Philosophy and General Reading

The Enlightenment, Science and Core Humanistic Values in a Post-Factual World

R.C. Smith

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been re-reading a lot of books on the enlightenment (mostly in my spare time), including many notable texts by such prominent enlightenment thinkers as Kant, Hume, Descartes and so on. My interest in the philosophes dates back to when I was a teenager, where some of my very first books of interest was Descartes’ Discourse on Method and the Meditations in addition to David Hume’s Enquiry. This sparked an analytical interest, connected, it would seem, with my love for science and passion for mathematics. And so from there, as I moved into my twenties, it was between the philosophes and humanism, including existentialism, mixed in with a broad-stroke of Anglo-American philosophy, which defined and continues to define my general interest in and engagement with the world of philosophical thought.

From there I eventually discovered interdisciplinary philosophy, or what might also be cited as social philosophy, and finally also limited strands of the tradition known as a critical theory. But after many years and many books, I find myself returning to the enlightenment and its core humanistic tradition. In so many ways the enlightenment seems to represent the roots of the advance modern thought, which itself takes a place in a much wider history in the evolution of philosophical ideas. Though focused particularly on the history of moral philosophy and its development, Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass is one of the best book’s that I have read in recent time. With a background in the natural sciences, there is a structure to Malik’s thought which seems absent in so much of the human or social sciences. This book sits as part of a long tradition, and what is fascinating is its exploration of moral thought across time and throughout cultures.

But some of my favourite of Malik’s writings have to do more focusedly on the enlightenment. His book The Meaning of Race (1996) offers a very important and substantive rebuttal against those who link enlightenment thinking – even science and reason – with racism. Moreover, in examining the ideas of the historical development, and philosophical and political roots, of the idea of race, Malik does a very nice job at showing that racial difference is actually in opposition to the universalist ideas of the enlightenment project. Likewise, his book Strange Fruit (2008) and his many articles on the enlightenment are certainly worthy of broader consideration, as they offer important contributions to contemporary debates. Additionally, Malik’s book Man, Beast and Zombie (2001), is thought provoking. My recent essay reflecting on and around Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, addresses similar issues as Man, Beast and Zombie; but perhaps a separate essay on this book is something worth pursuing in the future.

The enlightenment ultimately brought the value of reason and of the modern scientific endeavour to the fore, serving also as an important catalyst for the development of important core humanistic values. Instead of being premised on the authority of the church, these values were to be grounded in the human world. To state today, especially in the context of our increasingly troubled social world, that the enlightenment project and its legacy is even more fundamentally culturally important is by no means excessive. The impact that the Enlightenment had on western society – and, indeed, throughout the world – underlines a significant part of the modern value of progress. The enlightenment philosophes are not without their issues, which is to say that today we can continue to advance and progress key arguments, given new data and insight over centuries. One obviously place for such progressive advancement, I think, is in the field of epistemology, which, on the side of my own scientific studies and pursuits, is one of my favourite areas of philosophical consideration.

Whether explicitly realized or not, it seems fairly clear from my current vantage point that the basic values often shared by progressives today are tied to the enlightenment and its social, political and philosophical legacy. Equality, cosmopolitanism, and modern conceptions of democracy are a few examples. Conversely, modern emphasis on individual liberty and religious tolerance, along with notions of constitutional government, normative critique of the abuses church and state, and popular scepticism of traditional authority can all be traced to the enlightenment (The scholarship offered by Stephen E. Bronner among many others is very informative here).

Even the contemporary value of “critical thought” is indebted, it would seem, to the basic enlightenment value of reason, understood as the basis for authority and legitimacy in thought and action, which, as a means itself, sought to inspire normative critical reflection on human social reality. Also tied to this, of course, are such values as empiricism, scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking. Social-historical and cultural progress was, too, seen critically as open-ended and unfolding. Unbound to prejudiced or ideological ends, the value of progress seemed explicitly intended to have been positioned in such a way that, based on rational enquiry, it would be safeguarded from the irrational and ultimately totalitarian utopian urge that makes claim to the end of history. One of the philosophical lessons would seem that: “Critical thinking” and unbiased enquiry as synonymous with reason, in that rationality owes no allegiance to any party or movement – social-political, theoretical, or otherwise – serves non-partisan thinking in the same way that facts, or reality, is non-partisan. As Lawrence M. Krauss recently put it, “Reality exists independent of the desires or claims of those in power”. Likewise, reality exists independent of the bias and prejudices of the individual and social collective. Perhaps, many years ago, when I wrote my first book of philosophy and introduced the notion of conscious evasion, this is what I was ultimately aiming to describe – what we might call today, thanks to the advances in cognitive science, the problem of “confirmation bias”.

In sum: if the enlightenment was meant to blow open history in the sense of challenging and breaking free from traditional doctrines and dogmas as well oppressive regimes of thought and social organization (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), this is because the very idea of the Enlightenment as a project and as a set of ideals was meant to become the “source of everything that is progressive about the modern world”, standing “for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future” (Thomas, 2014). Perhaps more emphatically, the Enlightenment was meant to liberate human beings once and for all (Bronner, 2004). This project of emancipation was not only social and political; it represented the possibility of a certain existential liberation as well (Israel, 2002), especially when it comes to the advent of reason and science as common values which support humanity’s overcoming Myth more generally and certainly also the oppressive grip of the Church in particular (Pagden, 2013).

One can cite numerous texts by key Enlightenment thinkers which support the above view.

Marquis de Condorcet (1794/2012), in his famous work titled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, writes for example on the interrelation between the progress of the sciences and enlightened social behaviour (Gregory, 2010; Leiss, 2011; Pagden, 2013).William Leiss summarizes this nicely while quoting Condorcet: “He [Condorcet] remarks that ‘all errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors’. He is saying that there is a connection between our conceptions of natural processes, on the one hand, and our understanding of society and individual behaviour, on the other” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29).Moreover, “Condorcet envisioned a future in which ‘the dissemination of enlightenment’ would ‘include in its scope the whole of the human race’” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). He maintains the position that the enlightenment provides a new way of thinking, a new view of the world, and that this view, based on a transformative ethos (Bronner, 2004, pp. 4-5), not only connects science and reason with morality and ethics, but is principled, as Bronner (2004) writes, on a series of core human values.

Condorcet’s reflections in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind share a common vision with many other Enlightenment thinkers (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, “the Enlightenment” as a whole “crystallized around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). It sought not “imperialism, or racism, or the manipulation of liberty”, but instead the ideals of liberty, individual rights and dignity (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013) and what we might describe today as social conditions which foster the “free flourishing subject”. These ideals formed the basis of Enlightenment universalism (Israel, 2001; Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), which sought to protect rather than threaten the exercise of subjectivity (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).


So what does all of this philosophical reflection and discourse mean today, particularly for the modern scientific endeavour and for the outward values of science? It would seem that there is a debate about the role science plays in terms of social, historical and cultural enlightenment and about how science engages with the human social world and its search for core progressive values.

Although I don’t entirely agree with his stance about the 2017 March for Science, because I think the campaign is ultimately a positive thing, there is a deeper truth to Jerry Coyne’s article: namely, that the increasing politicization of science is a cause for concern. Additionally, while at various protests the political left seem inclined to make claim to science – that facts tend to have a liberal bias – there are many studies that show both sides can be diluted, driven by confirmation bias instead of an open investigation of reality.

At the same time, the notion of openess and unbiased investigation is much more significant than cognitive bias studies acknowledge. While research into cognitive bias offer tremendous insight when it comes to the problem of political ideologies and prejudices, among other things, it does little with regards to the age-old metaphysical and ethical problem concerning the nature of truth. Is any appeal to truth reduced to bias? Cognitive bias, in a sense, implies closedness. But where things seem to get tricky, at least from my observational point of view, is when this principle is applied within the social domain. For example, is it a product of cognitive bias that one might defend climate science in the face of so-called climate deniers? The obvious answer is that it is not, so long that one’s appeal is to evidence without dogma or prejudice. One can remain open to the opinions of a “climate denier” whilst also disproving their claims. But in today’s world, everything is either reduced to politics or opinion or both. And that seems to be a problem. The stage, as it were, is already set to frame the logic and structure of debate in the way of a purely subjective narrative. In other words, the very meaning and structure and purpose of rational debate and the appeal to objectivity, evidence and facts seems in decline. The mentality, the philosophical approach, is largely logically dubious and irrational.

It is important, in agreeing with Coyne, that the modern scientific endeavour, the very practice and values of science, remain non-partisan and therefore operative in the realm of what I would describe as the critical, objective and open to new data and to the unfolding investigation of reality. Reason, like scientific enquiry, should remain unbiased and untied to ideological or prejudiced ends. Others may describe it differently, but the main point, I think, is that the worst thing that can happen in this pathological era of so-called “post-factualism”, is that science becomes associated with political dogma and agenda.

At the same time, if science tends to foster a philosophy of openness, in today’s social world this would seem to have very real structural-political consequences. This philosophical value of openness also has a very particular epistemological appeal: namely, the openness to diversity, the unknown and to the moreness of phenomena. In the social world, these values seem to be given political appeal, with different sides making claim to the title of rightful defender. But they are nothing more than common universal values in a deeply existential and humanistic sense.

It currently seems to me that a more reconciled approach would be one that acknowledges neither left nor right bias; nor would it assume any one position. Truly open, critical, reflective and objective reason is inherently inclined to reject all such bias and prejudiced claims. Rather than approach the world by way of some worldview, an rational approach would be more fluid. In considering all the facts, we can posit our best and most well-laid out theories which help explain reality; but those systems of thought are not closed. The more we investigate, the more we deepen our theories and the more we deepen our understanding of the objective truth of a phenomenon or issue. It is a process of constant critical openness and learning and receptivity. In the natural sciences, when studying purely natural phenomena and objects in which no bias is inherent in those phenomena, this process becomes much easier when compared to the study of social justice issues. And for all the writing I’ve read on cognitive bias, this deeper point never seems to be considered.

Research would seem to indicate that reality is tough for both sides to swallow. And yet, in emphasizing the philosophical and ethical value of openness and intellectual diversity should not also be conflated with tolerance of oppressive, irrational or prejudiced views. When, in a recent New Scientist article, the issue of same sex marriage is raised in the same breathe that “”open-minded” liberals are just as plagued by confirmation bias as “closed-minded” conservatives, consideration of the problem of cognitive bias and the difference in the nature of its appeal on both sides is lacking. This raises an interesting question in the field of ethical philosophy. It would seem to me, from a purely structural perspective, that a lack of consideration of such a prejudiced and oppressive view as anti-equality perspectives is not the same in meaning as the hate-filled bigot.

In terms of the general political landscape, both sides are fallible. The entire political world, as far as I can tell, is steeped in bias. Both left and right can be anti-science and irrational; but the fundamental issue has much more to do with the pathology of society, in which people forget how to think properly, to approach the world rationally and sensibly. Irrationality accumlates, structurally it seems to propagate.

Personally, I don’t align myself with any political party or movement or denomination because it all seems so senseless. The pursuit of truth and of understanding isn’t and shouldn’t be political. In appealing to the best of humanistic values, science and intellectualism should be for everyone. The best values we have are enlightenment values – they underline everything positive about the modern social world and of whatever progress that humanity has achieved. But these values also appeal to a philosophy that challenges the traditionalism, closed-mindedness generally associated with conservatism, as well as emphasizes a relentless critical openness that challenges whatever creeping closed-mindedness that may hamper liberals.

As Carl Sagan once put it:

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

No political side can make claim to being the true heirs and defenders of the enlightenment today, and that is what continues to give it meaning: core enlightenment and humanistic values would seem to transcend the rigidity of political worldviews. It would only seem that, more often than not, the defenders of core humanistic and enlightenment values are regularly found within the domain of liberals and progressives, in spite of the evidence that they also at times might turn away from such values and from the scientific mindset when it is most convenient to do so.


Science is not absolutely immune to the “sins” of irrational social forces, and the struggle that surrounds it is the struggle for a free and autonomous science. On the one hand, it is important to recognize the special epistemological space in which science is positioned. There is a certain autonomy to science in this regard, the existence of which seems all too often rejected in different strands of contemporary philosophical critique. But in understanding the special space of science and its special or unique epistemological place in society, it would seem naive – again, at least from my current vantage point – that science is somehow absolutely immune to irrational and less than progressive social forces. The problem may be better described in terms of the output of science and how this is socially realized, as opposed to the actual doing of science.

Science works, its history speaks for itself. But what of the output of scientific knowledge, the release of scientific achievement into and as it becomes mediated with the social world, its biases, constructs, and ideological systems? One example people often cite is military technology. Another is the commodification of medicine for the sole purpose of profit. The argument in this case considers how medical advancements have been significant in so many ways, but vital medicines are monetized and reduced to a system of economic profit principles, which are regular untied to core humanist sensbilities. One of the results, the arguments goes, is the manufacturing of the inequality of health and how entire groups of people do not have access to necessary treatments. On the level of moral philosophy, this is a problem. But it would also seem to be a problem for the modern scientific enterprise, if one believes that such an enterprise stands for and helps support everything progressive about a science-based and rational society.


And in this sense I think that while science must remain non-partisan, one might speculate that it is perhaps also a mistake to divorce the modern scientific endeavour from the basis of values that underline much of its historical social philosophical motivation. The modern scientific project has a very unique history, outside of the evolution of its methods and historical achievements, that is social philosophical in principle and humanistic in value. Maybe my readings are wrong, and my postulating here is inaccurate. But in my survey of the literature and scholarly record, this other history seems fairly clear and important.

Enlightenment universalism “presumes to render institutions accountable, a fundamental principle of democracy, and thereby create the preconditions for expanding individual freedom. Such a view would inform liberal movements concerned with civil liberties as well as socialist movements seeking to constrain the power of capital” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). In much the same way, Enlightenment universalism – or what we may also describe as the common values of the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2013; Israel, 2002) – moves against prejudice to include “the other”, underpinning the liberal notion of the citizen with its “inherently democratic imperative”, while also pushing back against capitalism’s drive to reduce people to the mere status of ‘economic objects’ and therefore, too, mere ‘costs of production’ (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Therefore, there should be no surprise when Condorcet, for example, writes:

Thus an understanding of the natural rights of man, the belief that these rights are inalienable and [cannot be forfeited], a strongly expressed desire for liberty of thought and letters, of trade and industry, and for the alleviation of the people’s suffering, for the [elimination] of all penal laws against religious dissenters and the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments, the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation and jurisprudence which should give complete security to the innocent, and for a simpler civil code, more in conformance with reason and nature, indifference in all matters of religion which now were relegated to the status of superstitions and political [deception], a hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a contempt for prejudice, zeal for the propagation of enlightenment, all these principles, gradually filtering down from philosophical works to every class of society whose education went beyond the catechism and the alphabet, became the common faith . . . [of enlightened people]. In some countries these principles formed a public opinion sufficiently widespread for even the mass of the people to show a willingness to be guided by and to obey it. (Condorcet, 1794/2012, p. 101)

From just a short and brief overview, it is clear how much the value of modern science is entangled with the enlightenment and its humanistic traditions. From the Scientific Revolution, dated roughly between the years of 1550 and 1700, the enlightenment can be traced back to the “renaissance humanists” in France and Italy in the 14th and 15th century (Trevor-Roper, 2010), and so too can some of the basic foundations of the modern value of science and the implications of what science means when extended into the realm or field of social philosophy (that is, too, comprising the fields of ethical and moral philosophy).

What I wonder is, as an individual with a long history of being critical of politics, left and right, does this embracing of enlightenment roots necessarily equate to politicization? In other words, I would like to ask: does the defense of progressive values, of the ought of ethical philosophy, presuppose the existence of confirmation bias? Or is it simply an appeal to what Steven Pinker once described as the better angels of our nature? If the modern scientific endeavour is completely divorced from the basis of its deeper social-philosophical and historical values, then does the ethical and moral value of science itself not dissipate? Is this dissipation not detrimental in terms of the social output of science?

As Steven Pinker writes: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation.  It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”. One of my favourite contemporary physicists, Brian Cox, has a wonderful way of describing, along what I would describe as fundamental social philosophical lines, how science inspires the foundation for the practice of a rational society. His book the Human Universe (2014) is a fantastically inspiring testament to such a hopeful possibility. Perhaps Cox is right when he comments: “the scientific way of thinking is the road to better politics.” One can think, moreover, of the endless inspiring passages of reflection offered to us by Carl Sagan, which very much captures the spirit of the idea of a science-based future rational and democratic society.

Quite simply, the value of science is much more than the practice of scientific research. The importance of science extends beyond the laboratory. As alluded above: Pinker describes it as a “mindset”, and he’s right. “Open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods” as well as the truths “of mathematics, the logic of scientific theories, and the values that guide” the scientific enterprise are just a few that Pinker cite. One could even expand on the point and describe it as a form of subjectivity in the sense of a critical, rational and open approach to how we relate with the phenomenal world, which seeks to transcend the ideological limitations of social irrationality as well as biased and prejudiced “worldviews”. But ultimately what is being indicated are the defining practices of science, the psychology and experiential sensibility that it fosters – to be open to the world, to new data, and to exploring the unknown.

Deepening the account, and perhaps also grounding it in my own way, the scientific “mindset” is akin to the open, mediating, critically inquisitive subject. Many people often think of or evoke the image of a young child openly exploring, enquiring, questioning, searching and orientating within the multifarious world of things. In a bigger sense there is no end per se, no ideological bias, just the open pursuit of knowledge in that reason is a means in itself. All the while, the pursuit of objective reality and truth deepens, our theories become more sharpened and honed. This is, to me, a beautiful account of what science inspires and fosters. Impliedly, and in relation to Pinker’s descriptions and my own in relation to philosophy of the subject, the value of science represents a certain epistemology, anthropology and cosmology (“cosmology” is used here in the sense of the human relation to the phenomenal world, whereas anthropology refers to how we relate with each other). More accurately, I currently think of it as implying the genesis or development of a certain epistemology – in other words, the value of science also refers to practice: how we think of the world, how we relate with the world, and also how we relate with each other and ourselves.

And this is in no way spontaneous philosophical invention. These ideas, these core concepts and concrete values are indebted to such popular and celebrated thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith (and so on). Beyond the generally familiar, one of my personal favourites is the contributions by Nicolas de Condorcet. But the enlightenment philosophes also include valuable contributions from other perhaps less mainstream names as Marquis de Sade, Montesquieu, Diderot, Beaumarchais, D’Alembert, among others. Their contribution to the history of modern thought and the modern scientific enterprise cannot overstated. Let us also not forget the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, a personal idol, or further back to the infancy of ideas during the humanist renaissance through to important contributions by another personal idol in Galileo Galilei.

Throughout the whole history the modern scientific enterprise, the inspired vision of science can be seen to also inspire an alternative philosophy of life and society. From the tragic story of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, to the progressive struggle by the enlightenment philosophes, who denounced the oppression of the Church and began formulating a scientific and certainly also deeply humanistic vision – the lesson of history, for me, is that the value is as prefigurative as it is institutional. A defense of science against anti-science and post-factualism, as well as post-modern relativism, is more than a defence of our scientific institutions, of entities like NASA’s earth science programme. Science is also lived. And through living science, through the defense and daily practice of reason, one prefigures a better and more rational social world.

And so the deeper reflection is to not limit one’s defence of science to the simple act of protest. What science also fosters is a foundational alternative perspective, a richness and openness of critical and inquisitive experience that helps ensure the vital normativity of progressive horizons of institutional and social practice. In an irrational and pathological social world, the modern scientific pursuit and the wholeness of the value of scientific practice and knowledge evidences, in one way or another, the hopeful vision of a global future society.

Does such an account ultimately, in some way, project social and political values? At present, I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. What I do think is that one should not be afraid of the positive vision that science offers, and seek to repress it in fear of politicization. Carl Sagan, much like Neil Degrasse Tyson, can hardly be criticized for “politicizing science”. And yet, they also embrace the positive and transformative social philosophical appeal in which science and modern scientific endeavour lends itself.

To that, I would like to conclude this admittedly informal essay by considering arguably one of the most important driving forces behind both the enlightenment and science: namely, a critical conception of universalism. Perhaps here the greatest lesson is served to us by the history of physics: science is not a collection of absolute truths, as we always have something to learn. As Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw put it: Science is a discipline that celebrates uncertainty without ever abandoning the idea of truth and the understanding of objective reality. The key to the success of modern science is in its keeping open to new data, new discoveries and to further refined theories as phenomena reveal more of themselves over time.

