21st Century Enlightenment Revisited

Matthew Taylor at the RSA: “The French historian Tzvetan Todorov describes the three essential ideas of the Enlightenment as ‘autonomy’, ‘universalism’ and ‘humanism’. The ideal of autonomy speaks to every individual’s right to self-determination. Universalism asserts that all human beings equally deserve basic rights and dignity (although, of course, in the 18th and 19th century most thinkers restricted this ambition to educated white men). The idea of humanism is that it is up to the people – not Gods or monarchs – through the use of rational inquiry to determine the path to greater human fulfilment….

21st Century Enlightenment 

Take autonomy; too often today we think of freedom either as a shrill demand to be able to turn our backs on wider society or in the narrow possessive terms of consumerism. Yet, brain and behavioural science have confirmed the intuition of philosophers through the ages genuine autonomy is something we only attain when we become aware of our human frailties and understand our truly social nature. Of course, freedom from oppression is the base line, but true autonomy is not a right to be granted but a goal to be pursued through self-awareness and engagement in society.

What of universalism, or social justice as we now tend to think of it? In most parts of the world and certainly in the West there have been incredible advances in equal rights. Discrimination and injustice still exist, but through struggle and reform huge strides have been made in widening the Enlightenment brotherhood of rich white men to women, people of different ethnicity, homosexuals and people with disabilities. Indeed the progress in legal equality over recent decades stands in contrast to the stubborn persistence, and even worsening, of social inequality, particularly based on class.

But the rationalist universalism of human rights needs an emotional corollary. People may be careful not to use the wrong words, but they still harbour resentment and suspicion towards other groups. …

Finally, humanism or the call of progress. The utilitarian philosophy that arose from the Enlightenment spoke to the idea that, free from the religious or autocratic dogma, the best routes to human fulfilment could be identified and should be pursued. The great motors of human progress – markets, science and technology, the modern state – shifted into gear and started to accelerate. Aspects of all these phenomena, indeed of Enlightenment ideas themselves, could be found at earlier stages of human history – what was different was the way they fed off each other and became dominant. Yet, in the process, the idea that these forces could deliver progress often became elided with the assumption that their development was the same as human progress.

Today this danger of letting the engines of progress determine the direction of the human journey feels particularly acute in relation to markets and technology. There is, for example, more discussion of how humans should best adapt to AI and robots than about how technological inquiry might be aligned with human fulfilment. The hollowing out of democratic institutions has diminished the space for public debate about what progress should comprise at just the time when the pace and scale of change makes those debates particularly vital.

A twenty first century enlightenment reinstates true autonomy over narrow ideas of freedom, it asserts a universalism based not just on legal status but on empathy and social connection and reminds us that humanism should lie at the heart of progress.

Think like a system act like an entrepreneur

There is one new strand I want to add to the 2010 account. In the face of many defeats, we must care as much about how we achieve change as about the goals we pursue. At the RSA we talk about ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’, a method which seeks to avoid the narrowness and path dependency of so many unsuccessful models of change. To alter the course our society is now on we need more fully to understand the high barriers to change but then to act more creatively and adaptively when we spot opportunities to take a different path….(More)”