A long time ago, a bunch of fellas like Kant and his fans came up with this thing called Aufklärung or Enlightenment which meant that human reason would finally make us humans mature or free or, you know, take us to rainbow-land where the trees sing and everyone is happy. This same endeavour appears in contemporary colours everywhere, in the likes of Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Now on the other side of the intellectual ocean people like Foucault went nuts over the whole thing, claiming it was a sort of dictatorial attempt at nullifying subjectivity. Since mostly i sit firmly in this side of the fence, being a silly fanboy of Derrida, i usually sound very derisive of the first bunch, but as of now i’d like to try and make amends.
Reason got conflated with a very specific (and somewhat misguided) shade of science, that was indeed a little hasty. But maybe instead of this “reason” we could just have lucidity.
Before there was good ethnography, of the kind that tries to understand other cultures through their indigenous logic, there was a somewhat imperialist anthropology that just shoved European concepts (and modes of life) down native’s throats. That is so, mostly, because it is very hard to be a relativist. It is very hard to see your own assumptions. That is just the way things are. It is because the Empire endeavour assigned people to go over and study aboriginals (to ease the domination) that we came to understand all the cruelty inherent there. We couldn’t even see it before.
A very similar thing does happen in other sciences. This idea that truth is a universal permanent larger-than-life thing (or at least more stable than life, but this distinction carries much less difference than it should) to be sought for (suspiciously like Catholicism’s god, at that) fueled a “how” of science that was hasty and crude, you know the kind that used dynamite to uncover dinosaur fossils. It is the same attitude that makes, for example, Mr. Yudkowsky physiologically unable to understand that his work is part of Mathematics and Computer Science (he’s into AI) and that it does not generalize into Sociology or into Philosophy (assuming the derisive and clearly offensive stance that “everything else is just politics”).
But none of that does mean that the Enlightenment has failed. After all, what does it even mean for a set of ideas to fail?
In other words, regardless of their respective merits or blames (and this is a very unproductive discussion!) both Enlightenment folks and Po-mo folks are part of our culture, of our thinking heritage. It’s better to try to find the common ground between those two groups, even though they seem bound to the game of mud-throwing at each other.
And they do both seem to strive to something that, even if it feels and looks very different from each one’s perspective, could maybe be encompassed by the word lucidity.
The etymology of such word is very close to “Enlightenment”, and it carries shades of “clarity” and “transparency”, and those are very dangerous, as they do seem to propose (or suppose) there is a land-of-plenty where we are devoid of bias, where human opinion becomes totally pure, totally invisible. The problem of course is that to be opinion it has to be opinionated, and interested. An opinion is only possible to a historical, contingent, opaque being. To be reasonable is not to achieve perfect knowledge, but instead to be able to navigate in a universe where knowledge is by definition imperfect.
Of course the opposite stance is also dangerous, as it tends to turn the arguments into a moral issue, basically trying to make Enlightenment sound like tyranny. Po-mo moralizes the issue, when for example it construes the building of Brasília as an attempt at isolating citizens (which happens to be totally at odds with actually happens when you live in this city). There certainly is a lot of symbol-violence in the whole science and contemporary culture, but it is not like there is any culture that is devoid of such cruelty. In other words, it is empty to accuse “reason”, to make a straw-man out of it, this tactic does not solve any problems, it does not lead us into a balanced society.
In my opinion, much of this problem stems from some awkward first steps into the Enlightenment attempt. Namely, that from Kant’s perspective, and Husserl’s and Marx’s and so on, Logic was more a part of “Reason” than psychology or sociology. That is to say, these thinkers tended to see Mathematic as better than Rhetoric. Since much of the assumptions leading there were inherited from ancient Greeks, whose main difference from so-called Barbarians (muttering people) was their form of geometry, this is understandable. Geometry is very useful for a certain kind of problems, and if you (politically) elect those problems as the most important, then Maths becomes the tits. That later Newton, through his own very complex prejudices, equated Alchemy with Calculus, is just part of the problem when you come to think of it (and thus the whole bashing of Descartes is boring).
As you might guess, my feeling is that these first steps took a very dim picture of Intelligence. They thought, basically, that if you could do Mathematics you could to everything. This turns out to not be the case. This is the whole point of a thing called Moravec’s Paradox: You can easily use computers to solve logic problems and do calculations, but everyday things (like taking a step, or focusing your eye, or gossiping, basically all the things you take for granted but that a baby struggles to learn all the time) are very hard in terms of Mathematics. That is not because they are hard, but because Intelligence is much more complex than that.
But Intelligence is a good tool, and so is Mathematics. Tools amongst many others. And we are concrete, real people trying to navigate a complex weird world, and we need all the tools we can have. Even more so when, besides the physical world, we must traverse the world of other people.
There we bump into incommensurability, the fact that i can’t really understand you in your own terms. I can’t see the world from your eyes just as much as two objects can’t occupy the same place at the same time.
As a subjective being, i see the world from my very own perspective. I can’t really adopt your perspective, and also that means i can’t adopt a perspective that is neutral or universal. Therefore misunderstanding is not a problem, nor an exception, it is a given, a constant thing to be accounted for all the time. What i can do is to enhance my perspective, to try to see things from different sides, to look further and deeper.
Enhancing the perspective we eventually get to a point where there is common ground. And here, even though each one of us is talking in his own language, and no one really deep down understands each other, we can co-operate, act together.
If this acting together is not to devolve into hate-mongering and group-think, we need clarity. We need the effort to avoid our own biases. We need this bigger view of Intelligence, that sane subjective pragmatic committed capacity to deal with the world.
We need lucidity.