From Newton to Einstein and beyond, this is an epistemological value to be cherished. It is also a value that very much is embodied in the enlightenment. In that the enlightenment sought to develop a social philosophy based on reason, science (and scientific knowledge); it also sought, as Stephen E. Bronner (2004) points out, to ground a critical conception of progress that owed nothing to dogma or political allegiance. Progress was seen as open, unfolding and almost constant – in a sense, it is an unfolding process, because, epistemologically speaking, the more we learn, the more we understand, the more we can also investigate and interpret our social systems and structures for the benefit of everyone. Thus, celebrated for the advent of modern notions of democracy, there is also something deeply egalitarian about the philosophes and the hopeful scientific vision that they sought to inspire. Empowering these values was the idea of universality and normativity, or, if you like, normative universalism.

To be clear, what I am describing here is a few of the most basic coordinates of a rich account of science in relation to the process of positive social development. And what such an approach does is that it allows us to appreciate the nuances of social development, and the parameters of a progressive philosophy of history, particularly insofar as the relation between social and modern scientific pursuit.

Perhaps what is called for in a post-factual world is, indeed, concern over politicization, while at the same time deep ethical and moral reflection on the social and humanistic values of the modern scientific endeavour? Perhaps, somewhere, a core sense of humanism has been lessened in the pursuit of profit and overproduction and a march for science is also a march for the values of the scientific enterprise? If nothing else, these seem to be important sites of reflection, especially as we face the need for an urgent defense of science in the midst of what seems to be an increasingly irrational social world.


Bronner, S. (1995). The Great Divide: The Enlightenment and its Critics. In New Politics, Vol. 5, no. 3. Retrieved from

—– (2002). Critical Intellectuals, Politics, and Society. In Imagining the Possible: Radical Politics for Conservative Times. New York: Routledge.

—– (2004). Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press.

—– (2005). Enlightenment Now: Stephen Eric Bronner. In The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved from

—– (2014). Moments of Decision: Political History and the Crises of Radicalism. New York: Bloomsbury.

Cox, B. and Forshaw, J. (2009). Why Does E=MC^2?. Da Capo Press.

De Condorect, Marie Jean Antoine. (1955). Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati (eds.) Condorcet: Political Writings. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-148. Trans. June Barraclough. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gregory, Mary Efrosini. (2010). Freedom in French Enlightenment Thought. Peter Lang.

Israel, J. (2002). Radical Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leiss, W. (1972/1994). The Domination of Nature. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Malik, K. (1996). The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

—– (2005). Born in Bradford. Retrieved from

—– (2009a). Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. London: Oneworld Publications.

—– (2009b). The Guilt of Science? Race, Science and Darwinism. Retrieved from

—– (2013a). On the Enlightenment’s ‘Race Problem’. Retrieved from

—– (2013b). The Making of the Idea of Race. Retrieved from

Pagden, A. (2013). The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters. London and New York: Random House.

Trevor-Roper, H. (2010). History and the Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Philosophy and General Reading

Social Pathology, Philosophy of Reason and Bloom’s “Against Empathy” – On Science, Ethics, and Knowledge

R.C. Smith

To think of ethics is likely today to evoke the idea of empathy. Similarly, in the context of many mainstream discourses within social theory, to think of empathy is often to evoke philosophical consideration in the field of radical ethics. The same is true with the order of terms reversed. It is not uncommon for contemporary discourses around radical ethics to be situated very closely to the prevailing emphasis on empathy. But what is the social value of empathy? This question does not mean to incite a common definition, namely “the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state”. The target of my query is much more fundamental in the sense of a social value.

It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to unlocking morality once and for all. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window – the former understandably. Empathy is here to save the day. Like equality or democracy, it has become a social value that many are increasingly relying on philosophically as a source of ultimate and profound goodness. It has become a staple value for progressives. And it makes sense, because empathy suggests the broader horizon of a particular progressive social world conceived on the basis of social justice and non-violence and mutual recognition and all that other stuff. Within this mainstream and established discourse the problem, we learn, is that there’s just not enough empathy. But what I would like to do is take a moment to question this value or principle in its pure conceptual form. More concisely, I would like to ask: is empathy enough?

In beginning to approach this question, I offer two immediate points of clarity. In the past I have written about empathy as a key to a broader ethical theory. In a recent book on social pathology, which considers the deficit of reason in contemporary society from a number of angles, empathy was one of a number of normative values that was considered as an essential constituent of an integrative and progressive social philosophy. But there is a caveat, and it is an important one. Empathy was considered directly in relation to rationality. The same goes for past engagements with things like intersubjective theory, which I have argued toward within the field of interpersonal social ethics, but again with the caveat that social intersubjectivity is insubstantial without rationality. Perhaps, in the end, what all these debates come down to is a discourse on epistemology. But seeing how such a discussion extends beyond the remit of our current engagement, let’s continue down a more simple path that entertains a series of reflections on reason and empathy.


Reason and empathy? Empathy and reason? In present popular discourses, the two are often perceived antinomically. Proponents of empathy argue away from reason and rationality. Extreme proponents on the other side, in terms of what some seem to describe in philosophy as a strict and immoderate rationalism within the field of social theory, which should in no way be conflated with a positive, moderate or sensible rationalism, will sometimes lose sight of the value or important role of empathy in interpersonal relations. The criticism here, from what I have gleaned, is that such a strict rationalism, which some seem to also associate with social positivist theory, is said to lose sight of how human emotion, for better or for worse, forms a part of basic human experience.

Admittedly, one might call me a rationalist. Those who know me personally will undoubtedly say that I even verge on the “extreme” end of rationalism, the definition of which I am not always sure. But I also understand that human reality is not so idealistic. Contemporary society is by no means rational, and I tend to think of its lack of rationality as a projection of the deficit of reason on a more macro level of general human experience. Quite frankly,  it is debatable whether human beings have ever known a rational society. But the critical normative value of reason persists, and within irrational society the voice of reason remains one of the only remaining spaces for hope. In any case, understanding and agreeing with the rationalist perspective that the primacy of reason is important, I think it is also upon us to recognize the complexity of everyday human experience (that which resides outside the scientific method), and how human motivation is multidimensional and includes a significant emotional component. On the note, perhaps proponents of empathy theory are not wrong to emphasize the place of human emotion within the context of human reality. But the main issue I have with empathy theory – that is, social theory principled on the primacy or fundamental value of empathy – is that while empathic experience is generally positive, it is also severely limited. More sharply, I would argue the rejection of reason on behalf of the primacy of human emotion is incredibly misguided if not ill-judged.

On this point I was pleased to discover a recent book by Paul Bloom titled Against Empathy (2016).

Putting aside the provocative title, which is custom to the landscape of popular literature, the author’s arguments are generally well laid out. Within we read not an argument against empathy (per se) as a positive value strictly placed on the level of interpersonal relations. Rather what we read is an argument against empathy in what I would describe as its overextended use in moral philosophy.

For Bloom, the notion of empathy that he is “most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel–experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the terms” (pp. 3-4). Picking up on how it is a popular trend these days to identify empathy as an ultimate philosophical value, a pure source of moral guidance, what we read in Bloom’s book is a counter-argument about how the value of empathy is insufficient on a much larger level. To put it tersely, empathy in the purely emotional sense of its definition is analytically weak. In my own words, it does not in and of itself serve the purpose of constructing a foundation for progressive social philosophy; and by no means does it by itself lead to supporting a more rational social world.

There are a number of ways to unpack these assertions. Bloom offers many illustrations in his book, including the example of charity. This is a good example to run with, because we can also deepen Bloom’s account of charity in the process of exploring some of the positive implications of his thesis. To start, an obvious question arises: what makes for an effective charity drive? Simply put, it is their emotive appeal and call for action. Charities often explicitly target message so as to ensure that their advertisements evoke an emotional response. People describe this as “pulling at the heartstrings”. This is because charities often depend on the human capacity to empathize – the emotional base of human empathy. Thus their campaigns and infomercials often explicitly aim to create or foster a moment of empathic experience – an emotionally charged response of action, often in the sense of contributing a donation or signing a petition.

The very same description can be applied to the ethical consumer movement, where at times the motivation seem much more emotional than rationally considerate. Think, for instance, of the push toward Biodynamic farming. This alternative agricultural technique is on the rise, energized in part by the ethical consumer movement; but it is not without valid concern. Indeed, there are many science-based questions about the legitimacy of biodynamic farming practices. Could it be that, underlying this issue, is another case of how consumers, including or perhaps especially conscious consumers, make emotion-based choices instead of science-based ones? Perhaps this tendency resides at the heart of the struggle to maintain a sense of lucidity within the conscious consumer movement. And this is one of many areas where Bloom’s book can be applied.

Moreover, and on the basis of my crude sketch, an interesting question arises pertaining to the rationale of the operation of charity within society. Again, to approach the matter in a very analytical way, charities of course do a lot of good. This statement is obvious. Charities and non-profit campaigns are generally well intentioned and can have a great effect on a local and national level. But let us for a moment consider the complexities of economic inequality as a focus of charity. Can it not also be said, in terms of a much more systemic and rational analysis, that the human goal should be the elimination of inequality at its roots, as opposed to relying on charitable initiatives for the purpose of generating financial aid to patch the deficits of modern political-economic system? Is this question not the obvious rational point of enquiry?

To approach it differently: does the reality of economic inequality not demand systemic solutions that target the roots of its causality?To Bloom’s point, empathy in and of itself is not analytically substantive or expansive enough to ask these questions. In other words, it does not signify ratiocinative qualities of unbiased critical thinking and rational and evidence-based analysis. It is not empirical, scientific or rationally substantive. Nor is empathic experience motivated by fact or systematic assessment of reality; thus in no way is it necessarily substantially considerate.

Allow me to ask the obvious question in another way: Without the fully realized ability to reason, to think critically, what effective purpose does empathy serve? Likewise, the argument goes, what purpose does charity really serve when it comes to particular issues like economic inequality? It may help ease the economic burdens of an individual or a family, and this can no doubt be lifesaving. To make it clear: I am in no way devaluing what positives charities contribute in this regard. But when it comes to the larger systemic picture, the entire dynamic existence of charity and the emotional basis on which it operates, is there not an argument toward the requirement of a much deeper analysis and line of consideration?.

I think this is an interesting point of thought, one that we could re-employ in the context of Bloom’s book. He does a terrific job at exploring the limits of empathy along similar lines, which leads him to make the case for a notion of “rational compassion”. I think this is an incredibly important concept, which resonates with my own thesis in Society and Social Pathology that was angling toward what I now consider to be a notion of cognitive empathy (which I basically take to mean the same thing).

Continuing to preserve the positive role empathic experience might play strictly on an interpersonal level, how I interpret Bloom’s book is that, empathy itself does not offer the necessary conceptual tools to think through, analyse and ultimately assess social issues in the detailed, evidenced-based and comprehensive manner required. Empathy is not necessarily critical or comprehensive in terms of a cognitive-rational process of assessment. Empathy does not imply rationally contemplative, critical or substantive consideration. As an emotional response it can have an incredibly narrow scope. Empathy can even also be prejudiced and it can be manipulated to serve other’s interests. Ultimately it is a weak guide in the face of complex moral dilemmas. What’s also interesting about this argument is how it may connect to a deeper philosophical analysis regarding the current deficit of social rationality. Indeed, I believe one can draw a direct connection between Bloom’s book and the more broad claims that what is also required today is a historical and cultural renewal of reason and rationality as core progressive social philosophical values. But I’ll save that for later.


I would like to take a moment to expand on a few of my comments. It is not that empathy is useless or redundant. Likewise, it is not that empathy isn’t important or that it is not a key guiding value of progressive social philosophy. This essay is not meant to serve the suggestion that empathy doesn’t play a role in maintaining some semblance of sanity in human life. The fact of the matter remains that an overwhelming body of evidence and research confirms the importance of empathy on the level of interpersonal relations, from psychotherapy to medical practice to education and special needs. Even progressive values such as restorative justice or, perhaps more broadly, the very idea of democracy contains to whatever degree a notion of empathy in addition to a notion of compassion and rationality. On the basis of everything we currently know, from anthropology through to developmental psychology and beyond, it would seem fairly safe to suggest that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of social empathy. Contemporary proponents of empathy and its social importance do not appear wrong in this regard. It is only that, at least to my mind, empathy can become over-valued. Or, to put it another way, it is overextended beyond the effectiveness of its range. Thus in taking from Bloom, the argument put forth here is that while empathy has a very real social value, reason and the notion of rational compassion are also absolutely vital. Inasmuch that it may be safe to conclude that a healthy (or less pathological) society is one that fosters a high degree of social empathy, so too it would seem safe to conclude that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of individual and social rationality. In this sense what we’re talking about is very much a deep, integral, complex and many-sided developmental account.

I think most moderate and rationally sensible people would agree on the basis of evidence that progressive social philosophy, much like a progressive theory of ethics, is grounded to some degree in the social-culture promotion and fostering of empathic experience and intimate social relations. But empathy is not going to solve the many issues we face in relation to climate change. Empathy and its sociocultural increase is not going to solve potentially pending energy crises, systemic poverty, or the inequalities of health. It won’t serve to ensure humanities defense against a possible future asteroid, or put humans on mars, or help us identify the chemistry of sustainable materials or the cure for preventable diseases.

To this point, I like Bloom’s idea of rational compassion. Moral decisions are not purely empathic decisions. Inasmuch as they depend to a large degree on critical thinking and, impliedly, a form of meditating subjectivity, moral decisions should also necessarily be considered as rational, evidence-based and comprehensive systemic decisions in the sense of their relation to the larger social picture. Empathy, which, itself, on a policy level, can become a purely reactionary principle of moral action, lacks the necessary rational and critical normative basis of systemic or comprehensive evaluation. And this, in a very crude and summarized way, is one of the fundamental issues when it comes to contemporary theories that rely solely on empathy and empathetic experience as source of moral and ethical action, as Bloom notes.

Simply put, social theories of empathy become too one-dimensional, and they lack integration into a more coherent and complex view. And for these reasons, among others, my arguments in Society and Social Pathology could perhaps be considered somewhat akin to Bloom’s book: namely, that the practice of social empathy and reason should be considered in a very reticulate way. We may call this “rational compassion” or cognitive empathy or whatever; but the main point, for me, is the underlining basis that is the human capacity to reason. This is why, in my own study on social pathology, I spent a significant amount of time describing irrationality and the social deficit of reason, especially in relation to a form of social critique and within the frame of developmental psychology. But I think an even deeper point is that a less pathological society, one which reconciles the deficit of reason, is one that would evidence not just a high degree of cultural empathy but an even higher degree of social rationality. And in my book on pathology, this was described primary through the notion of the mediating subject.


Having said all that, I think Bloom’s book could be expanded and deepened in several ways. My first point of reflection begins with consideration within the boundaries of philosophy of reason.

One senses that there are a number of moments of tension in the Bloom’s analysis. One reason for this, I think, has to do with how the social world isn’t quantifiable in the same way as nature, and for this reason it is easy to anticipate the criticism I’ve read of Against Empathy, namely that it verges on being what a section of philosophers describe as “positivist”. This is actually I term I tend to see a lot in social philosophy, and it is not always easy to understand what it means. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the complications associated with attempts to purely translate or reemploy the successes of natural science methodologies within the domain of social research and analysis. The difficulty, as I understand it, can perhaps be better expressed in methodological terms. “Positivism”, or “positivist epistemology”, which I would differentiate from positivist social theory, is a highly effective tool within the natural sciences. It is an important epistemology; but when utilized in the study of social phenomena and relations, including the study of human beings, this epistemology is criticized as being limited. The study of social phenomena, of the social world, is different than studying objects of nature. As a physics student, I often think for instance of the difference between the study of a natural phenomenon way out in the cosmos – or the study of the tangled web that is gravity – and the study of something like human migration and economy. Human beings have agency, society too, as one learns through a thorough study of sociology, is the product of a complex interplay of the relationship between structure-agency. A positivist epistemology, as I understand it within the frame of natural science practices, comes under criticism when, what is labelled as “positivist social theory” – that is, the translation of natural science methodology as the pure means of social research methodology – throws a rational blanket over everything, failing to grasp the complexity of human consciousness and the multidimensional realities behind human action and behaviour. Human beings, social phenomena, are said to be seen atomistically with little to no recognition of the realities of social construction. Social scientific practice in this sense can often become economically reductionist when applied within the particular dynamics of the social world.

From the books I’ve read, one way to describe the issue in methodological terms is how when trying to translate the undeniably successful methodologies and epistemologies withing the natural sciences into the domain of social research and study, it’s basically like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I don’t always know what to make of these debates. Being a science student and an individual committed to the natural sciences, as well as an individual widely read in social science, I would suggest in the very least that it would be beneficial to differentiate the useful and effective positivist epistemology we commonly use in the natural sciences, with “positivist social theory”. In critical theory and in critical sociology, the two tend to be conflated or confused and this, I think, is a mistake because what’s good about positivist epistemology gets lost.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, a critical reader of Bloom’s book will certainly raise concern about how certain moments of argumentation verge toward “positivist social views”.

To avoid the possibility of such charges in the future, perhaps it is useful on a methodological level to see the study of the social world and the study of the natural world as separate complex entities, however much they may also find points of interrelation. While quantifiable in certain ways, the social world has its own complexities and the underlying realities aren’t entirely appropriate for natural scientific methodology. Coming from the perspective of the natural sciences, when I read social philosophy and theory and the perspectives offered in relation to philosophy of science, I often read how scientific methodology easily becomes an ideological extension of society within the domain of social research; because “positivist epistemology” isn’t able to reflect on itself and the facts its social research discloses. In other words: there is a broad range of literature that argues how, the direct translation of natural scientific methodologies into the field of social scientific study, often becomes subservient or an extension of the social status quo. Many popular commentators have also pointed out how it often produces too much of a one-dimensional view of human society. We observe strange theories such as those based on the view of human beings a “rational maximizers”, which seems to neglect the fact that everyday human experience is much more convoluted and messy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wonderful line, which I interpret in a similar way: namely about why so many people seem to struggle with even basic mathematics, speculating that it is because human beings are not necessarily purely logical beings. It’s hard to argue against him. What else is modern history if not a simultaneous celebration of modern reason and the value of human rationality in addition to an ongoing struggle to understand the deficit of reason and the problem social irrationality?

It is interesting to reflect on these debates. I think one of the simple lessons within the history of social science, to use a very obvious example, is that when trying to understand the complexities of the social world, we cannot completely expunge human emotion from human life. If what people call “social positivist philosophy” becomes too hardened and one-dimensional in terms of a strictly behavioural view, perhaps what we lose sight of is the role human emotion plays in human experience and the complexities of impact and causality with regards to structure-agency. And this connection would make some sense. Behaviouralism, as a social philosophy, in the sense of its social philosophical designation, relates very much to a particular philosophical paradigm that attempts to translate the insights of natural science to an analysis of human social behaviour.

In physics, chemistry, and so on modern scientific knowledge is unparalleled. The scientific method is undoubtedly one of the great human epistemological accomplishments, which has resulted in an exponential increase in knowledge. But we if take seriously the idea that the study of the social world requires, however subtly, its own unique approach. Is this the same as saying that social research cannot learn from the natural sciences, preserving important concepts or values as objectivity and the generation of objective knowledge about social phenomena? Can it not also integrate natural science methodologies and epistemologies? If the ontology of the social world is different than the natural one, as are the basic dynamic-structures and systems. with issues of meta-theory, epistemology, aetiology, the role of theory, explanation and prediction – surely a progressive framework for social research would have at its foundation the lessons of natural science, the core value of empirical research and evidenced-based thought.

In this sense, if the social sciences are largely considered to be in state of disarray because its prevailing methodologies and frameworks have yet to grasp accurate methodologies, techniques, and certainly also a mature epistemology – perhaps an example of social science research can be found in what is called social systems theory and systems thinking. When analyzing the social world, as a good science-driven systems researcher would do, complexities involving structure-agency, subject-object, individual-collective, universal-particular, qualitative-quantitative, seem to take on a unique complexity. Scientifically driven, it is one example of what I would describe as good contemporary social science; but the problem is that it is few and far between, especially in mainstream social science, which is being increasingly overrun by poststructural and postmodern perspectives with their hypertheoretical, hyperspectulative and meaningless jargon.

With these considerations in mind, maybe what is left to be said is that philosophy of social science must also be adjusted. What doesn’t help, as alluded earlier, is that the social world is  drenched in emotion. It’s largely pathological, often irrational, and its history is almost constantly entrenched in ideology and the battle of “worldviews”. Additionally, even from the side of research practice and analysis, it is easier for the social scientist to become entwined in systems of power and political worldviews, for the concept of objectivity and truth seem to so easily erode within the social sciences. We see it all time, and often it is because the individual subject is more heavily mediated or invested in the social world and the social issues that constitute his or her sociohistorical-cultural context. The natural sciences doesn’t face the same degree of tension, even though it is not entirely free from or autonomous to sociohistorical-cultural contexts (a topic for discussion at a later time).

