’t say “that atheists and so on ‘base all their claims on the Enlightenment’”, that was a paraphrase; apologies if it was a straw paraphrase; you said the “defenders of philosophical realism describe their commitments in terms of fidelity to the Enlightenment tradition.” I don’t recognize that picture – I don’t think defenders of philosophical realism do defend their commitments in terms of fidelity to any tradition – I think that’s a rhetorical flourish, one with emotive overtones. Rhetoric of that kind makes me suspicious – it suggests an agenda, not to say an animus.

Be that as it may, I do recognize your picture of the secret Enlightenment. A clear – if frivolous – example came to mind as I read your reply: there’s an episode of the US TV series The West Wing in which Toby – the communications director, which is to say, the head of PR for the White House – gives a good old rant about the mindless irrationality of a group of anti-WTO protesters. I remember shouting energetically at the TV when I saw it. (I like to be irrational myself!) The episode simply stepped right over the real – and entirely discussable in rational terms – problems with free trade agreements that equate any kind of regulation – labour laws, environmental regulations, health standards, information requirements – with protectionism. Something else I remember is my horror when I asked my Congressional Representative – Jim McDermott, famously out on the (comparatively) left end of the Democratic Party spectrum – at one of his constituency meetings to explain the workings of free trade agreements. He told me – what I should have known – that the decisions are made by the trade representative, who is appointed by the president, and that’s that. There is no oversight, no appeal, no recourse; Congress has nothing to do with it and no control over it. One appointed official makes colossally far-reaching agreements of this kind, which are binding, and there is no mechanism for review or revision. There’s secret “Enlightenment” if you like.

But I’m not sure I agree with you that this secret Enlightenment dwarfs the frankly irrational. I could offer several reasons but we have limited space, so I’ll stick to just a couple.

One is that I think pervasive systemic unreason – active hostility to reason – is bad for people, that it works to deprive them of something very valuable. I think it makes their lives poorer, and offers very little in return.

Another is that I think we need reason in order to resist the secret Enlightenment itself. Faith won’t do it, intuition won’t do it, homeopathy won’t help. The sad thing about Toby’s rant in The West Wing is that there was a lot of truth in it – some of the protests were mindless and content-free and they did work precisely to give ammunition to PR hacks to say all criticism of the WTO is irrational. Reasoned argument is a necessary tool for countering secretive manipulations and also for spotting them in the first place. To the extent that there is a fashion for embracing frank irrationalism, to that extent the followers of fashion are disabled from resisting the secret Enlightenment.


Dear Ophelia,

I am very glad you agree that it makes sense to talk about a secret Enlightenment. This is not a concept that features prominently in contemporary debates about the Enlightenment, much less in discussions about contemporary politics. The fact that it doesn’t might lead you to conclude, on further reflection, that the concept is indeed “widely misused, misunderstood, misappropriated.” Whether commentators are for or against it, they almost always talk as though the Enlightenment can be adequately understood as a unitary phenomenon. This is a terrible mistake, insofar as it distracts us from at least one crucial distinction – between open and secret Enlightenment.

But I don’t know why you still want to claim that the frankly irrational poses more of a threat to the possibility of a rational public than the secret Enlightenment. To repeat, this is an empirical matter. Either amateur conspiracy theories or state-sponsored ones are more serious. Surely those who promote nonsense about the benevolence of the WTO, or about secret alliances between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, do far more damage than any number of freelance paranoiacs? It is the fantasies that come officially endorsed, or from the makers of The West Wing, that should trouble us.

You are quite right to say that we need reason to resist the secret Enlightenment. That’s why it is crucial to distinguish between the two versions of Enlightenment. It is only by doing so that we can enlist reason in the service of liberation. And I also agree that the rejection of reason diminishes us. But, again, it is rationally promoted irrationalism that does most to belittle and constrain us, precisely because it is so difficult to recognise and to resist. Challenges to it can always be associated with a noisy and irrational lunatic fringe.

Besides how does one practically deal with the threat posed by the frankly irrational? Surely the best way is to demonstrate how reason and respect for evidence can be mobilised to challenge the forms of deception that matter? The promoters of unreason prosper because they are able to persuade the unwary that reason is a cover story for power. Prove them wrong by adopting a rationally defensible order of priorities, in which what does most harm excites the most energetic resistance.

There are more serious and more dangerous forms of delusion and magical thinking than religious fundamentalism and postmodern philosophy. The secret Enlightenment indifferently exploits our appetite for fantasy and our desire to be intellectually respectable. It is, in the end, a more interesting and more worthy adversary than the more commonly cited threats to reason, as well as being more serious.

So I hope that you will make sure that your co-authors and the writers on your website distinguish between the secret Enlightenment and the Enlightenment that, in our best moments, we try to honour. Reason serves many appetites, not only the simple hunger to know and honour what is true.

