Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)

3. Enlightenment versus Magic

The word ‘enlightenment’ usually refers to the thought of the second half of the eighteenth century. However, while the differences among the thinkers of two centuries 1600-1800 are, of course, very significant, the term does capture that fundamental shift in thinking which took place as modern bourgeois society was taking shape, say, from Descartes to Kant. What is important here is that these scientific, rational ideas which came to predominate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tended to brush aside all the questions we have been discussing.

In his 1784 essay What is enlightenment? Kant sees the essence of the new way of looking at the world lying in the freedom of individual thought.

Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. ... Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Thus advanced thought took for its standpoint ‘the single individual in civil society’. Its exhilarating declaration of independence challenged all authority of Church and State. But already, Kant, Rousseau and others begin to explore the problems this raises. There is no doubt that thinking is indeed inseparable from the activity of the individual brain. But it is at the same time completely social, involving language and categories of thought, all products of society and history. Moreover, no thinker can separate his intellect from emotion and will, which are at once individual and social in nature. And so the excellent exhortation to ‘think for yourself’ can, taken by itself, be very misleading.

From the point of view of each social atom, the natural world and society look like collections of discrete bits and pieces, machines made up of smaller machines. When the ‘single individual’ thinks about this mechanical world, he sees himself as yet another machine, quite unchanged by interaction with the other machines. In trying to think about these assemblies of atoms, many problems arise, and the best way to answer these is to isolate each one and break it into separate, smaller sub-problems. One way of grasping this vast array of particles is to count them and relate the numbers Of course, there is no end to such a process of subdivision. Infinity, just one darn thing after another, is an unimaginable collection of bits.

The individual gets his knowledge of the world by logically decoding the messages conveyed to him through his senses. (Who is doing the de-coding, though?) Otherwise, the knowing subject and the object of knowledge are utterly different and separate from each other, as are Nature and humanity. Freedom, which for this outlook means the removal of ‘external’ restrictions on the individual, is not to be found in nature, where all movement is rigidly determined. To be ‘objective’ you have to expunge everything subjective, like quality, feeling, will or free, creative activity. This is how reason, the equipment of each individual human, worked in opposition to all kinds of superstition.

This outlook made possible modern natural science, and the earlier history of science, which was inseparable from magic and alchemy, was expunged from the record. The fact that it had been the Hermeticists who had borne the brunt of the fight against scholasticism was forgotten. After the battle had been won, rationalism falsely claimed the sole credit for victory. Although the power of the Churches was courageously challenged by the Enlighteners, atheism was actually rare. The predominant belief was in a benevolent Deity, who didn’t interfere with the workings of the material world. That great upholder of Jacobinism, Immanuel Kant, got into a lot of trouble for his 1793 Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, but he concludes that courageous work with his aim of an ‘ethical commonwealth’, whose concept was that of ‘a people of God under ethical laws’. A rational conception of God took the place of earlier ideas of the Lord of the World. Miracles were rationally explained away, and the laws of matter came to be assumed as paramount. God was demoted, just an affair of ‘the heart’, a matter for the individual conscience.

And what did the rationalists have to say about human society? For them, humanity was an aspect of a blind rushing about of particles. Whether humans were put here by an absent Deity, or got here by chance, their social relations could only be understood as external to their subjectivity. Political economy, and later, sociology, studied a social machine, made up of atoms driven by self-interest, while the social order and its history were governed by laws as fixed as those which ruled the solar system. This outlook encouraged its devotees to attempt to remake social relations to bring them into line with what was self-evidently rational. This was how American rebels who drafted their ‘Declaration of Independence’ in 1777, and soon after them the Frenchmen with their ‘Rights of Man’, came to see their work. When the outcome of the French revolution could be discerned a little more clearly, the idea of extending such ways of thinking to transcend the rights of private property gave rise to various socialist schemes.

Deep inside all these sets of ideas was the separation of people from each other, from society as a whole and from the world of nature. Rational thought and emotions were not just separate but totally opposed to each other. Creation was inexplicable and self-creation inconceivable for such a world outlook. Most important, this way of thinking could not explain itself.