In the natural sciences I find that it is easier for us to preserve the primacy of reason, the parameters of rational analysis and debate, and the process by which the scientific community can reach consensus. Perhaps this is also because science often acts as a sort of corrective against human error, such as the creeping inclination for instance toward “confirmation bias” (a notion I’ll return to later). In the social world however, even concepts of reason and truth become so deeply socially mediated, that it is not uncommon for an irrational politician, an ideologue or dogmatist, to make claim to the voice of reason and rationality. What were originally progressive, critical and reasonable movements can easily become extremist, while extremist movements are at times seen as “reasonable”. The social world is one where people fight for values, and thus prejudice is freely and openly celebrated. An individual can take up the progressive cause to preserve a piece of natural landscape from exploitation by an oil corporation, standing for the need for the generation of clean energy and against extreme environmental degradation. But that person can also easily lose sight of rational debate and analysis. Instead their position can also become one between opposing forces reduced to political opinion and “difference of values”. Likewise, the same can be said for reactionary movements, which tend to be primarily based in ideology and operate within the realm of anti-reason. Here, the objective is to intentionally reduce debate to opinion, to prejudiced subjectivity, because more often than not reality and fact for reactionary movements – such as “climate deniers” – is an inconvenient truth. But ideology can be found throughout the whole of the social political world, and each scenario can be crossed to the other.


In response to these problems, an intriguing alternative paradigm is presently emerging (especially in the UK) under the designation “critical realism”. I am by no means an expert reader, but from my understanding this emerging paradigm seeks to offer a considerable engagement with both a “positivist” and “critical approach” within the field of philosophy of social science. In postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social theoretical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason, something which I’ve discussed in other places.

To deepen our considerations: Critical realism, on my understanding, seems to want to take serious the reconciling of the extensive list of issues at the heart of philosophy of social science. Refreshingly, it doesn’t appear to be sociologically relativistic. Thus, one could perhaps see it as avoiding the traps discussed in relation to other books I’ve critique in recent time. Secondly, and in relation to a number of recent publications, including Bloom’s Against Empathy, on my reading critical realism appears to recognize a critique of positivist social theory without completely rejecting the value of positivist epistemology and, in turn, also accommodate a humanistic and integrative view of the total human subject. Likewise, too, it maintains the primacy of reason, even when opening discourse up to the notion of integration.

In addition to this last comment, note the use of the term “integration”, which connects to what was touched on earlier and what will be discussed a little later. This is something I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In a past essay concerning a different book I considered, for example, how it is not enough to posit a holistic and integrative view if that means the primacy of reason is rejected, because what happens is that one’s position eventually succumbs to a variant of sociological relativism (even in spite of aims to preserve universal normative values).

Having said that, I see critical realism as being limited purely to the domain of social research. And it is not entirely without its own cause for critique. For instance, there are subtleties about its position on epistemology that for me don’t quite capture a progressive enough argument.

“Due to CR ontology and epistemology, (there is a ‘real’ world and it is theory-laden, not theory-determined), all explanations of reality are treated as fallible (Bhaskar, 1979), including the explanations provided by research participants, theorists and scientists. This ontological departure of CR from interpretivism becomes particularly useful for […] research in which participants offering competing explanations of a phenomenon and some must be taken as more accurate than others. For the same reason, CR epistemology may also be seen as disempowering for participants (i.e., through the implication that the scientist knows best!). However, it should not be assume that scientific explanations are always more accurate than experiential explanations – indeed, all are potentially fallible, and participants experiences and explanations of a phenomenon may in fact prove most accurate in explaining the reality. In qualitative CR research, participants’ experiences and understandings can challenge existing scientific knowledge and theory (Redman-MacLaren & Mills, 2015).” (Fletcher, A.J. (2016). Applying critical realism in qualitative research: methodology meets method. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vo. 20, Issue 2, p. 188)

While it is not entirely inaccurate or unreasonable to suggest that all forms of knowledge and all forms of explanation may be fallible, and that even in certain situations existing scientific knowledge and theory may be challenged and proven incorrect when set against participants’ experiences and experiential understandings; there is a different way to express this whilst also ensuring the preservation of the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge. Having said that, it seems fairly clear that critical realism seeks to utilize “the ‘practice of rational judgement, wherein the researcher may need to elaborate upon (or deviate from) participants’ own interpretations in order to ‘provide fuller or more adequate interpretations’ of reality” (Parr, 2013, p.10; cited in Fletcher 2016, p.190). This suggests that the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge are in fact ultimately preserved, without the naivety of thinking that such forms of knowledge are absolute and free of the possibility of error.

With these considerations in mind, instead of devaluing positivist perspectives within the natural sciences, what the position in this essay offers in its reading of Against Empathy, is recognition of the success of positivist approaches within the natural sciences, with the caveat that attempts to directly and cleanly translate positivist approaches to social theory practice are problematic. In other words, this essay serves to speculate that perhaps the lesson to be learned is that a rationalist perspective, such as the one I often argue toward, has to be more subtle and integrative when applied within the domain of social theory and research.

Unlike positivist attempts at translating directly the success of the natural sciences to social studies, which fails to recognize social construction and the relationships between agency-structure (among other things), viewing individuals only as rational agents, critical realism could be seen to shed another light on the the struggle for a rational social world from within an integrative and holistic framework (as opposed to throwing a rational blanket over everything and pretending human beings are purely rational actors).


Returning to Bloom’s book, I sense a bit of a tension, perhaps even naivety, behind certain passages of thought as a result of the above. His categories, his framing, does not allow for what I would describe as holistic or integrative perspective that would seem increasingly vital to social-based analysis and study. This notion of an integrative perspective takes inspiration partly from the humanist tradition, referring on one level to the view of the integrated human person. It goes back to the notion that the individual is not purely an economic means or a rational maximizer, but a complex subject in which emotion also plays a part, for better or for worse.

Such a form of rationalism, which preserves the primacy of reason and places it within a more integrative frame, serves as a reminder of the very real ongoing struggle for reason and social rationality. Reason and rationality are not taken for granted, and the human capacity to access reason is featured as a fundamentally important question.


To approach it differently: I think Bloom is right to make his critical intervention. But we can deepen it by recognizing that reason and social rationality – even rational compassion – very much also have a developmental component. To put it another way: the notion of rational compassion is predicated, I would argue, on the overlap between reason, rationality and the healthy status of the individual subject. Reason and social rationality are integral to progressive philosophy of the subject because they very much depend on a form of healthy subjectivity. Philosophy of reason is based, I would argue, in philosophy of the subject.

In Against Empathy there is a risk, in moments, where empathy, reason and compassion once again take on antinomical positions, when I think the progressive argument is much more advanced, subtle and perhaps imbricated.

This comes out in strange ways. For instance, I agree with other commentators that subtle moments, such as in Bloom’s use of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among a few others, as examples of “people of the heart”, as opposed to people of reason, is grossly inaccurate and simplistic. It comes, I think, from an underlying antinomical view. As one commentator put it, these individuals, particularly Gandhi and MLK, were actually very rational in their ethics.

Bloom also seems to make assertions about empathy on the level of feeling, without fully realizing that both empathy and rationality can have a common range: a deeply rational person can also be deeply empathic, in the emotional sense. The difference, and here I can only speak analytically and speculatively, would be in how emotionally defined or oriented empathy would percolate as cognitive empathy in a rational individual. If we consider the following axiom as true, namely that human emotion is integral to the human situation, perhaps the aspiration behind the social philosophical value of reason is not a complete repression of human emotion, which is arguably impossible anyway.

Rather, if there’s reason to suggest that the healthy, open, mediating subject – which I often liken to the scientific mind-set (think of the young discovering child, open and exploring) – is one that supports and fosters reason, this would suggest a more integrative perspective on human development. There is a reason why many leading psychological theories argue that the struggle for rational society is also the struggle for the healthy and reconciled subject. It is likely true that there can be rational people that are not necessarily the most emotionally developed, but there is a defined limit to this statement. Likewise, there can be people who pretend to be rational – one can think of many politicians – but are clearly biased ideologues. As a general philosophical rule, however, I think most rational, sensible and even scientifically-minded (or evidenced-based) people today that exemplify what might be described as a mediating form of subjectivity, possess, to whatever extent, an awareness of their own emotions. Awareness of one’s own emotions would seem to be important in order to rationally and objectively assess a situation or analyse a phenomenon, so as to ensure we keep a check on our own prejudices (social, theoretically, scientific or otherwise).

Following a similar logic to above. A high level of emotional empathy does not necessarily make one a good person. The same can be said in reverse. There are numerous disorders that reduce, neurologically speaking, an individual’s ability to empathize; and a low level of empathy in no way makes one a bad person or a person without progressive ethics. The point to take away from this is that the reality is much more nuanced. And really, what is required is again a deeply subtle and integrative approach.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the issue of (developmental) constitution. This was my argument in my book on pathology. What are the appropriate conditions that foster an openness and security in the individual to feel able to openly, rationally and critical enquire and engage with the world (as opposed to safeguarding “worldviews” or cognitive political ideological designations)?

In the cognitive sciences the notion of “confirmation bias” is incredibly insightful, highlighting the human tendency toward the familiar, to reject “otherwise” or any evidence that contradicts one’s established worldview. There are numerous studies in this area, and they are revealing as to how the human brain works, including in terms of the physiological effects of having one’s established views affirmed.

When reading many of the leading studies in this area, it is interesting to think more broadly in terms of societal functioning, such as in how confirmation bias seems evident in so much of general human behaviour. Think for instance of how the media functions. Black and white sensationalist statements confirming one view or another, the content of which often lacks nuance and thorough consideration of the many sides of an issue. It is opinion versus opinion, bias versus bias. It is hard to deny, especially in our present irrational social context, that confirmation bias doesn’t rule the day. Practically speaking, the difference between the positive feeling of having one’s views affirmed – and even the physiological effects of this experience – and the existential insecurity of having them challenged, is incredibly human.

But one of the issues I have with the assertions made by certain proponents of the confirmation bias thesis is how it can become reduced too much to a deterministic viewpoint. In other words, we have to keep aware of the tendency versus determinism relation. It would seem, on the basis of current evidence, that confirmation bias is a very real dimension of human experience. At the same time, it is one dimension. Another dimension is the possibility of reasoned and rational thought. While the inclination may be to reduce and absolutize the tendency toward confirmation bias and resolutely assert its reality within a deterministic frame, I think it is more accurate within the total human picture to balance this tendency with its opposite (which we can also observe, however fragile and fleeting).

There are so many wonderful examples within the sciences of individuals, even entire collectives of researchers, evidencing a very different type of subjectivity. It is a form of subjectivity, as already described – one that is open, searching, exploring, and willing to consider the possibility of “otherwise”. The excitement and anticipation of possibly discovering sometime new, this scientific experience goes against the tendency toward confirmation bias. In this sense, inasmuch that confirmation bias seem prevalent, there is also evidence of the opposite – people who are open to their own ideas being challenged, to being proven wrong, in their rational pursuit of knowledge.

Undoubtedly even the most rational person must constantly consciously remind oneself of the importance of maintaining normatively open, to thinking critically even when it comes to one’s own theories, ideas and views. The tendency toward confirmation bias seems to be always be creeping in the background. But how might we do justice to both sides, to two very different forms of experience, and two very different developmental mind-sets, and arrive closer to understanding this complex interplay of forces?

In psychology, many seem to argue that emotions play an incredibly important role in determining whether one is rationally engaged or closed, repressed and propelled by overbearing self-preservation drives. Additionally, there are some fascinating studies emerging within the neurosciences that touch on the deeper point being made here: the interrelations between psychological and biological development. What is the difference between the rational individual feeling secure in themselves to constantly challenge their own position, to consider “otherwise” and maintain an openness to the unknown, and the individual driven by the need for confirmation bias?

In engaging with the confirmation bias thesis, I would be inclined to suggest that it is important to remain nuanced and to maintain recognition of the developmental dimension of the irrational attitude and the biased-driven mind. It is possible that I am wrong in my suspicions, but if the inclination toward confirmation bias is one dimension of human experience, maintaining some space for the possibility for the realization of the free-flourishing subject and the flourishing of human reason would also seem vital.

In this age of “alternative facts”, the question begs to be asked: developmentally, what conditions would support or help foster more generally a rational subject who is open to the world and to the constant rational pursuit of knowledge? What are the appropriate social conditions that foster a more healthy, open, critical and rational subject? What are the appropriate social conditions to support and foster “rational compassion”, to use Bloom’s words, or cognitive empathy, which allows for principled, enlightened and evidence-based thought about nature, the social world, and the many complex systemic social issues we face?

To argue that there is a deficit of cognitive empathy – or “rational compassion” – is essentially to argue, by way of inference, that there is a deficit of reason. Holding on to this, it is then interesting to ask what proponents of empathy theory might be responding to in terms of our modern social reality. In asking this question their ideal seems to be a projection of something much more than purely empathic experience on an interpersonal level. A lot of the literature I have read seems to want to extract an entire social theory or foundational social philosophy. Empathy in this  philosophically ultimate sense is perhaps closer in its symbolic meaning to the notion of rational compassion. I say this in the sense that, philosophically, the social value of empathy seems to symbolize more than its strict definition: a certain sensitivity of experiential relations akin to what some philosophers describe as the subject-subject plane of experience. When framed in this way, perhaps there is some compromise as to what both sides seem to be hinting: I would synthesize this as an alternative or perhaps more reconciled mode of experience, which is phenomenologically sensitive, rationally considerate and investigative, fluidly shifting between the subject-subject and subject-object paradigms. As this is only speculation, I’ll leave the thought open for consideration.

As a whole, and in sum, in many popular books that treat empathy as a sort of pure source of moral goodness, one senses that what the respective authors are reacting to is the deficit of something vitally important to healthy societal functioning. There is a lack, a void – a deficit of compassionate, considerable thought as well as a lack of a certain sensitivity of experience and a sensitivity of astute observation and intimate relations (with all things) that very much comprises the idea of a lived ethics. There is a systemic deficit of moral thought and action, in addition to a prevailing hardened subject. The contemporary social world is one of largely irrational action, growing increasing defined by the prevalence of hardened social attitudes. And so the inclination is to identify a positive value, such as empathy, to fill the void. The point of critique, taken from Bloom, is that it is an error to fill this void with some emotional ideal. But in considering the above reflections, perhaps one way to reconcile the debates is through the notion of integration and an integrative philosophy of reason?


With these contextual points in place, it is not insufficient to now state that my main complaint with Bloom’s book: the account of “reason” and “rationality” is in no way advanced enough. What I mean by this is that it struggles to reconcile or address the differences between the irrefutable success of the natural sciences and its methodologies with the unique dynamics and methodologies of social research. In this regard, Bloom’s book can be seen to serve too much as a useful target of critique for those weary of “positivist social philosophy”. In defending the primacy of reason this is something one must safeguard against.

The problem, to put it very simply, has to do with a lack of integration. Subtle instances of this lack appear in passing moments, such as in Bloom’s example of the starving child on p. 106, in which we read: “The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives”. It’s not fair to isolate this statement and draw conclusions or criticism – I’m simply suggesting that subtly, nuance and an integrated view are constantly required, and it is this more progressive epistemology about where methodology meets social research method that at times lacks in Against Empathy.

Additionally, and in passing, Bloom’s book also lacks reflection in relation to the notion of critical rationality. For instance, in the odd passing sentence in which Bloom will make a statement about morality, or “violence and cruelty”, his view seems to lack critical awareness. When reading Bloom’s book one is inclined to ask: morality for whom and for what end? The answer, for me, is critical: Morality like philosophy of history – the normative universal enlightenment values integral to modern (social) reason and the modern scientific project – are based on a progressive and transformative social philosophy. Reason, as an emancipatory social philosophical concept, is ultimately based on or inspires the struggle for a more humane, egalitarian world. I say this on the basis not because reason is biased or prejudiced toward a particular political agenda, but because, in being a reader of the enlightenment philosophes, reason and rationality are also indicative of the presence of critical thought.

To approach the matter in another way: according to what normative criteria is the telos of morality considered? Perhaps the answer is that it is a means itself, just as reason should be a means itself. Therefore, in making the important case for “rational compassion”, which, I take to be a vital concept positively set in direct opposition to pathological society, maybe the that end rational compassion serves is no end at all. Maybe it harks back to the enlightenment notion of “progress”, which is seen as critical and open-ended. I favour this view, inasmuch as that I favour the view that modern science is also a means itself, which ought to be free of any ideological bias or ends.

I think a progressive account is one that considers social reason, in the enlightenment sense, as a fundamentally critical operation. Today, though, it can easily become conformist, which serves as an important reminder for us all: is one’s notion of “reason” really “reason” at all? Is human rationality not, first and foremost, the capacity to think through a problem in all its complexity and dimensions, given whatever wealth of evidence currently available? And is this not, inherently, also a critical process, a means in itself? I am not necessarily challenging or criticizing Bloom here. But these questions and reflections serve as an important point of reflection. Just like empathy can be prejudiced or manipulated to serve biased or ideological interests, so too can an uncritical notion of reason.


In closing, Bloom’s book offers an incredibly important contribution to contemporary debates. Reason, rationality, truly critical thinking – the current social deficit of these important values on behalf of totalized “worldviews” and dogmatic political and economic ideologies, is one of the basic characteristic of pathological thought. And that is because pathological thought, or subjectivity, is often closed, hardened and repressed. Cognitive empathy or “compassionate reason” implies the opposite: an open, free-flourishing, critical and rational subject akin to the scientific mind-set. Empathy has a place too in the more total picture. But empathy or compassion without analytics, without reason and rationality, and without critical evidenced-based thought offers nothing constructive in the grand scheme of things.

In other words: in entering the empathy debates, one can say that what gives reason its emphasis is that, without it, empathy means very little. If irrational, reactionary, and self-destructive patterns and trends are characteristic of much of the contemporary social world, as many argue, the deficit of reason and the lack of truly rational deliberation and discourse is without a doubt the fundamental matter at hand. This issues surrounding this deficit are complex, but the pathological lack of the daily capacities for rationality and compassion ultimately take precedence to a lack of empathy. One cannot have an empathic social world within an irrational societal context.

In this sense one could add in conclusion that the struggle for a more rational social world, a world that is compassionate in a truly considerate and constructively analytical sense – this is also the struggle for a healthy social world and a positive form of social development. Here, we should reintroduce the importance of humanistic philosophy, of which reason has long been an integral and leading member. There are aspects of Bloom’s book in which the internal logic of arguments seems to recognize this point. Concern for other’s welfare, which I agree is more of a mark of compassion than of empathy, is fundamentally indicative of reason and rationality in its social practice, and the entirety of such a social vision is ultimately a fundamental humanistic one (in a very direct enlightenment sense). And yet, to foster social conditions conducive for increasing social rationality, we learn when looking through the lens of social pathology that these conditions appeal to social dynamics that foster healthy, open and mediating subjectivity.

Thus, in the end, the struggle for a rational society raises deep searching questions regarding the status of the contemporary social world, its structures and systems and therefore also the general status of knowledge and subjectivity. It raises developmental questions about the effects of pathological society and about the health and status of the individual, and whether people generally feel secure enough in themselves to feel open to the world, and to the existential challenges of what it means to be rational in practice. When I think of a science inspired vision of society, I think of a form of social practical and debate that would be open and constantly surveying, rooted in evidence and deep consideration. Science inspires the idea of social engagement and deliberation based on facts, on evidence, and on the constant normative consideration and evaluation of phenomena – that is, a constant knowledge forming process. Modern science much like the enlightenment project in general – they inspire, at least for me, a vision based on a very real and materially substantive philosophy of the subject. And one can imagine how this subjectivity, this epistemology – this alternative way of experiencing the world, set against drives toward confirmation bias and the preservation of worldviews – could be the underpinning of an almost natural egalitarian, democratic process of social thought and deliberation. In many ways, this type of social philosophical vision, these basic normative values, represent the lasting legacy of the enlightenment. Long may that legacy continue to inspire, and long may modern science continue to invigorate the idea of a hopeful future.

Philosophy and General Reading

Review: “The Gods in Whom They Trusted” – On Science, Knowledge and Ethics (Part 2)

R.C. Smith

Ethics of Experience

In think, ultimately,  what we read in The Gods in Whom They Trusted is a set of philosophical formulations that take the human tendency to formulate faith-based constructs, fundamental principles of “life direction”, “core or ultimate convictions”, or “visions of life” – very much in the philosophical sense of absolute first principles – as universal. In other words, these tendencies are perceived as both necessary and existentially imperative.  Like many other basic critiques of “totalized worldviews” or notions of absolute truth, or even absolute first-principles, De Graaff rightly wants to recognize positive “core values” that are not abstract and irrational – hence a critique of religion – and that are also “open” – thus not hypostatized and closed to change. He offers many, many examples of such “core values”, including for example different enlightenment values as well as the general indigenous values of “ecological sustainability”, among others.