But there is a light, Ophelia, and it never goes out.

Best wishes,

Dear Dan,

No, I don’t agree that it makes sense to talk about a secret Enlightenment. I didn’t say I thought it made sense. I said I recognized your picture of the secret Enlightenment; that is, I understood what kind of thing you were choosing to call “secret Enlightenment”. I went on to echo your usage a few times, in the first instance with distancing quotation marks. Perhaps I should have kept the scare quotes; I dropped them only because they get distracting and irritating, not because I’d decided to take your terminology at face value.

I don’t think it does make sense to talk about a “secret Enlightenment” because that’s an oxymoron. If it is secret it’s not enlightenment. If it’s deceptive it’s not enlightenment.

In your first entry you cite “methods to manipulate the public by estranging them from a clear understanding of reality” and “[r]ationally planned campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public”. But campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public, however rationally planned, have nothing to do with enlightenment or the Enlightenment: a campaign to do that is not a secretive branch of the Enlightenment, it’s the plain opposite of it; it’s a negation of enlightenment. There is only so far one can stretch a word before it snaps. Enlightenment simply does not mean bewilderment and confusion. To bewilder and confuse people is to endarken them, not to enlighten them. It’s just some kind of showy paradox to pretend that deception and manipulation fit any definition of enlightenment.

The mere fact that rational actors who try to bewilder and confuse the public use some scientific and/or rational methods to do so does not make them part of the Enlightenment. This seems to be the whole heart of your case: that use of a rational tool for a purpose of manipulation makes the manipulation part of the Enlightenment. That seems very feeble to me. Wiccans and astrologers browse the Internet; that doesn’t make Wicca and astrology part of the Enlightenment.

Your “secret Enlightenment” is simply not the Enlightenment as commonly understood, and I fail to see what is gained by first splitting the Enlightenment in two – a good and a bad, an open and a secret – and then defining campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public as part of the bad half. What do we get from that, apart from a nod to Horkheimer and Adorno? That campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public are bad – but we already knew that. That campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public apply some rational and/or scientific techniques to the job – but we already knew that too. I don’t see what work you think this new nomenclature will do. Alert us to the more sinister and destructive applications of reason and science perhaps? But that can be done (and is done) much more directly and clearly simply by doing exactly that.

So, no, I don’t agree that it makes sense to talk of a secret Enlightenment. I would say that the fact that this “is not a concept that features prominently in contemporary debates about the Enlightenment, much less in discussions about contemporary politics”, might lead you to conclude, “on further reflection”, that it’s not a useful or convincing idea.

You say it’s an empirical matter whether the frankly irrational poses more of a threat to the possibility of a rational public than does the secret Enlightenment, an empirical matter whether amateur conspiracy theories or state-sponsored ones are more serious. But actually it’s a conceptual matter before it’s an empirical one, because it can’t be an empirical question until we know what “threat” and “serious” mean. It’s not an empirical question whether strawberry is better than chocolate, and the same applies to other value judgments, such as “threat” and “serious”.

So, no, I won’t make sure that my co-author (I have only the one) or the people who contribute articles to Butterflies and Wheels (there are no writers on B&W apart from me) adopt your terminology. I don’t generally “make sure” that other people say anything in particular in any case; I’m not that presumptuous. But if I did, I wouldn’t make sure that they said that.


Ophelia Benson is the author of Why Truth Matters (Continuum).
Dan Hind is author of The Threat to Reason (Verso)

  1. People have been able to reason since they were people. The enlightenment isn’t just people reasoning (the Medieval scholastics were also good at reasoning), but people reasoning with certain political goals: democratic or at least republican government, freedom of speech and inquiry, tolerance, an end to hereditary caste distinctions,
    the critical examination of cultural traditions. The so-called secret enlightenment in general has little to do with enlightenment reasoning: the advertising industry uses reason, to be sure, but to manipulate others, not to foment their reasoning capacity; the CIA and similar agencies in other nations use reason to deceive the public, not to open their eyes. The media which reason in order that others don’t reason do not have much relation to Spinoza who reasoned so that others might reason.

  2. “people can be highly rational and also immoral, unprincipled, dangerous”

    These few words demonstrate the limitations of the existing ‘enlightenment’ paradigm. They don’t include a trustworthy moral component. That may be because such a component is yet to exist or be discovered and that writers on the subject are too dishonest with themselves about their own moral culpability. Our Enlightenment will not be completed by reason itself but from insight coming from within that deepest unknown of the human condition, raising and enlightening the inner part of our humanity with a moral foundation, built not upon the sands of Darwin, nor the irrational theologies of religious tradition, but ‘knowledge in the service of justice.’

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