In short, barring the complexities of the argument, the strategy or aim of this particular point of critical intervention can be described almost as a retrieval of key progressive values. These values are discerned and pulled from a number of places, and the “critical retrieval” aspect of De Graaff’s project is an advanced one: he wants to preserve the notion of normative progressive values while also formulating an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology which remains “open”, intersubjective and sensitive to the agency of phenomena on the subject-subject plane of phenomenological experience.

In a similar albeit different way, poststructuralism in addition to a number of other intellectual movements has also sought to navigate the same issue or concern. However, of all recent attempts to reformulate and reconcile the notion of progressive normative values, safeguarding them from ideology or even totalized political philosophy, it is fair to say that De Graaff succeeds in coming very close.

In recognizing the need to take basic core values – like democracy, reason, equality, egalitarianism or even more practically, such as in ecological sustainability and community – one of the goals of the book is to ground these values as part of a lived ethics, reconciling them as “phenomenological guideposts”, no more and no less. In relation with his theory of phenomenological ethics, the goal seems to be to establish a normative theory of values in which values or core convictions are grounded in a notion of open, non-absolutizing subjectivity. Ethics, in other words, becomes based in the sort of lived experience predicated on a more open, mediating form of critical subjectivity. Rather than being hypostatized or absolute, and thus non-negotiable, normative values are, well, critical and normative. Anyone familiar with the Enlightenment philosophes will recognize the general direction of such an argument. For De Graaff, values are also unfolding, changing, negotiable, and thus,  in my own words, they are always subject to critical thinking and reflection. The reason for the need for such a retrieval, is because values like theory are rooted in history. Phenomena keep unfolding, we continuously learn more about the social and natural world, and thus also our historical circumstances keep changing and call for new responses or perspectives.

Basic values like freedom, justice, solidarity, etc. are perceived not as abstract values given by god, authorized by the church, or as part of an abstract theoretical and political framework; but as a fundamental “life direction” which speak to us throughout human history. De Graaff seems to strive to five meaning to, or at least deepens the expression, “history speaks”. Rather than maintaining an abstract status as core values tend to in a lot of social theory, political theory or religious contexts, in their retrieval we learn that they are not actually abstract at all. Democracy, respect, equality, science, community, horizontal leadership – they are what De Graaff calls “guideposts”, and they reverberate across time and “speak” in our experience with one another. To use the author’s terminology: “phenomenological guideposts”, core values often speak to us and want to be followed and worked out, for better or for worse.

One of the credits of this book in this regard is how the author remains incredibly sensitive, firstly, to how basic “core values”, “core convictions”, or “visions of life” are usually not negotiable to people. Hence the existence of ideology or totalized political philosophies in our modern social universe, and why what is called “ideology critique” is a popular concern within contemporary social sciences.

What we learn in The Gods in Whom They Trusted is that absolute first-principles for people usually only open up to negotiation, new insight or change when people enter a period of crisis. One can note that one of the definitions of “crisis” takes on this very meaning as, “A crucial or decisive point or situation, especially a difficult or unstable situation involving an impending change”. On the view offered by De Graaff, it is how we actualize core normative values or how they are given form, which is a fundamental question in each moment of history. For this reason, he eventually argues that “in each new situation these ‘normative’ or phenomenological guidelines need to be worked out anew and actualized”. What is negotiable, always, is how, for instance, Enlightenment values are given form or actualized, again and again, depending on the particular sociohistorical-cultural circumstances.

And so, in short, it is a retrieval of values that is another underlying philosophical theme of this book, which again relates to the theme of a non-violent epistemology. One the issues with the book’s formulations, I feel, has to do with what I have already labelled as the author’s use of worldview theory. And here, the whole of my critique comes to together. 

Worldview Theory

For those not familiar with worldview theory, one can type it in to any common search engine and a whole list of links will appear explaining exactly what this means and the tradition of thinking behind it. For our current purposes, it is enough to say that worldview theory is a useful tool for analysing social phenomena, such as political ideologies, and their subjectivities. It can be a useful framework for understanding ideological subjectivities within our contemporary pathological social world, where very few socially-aimed investigations are actually value-free. Such a social world is very much one reduced to subjectivism, or prejudiced “worldviews”, and thus in its rampant bias there is an incredible lack of rationality, openness and “critical thinking”.

In the sense that worldview theory helps capture a critique of such prevalent forms of pathological or irrational social practice, it also one of a number of conceptual tools that helps us explain different social phenomena, such as climate change denialism. People who deny climate change are not only badly informed (or misinformed), denial and ignorance are also a product of ideological blindness and subjective hypostatization. In the contemporary social context, it is often that scientific evidence is reduced in the social world to the status of “opinion” which itself is reduced to pure subjectivism, opinion versus opinion, or political persuasion versus political persuasion. This is a very irrational course of social cognition; and, as such, it is a form of cognition that is no longer rational, open, critical enquiring, and grounded on evidenced-based thinking. Worldview theory exposes the subjective operations of such opinions, but as a wider approach and method of explanation, it is an incredibly limited philosophical position.

In general, there are a number of problems with worldview theory, especially when it attempts to establish a foundational philosophical viewpoint that can explain more than what it is equipped to handle. Like building a modern house with only a rock as a hammer, worldview theory can only take one so far. Often, as a social theoretical perspective, it seems to conflate a very limited and particular critique of modern social ideologies and their subjectivities, with a social philosophical analysis that seeks to broach theories of knowledge, anthropology and even philosophy of science. (Thus, even natural science gets reduced to a “worldview”).

For the most part, such an approach ultimately produces variations of philosophical subjectivism and sociological relativism. Indeed, one its many known flaws can be observed in its more contemporary iteration, where each individual is said to have an “ideology”. Therefore no one “ideology” can be said to have a corner on “what’s right”, “the good life”, or “the truth”. In the context of The Gods in Whom They Trusted, I interpret the book’s position in this way, which is perhaps different to saying that different approaches can recognize the same fundamental truth of nature, or, in the social world, that different approaches can recognize the same fundamental truth of core normative values. In this sense, it is a perspective that is also morally relativistic in addition to being sociologically relativistic.

This may seem like a simple realization, but as a viewpoint it actually has profound implications, not least when it comes to how one views science and its relation with society. I’ll save a deeper consideration of this point for a later essay, which may or may not follow. Meanwhile, the main thing to take away here is that, if my reading is correct, even if the author recognizes that it is how core normative values are realized that serves a constant notice for critical and ethical reflection, judgement toward the formation and, ultimately, deformation of those core normative values becomes restricted. If no one approach has a corner on the truth, then judgement is impossible. This is one of the many pitfalls of relativistic sociological thinking.

Allow me to put it more sensitively: the author is absolutely correct to identify that how core normative values form, or are shaped, is one of the most fundamental of questions when it comes to social philosophy. Consider “democracy”, for example. Many of the prevailing forms of capitalistic democracy are actually not all that democratic, if one weighs the actual content of the value of democracy against today’s popular standard. There are many insightful studies about this, and how the mainstream standard of democracy today is positioned quite far from the actual critical normative (enlightenment) value of democracy, conceived primarily as an egalitarian principle.

So the argument in The Gods in Whom They Trusted regarding the critical retrieval of “core values” can be seen as understandable. But if such a project is approached within the frame of worldviews, and, if, impliedly, in the process it relativizes value formation so that no one line of consideration has more authority than the others, then the system of thinking becomes logically inconsistent. To critically retrieve a value and to therefore apply a critique – e.g., that the contemporary notion of democracy is a hollowed-out version – this implies a critical judgement, and to apply a judgement means that one eventually has to substantiate that judgement, with evidenced-based thinking, which finally also implies some sense of authority toward what’s “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, “conceptually accurate” and “conceptually deformed”. But in a book that rejects the primacy of reason and science, all of this breaks down. 

If each “worldview” is seen as having no more of a corner to “the truth” than the other, one cannot at the same time concede that one or more worldviews are superior. You cannot have it both ways and maintain logical consistency. Or, let me put it this way: If no one “worldview” has a corner on the truth, then the system of rational thinking breaks down and the result is a regression to irrationality, to the world of mere “opinion” and myth. And this is a problem. “Truth”, itself, becomes a highly contestable concept. Not that “truth” hasn’t already become highly contestable in the contemporary social world, where as a concept it appears to be continually eroded to the point where almost every issue, even scientific case, is reduced to politics.

For me, it is blatantly clear that this philosophical position – i.e., the rejection of the primacy of reason – does not correlate with reality. With very careful and well thought out consideration – that is, with finely nuanced and critical rational enquiry – it is more than possible to make critical rational judgements and to arrive at some evidence-based notion of truth. Truth, of course, not being absolute, because, as we learn in physics, truth is always unfolding and deepening. In any case, it is the continuing existence of the reality of truth, however fleeting or fragile today, that makes it possible to discern which course of judgements are based on prejudice and bias and which are based on the core principles of critical rational enquiry. When judging social movements for example, it is entirely possible to be able to distinguish genuinely emancipatory, egalitarian political movements from their mere semblance. It is entirely possible to recognize reactionary, dominant and deeply pathological movements for what they are, when weighed against their non-universality which, in this case, is the critical normative value of egalitarianism. Likewise, one can easily place a critical judgement toward abstract spiritual belief in the stars when weighed against the fundamental truths of astronomy. Truth, as a concept, may step on a lot of people’s toes; but simply because it doesn’t comply with one’s “worldview”, does not in any way subtract from the authority of reason and rationality in arriving to a truth.

What all of this comes down to is the relation between science – and the enlightenment project as a whole – and society. The rational, scientific and enlightenment view is that individuals can take responsibility for their lives, “without”, writes Stephen E. Bronner, “reference to God or some other all-knowing authority”. It is the idea, the hope for humanity, that social rationality is possible. It is the idea, very similar to De Graaff’s thesis regarding an “alternative worldview” (albeit formulated differently), that given the right emancipatory conditions, the individual subject can flourish in a way that fosters open, critical and rational subjectivity. We could even call this the scientific “mindset”, in taking from Steven Pinker. It is a transformative, scientific, evidence-based and philosophically rich social vision, accorded to the universal assumptions underpinning the enlightenment project and the democratic and egalitarian ideals that must be constantly defended today, not only from their direct assault by also from their counterfeited versions, usually often promoted for the benefit of an elite few.

Social rationality is also developmental to some degree. This might sound obvious to some readers, but I’m not sure how obvious it actually is in mainstream sociology. The idea that social rationality is developmental is backed by a vast range of scientific and empirical research. One particularly illuminating example in recent time is the scientific study that found that poverty can impact the development of one’s brain, something I discussed in my own book on pathology. But one could cite numerous references and examples. Likewise, on the basis of such evidence, one could easily speculate that in an irrational social world that exists under a largely indifferent economy, in which the individual is facing the constant threat of economic scarcity (and often having to perform mindless labour) – these constraints will likely never produce a rational social universe. This also has implications for the relation between science and society, and to what degree science and evidence-based rationality is realized in our contemporary social-historical, cultural context.

What is required is not less science and less reason in this respect – philosophically the situation is the complete opposite. But this also requires, however paradoxically it may sound, a holistic view of individual development based on healthy subject development: emotionally, psychologically, relationally, in addition to cognitive development and the development of rational thinking and science-based thinking.

To put it more eloquently, perhaps this is a lesson one can glean from social systems theory and also recent developments in relation to the intellectual development known as critical realism. What I appreciate most about The Gods in Whom They Trusted,  is its own emphasis on the notion of integration, particularly in terms of a philosophy of the subject. But this notion also has some value when it comes to considerations regarding a theory of knowledge. Interestingly, this book touches on a theme I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time, and perhaps the way it approaches the principle of integration that represents a primary site of disagreement: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In response to the particular approach in the book currently under review, it is not enough for me when the author posits a “holistic” and “integrative view” if that means the primacy of reason is rejected.

To address these questions in the past I have employed concepts of experiential and analytical coherence as a way to bridge the two sides, but without much success. But maybe there is something to be found within critical realism insofar that, in postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social philosophical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason. These questions were partly what inspired my final efforts in Society and Pathology (2017).

As a whole, it feels as though The Gods in Whom They Trusted struggles to reconcile itself, and truly appreciate the core normative (and universal) enlightenment principles it wants in its own way to treat philosophically. Aside from what I interpret as the book’s relativistic framing, matters seem to get much worse when the chapters unfold and the author engages with a critique of “western reason” and “science”, as discussed in part one. More pointedly, if reason and rationality are often what are valued today as an important source of such vital critical authority, as opposed to, for instance, the dogma of the Church; it seems that the author’s arguments in this book actually move toward the de-legitimatizing of the authority of reason and science. In the sense that science and reason are reduced to equivalents with respect to other forms of “coming to know”, as part of the leveling process that is the result of the author’s particular view of integration, the integrative theory on offer in this book goes a completely different direction than the one alluded above.

Philosophical intervention and a faith-based view

In The Gods in Whom They Trusted, it would seem that the use of worldview theory or a variant thereof is employed to serve the book’s particular theological interventions and theses. This is especially evident in the last third of the book. (It is worth noting that significant portions of The Gods in Whom They Trusted, over one-third, concerns a discussion on religion, faith-based values and faith-based concepts). The key, it would seem, is that for De Graaff all people are motivated by and act from out of “basic convictions”. We read, for example:

In this way it brings all religious or secular faiths, worldviews, visions of life, or ultimate convictions down to earth from the realm of the sacred to everyday life. Basic convictions give expression to what we value most in life as it becomes manifest in the life we live. Just as our sensitivity gives colour, vibrancy and intensity to all our actions and relationships, so too our ultimate beliefs alert us to the depth and meaning we give to our experiences. As ‘meaning-makers’, as self-aware and self-reflective persons, we need an existential frame of reference to live by. Such a vision of life makes us conscious of the direction in which we are going in life and the choices we are making. Our ultimate convictions make for passion and commitment to the things we really believe in. (pp. 490-491)

Religions, as alluded early, are organized views as different forms of basic convictions. Even outside of religion, all people are said to be ultimately driven by, motivated by, or act from out of “ultimate convictions”. What does this have to do with science, its relation with society, and ethics?

Simply put, it appears to me that it is on the basis of the faith-based, worldview theoretical frame which De Graaff develops and relies on, that ultimately nucleates into the idea that the human “coming to know” is, firstly, always an existential undertaking. The process of “coming to know” would seem for the author to be almost deeply emotionally invested all the time, which I take to be generally counter to the scientific ethos. In the natural sciences, it doesn’t matter how emotionally invested you are in a theory, how much of a household name you represent, or how much a theory means personally; if it doesn’t correspond with the experimental and empirical evidence, it must be discarded. Whether the process of “coming to know” is deeply existential or not, it can hardly be equated, at least in the scientific sense, with the deeper investment of “core convictions” and “worldviews”. And so I think this theory of knowledge is one that lends itself far too much to bias and prejudice. 

Secondly, we read that human investigation can never be without prejudice or bias. This assertion then leads toward a line of philosophical formulation that has dramatic implications when it comes to philosophy of science, and a fundamental understanding of the relationship between science and society. That virtually the whole of modern science becomes reduced to, minimized and perceived as entangled with and influenced by what the author describes the underlying paradigm of a certain dominant ideology, highlights precisely one of my main concerns. And it is not just in this book, but it is a view which seems to be emerging in many other places as well.

In other words, scientific studies and even the “doing of science” can be understood as deeply caught up in dominant ideology – a total, distorted “vision of life” or “worldview” described under the umbrella of capitalism. Everything, in essence, becomes the product of or entwined with a worldview. In another way, almost every aspect the human project is reduced to different worldviews. And for this reason, all underlying worldviews with their particular views of “cosmology, anthropology, epistemology and history”, come to represent a very specific philosophical framing of things like the nature of thinking, rational processes and scientific endeavours.

Like many others, including Naomi Klein at the end of This Changes Everything (2014), De Graaff argues toward the need for an “alternative vision of life”. In advancing this conclusion, he begins laying a foundation for what just such an alternative might look like. But we read time and again the development of a project that struggles to truly emerge, as it becomes increasingly embroiled in the limitations of the worldview thesis. Due to the naturalization of worldviews, which I personally consider to be a product of pathological society and more of an expression of a dogmatic and irrational social world than of an ontological characteristic of human beings, the legitimacy of worldviews is universalized. The hallmark of sociologically relativistic thinking, what happens as we work through The Gods in Whom They Trusted is that normative values, which ought afforded their critical and objective space, become conflated with faith-based concepts rooted in a theory of “ultimate convictions” and “basic convictions”. 

To present the argument in another way: the attempt in The Gods in Whom They Trusted to retrieve enlightenment values (as well as other “core values”) and renew their purpose is not controversial. But, because of the worldview thesis employed, these values (and the Enlightenment project as a whole) ultimately lose their critical emancipatory thrust. Emancipatory enlightenment values, the authenticity of their critical normative claims, cannot exist in world absent of the primacy of reason and objectivity. 

The integral unity between experience, knowledge and worldview?

In digesting these points of critique, my concern is deepened when, as one works through more developed parts of the book’s contents, especially the chapters on science and knowledge, one comes to fully realize the implications of the underlying theses. Namely: experience, knowledge (whether experiential or theoretical) and worldview are seen as inseparably inter-connected. There is, according to the author, a perceived integral unity between the three. And the reason for this particular assessment or formulation relates back to what one might describe as a residue of a faith-based, worldview theoretical construct.

Allow me to explain. On the one hand, it is reasonable to suggest that experience, like knowledge, may help shape one’s view of the world. They can often be inter-connected. But one’s current orientation with the phenomenal world should not necessarily shape one’s future experience, nor one’s subjectivity. In fact, this is generally opposite to what is characteristic of a rational person: their previous knowledge and understanding does not necessarily define the subjectivity of “coming to know” in the present. It may help inform, it may help orientate one with that phenomenon, but in no way does this necessarily pertain to the existence of a “worldview”. Pre-judgment is, generally speaking, the marker of irrationality.

One of the serious concerns on this level is that, by holding onto the notion of worldviews in such a way, instead of seeking to move beyond them, even if De Graaff’s alternative “worldview” thesis which seeks to remain “open” and “integrative”, ultimately runs the risk of collapsing in on itself due to its very nature. To put it simply: an open and alternative “worldview” as formulated in the book is still a worldview and it still implies, to whatever degree, some form of hypostatization.  The open, intersubjective, normative worldview can easily become a principle of itself as a secular frame from which to interpret the world. In this sense, however paradoxical, subjectivity must again endure the possibility or reality of severe restriction. A simple way to explain this is in how there’s a fundamental difference in employing one’s experience to help understand or assess a particular phenomenon, situation or theory than have one’s present and future experience framed within, informed by, or prejudged by a worldview, regardless of its ontological status. The problem is in the actual conceptual framework and approach, which just does not resonate with the reality of two distinct forms of human experience, rational and irrational.

The critical and absolutely vital notions of “openness”, “critical thinking”, “open subjectivity”, “intersubjectivity”, or even “phenomenological ethics” are predicated on the efforts of the individual subject to approach reality – objects/phenomena, investigations, or even new theories – in as unbiased, unprejudiced and rational way as possible. A radical and liberated form of subjectivity, just like an emancipated form of knowledge or science, is one that transcends the very drive to construct “worldviews” in the first place. In the sense of pathological society, a worldview is much more of a representation of what Theodor Adorno would describe as objectivity’s false copy, than as a rational approach to the experiential world of phenomena. The very conceptual basis from which the notion of the “worldview” was conceived, owes a great deal to the social world overwhelmed by prejudiced subjectivity and anti-science and anti-reason sentiment. This very critique, this very critical constraint, is what helped inform the Enlightenment philosophes in the first place. As they sought to emancipate human thought from the oppression of the church, from the absurdities of myth, they also sought to develop a radical humanistic social philosophy which spoke of an alternative epistemology, an alternative way of “coming to know”, based on science and reason and truth – or, if you will, as an anti-prejudiced of a view of the world as possible.

One can, today, ground this perspective in a much more concrete and interdisciplinary theory of subjectivity – that is, the open, free-flourishing, and “mediating subject” free of hypostatization and free of the need to guard absolute first-principles, or “core convictions”. This is a form of subjectivity also free from its own “false copy” driven to secure any sort of absolute, dogmatic or faith-based worldview. It is, in my opinion, a form of subjectivity that is synonymous with science and the scientific mindset as well as the values of exploration and discovery aas well as an epistemological openness to the possibilities of “otherwise” closely associated with the process of rational enquiry.

Further the point, there is perhaps a small remnant of truth to be retrieved in the book’s arguments about experiential knowledge.

Human Knowledge and a Progressive Epistemology

I think one way to read The Gods in Whom They Trusted is in how it seeks to protect the value of experiential knowledge and to remind us of its importance – what we might also describe as phenomenological epistemologies. But the point I have been discussing, and will continue to reflect on, is that there is a caveat here; it has to do with the restricted domain of such knowledge. In other words, I see it as only useful in certain situations and research contexts. Think, for instance, of research and practice in psychology or the important studies of the experience of neurological disorders.  One can cite many examples within the domain of social science, where experiential knowledge and explanations provided by individuals, communities or formal research participants offers particularly valuable insight. In the case of psychology, the experience of individuals can contribute to a more total and formal understanding of their own unique difficulties insofar that these perspectives also have to be weighed against scientific, clinical and/or psychological expertise. In this sense one could say that there is a way of honoring a person’s experience and the experiential basis of meaning with regards to their experience, while also informing that individual of its reality and guiding them toward a rational, objective and diagnostic understanding.

What about the value of experiential knowledge within the natural sciences? I think in certain examples of modern scientific practice, one might reflect on how their is a particular knowledge forming process based on experience and experiential, or, better yet, phenomenological observation. I can think of examples in chemistry and in physics and certainly also in biology and in the environmental sciences. In terms of fundamental science, such as physics, consider the history of modern physics and the evolution of our knowledge and understanding about the fundamental truths of nature. Think of the inspiring story of Michael Faraday,  who contributed significantly to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry using at times nothing more than some coils of wire, magnets and a compass – here is an example of the practice of a certain phenomenological epistemology as integrated within a broader scientific and rational epistemology, the value of which refers to its relation to a more comprehensive scientific, logical-mathematical and empirical knowledge. Such a notion of “integration” is something we’ll return to later. Meanwhile, we can say here that there was something experiential about certain aspects of Faraday’s experimental evidence, particularly in relation to his study of magnetic fields. In general, I think we can pull many examples where a phenomenological epistemology (broadly defined) has value, although perhaps not isolated by itself.

Furthermore, if one was fortunate enough to study at a forward-thinking school as a child, one will remember similar experiential-like experiments in addition to textual study.  Whether in the study of pond life or in taking apart an electrical device, as a child I recall a number of instances of experiential effervescence during my earliest scientific introductions. If nothing else, early science education without immediate experiential application loses sight of the fun of scientific discovery and exploration.

The issue in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, however, is that it is divisive and it doesn’t allow for recognition of the already existing presence of  integral model of knowledge in relation to many areas of modern scientific knowledge, perhaps because experiential knowledge or phenomenological epistemology isn’t necessarily given primacy (and rightfully so). Without a doubt there are examples today, where textbook science tends to dominate and experimental and, indeed, experiential science practice becomes absent (and not always for the better), especially in grade schools. Listen to any seasoned and well-established chemistry professor, and you’ll frequently hear a complaint about the increasing rarity of the knowledge and passion that comes from exploring home chemistry – about knowledge of chemistry by experimentation, discovery and experience (in addition to theory and textbook knowledge). Perhaps here De Graaff’s account makes some sense, as the actual social trends can be seen at times, especially in the appropriate contexts, to be moving toward a lack of integration with regards to the experiential. A common justification for such policy is that it is not efficient.

But, in trying to do the author’s arguments some justice, I think it must be pointed out that there is a difference between emphasizing the practical value of experiential knowledge and learning within certain contexts and arguing toward a full-blown experiential theory of epistemology as though it represents a foundational view of knowledge. In furthering my comments, much of what follows can be reduced to a series of educated hypotheses, based on fairly in-depth study and scholarship. My main complaint, in offering a number of particular points of reflection, has to do with how experiential epistemology is not foundational in and of itself. Its usefulness, if one wants to consider an integral model, would seem not to be without the primacy of reason and scientific (and empirical) knowledge. There are thus important questions to be raised in response to the book’s account which positions experiential knowledge against what is perceived as a totalized “distorted” picture of “modern scientific knowledge”. In many ways what we read is an account that seems to give experiential knowledge primacy as a foundational basis for a progressive epistemology.

To add to this, I think what gets lost in the author’s arguments is the differentiation between social science and natural science methodologies and epistemologies. Additionally, I think there needs to be differentiation between an emphasis on experiential experience in the field of lived ethics and interpersonal relations and a wider theory of knowledge. Impliededly, also, I think there needs to differentiation between the value of experiential knowledge and phenomenological epistemology within certain fields of study and the limitations of the former within many others.

In short: as a general rule experiential knowledge in and of itself only allows for limited access into reality. Experiential knowledge also has to be differentiated from phenomenological epistemology and methodology. Moreover, I am in no way devaluing the importance and usefulness of phenomenological epistemology and methodological approaches, nor am I necessarily dismissing experiential knowledge completely. Phenomenological epistemology is useful in many research contexts, including also in the field of ethics. Indeed, as I have discussed and will also touch on later, phenomenological methodologies are also even important in the natural sciences, including physics. But there is a difference between phenomenological methodologies, which, formally, can be very systematic and certainly also useful in the course of rational assessment or investigation, and experiential knowledge. The latter can be useful, particularly in certain contexts within the social sciences and the humanities. The knowledge generated from people’s experiences can be extremely insightful, and is often cited in relation to social justice issues. More than that one can think, for instance, of psychiatry and psychotherapy, as well as of studies in relation to mental health or disabilities as noted above). There are also many forms of natural science that are incredibly experiential or that at least require significant phenomenological sensitivity. One could even argue that reason and rationality are also necessarily phenomenologically attuned, to whatever degree, and that rational investigation can often find important insight in experiential reports.

What I am railing against here is the idea of a theory of experiential knowledge as being  seen as foundational – that an experiential epistemology is in and of itself the basis for a foundational view of knowledge. When left to its own devices, a purely experiential theory of knowledge is much more inclined toward the universe of folk epistemology as opposed to an evolved enlightenment rational epistemology and therefore also the development of a complex knowledge.

If one were to truly take an integral approach to the study of complex knowledge, with a mind toward a progressive view of epistemology, the experiential would be seen as nothing more than auxiliary in its capacity.  This again is not to say that the experiential is completely inadequate, as it can serve as an important basis within certain research contexts. Philosophically, much in the same sense as phenomenological approaches, an experiential view of knowledge can serve as an important reminder about the sensitivity of our relationship with the stuff of our experience and the valuable insights that can be gained on this level, including when it comes to issues that arise from a priori knowledge and ethics. And oftentimes, especially in the social sciences, this insight  can become forgotten. But an experiential theory cannot be without its own integration within a much broader, complex and evolved understanding of knowledge. From an epistemological level, this really is one of the greatest lessons of the enlightenment, and certainly one of the most revolutionary lessons of the modern scientific endeavor, which serves as the basis for the progressive advance of human knowledge and understanding.

On this point of consideration, I think De Graaff’s use of the notion “integration” anticipates something important; but as the reader may begin to acknowledge, my own use of this notion is very different. In measuring the slope of a line, the leading approach is a logical-mathematical one; but our logical-mathematical knowledge here is – or should be – also in constant interaction with our rational knowledge of the slope and its properties, and even an experiential or physical knowledge of the object or slope. I attempted to describe this study of epistemology by employing a concept of “experiential coherence”.  I think there is a lot to be developed in this idea of “experiential coherence” or holistic knowledge, as it is inspired by systems thinking in that it works toward the idea of the complex and the integral – and what I would call rational knowledge – that recognizes the multifariousness of objective reality and its intricate systems of relations. In truth, one could call it cognitive coherence, intermodal coherence, the coherence of epistemic integration and synthesis – it doesn’t really matter. The basic idea is that a complex, evolved enlightenment (rational) epistemology contributes to understanding the complexity of phenomena in their many-sidedness and multifariousness as well as the complexity and multifariousness of systems and their interrelations. It represents the idea of interdisciplinary knowledge on a micro and macro level (individual and collective).

Consider, for instance, the study of human experience. The reality of human relations and experience is much more than purely cognitive or linguistic, it also emotional, biochemical, and so on. It is multidimensional and its multidimensionality attests to the countless disciplines and fields of study concerned with human experience and social relations.  The same can be said of almost anything. From geological processes to the study of the diversity of frogs in the Amazon Rainforest.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking physics or biology, I think one of the lessons of modern epistemology that ultimately strengthens a progressive and even deeper notion of enlightenment reason and the project of human rationality is that phenomena and objects of study possess a multidimensional, integral and  perhaps even intermodal complexity. The more we study them, the more we are able to gain access to their fundamental and objective reality, the more they reveal. Is there an end to this process knowledge forming? It’s likely that, in the present moment of history and considering the current status of theory, there is no immediate answer. And so, in the spirit of the enlightenment philosophes, progress, knowledge – the scientific endeavour – is open and unfolding.

This view both of the subject (as I’ll touch on later) and of epistemology can support a much more reconciled awareness when it comes to how we relate with each other, ourselves and the world of things. In the example of psychology, we know that human beings are not purely atomistic – though this is a dimension of human reality. Human action and behaviour is also driven by emotion, cognition, biophysical need, and so on. Or in the case of the study of particle physics, the logical-mathematical in addition to other forms of tangible abstraction is required. In both cases the limits of the experiential is surpassed. It’s just a matter of having good sense of reality and the world. It’s a matter of good epistemology. Sometimes it’s proper to exercise a logical-mathematical form of knowledge, and in the background of one’s awareness understand that object or phenomenon in its integrality.  In other cases, such as in the social sciences where quantification is not always, in itself, the single most appropriate methodological approach, this calls for an even more immediate integration of knowledge and understanding.

For me, this is what a much more nuanced approach to a theory of knowledge would signal.

Having said that: The deeper, fundamental issue that this book fails to address is the inadequacy of the experiential theory’s ability to account for meaningful concepts and theoretical language, discerned from baseless and wild speculation whose meaning cannot or is not given by direct experience. A theory of experiential knowledge as the principia of a foundational view of epistemology does not account for how scientific theoretical frameworks and models, different from philosophical or social, at first unregulated by experience, have proven vital for eventual future empirical explanation. In this book we read an underlying inclination to treat anything outside of the realm of experiential experience as “cognitive abstraction”. Additionally, in presenting its case, The Gods in Whom They Trusted seems to confuse systemic rationale – that is, the logic and rationale of  particular social systems, such as capitalism, with the values of logical and rational knowledge. In other parts of the social sciences, we learn of a system’s rationale as sometimes describes as a “abstract reason” or “instrumental reason” – what I have already described as reason tied to an ends. Without repeating what has already been said, I find it concerning in this book that there is no adequate differentiation. Not even basic forms of tangible abstraction are recognized, which raises so many problems ranging from cognitive science to linguistics and beyond. One could, again, think of infinite examples of how and why such a case and view of epistemology is limited. One could pull examples from archaeology, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and so on. Basic methodological approaches and forms of knowledge we now largely take for granted, like the study of the half life of Carbon-14, or the crowning glory of the Standard Model of particle physics, or the best current theories which explain how and why the universe operates at a fundamental level, extend well beyond an experiential epistemological frame. Our understanding of the sub-atomic world, of why protons and neutrons are built from quarks – that everyday matter is made from atoms, and that atoms have a nuclear core. The basic reality that mass and energy are interchangeable, and the possibility that if we could one day tap into and extract the energy of particles, humanity’s energy crisis would be forever solved. One could go on and on. The point to take away, I think, is that modern science and its methodologies – its epistemological basis – should not be taken for granted or subsumed by social-political philosophical critique, whose range has more to do with political economy than the intrinsic status of science.

It is the task of genuine scientific practice and method to dispel, exclude, or safegaurd against a regress to myth and irrationality characterized by occult forces and things for which no empirical evidence can be provided. In the special or fundamental sciences, theory in absence of empirical evidence is or should be treated in a very particular way, according to criteria that either allows for recognition of the lucidity of the logical structure of a theoretical proposal in relation to some basis of data and the greater totality of current theory and hypothesis, or disregards it as baseless speculation. One criteria is the respective theory’s predicative power. But ultimately, any theory should be discredited, no matter how popular or established, if the empirical evidence doesn’t eventually support it.  Some theories exist for decades until the data catches up and/or our technical capabilities allow for the necessary experiments. Experiential knowledge and its accompanying epistemology offers no basis for such a nuanced defense.

To approach the matter differently: De Graaff’s return to the idea that concepts and theories are given meaning by experiential experience is enticing and certainly has proven attractive for many others (since such a position already has a deep history). But there are particular statements made in his book which, in many ways, seem to suggest a position very close to the relativism synonymous with the deeply problematic theses laid out by Thomas Kuhn. Maybe I am wrong, but there would seem to be a underlining subjectivism to the philosophy of experience offered, in which any notion of objective knowledge appears discredited in The Gods in Whom They Trusted insofar that reason and rationality are de-authoratized. If many very basic truths of reality can neither be confirmed nor dis-confirmed by experience, then what does this say of knowledge and the need to defend against the irrational human tendency toward the occult? When you break down its logic, the experiential thesis toward a foundational epistemology has no answer, it cannot differentiate between the knowledge, for instance, that all internal angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees and the claims toward reality by pseudo-scientific, abstract spiritualism, such as that found in astrology. Epistemologically speaking, its holism is another form of relativism, since, as I discussed in essay one, no approach or investigative means has a corner on the truth. This is an unfortunate turn, in which fundamental notions of truth and notions of contingent truths, as well as rational and scientific values, come to surrender to the sociology of “worldviews”, in which irrationality, myth and post-factualism prevail.

Meanings are more than purely sensory experience, although experiential experience is certainly one dimension. But the experiential thesis cannot make sense of theoretical science. At least to this reader, as I have already alluded, there would seem no room for basic concrete epistemic values such as practice of tangible abstraction  in the context of the epistemology of good science and its unfolding objective knowledge within distinct structure and systems of rationality.Along what lines might one, for instance, discern the difference between rational intuition and the so-called intuition associated with the belief in some dreamed up god? What about the now virtually indispensable entities of cellular nuclei, molecules, and atoms, in which an experiential epistemology would not have the means or tools to postulate or predicate? The ultimate and eventual disregard of the experiential thesis for genuine theoretical language, which can be distinguished and discerned from the sort of careless, irresponsible and reckless “speculation for speculation sake” that appears to be a popular trend across all disciplines and fields, is problematic.

Unfolding Knowledge

One of the positive insights, and perhaps best qualities of the epistemology laid out by De Graaff, is the manner in which he describes knowledge and unintentionally also affirms the scientific understanding of the larger process of generating objective knowledge, as unfolding in the context of the relation of human study and investigation as phenomena unfold and thus reveal more of themselves. It fosters an understanding of rational and reconciled subjectivity as one that is open, constantly mediating, discovering and learning, as opposed to the dogmatic, ideological, irrational and violent epistemologies and subjectivities that comprise of so much of our modern social reality. Better phrased: phenomena reveal the more we know. I would suggest that on the basis of all the evidence at hand, and in light of the core debates in epistemology, this is a very progressive, justifiable and currently verifiable position. How De Graaff formulates this thesis and introduces a number of distinctly ethical-epistemological arguments is thought-provoking, and lends to what I would personally describe as an incredibly rational philosophy of history with respect to understanding scientific knowledge and the development of objective knowledge over time (I am of course inserting my own terms here). Unfortunately, what’s missing in this book is recognition of these points – that upon its critical retrieval, the position being carved out by De Graaff becomes much more akin to the scientific ethic than the author may care to realize, which is predicated on openness to new data and to the constantly revealing nature of phenomena. But I’ll save further reflection on the scientific ethic for another time.

Evolved Epistemology

In short: An entire substantial, widely referenced and researched paper should and must be written on these issues and their complexities. But it is at least interesting to speculate here that, from my observations, an evolved epistemology would be one grounded in successful science and not in philosophy. One could speculate that, in building from realism and others, a foundational epistemology, not to mention philosophy of science, would take the form of something much more advanced than what progressive positions in philosophy of science currently has to offer. Repairing the damage done by Kuhn and postmodernism, retaining the value of objective knowledge and the value of scientific pursuit, perhaps it would build from the critical interventions of naturalism? In any case, and perhaps similar to Quine, I think it would be safe to speculate that a reconciled and progressive epistemology would emerge from within the sciences and would be applied on the basis of the normative foundations of reason, which could take interdisciplinary insight from contemporary studies in cognitive science, developmental psychology, among others.

In any case, and back to the book at hand: One can, perhaps, glean from experience some insight into natural laws for example. In this case, think of early astronomy or pre-modern science. We see that, through experiential observation, one could intuit a direction, but ultimately the understanding was fuzzy, unrefined and without precise accuracy. One could pull countless examples from the entire history of human thought. Think, for instance, of Aristotle who viewed the earth as being at the centre of the universe. The Aristotlean view was one that saw space filled with imaginary grid, and thus things could be measured with earth understood to be positioned at the centre of this grid. Today, we understand this view as being wrong. But not necessarily because it is obvious purely by way of experience. If it was, then this view would have been proven wrong a lot sooner than it was. Or what about a more pertinent example from modern physics, which challenges the linear view of time. An experiential knowledge could not, in and of itself, gain access into this fundamental truth of reality. Another example has to do with linear and logarithmic scales. One of the fascinating philosophical truths pertaining to human perception when it comes to the logarithmic scale, is that human beings tend to perceive many things in a logarithmic way. One could say, perhaps, that there is an experiential element here in terms of an experiential knowledge of reality; but this knowledge is really only deepened when we begin to advance our logical-mathematic knowledge of nature. Or think, for example, of purely unrefined physical experience: that hardwood table in front of you, the cup that holds your tea, the window through which sunlight is brightening the room. On a purely physical and experiential level of experience, we see that wood desk as sold and hard, but on the subatomic scale of reality, on the level of particle physics, we know that space is actually quite empty and the truth of that solid wood desk is very different than as it may be commonly perceived “in experience”.

One could (and indeed many have) write a book about all the countless examples. But the main question here is, where does this thinking leave us? In many respects, it seems easy to take for granted the significant achievements of modern enlightenment reason and of the modern scientific endeavour. That includes the exponentiation of knowledge.

The simple truth is that the history of modern science has shown time and again that our everyday experience proves to be a poor guide when it comes to understanding nature and the profound phenomena that operate on a deeper level. There is no comparison between the advance of scientific knowledge and the more simple world of everyday experiential experience and experiential epistemology, the latter of which remain susceptible to myth and irrationality (irregardless of how well-intentioned such myth may be). Expanding the lessons and insights of fundamental physics toward the realm of philosophy, or, in the particular domain of social philosophy, what one must come to grips with is the radical revision of human knowledge, epistemology and the basic fact that many fundamental truths of nature are often counter-intuitive. As two physicists, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw recently put it, “it is not wise to extrapolate experience beyond its realm”. This simplest of truths may not fit with one’s social, moral, ethical, political or economic “worldview”, but that is more of a problem for that worldview than for the scientific perspective. Perhaps, in the end, this is one of the practical lessons of the remarkable and still very young history of modern physics, not to mention modern science as a whole. As referenced in a past essay, it constantly challenges the prejudices and, deeper yet, epistemologies that constitute so much of the everyday social world.

Additionally, I think it is fair to suggest or to speculate that there are ethical implications when it comes to a theory of experiential knowledge in the sense that such a theory may be given primacy within the field of ethics. The idea of a phenomenological (lived) ethics is an intriguing and would certainly seem important when it comes to everyday relations – an idea I would personally account or associate with the scientific mindset, as it implies a sensitivity to phenomena and to the considerable study of daily experience. But nowhere in the book do I also read an account of how experiential epistemology, limited as it is, can also be counter to or function in denial of rational evidence-based thought and scientific fact. Restricted in terms of analytical capacity, I cannot see how an experiential theory of knowledge can realize the full weight of an ethical theory, which depends on a social-systemic analysis, let alone a deeper scientific understanding of phenomena (social, natural or otherwise). Think of the typical climate change denier: “Global warming isn’t happening, it’s too bloody cold outside!” This is an expression of a simplified knowledge based purely on lived experience. Needless to say, scientifically speaking we know global warming is happening contrary to the experiential evidence conveyed by some in their particular contextual environments or geographical locations. Further to the point, what I am challenging here is the legitimacy of a knowledge based on the premise of something being “self-evident”, as opposed to being evidenced-based. What most people mean when they describe something as “self-evident” is actually untested assumption. It is more an expression of “worldview” than of evidenced-based and scientific approach. It turns out that reality isn’t always self-evident. From neuormyths in education to various assertions I’ve recently read in relation to alternative agriculture, such as biodynamic farming methods.

While examples of groups and their “contextual” and “experiential” knowledge are celebrated and held-up as ideal-types in this book, the author also neglects the history of movements, political or religious or mythic, which also displayed such forms of knowledge and lived in an incredibly violent and delusion world in which one’s deeper understanding of reality was incredibly far from reality and the truth. Nature religions being one of multiple examples.

Perhaps the deeper point here is how, in our present historical context, looking back through the history of the human endeavour thus far, it is clear that a progressive epistemology is ultimately one that seeks to power knowledge beyond direct experience. Religion, myth, which run counter to a progressive (enlightenment) epistemology, is in no way sufficient. If, as I wrote in the past, there is a tendency for human beings to regress to myth, for reason or rationality to be abandoned and thus result in a regress to irrationality, the lesson of human history with regards to human knowledge becomes very simple: a progressive epistemology is one powered by science. The enlightenment philosophes knew this, and centuries later the struggle between the enlightenment project and counter-enlightenment continues. The epistemological lesson is that one cannot dismiss or believe something simply on the basis of “experience”, which can represent anything from a more accurate and systematic empirical engagement to a delusional religious episode. There are constraints.

Reladtedly, there is certainly a deeply ethical philosophy associated with the core humanistic values of the enlightenment tradition. And perhaps, in considering The Gods in Whom They Trusted, this is one of the valuable contributions this book makes, as it contributes to the sharpening of the ethical criterion within which the modern enlightenment project and the maturation of its epistemology might unfold, which includes a particular experiential sensitivity. In other words, there is no denying that an experiential sensitivity is not important. The book raises a lot of interesting points within this context, such as the concept of a phenomenological ethics, which, as I have already said in a previous essay, fits very much within a progressive philosophy of the subject and also what I would posit as the scientific approach to the world. However, the framing of the arguments within the work is what I consider to be problematic.

Philosophy of the Subject

To conclude, I offer one last point of reflection.

One of the obvious concerns raised in my engagement is how worldviews, even if they start by trying to remain “open”, usually often fall back into a closed-system or totalized view or theory, due to the very definition of a worldview as “a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world”. In other words, a worldview whether reconciled or not serves as the basis from which one interprets the world. On the basis of this, how the book resonates for me is defined by its struggle to do justice to both the notions of rational and critical thought – even as this has to do with the notions of subjectivity and development – and also, for all intents and purposes, the primacy of the unique and special domain of scientific practice and thinking.

There is little room for recognition, for instance, of the scientific method and conscious efforts to remove underlying presuppositions and prejudices from one’s investigations. Are there examples of “bad science” or “bad scientific practice” that can be said to be biased or prejudiced? Yes, and perhaps it will be useful to discuss some of the examples in the future. Does every scientist successfully and objectively practice the scientific method? No. But from the point of view of critical normative philosophy, the notion of objectivity like “truth” is incredibly important to preserve. 

In seeing the presence of “faith” as a necessary and almost unavoidable dimension of human experience, which seems to tie into the idea of the integral unity between experience, knowledge and worldview, this forces the author in my opinion to do too much justice to the existence of faith-based constructs in human history. Thus, all investigations are underlined by a viewpoint in virtually the same way that all faith-based systems approach the world through the lens of their abstract and dogmatic “worldview”.

Naomi Klein, in her latest and extremely popular book, This Changes Everything, reflects particularly in the last chapter that we need a new worldview, a new vision, a radical new way of living and a new set of values (see pp. 460 and ff.). She doesn’t goes so far to elaborate on what is involved in such a transformation of worldview, if we consider that capitalism is the worldview that requires fundamental transformation. De Graaff’s book certainly makes a valuable contribution in exploring the nature of worldviews and offering a phenomenological criteria for evaluating different worldviews.  In this way, the book is illuminating. But what if what is required is a critique of worldviews that actually seeks to overcome the problematic subjectivity and epistemology of worldviews?

By clinging to the notion of the need for a “worldview”, The Gods in Whom They Trusted lingers in the residues of faith-based subjectivities, and thus cannot quite progress to its fullest in terms of its aim in the pursuit of a reconciled and alternative approach to the world, which would be a lot closer to the enlightenment project than perhaps the author may realize.

When it comes to the practice of science, the authoritative status of scientific knowledge, and even providing appropriate space for scientific knowledge as being one of the only remaining rational domains in contemporary society – it all risks being undermined to the extent that objectivity, objective knowledge, “western reason”, and “science” are no longer permitted their unique place in contemporary life.

Indeed, and to return to the author’s assumption that critical value-free investigation is not possible; it is not outrages to speculate that the individual subject is always mediated by his or her sociohistorical-cultural circumstance. This is to say that the individual is always the stuff of their sociohistorical-cultural circumstance, to whatever degree depending on the extent of internalization. As we develop and age, we also bring with us our experience, our neurosis and orientations – that is, our personal histories. As individual agents we bring with us the stuff of subjectivity. On this point, it is a fairly practical step to draw on the assumption that the individual is therefore never value-free. But understanding this facet of human reality should not suggest an absence of an internal freedom and ability to take an objective perspective, especially in relation to the ability to perform critical rational enquiry, which is what help makes the scientific method possible.

One of the many incredible things about human beings, and even about consciousness in general, is our ability as efficacious agent to also overcome our neurosis and to transcend as much as possible our bias and prejudice, to therefore approach the world openly, affect or transform existing sociohistorical-cultural structures, and thus do so attentively. This is one of the many practical things that also gives science its power. The capability as human beings to transcend or overcome our own prejudices may not always be apparent within the vast majority of the irrational social world, but that does not mean it is not possible. It’s not always easy, sure. In fact, it can be quite difficult for a lot of people, and this experience of difficulty is why many scientists train for many years to learn how to achieve as value-free of an analysis that is humanly conceivable.

To the extent that how we distinguish – in terms of general cognition, what we choose to distinguish and not distinguish when organizing our scientific research – one could argue that there is space here for bias or prejudice to invade the scientific process. That is, there is space for social pathology, for dominant ideology, such as capitalistic motivation, to distort the scientific process. But it also goes without saying that, while possible, especially in industrial contexts, this does not necessarily universally apply to the scientific method or to scientific practice and knowledge. The individual scientist may not always be successful but, in reverse, the scientific method is also often very successful. And while science must constantly defend itself and normatively reflect on safeguards against the influence of cognitive bias, the point is that science also works. The success of the modern scientific endeavour speaks for itself. The assumption that there is no value-free investigation is approached from the wrong angle; it is framed in the wrong way. The reality is much more nuanced – that while philosophically and perhaps even within the field of cognitive science one could posit that investigation is technically never absolutely free of subjectivity, we can nevertheless work hard to ensure our investigations are as autonomous, critical, open, non-partisan and free of “conviction” or prejudice as possible.

Indeed, even if one concedes that, prior to the actual practice of science, social bias and prejudice could more deeply pervade the distinguishing process in terms of organizing what scientific research to pursue, this still does not mean that scientific practice is prevailingly entangled in a dominant ideology, as we read in parts of The Gods in Whom They Trusted. The most obvious example of when it is, or might be, is within the context of industrial science, which characterizes the majority of the examples that the author provides. But because the worldview thesis, along with its position on value-free investigation, approaches the issues in such a problematic way, what ends up happening is that the book evolves into a critique of “western science” as being “distorted” as a result of underlying paradigms linked with dominant ideology for over 250 years.

In this sense, the general view is almost to the extreme that every instance of a scientist choosing what to research or not to research is persuaded by prejudice and existing economic ideologies.

Individuals choose what to research for many reasons. Is there room for a critique here in certain specific contexts? Yes. But even in the case of industrial science, concerns about which have already been critiqued by many others, not every scientist working in industrial situations necessarily reproduces a destructive ideological worldview. Think of renewable industries, for example. I suppose the main point is that we’re dealing with specific contexts pertaining to the social and economic use of science. Industrial science is very different than scientific activity in other contexts, which is to say there needs to be differentiation. Further to this point, it must also be recognized that many corporations that rely on industrial science, are also shifting more and more to an ethical consideration of the sort of science they are funding. This shift is largely due to consumer pressure. But even young scientists training to go into industrial science or engineering with obvious heavy industrial application, part of university training now also deals with ethics and with fostering ethical awareness.

In closing, as opposed to the social world, in which political assessments for example are often openly prejudiced and biased, and in which De Graaff’s worldview thesis is more fitting, the pursuit of the natural sciences is more befitting of the alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology that he ultimately seeks to argue toward. Avoiding the pitfalls of worldviews and striving toward a clearer and more objective approach to knowledge, experience and how we relate with the phenomenal world: the natural sciences already offer a better early developmental model and, in many ways, anticipate what I like to think of as the general characteristics of a mature (enlightenment) epistemology. It is for this reason among many others, that modern science also possesses such an emancipatory and transformative appeal, beginning with the enlightenment and the primacy of reason.

Philosophy and General Reading

Review: “The Gods in Whom They Trusted” – On Science, Knowledge and Ethics (Part 1)

R.C. Smith


I recently read through and had time to consider Arnold De Graaff’s The Gods in Whom They Trusted: The Disintegrative Effects of Capitalism – A Foundation for Transitioning to a New Social World (2016). This book in particular is one, I think, that can best described as being part of the broader core humanistic tradition, but with several caveats especially when it comes to its relation to the Enlightenment and its views in the area of philosophy of science and reason.

As a whole, The Gods in Whom They Trusted is a detailed philosophical work which may be considered as being situated alongside other popular critical works, such as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, The Weather Maker’s by Tim Flannery, Eaarth by Bill McKibben, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon, among many many others. Its relationship and position within the domain of social philosophy is complex. The book aims and aspires toward the progressive and transformative end of the social philosophical spectrum. When it comes to core Enlightenment and humanistic values – social values fundamental to a progressive vision of the human endeavour – unlike the first sphere of philosophical critique associated with anti-modernism and anti-enlightenment movements, The Gods in Whom They Trusted does not necessarily reject or discard these normative principles, although its relationship with them seems problematic. On the one hand, it would seem fair to suggest that De Graaff’s overall project aims to ground vital critical normative values in a phenomenological and, therefore, too, lived historical framework. On the other hand, in developing his thesis and arriving to what he considers an “alternative theory of knowledge”, I read this book as a rejection of the primacy of reason and science. In moments it comes close to the anti-modernist domain of critique, as well as to the postructural view of science in relation to society, including what appears to be a social relativist model of “core” humanistic values.

To put it another way, I feel as though the book struggles to do justice to the values of reason and science, if not the enlightenment-humanist project as a whole. “Egalitarianism”, “democracy”, (social and environmental) “equality” to name a few – these enlightenment and core humanistic principles are more or less preserved. Coupled with a philosophical effort to formulate a progressive and transformative social vision, these basic values appear to be central in much of the author’s thesis. But other values, perhaps some of the most important in “reason”, “science” and “progress”, they become entangled in a critique of modern social, political and economic systems. Reason and science are pulled into a sinister holy trinity of principles intrinsic to contemporary “dominant” ideology associated with environmental destruction, colonialism and oppression.

Admittedly, I find the use of the terms “reason” and “science” a bit confusing. In parts of the book what is meant by “reason” or “science” seems to be what some call “rationalism” and “scientism”, the definition of which often seems unclear and convoluted. Similar to my engagement with the Gray-Pinker debate, what is meant by scientism often seems to lack coherence.
In this book in particular, what distinguishes “science” from scientism” is not always clear, and there are numerous moments when the language suggests that there is no real differentiation. This is a point I might reserve for a separate essay. Meanwhile, and to speak succinctly, The Gods in Whom They Trusted seems to be most concerned with a critique of epistemology, where “western reason” and “science” seem to become increasingly conflated with a broad stroke critique of what others might call a violent epistemology. The latter is often associated with the systems logic of modern political-economy.

I am open to being wrong, but on my reading it is difficult to nail down a comprehensive definition of terms. There are many, many moments when, in Chapter 7 for example, rather than focusing on the instrumental use or exploitation of science, the critique often becomes aimed at science as a whole.

In thinking about this book as well as others, what follows is an admittedly informal essay. It will serve as a site of reflection at the intersection of science, knowledge and ethics. By the end, I hope to have successfully unpacked my main complaints.

A brief summary of the book

In the science-driven research of systems theory, we learn how a number of key crises confronting human civilization are defined as global, industrial, and capitalist in nature. Research by Nafeez Ahmed is one that stands out, where in his widely acclaimed book A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), we learn about the systemic interconnections between a number of global crises: from water scarcity and food insecurity to climate change; potential energy crisis; food insecurity; economic instability; forced migration; international terrorism; mass surveillance and increasing militarization.

Deepening this idea, The Gods in Whom They Trusted by Arnold De Graaff furthers the study of these many social-systemic issues. Published in 2016, the book is “based on extensive multi-disciplinary research, scientific reports, journal articles, documentaries, case studies, and first-hand accounts by many peoples”, focusing primarily on three closely related themes: ecology, economics and ethics. Though it is not concerned with a systems approach, it does take “the on-going violation of nature’s and society’s thresholds” as a main inspiration.

From the degradation of land, water, air, oceans to climate change and the creation of untold human suffering, social injustice, corruption, violence, inequality, dispossession, enslavement, as well as millions of climate, food, water, and war refugees – one will find very few books as broad and more thorough in the treatment of details. The first third or so of this 911 page publication really stands out in this regard.

Additionally, the work’s authoritative tone is marked by the quantity of high-grade references. On each issue, De Graaff is careful to ensure a comprehensive interdisciplinary account, combing entire lists of empirical studies and scientific reports. It is here where his academic strengths really shine. Anyone interested in evidence-based critique of the many broad issues we face moving into the 21st century, scientifically informed policy as well as broader philosophical reflection on relevant policy challenges, this is certainly one of a selection of recent publications worth reading.

The second and third parts of the book are more philosophical, providing a framework to help explain the critical realities observed in the first 400 or so pages. The idea, which is indicated in the title, is to introduce a philosophical foundation to understand the crisis of modern society and how we might go about its progressive transformation. There is a lot to unpack here, from social and economic critique to a critique of science, theory of knowledge and even in the final third a list of radical theological theses.

Epistemology is key

One of the key arguments that stands out in The Gods in Whom They Trusted is how, as a result of the logic of the system of capital, a peculiar sort of epistemology has become prevalent. This realization leads the author toward a critique of science, which, after a lengthy study of modern political economy and how science and technology are perceived to relate to neoliberal capitalism, heads toward the direction of a critique of modern knowledge. In other words, a certain dominant and violent epistemology is linked with what the author describes as economic reductionism, the meaning of which refers to the literal cognitive reductionism of phenomena to their purely economic dimension. An example of this can be found in industrial farming, where cattle are not always seen as animals with agency, alive and responsive to their conditions. Rather, they become a purely economic means and, as studies of industrial slaughterhouses disclose, this trend with regards to the human relationship with nature can produce troubling results.

These threads of analysis ultimately lead to the maturation of the author’s critique of science and reason in relation to political economy. In attempting to introduce a number of critical interventions within the domain of social philosophy, including in the area of epistemology, it soon becomes clear that the book is set on a philosophical crash course with the modern values of reason and science. Highlighted in its engagement with a critique of epistemology and an “alternative theory of knowledge”, this book also includes an alternative theory of anthropology and cosmology – or, if you will, an alternative philosophy of human relations. It seems to me that a main inspiration behind the author’s arguments, albeit not in so many words, is based on recognition of a very deep history of pathological social relations. These relations also of course spill over into how we, as human beings, relate with natural world. Having said that, and as already alluded, there are a number of reasons why I feel the book struggles to formulate its concerns adequately within the context of philosophy of history and the evolution of modern understanding, not least when it comes to the need for a defence of reason and science. It particular interventions in the area of epistemology are also problematic.

Evolved epistemology

On my reading, The Gods in Whom They Trusted is a book that expresses explicit awareness toward the lack of an evolved epistemology. While it may not express such an awareness in the same terms, it is clear that in its aim to present an alternative epistemology, what the author is responding to is a problem in the perceived status of modern (social) relations and knowledge forming processes. This epistemology can be considered as being associated with what some describe as the “deficit of reason and social rationality”. But for the sake of our present discussion, it’s not really required that we get into the meaning and theory behind such terms, and the extensive empirical and scientific studies as well as philosophical literature substantiating the issue.

Rather, what is important to point out is that this notion of an evolved or mature epistemology concerns the principle roots of a fundamental social theory at the intersections of human subjectivity, knowledge and ethics. It relates to the philosophical and, more concretely, developmental model of open, mediating subjectivity and knowledge. The same sort of developmental model evidenced in a vast range of studies within the field of psychology, and now also increasingly in the cognitive sciences.

Such a form of subjectivity and knowledge is often considered as the opposite of, to put it in psychological terms, repressed subjectivity and thus hypostatized forms of identity and knowledge. This type of repressed knowledge and subjectivity is what we could describe as being “hypostatized” insofar that, as I have explained in other places, it forms the basis of hardened and often dogmatic views of the world, which, to put it in the context of anti-reason, are closed to new insights, observational data and counter-evidence. In an era defined as “post-truth” and characterized by its obvious lack of social rationality, this broad critical philosophy of the subject is most fitting.

In everyday circumstances, we see this sort of hardened and irrational subjectivity and knowledge play out in a number of ways: from the presentation of reality in mainstream media and the tabloid press, to the observable tendency to think in very prejudiced and absolute terms. There are entire bodies of research in media studies and throughout the social sciences about this very trend.

One could say, with good reason, that hypostatized knowledge, linked with repressed subjectivity and social pathological forms of development, is ultimately what lays the foundation for “worldviews”. By this I mean to refer to the sociological trend in relation to the development of worldview theory, which quite simply is the analysis of the formation of how different (often prejudiced) views of the world emerge in relation to closed systems of thought.

And this is a good place to start when it comes to deepening our engagement with The Gods in Whom They Trusted, as well as other books that speak of the need for a new and more positive “worldview” in contradistinction to neoliberal capitalism. I say this because one of the book’s central most theses has to do with worldview theory in relation to faith, core normative values and absolute first-principles.

In short, it seems to this reader that De Graaff seeks to fundamentally break from hypostatized forms of knowledge and subjectivity, on behalf of what he describes as an alternative and open “worldview”. This philosophical positioning fits, as we will see, with the books overall mission to provide an “alternative foundation” across the ranges of epistemology, anthropology and cosmology. But before I really start to unearth my critique, it may be useful to first entertain a critical summary of my reading. From there, I can then begin to logically breakdown the most important points.

A critical summary

Before I begin, allow me to preface what follows by acknowledging how: many indigenous societies have made remarkable scientific achievements, such as described in many historical, anthropological studies and within the field now called “ethno-science”. One could list dozens of examples, such as how aboriginal people in Australia developed complex number systems. A popular example is also found in indigenous botanical knowledge. Today, there is also a growing global indigenous movement known as “indigenous science”. Very different, no doubt, to modern “western” science and scientific methodologies; but it is nevertheless important to recognize that there are things that can be learned from indigenous approaches to the world and, indeed, from indigenous forms of knowledge, not least when it comes to epistemological practice in relation to management of resources.

This sort of recognition is something that The Gods in Whom They Trusted does well, even if this recognition is ultimately positions against “modern western science”. Although it doesn’t offer much in terms of a balanced view, what the book does provide is pages of examples of the practiced benefits of experiential knowledge, often using indigenous known as an example, such as in the practices of the Cree people and their fantastically sensitive understanding of natural cycles. Perhaps I am wrong, and here I can mainly only speak as a science student, but I think many scientists, especially environmental scientists, would recognize the value in indigenous knowledge and experiential forms of knowledge. I say that in effort to disclose that I do not see much or any evidence of an antinomy, as De Graaff suggests (a point to which I’ll return in a moment). Additionally, inasmuch that one might recognize the value of experiential knowledge in certain contexts; it is also important to recognize that experiential knowledge, broadly speaking, is very limited.

The issue I have with accounts such as the one found in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, is that the arguments often lack balance and nuance and subtly, idealizing too much in this case experiential epistemologies on behalf of oddly demonizing accounts of “scientism”, “western science”, and “scientific knowledge”, including rational and logical-mathematical forms of knowledge. Such accounts conveniently ignore the many limitations that also comes with these “alternative” experiential epistemologies, which one could describe as being variants of folk epistemology,  instead only focusing on what the author’s see as the positives. And I think this criticism also applies to De Graaff’s book, although perhaps in a much more magnified way. In a certain sense, one could read The Gods in Whom They Trusted as an attempt to collate and describe an overwhelming picture of social-economic systemic crises and find the roots of such a totality of crises in a certain destructive or negative epistemology. There are certainly some very interesting studies out there which analyze the epistemology of capitalism – that is, the type of knowledge that the logic or rationale of the system of capitalism fosters, which is often described as economically reductionist. These accounts are very close to if not entirely similar to the one presented in The Gods in Whom They Trusted.  The difference, however, is that in the book under review, there is significant theoretical and speculative conflation between the epistemology of what some call “political economy” and what the author identifies and targets as “western science” and “reason”, the latter which seem to become seen a root problem with regards to the unsustainability of western capitalist societies. On the basis of all the evidence and all of the literature, this seems like a rather odd argument. For me, a progressive and critical and nuanced perspective becomes lost. When I read the book in question the author’s philosophical account becomes much too simplistic in that an irreconcilability between modern science and reason and what the author wants to argue are reconciled epistemological approaches to the world. Reason, science, technology and economy all get mashed into one – representative of a violent and dominant epistemology – as the view or account quickly becomes polemic and thus one-sided, ultimately resorting to the dogmatic arena of black and white thought – it’s one or the other, folk epistemology or unsustainable and dominant “worldviews”.

In performing this error, The Gods in Whom They Trusted loses sight of reason, science and progress and their universal appeal as well as critical normativity, not only when it comes to a theory of epistemology but also in the context of a much broader philosophy of history. It also loses site of the ultimate human endeavour in relation to the positive enlightenment appeal. Even though the author rightly recognizes the importance of preserving universal normative values (however contradictory at times), the totality of the book doesn’t position itself in the right way. A critique of the rationale of capitalism and the epistemology it seems to generate, which some describe in the form of “abstract reason” or “instrumental reason”, is oftentimes a junk or pseudo notion of rationality. One could even argue that there’s nothing really rational about it all. Likewise, contemporary capitalist society’s relation with science is nothing short of complex and problematic. “Scientism”, which some describe as the selective, prejudiced economic and ideological appropriation of scientific input, resembles nothing close to “science”, “scientific knowledge” or “western science”. Likewise, scientific methodology and epistemology – the special nature of scientific knowledge – has nothing to do with what many argue as the destructive force and logic of capitalism. Science within popular society is usually  a watered down cartoon absent of actual scientific values and methodological considerations.  Irrational and pathological society is, fundamentally, largely absent of reason and rationality, not to mention scientific sensibility. The appropriation of science – like technology – for the benefit of economic and ideological ends has much more to do with a question of the social world than the scientific one.

There is without a doubt a lot of junk science, and there is little question about how science and scientific methodologies are vulnerable to becoming entwined with dominant social forces and trends. Ethical questions industrial science, its status as “science”, and the status of scientific methodology and knowledge within the industrial arena do not get raised enough. Additionally, so-called military science and the exploitation of scientific knowledge for the benefit of the military-industrial complex are befitting of a critique of what I gather to be what some refer to as “scientism”. Many scientists and philosophers of science will cite the atom bomb as a perfect example that exemplifies that science itself is not absolutely invulnerable to human sin. But these are questions and concerns that, at their roots, pertain to the irrationality of the human social world and the epistemology of what I would personally describe as pathological society.

What we read in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, on the other hand, are dramatic shifts in tone, from the opening pages which are grounded in modern science toward an overwrought polemic assault toward “modern western science” at the heart of global capitalism. The shift occurs much to the same tone as anti-modernism reverts to a total domination thesis or other documents describe indigenous science as set against modern science: “Unlike Western science, the data from indigenous science are not used to control the forces of nature; instead, tell us the ways and the means of accommodating nature”. This sentence, although not extracted from De Graaff’s book, could easily also be an extract from Chapter 7: even if he doesn’t want to abandon the concept of science for his own “alternative” pursuits, modern science seems to be thought to be driven to “control” or “dominate”.

Again, I am open to the possibility that what is characterized as “western science” is not actually “western science”, but a negative caricature in the form of what people sometimes call “scientism”. As I have complained in many other places, I am not always clear as to what this term means, as often it is employed to describe a whole range of issues which do not in any way seem to correlate with reality. The only considerable critique of “scientism” that I am aware of that raises some valid points – valid concerns which I have written about – is the criticism of the exploitation of scientific methodologies and epistemologies within the domain industry, politics and economy. “Scientism”, thus, as I’ve understood it, refers to as social critique of a particular co-optation of the scientific endeavour within the frame of political and economic ideology, as opposed to a critique of “science”.

Having said that, the account of “science” that we often read in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, paradigmatic in its own way, is the idea that “western science” seems to be seen as intrinsically driven to dominate over nature. This is because, on my reading, the book’s critique is generally positioned in relation to a critique of epistemology, which means that it struggles to differentiate between what some argues as the rationale of economic exploitation, based on the exploitation of scientific methods (i.e., scientism), and the actual genuine practice of science.

Expanding on the above, science, however vague and left undefined in the book, is still treated as an important universal value. As the author says, it is a “given”, which separates the book from typical hardened views associated with anti-modernism. But the basic or principle site of confusion, I think, has to do with a conflated form of social critique. Another way to describe this is as an example of theoretical conflation. The book misplaces the social and thus also pathological influence placed on scientific outputs for a critique of the whole modern scientific enterprise. In the case of The Gods in Whom They Trusted, a critique of “rationalism” and “scientism” quickly becomes a critique of “reason” and “western science”. Indeed, we see countless times how these terms become interchangeable. As a result, the author’s principle theses struggles to do justice to what is unique to modern science and reason, because it cannot recognize these terms outside of the “drive to dominate” narrative, or, worse, outside of the relativistic framing of worldview theory (a point saved for later).

In Chapter 7 we read, moreover, about how “science” is more or less irreconcilable with a sustainable way of living. The oddness of this claim is especially so when one considers that the majority of the honest attempts and most voiceful of popular movements – such as in the “sustainability” movement – are being powered by the natural sciences. Even on the level of a critique of epistemology, I see no grounding here.

Additionally, we are told how “the absolutization of science has made science into a basis for ultimate trust” (p. 529). On the level of a critique of political economy, I can possibly see what De Graaff means. But this is some statement, one that is repeated often, which again I don’t think in any way is universal or explained with any deal of nuance. Does neoliberalism like to think it is grounded in science? Many studies of neoliberal ideology tend to highlight this point. Do we often witness among neoliberalism’s advocates a rationale which affirms the statement of “ultimate trust” in a sort of pseudo-scientific social theory? Again, the scholarship on this issue would indicate so. However, the language again is not clear and it can easily be interpreted as all science. There are many, many natural scientists who would completely disagree with any statements of “ultimate trust” or “absolute faith” or even “absolute truth”. In fact, within the natural sciences, I’ve experienced more skepticism toward such claims than not. Scientists often practice the opposite, while also understanding at the same time that scientific knowledge is one of the best, most unbiased and most authoritative forms at humanity’s disposal. I agree. It works very well, but this is far from becoming “absolute faith” as seems to be the claim.

Within Chapter 7 there are also a lot of other similar assertions that are difficult to ground. For example, we read the claim that “science” – again, it is hard to know if the author means natural or social or whatever – would benefit greatly from the phenomenological tradition (p.556). I can certainly see the validity of this claim within the social sciences. But natural science is actually steeped in the phenomenological tradition. Phenomenology is a commonly used epistemology, including and especially in physics. It is one of the first epistemologies many young science students learn (explicitly or implicitly). Even historically in philosophy and in science, phenomenology is often synonymous with the scientific method. In physics, my own personal area of study and interest, has a very deep relationship with phenomenological epistemology.

It is also easy to feel flummoxed by the author’s critique of theoretical knowledge or scientific knowledge, which then jump straights into ideal counter-examples of indigenous knowledge. Again, it feels kind of “distant” or a too third-party referenced form of critique, because to my mind “good science” or “proper science” performs almost an identical operation to the ideal-type presented in The Gods in Whom They Trusted as a basis of “another view of knowing [and] scientific theories” (p.530).

To each “counter-example” read in Chapter 7, one can think of numerous examples of which the characterization of “indigenous knowledge” would match almost word for word with “good practice” in the natural sciences, minus the spiritualism and also the purely experiential or directly physical basis of knowledge. If I am right that the deeper issue De Graaff is seeking to describe is a critique of violent epistemology, with a mind toward a more open, subject-subject, particular sensitive epistemology, then I can see why it might be tempting to draw poles and issue a very black and white analysis. But to do so is not constructive. Consider, for instance, the book’s critique of “positivism”. Nowhere is it acknowledged that positivist epistemology is very useful and effective in terms of scientific methodology. And while it is very popular and common to criticize “positivism” within the social sciences, this is largely in response to “positivist social theory”, which is different in its own way. The main concern here, from what I have gathered, is that positivist approaches aren’t entirely applicable or appropriate within the domain of social research, and thus attempts by what is described as “positivist social theory” to formulate a theory of society is often met with criticism. But positivism itself isn’t inherently a bad thing or destructive epistemology, especially within the domain of the natural sciences. And inasmuch as The Gods in Whom They Trusted argues against the study of “objects”, there appears to be a lot of confusion about the legitimacy of such forms of study in the natural sciences and the problems such methodologies seem to face within the domain of social science.

Further to the point on the issue of conflation, at the start of the chapter we read a sentence that explicitly reflects on how capitalist economies have “enlisted” things like science and technology (p.529). But from there it feels like things fall off the track, because no longer is this “enslavement” of reason and science the issue. It suddenly seems that reason and science themselves as well as their history become a target. Science becomes an “ultimate belief” and reason, like theoretical knowing, gets laid the blame. The difference between reason and science, and their “absolutization” and instrumental exploitation by neoliberalism, fades as the central and most vital concern.

In that the author rightfully senses the need for a critique of epistemology within the social realm, the book in the end struggles to locate the boundaries of said epistemology. Thus the entire history and operation of reason and science are pulled into the acid bath of a negative social universe, like in much of critical social theory, and balance or nuance becomes lost. Modern economy and its rationale is conflated with the drives of reason and science.

Deeper yet, it feels like a critique of scientism becomes filtered vis-à-vis the worldview thesis that reason – or “western rationalism” – and science have become “distorted” as a result of their underlying paradigms linked with “dominant ideology”. A critique of violent epistemology becomes a critique of scientific knowledge – or even a critique of reason as a whole – which doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless the author is trying to argue that scientific knowledge is inherently violent. And if, indeed, this is what he is trying to argue, there is really no valid grounds for such an argument. The development of advanced nuclear weapons is a perfect example. Here technological development, based on concrete science, is outputted in a way that one should be critical of. But such a pathological development is not driven by science, but by the colonial and military-industrial complex whose rationale is often systemically linked to exploitative political economy. To go from this critique, to suddenly issuing a statement that nuclear physics or nuclear science is inherently destructive, would be completely absurd. Inasmuch that a person may feel compelled to think of examples where science is used destructively and therefore list report after report of such instances, I can also think of numerous examples in which scientific activity and knowledge can in no way be described as violent, “reductionist” or whatever else.

On this point, one analogy could be considered in psychology. There are reductionisms or moments when psychology certainly gets caught up in a negative epistemology or in social forces of domination; but it is not that psychology is inherently distorting in itself. The same can be said about technology or any other area of society. It’s no different than a hammer or any other piece of technology or any human concept for that matter. This is because scientific outputs, like technology, is socially mediated. For me, this seems like the most accurate approach to a critique of “scientism”. Even if, in giving the benefit of the doubt, that the many comments on “science” concern “scientism” in the sense of “science in the service of the economy”; the account is still too polemic and way too general. There is no question that the natural sciences can be appropriated or enlisted by an destructive economic regime, but a great deal of nuance is required in undertaking such a critique and in explaining in just what way this appropriation compromises the very process of scientific investigation and practice.

On this note, on p.548 it feels like De Graaff seeks to correct his position a bit, writing that the appeal is for “an integrated view of science that is in the service of all of life and not just the economy”. But only a few pages before he writes, to recall the passage verbatim: “The irony is that the large commercial fisheries with all their scientific data and sophisticated technology are unable to maintain fish stocks at sustainable levels […]. Of course there should not be a dilemma between a scientific-technological approach and experiential-communal one” (p.543). Sentences like this again imply a misplacing of social critique for a critique of scientific-technological approaches. Rather than focusing on the use of scientific-technological approaches, the aim appears more as a critique of said approaches in contradistinction to experiential-communal ones. Second, while there is an important lesson that De Graaff highlights in his study of an experiential-communal approach, particularly with regards to what we might learn from such an approach, it feels like he ignores the many non-capitalist driven science projects that are incredibly sustainable and also evidence the more or less “alternative” view he seeks to argue toward.

For these reasons among others, it begins to make sense why De Graaff favors indigenous knowledge as an ideal positive counter-example. This is actually quite common in a lot of contemporary critical social theory. Even Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything appears to make frequent references to indigenous practice of life, and for De Graaff it is clearly because many indigenous people have preserved another vision and way of life. Ultimately, indigenous societies, such as the Cree people, evidence for De Graaff his threefold unity between experience, knowledge and worldview. In truth, on a systematic philosophical level, relying on examples of indigenous knowledge as a counter-narrative is weak. No doubt there are many things we can learn from indigenous people throughout the world, not least about ecological sustainability as highlighted by De Graaff in his many references to Berkes’ study in Sacred Ecology. On this point, in the latter parts of Chapter 7 as well as in the other chapters that proceed, The Gods in Whom They Trusted contains a great deal of insight into alternative “holistic” process of knowing, “contextual knowledge”, the experiential process of understanding (i.e., experiential knowledge), and ultimately of a more integral “worldview”. Some of the points of discussion are quite insightful and worthy of reflection.

We read a theory of knowledge that is open, wherein as new, progressive and transformative paradigm-shifting values may arise, a philosophical “foundation” is formulated that seeks to support a reconciled form of subjectivity. With every new discovery, with every new observation or account of a phenomenon or object, De Graaff’s philosophical vision seeks to do justice to the changes that appear on the horizon, their call for recognition, and how to ensure that we stay open to the process of “coming to know”. Some of the sentences and particular moments of reflection are breath-taking, and will surely speak to many scientists, academics and individuals throughout the world.

The drive to dominate nature?

In addition to the above considerations, it is interesting to reflect on part of the subtitle of the book: “the disintegrative effects of capitalism”. For me, this signals a more concise scope of critique. It implies, in short, the negative social use of things like science and technology – one could certainly insert the whole of human life, as De Graaff does – in terms of its appropriation for political-economic gain. There are countless critiques in this regard and from within a wider range of scholarship, from farming and agriculture to education, energy, and even international relations.

On the other hand, the roots of contemporary social, economic and environmental crises is a product of the global social, political and economic system. It is not found in a critique of epistemology or knowledge, because violent epistemology is a product or social symptom – one could say, pathology – of the general coordinates of the social world. Within this social world, science like many other things, often struggle to maintain autonomy. Indeed, in such a social world, science and reason are often isolated and suppressed as social irrationality is the prevalent theme.

As I have written in the past as a result of my own studies in the area of philosophy of history, the presence of a “drive to dominate” narrative is unmistakable. We can trace speculatively, empirically, and also anthropologically its many iterations, subtleties and nuances throughout the whole of human history. Indeed, the drive to dominate nature is largely an existential one and thus we can see it as being transhistorical-cultural. It is also not necessarily a negative thing, as one could easily link this philosophical and psychological concept to basic “self-preservation” drives that are very much an important part of the fabric of the human endeavor.

In philosophy, it is considered, however speculatively, that such self-preservation drives are part of the existential fabric of human existence. It is, in simple terms, an expression of how we respond to the basic human condition and our precarious dependence on nature. This existential dimension of the human project is what is often described as a motivating force that has spurred us on throughout history to create better and more comfortable conditions for our lives. From a philosophical perspective the human existential drive to dominate nature – to establish a more secure existence against the precariousness of the basic human condition – can either be rational or irrational. The word “dominate” takes on two very different meanings, wherein on the one hand there will always be some form of domination over nature in the construction and maintenance of human society, unless, as in primitivism, one wishes a folk epistemology and a hunter-gatherer existence.

On the other hand, the word “dominate” also signals a social philosophical thesis that describes how irrational self-preservation drives – what one may also describe as “self-preservation drives run amok” – translate into social systems of domination, control, and coercion. On my reading, the philosophical thesis around the domination of nature is subtle and nuanced; it is not black or white in terms of good versus evil. It is material in the sense of human existential struggle, and what is required is awareness of the basic conditions of society. And I think this reading is one that correlates with the science-driven research in the area of social systems theory, which reveals that even on a basic systems level, every society that has existed has, to whatever degree, found the need to “dominate nature”. Every society, to speak more technically, has evidenced a degree of entropy. But it is, firstly, the rate of entropy that is the question. Secondly, the irrationality of pathological social systems and forces also comes into the equation.

It is thus not the question of the domination of nature per se, as the misguided arguments behind primitivism or anti-modernism suggest; rather it is the rate of domination that is the question. And I think this is another point of nuance that gets lost in The Gods in Whom They Trusted. It’s a point I will cover more thoroughly a little later. In the meantime, it is worth emphasizing that, inasmuch that The Gods in Whom They Trusted seems to position its discussion on epistemology as set within the two opposing forces – the drive to dominate, which is entwined with “western science” and the opposite, described as an “alternative epistemology” – the debate that the author seeks to construct lacks focus on the systemic. If “reason” and “science” and “technology” are entwined in or tend to become entwined in forces of domination, this has more to do with a study and examination of the logic and particular instrumental rationale of modern capitalism than of scientific epistemology or “western rationality”.

“Modern science” may be pegged as based on the control of the forces or laws of nature. There is certainly an element of truth to this. Much of western science is based on incredibly accurate methodologies which identify natural laws, and many progressive developments over the last four centuries have been based on our understanding of how to control or work with those laws. But to conflate this with the social systemic drive to “dominate nature”, however irrational and pathological such a drive has become in the name of the profit motive, is incredibly misguided. In other words, as I have argued in other places, to consider modern science as intrinsically dominant or violating, even in the context of seeking to understand natural laws and develop control over those laws – how “control” is defined in many critiques is vague – displaces the actual engine behind contemporary forms of almost irreversible systematic environmental degradation: namely, the logic of modern political economy. If such a political and economic system were to be advanced, transformed and progressed in the form of something more sustainable, ecologically just, and so on, then most of the problems this book covers would disappear.

Think, for example, of kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is a natural law. Kinetic energy is also something that has been exploited since early human history, when the first fire was sparked for warmth. The evolution in thought, and in science, from the basic primitive use of fire to the Victorian understanding of the stored energy of coal and the development of the steam engine – one could argue that this entire history is based to some degree on the advancement of understanding in relation to the control of a particular law of nature: what we might now describe as the conversion of mass to energy. This development and genesis of thought is not, in and of itself, a site of some pathological evil. The era of Victorian development – the industrial revolution – was a time of tremendous social exploitation and suffering, as is well-documented in the history books. But this is not a question of scientific epistemology, as the author in The Gods in Whom They Trusted alludes; if anything, it is a question of social and economic epistemology. How such scientific developments are realized, socially, is the more fundamental question. This is not to say that there isn’t a constant and ongoing concern around ethics in science – and we all know the long-term effects of coal-based energy systems. But without that period of development, one could also argue that we wouldn’t be able to enter into an age of renewable technology. The real question, which I think the book misplaces or doesn’t spend enough time considering, is what holds up progressive development? Why are scientific advancements and achievements realized in one way and not another? As many scientists are beginning to ask: In an age of great scientific achievement and technological advancement, “why does needless social suffering persist? Why does social irrationality prevail?”

Without the identification of natural laws, many amazing advancements and developments would not have taken place: without them penicillin would not exist, nor would the renewable energies the world is currently celebrating. In just four centuries, since Galileo, human civilization has gone from the invention of the telescope to putting a man on the moon to planning missions to mars, as Neil Degrasse Tyson rightly exclaimed in an episode of Cosmos. From penicillin among other invaluable medical developments, nuclear energy and better yet the possibility in the future of nuclear fusion, among many other things – they have all become realities taken for granted. The many significant and revolutionary developments that we celebrate today and imagine for tomorrow are indebted to science and the power of the scientific method.

An actual holistic analysis in the area of a study of western development would show, I think, that science is in no way the driving force of modern society. It is a driving force of progress, but the contradiction or antagonism we face is this: it is at least worth reflecting on whether there is a real ethical problem about how, as we read in philosophy, that reasonable or rational output is always under threat in an irrational social world. For example, think of the development of lifesaving medicines such as penicillin, and yet the logic of modern society – its political and economic systems and structures – enforces in many countries a financial barrier that blocks a lot of people from accessing such an important antibiotic. The other day I read a story about an individual in the U.S. who turned down needed medical treatment because they couldn’t afford it. Similarly, there’s a well-documented case currently unfolding where the drug Sofosbuvir, a cure for hepatitis C, is caught in the grips of a patent war. It has been estimated that there are currently 80 million people with hepatitis C, and only 5.4m have access to sofosbuvir. If this patent war goes to the side of pharmaceutical giant Gilead, millions of people will likely continue to not have access to this important drug.

More pointedly: it is a question of social, political and economic drives. The thesis of the existential drive to dominate nature is a social philosophical thesis, meaning it refers to the natural existential response to the precariousness of the human condition and how this is can be projected irrationally (or positively and rationally!) through social, political and economic systems (and thus the drives behind them). A critique of this trend or tendency throughout history – i.e., social pathology – is juxtaposed against a positive theory of rational development. That is, a positive theory of development toward a rational society, which responds to “self-preservation drives” (to borrow language from psychology) in a positive, transformative and truly “progressive” way according to normative universal values. Think, for instance, of so-called “military science” which exemplifies more the logic and rationale of pathological society than of the actual progressive values of the modern scientific endeavor.

What I am railing against here is a critique of scientific methodology and knowledge as a site or source of evil, as an intrinsic drive to dominate, when really these concerns pertain to an examination of the pathology of social rationality. The relation between science and society is the more serious issue, especially as scientific methodology and practice currently translates into the social world.

This raises an important point. For me, what a critique of epistemology is best used for is the evaluation of the rationale and knowledge forming processes inherent to the present social universe. Capitalism tends to foster or encourage, for example, the reduction of phenomena purely to their economic value. Hence the popular cultural expression, “profit over principle”. This is in no way an absolutely universal account. Many people in society don’t necessarily relate this way, but it describes the tendency or trend of the system of capital and its epistemology in terms of how phenomena, people, the natural world are viewed according to the logic of reduction on behalf of the values of capitalism.

Considering this note of reflection, one of the most widely accepted and understood theses is that “every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was conceived or created”, to whatever degree. Science is no different in the sense of the social use of science. Or, in other words, this is what some describe in a critique of “instrumental reason” – i.e., the instrumental and exploitative use of scientific research and outputs. Indeed, at least for me, the actual problem has more to do with the corporatization or economic reductionism, misuse and capitalization of the natural sciences, mostly outside of university and within “industry”, wherein such a dominant economistic epistemology is likely to be fostered and exercised. And many young scientists like myself certainly struggle with this. Scientists’ stories are everywhere on the internet to be read. In not wanting to participate in a particularly exploitative or destructive practices of industry, scientists are often forced to because that’s their only ticket to obtain funding for what is still often very valuable research. But again this is really a critique of what’s termed “instrumental reason” in critical social philosophy – again, the exploitation and instrumental use of science.


So what of the thesis of the “drive to dominate nature”? One of the most influential, historically significant and widely read critiques of “scientism” can be found in a book written by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. This book was one of the first that I turned to when trying to understand what critical philosophers mean by “scientism”. The book is titled Dialectical of Enlightenment, and these two thinkers are part of what is called the first generation Frankfurt School. Originally published in 1964, this book remains widely cited within the social sciences, especially in the area of critical theory.

In short, the entire book is an interdisciplinary critique of social forces and trends in the 20th century and, ultimately, of the betrayal of the Enlightenment. It opens with a deeply shocking assertion: “The Enlightenment”, Adorno and Horkheimer write, “understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. 1). But instead of fulfilling its promise, “the wholly enlightened earth is” today “radiant with triumphant calamity” (p.1). Ultimately, what Adorno and Horkheimer sought, was a critique of a certain social deformation of “reason” – for the sake of the defence of science and reason – and therefore, too, the enlightenment project and its many important normative values.

However, their treatment of the issues, though often lacking nuance and certainly at times subject of misinterpretation, is thought provoking. While logical positivism is a focus of serious criticism, especially as it is employed in the social sciences, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of “scientism” is actually more focused on a critique of the distortion of science and of a certain peculiar social ideological exploitation of human rationality. What does this mean, the “distortion of science”? In short, I think it can be read as a critique of the tendency of science – much like reason – to be used as an instrument for negative or destructive ends. Reason is no longer a means itself, but is employed in the service of political-economic ends. In this sense, it is not a critique of science per se. Rather, it is a critique of the social systemically fostered tendency toward the exploitation of scientific research and therefore scientific outcomes for the benefit of destructive social-political, economic projects.

One of the most widely cited examples – although there are many – is the use of scientific practice in Nazi Germany. From the view of philosophy of science, Nazism and its science of discrimination and social extermination through to the advent of the atom bomb – these examples offer concrete and empirical evidence where science has been “instrumentalized” to serve negative or destructive ends. In more contemporary terms, there are emerging critical discourses within the natural sciences and certain also within social philosophy, which use examples of the systemically degradation of the environment for industrial or corporate profit, as another example of the exploitation or even distortion of certain scientific practices. In fact, there are countless books which trace these developments historically as the sciences as a whole become increasingly privatized and corporatized, and therefore citing numerous examples where science and technology are being turned into an instrument for greater economic exploitation and social oppression. In other words: the autonomy of science is eroding, and, instead of serving a very real historical and social philosophical purpose in line with basic core Enlightenment values – emancipation, democracy, egalitarianism, justice, and so forth – many facets of the natural sciences are becoming subservient to neoliberal market ideology.

What we read in much of contemporary social theory is that science and reason (and also technology for that matter) have generally become entwined with “domination”. What does this mean? The problem for Horkheimer and Adorno, as I see it, is that far from reason and science being absolutely identical to power (in the negative sense of power, or what we might call coercive power), they argue that due to the character of real and identifiable social forces, reason and science tend to become entwined with the logical of dominant social systems. It is, in simpler terms, similar to saying that within a “bad” social system even a “good” person cannot fully escape becoming an instrument or extension of the negativity of that system, to whatever degree. In science-based social systems theories of development, we read similar arguments but perhaps in more clear terms, the fundamental point being that violent, domination, and so on are systemically-linked problems. In terms of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the notion of domination is actually understood in a triple sense. To quote Lambert Zuidervaart, it is:

“…a pattern of blind domination […]: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown”. (Zuidervaart, 2011)

As for the idea of how human reason might become deformed, it is worth stating that many scholars, such as Amy Allen, suggest that we must understand that this process to be historically contingent (Allen, 2016; Sherman, 2007). What this means, as Allen writes, “If, however, the relationship between reason and domination is historically contingent, and if it doesn’t involve a reduction of reason per se to domination, then the paradox emerges from a certain process of rationalization and is not internal to reason as such” (Allen, 2016, p. 170).

To understand the source of this deformation, requires a significant discussion in social philosophy. This discussion lies outside the remit of the current article. The short and overly simply answer is that it is rooted in a general process of rationalization (Allen, 2016, p.167). This is what Adorno and Horkheimer sometimes describe as the process of “instrumental reason”, which does not actually refer to the natural human cognitive capacity but more or less to a critique of a certain distorted “analytic structure” (Sherman, 2007).

Another way one might describe this, as I reflected elsewhere, is reason employed for an end. Reasonableness, when subservient to bias and prejudice – or to a political and economic ideology – this is an alienated concept of reason. In its subservience, the end of the investigation is already the means. Thus, this “analytic structure” is linked to the development of the rationale of contemporary capitalism, which, from the perspective of psychology, functions according to “self-preservation drives gone wild” (Cook, 2007). The meaning of this statement is basically an account of how, in order for contemporary capitalism to operate, it requires a certain deformed rationality, one which drives to exercise greater and greater power over nature, over other human beings, and over each other, for the benefit of profit (or the purely economically defined ends of profit). This is what others sometimes refer to as “cycles of domination”, or, in the case of my own recent book, the pathology of contemporary society (Smith, 2017). It would seem, as expressed earlier, to be a question of social, political and economic drives. The thesis of the existential drive to dominate nature is a social philosophical thesis in that it refers to the natural existential response to the precariousness of the human condition and how this is can be projected irrationally (or positively and rationally!) through social, political and economic systems (and thus the drives behind them).

Now, none of this is to say that each and every person is entangled the negative version of the process in such an explicit and direct way, so as to imply that we are all a function of the philosophical notion of the “will to mastery”. That said, it is more than likely that it has some effect on us and that there is some degree of internalization, to whatever extent. In any case, perhaps the main purpose is to identify systemic patterns, and in the midst of these systemic patterns, to understand the extent of philosophical reconciliation.

Unfortunately, Adorno and Horkheimer do not disentangle reason and science from power once and for all. In their study, which, to be fair, does also require a great deal of critical retrieval, only leaves us with a fundamental sense of direction in terms of how we might actually begin to proceed. This sense of direction is ultimately quite abstract; it succeeds only in offering a critical examination which renders reason and science self-aware of its entanglement with power (Allen, 2016, p. 172).

Moving forward, while I have some complaints about Steven Pinker’s position, he is right to emphasize: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation.  It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”. To suggest, as Pinker does, that defining principles of science can ensure circumvention of the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable (Pinker, 2013), is a bit of a problem. It’s a problem not because he is wrong, and that the principles of science cannot help ensure against circumvention of socially negatively human error – the problem is that the output of science, the output of scientific practice, is not necessarily immune or impregnable to the “sins” of irrational social forces. Therefore, even though I also have complaints about Lears position, he is not wrong to suggest:

“All [these events of the 20th Century, including the scientific racism of Nazi Germany] showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable. Eugenics had become another tool in the hands of unrestrained state power. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued near the end of World War II in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the rise of scientific racism betrayed the demonic undercurrents of the positivist faith in progress. Zygmunt Bauman refined the argument forty-two years later in Modernity and the Holocaust: the detached positivist worldview could be pressed into the service of mass extermination”. (Lears, 2011)

The main thing to take away here is that what plays a role in negatively shaping or mediating the outputs of scientific advancement, is not “western science” or some intrinsically evil concept of “western reason”.  The ethos of modern science, from its earliest conception, was based on core humanistic values: liberation, egalitarianism, democracy, discovery and exploration. It was based on a social philosophy that sought to emancipate humanity from oppression, grounded in a critical conception of normative universalism. But if what one is seeking, from an ethical standpoint, is a critique of the outputs of modern science and how they take on an especially pathological or destructive form, what one must look at is the pathological social, political and economic system that would seek to exploit scientific knowledge for its own destructive purposes. And this, I take it, is one of the fundamental lessons of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which Lears also cites.


As a young scientist, the point for me is not a critique of science, nor even necessarily technology. It is not science or technology that makes the practice more unsustainable than De Graaff’s ideal-types. It is how they become entangled with forces of exploitation and domination, as discussed in essay one and two, which is the real point worthy of detailed ethical consideration. There are numerous examples of this in our recent history, where even scientists have been employed, often by large multinational corporations, to create counter-case (or counter-science) aimed at denying strong scientific evidence against the detrimental effects of a corporation’s product or technology. Recently a report emerged (published in Time Magazine) how companies that produce sugary drinks funded scientific studies aimed to suppress the link between the consumption of sugary drink and diabetes. Exxon’s cover-up of climate science is another very good recent example. Or what about the famous example from the early 20th century, where science denial on behalf of corporate and special interests was exposed by Clair Patterson. The scientist funded by the lead industry and in charge of creating a case against the science-based realities related to lead poisoning, such as for instance in the fumes of leaded gasoline, went by the name of Robert Kehoe. Any fans of the show Cosmos will know this famous story well.

Moving forward, I think it is fair and balanced to suggest that De Graaff isn’t wrong to critique how the “doing of science” can be influenced by the dominate ideology of our time (i.e., capitalism or, today, neoliberal capitalism), just like every other area of life or society can fall under such an influence. But there is a problem with the book’s assumption that scientific investigation is never value free, and thus that one always investigates from out of a certain worldview. In Part 2, I will discuss this issue and conclude my review.


Philosophy and General Reading

Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Grounding Normativity

[An earlier unedited draft of this article was written with contributions by Arnold De Graaff. It has since become single authored and has been revised, updated and shortened.]

R.C. Smith

The Interrelated Nature of our Global Crisis: A Summary
i) The situation today – A brief statement of need

“The Enlightenment”, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously wrote, “understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. 1). But instead of fulfilling its promise, “the wholly enlightened earth is” today “radiant with triumphant calamity” (p.1). Have the values of society regressed from the hopeful aspirations of the enlightenment? Along what philosophical and empirical lines might we outline such “triumphant calamity” in the contemporary social world?

We could begin with a reference to systematic research concerning key crises confronting human civilization – crises defined, for instance, by two notable experts in systems theory as global, industrial, and capitalist in nature (Ahmed 2010; King, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016). Research by Nafeez Ahmed highlights the systemic interconnections between a number of global crises: from water scarcity and food insecurity to climate change; potential energy crisis; food insecurity; economic instability; forced migration; international terrorism; mass surveillance and increasing militarization (Ahmed, 2010; 2013a; 2013b; 2014a; 2014b; 2015a).

Additionally we may consider as further evidence of the deep crises of the modern social world, new scientific models supported by the British government’s Foreign Office that are being developed at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) – models which show that if we don’t change course, that if the status quo continues, in less than three decades industrial civilisation will essentially collapse (Sample, 2009; Ahmed, 2015b). Catastrophic food shortages, triggered by a combination of climate change, water scarcity, energy crisis, and political instability are cited as key issues (Ahmed, 2015b). Even Lloyds (2015), an insurance market specialist, has released a study for the insurance industry entitled Food System Shock, detailing potential impacts of acute disruption to global food supply as part of its “emerging risk report”.

To add to this picture, it was estimated recently by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2015) that one in nine human beings – that is, approximately 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world – suffered from chronic undernourishment. On top of this, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (2015) reports that lower grain yields and increase in crop prices across the developing world, as a direct result of climate change, will further increase malnutrition rates, leading to a 20-percent rise in child malnutrition. The report, which also draws similar systemic links between hunger and violence, appears to be one of many highlighting the precisely interrelated nature of global crises today. Furthermore, a 2016 research article published by the IFPRI, Global linkages among energy, food and water: An economic assessment (Ringler, Willenbockel, Perez, et al., 2016) emphasizes the same point.

I offer this sample of research and empirical evidence to disclose the magnitude of crises confronting human civilization. But it’s not just issues of food insecurity, energy crises, global violence and potential climate catastrophe that we face. Focusing on empirical and philosophical assessments within the United Kingdom, United States and Canada in particular, one can discern a number of pressing and interrelated crises. Due to lack of space it is impossible for us to cite each particular issue, but we can highlight a few for contextual purposes. We may cite, for instance, the crisis of education (Amsler, 2016; De Graaff, 2012/2015; Giroux, 2011;); the detrimental effects of neoliberalization on the whole of life (Barnett, 2010; Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Evans and Sewell, 2013); psychology and social pathology (Harris, 2010; Smith, 2016); the diminishing of psychological and emotional well-being (Smith, 2016; Sugarman, 2015; Verhaeghe, 2015); severe environmental degradation (De Graaff, 2016); the crisis of democracy and community (Brady, Schoeneman and Sawyer, 2014; Isakhan and Slaughter, 2014); inequality (Geier, 2016; Jacobs, 2014; Piketty, 2014); international conflict (Ahmed, 2010; 2013a; 2013b; 2014a; 2014b; 2015a); and global economic injustice (Smith, 2012).

Providing some discussion on the issues at hand, my intention is to reflect on what an alternative foundation might look like from a number of key perspectives. In light of all the evidence about the present crisis, it is remarkable that for each area of life there are significant, proven alternative projects and practices available. With regard to poverty, hunger, undernourishment, food production, for example, new research and reports of workable global solutions appear on a regular basis. But it seems like ideologies and power structures blind political and industrial leaders from embracing and implementing these measures (Desmaris, A. & Wiebe, N. 2011; Reganold, J. 2016; Peter, O. 2013; De Schutter, O. 2014, 2015; Frison, E.A. 2016; UNCTAD, 2013). These sources referenced above highlight, I think, how much we are in need of a structural change based on objective morality and core enlightenment-humanistic values.

In any or all cases, each particular negative aspect of our modern social reality, each systemically interlinked crisis, evidences, it would seem, a fundamental conflict of values. On the one hand, this conflict of values relates to global political economy. Empirically, there is quite a list of studies that discern a direct connection between contemporary crises and the system of global capitalism. From an enlightenment perspective, at the heart of the crisis of civilization would seem to be a moral and ethical conflict centred on two generally very different visions of life and society – an egalitarian, ecologically just and actually democratic vision on the one hand, and an alienated, exploitative, destructive vision on the other hand. In a book I recently read, it was suggested from the perspective of philosophy of history that this conflict directly relates to the “dialectic of enlightenment” (Zuidervaart, 2007), which serves as an interesting site of reflection.

On this point, I have come to a similar conclusion as Stephen E. Bronner (2004), and argue that if a revival of the idea of “progress” is to materialize, what is urgently required is a revival of the enlightenment and its normative universalism.

This point is emphasized further considering the various detrimental effects poststructuralism and other postmodern theories have had when it comes to the general erosion of the value of normativity and universalism for the benefit of theories of social relativism (moral, ethical or otherwise), which, one might say, has resulted in or certainly at least compounded the crisis of social theory (Kellner, 2014a).

Additionally, when it comes postmodern and poststructuralist accounts, it is perhaps no coincidence that, in their particularly definitive state of “great confusion” (to borrow from Habermas), the postmodern view has, as Bronner puts it, resulted in a period of significant “intellectual and political disorientation” (Bronner, 2004, p.1). In turn, if what is required today is a comprehensive and coherent social philosophical foundation, what this requirement necessitates, philosophically and empirically, is a direct confrontation with basic questions concerning morality, ethics and values and the damaged status of societal principles (Zuidervaart, 2007). What this entails, in part, is a deeper emphasis on the importance of how we understand history, tradition, social development, and the ongoing enlightenment struggle for progress and a rational society (Bronner, 2004). One could argue – and many do- that what is needed is a return to the Enlightenment as well as a progressive revival of Enlightenment values. I think such a project can also learn much from modern scientific sensibility and from demands for an evidence-based approach to civic policy.

There is substantial reason to suggest that a progressive and contemporary guide to economic democracy is already present in the enlightenment philosophes. In realizing the highest ideals of reason and science and progress, the Enlightenment still has much to offer. Currently, in the dark and almost barren desert of neoliberal capitalist society, progressive theoretical and scientific movements may provide us with some light. But today, movements in the global north mostly exist as fireflies, scattered, often isolated, without universal solidarity or a broader social philosophical foundation to draw on. In the global south greater solidarity and unity is developing among the peoples’ movements often at the risk of their lives and much suffering (Desmarais, A. 2006; Tramel, S. 2016). And yet still, the need for a comprehensive alternative social philosophical vision remains.

ii) A critical intervention

Why open with a reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1964/2002)? Adorno and Horkheimer’s philosophical study of the modern social world is widely read and referenced in the field of critical philosophy (and perhaps also across the human sciences). They offer a philosophy of history that “traced the fate of the Enlightenment from the beginnings of scientific thought among the Greeks to fascist concentration camps and the cultural industries of U.S. capitalism” (Kellner, 2014). Moreover, they showed how the enlightenment project was betrayed and how society regressed to domination and the opposite of enlightenment: namely, mystification and oppression. The book, not without its issues, criticized a certain form of deformed rationality, and implicitly implicated Marxism within the “dialectic of Enlightenment” (Kellner, 2014). I intend to engage with this book from the perspective of the enlightenment.

Since the time Dialectic of Enlightenment was originally published, much has been written and discussed about the implications of this work, what remains significant about the text today, what it got wrong and what requires critical retrieval (Bronner, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2014; Kellner, 1989, 2014; Zuidervaart, 2007; Sherman, 2007; and Smith, 2015)[1]. In this paper, however, I do not seek to reproduce these arguments or focus on developing yet another piece of secondary literature. Instead, the primary aim is to re-engage with the enlightenment in progressive ways, engaging with this book for the reason that it is often cited in the world of popular literature as a source of “critique”.

To add to the above: it is becoming increasingly understood that, in spite of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical analysis of the “betrayal of the enlightenment”, one of the primary aims of their study was not to do away with the liberating force of the enlightenment project (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. xviii; Bronner, 2004). Moreover, “it should not be forgotten that its authors were concerned with criticizing enlightenment generally, and the historical epoch known as the Enlightenment in particular, from the standpoint of enlightenment itself: thus the title of the work. Their book was actually “intended to prepare the way for a positive notion of enlightenment, which will release it from entanglement in blind domination.” Later, in fact, Horkheimer and Adorno even talked about writing a sequel that would have carried a title like “Rescuing the Enlightenment” (Rettung der Aufklärung)” (Bronner, 2004).

Though, as Stephen Bronner correctly points out, “this reclamation project was never completed, and much time has been spent speculating about why it wasn’t” (Bronner, 2004), significant efforts have been made toward accomplishing just such a task. Over the past two decades, Bronner himself (Bronner, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2014) has offered a number of particularly significant contributions to a wider project of critical retrieval when it comes to the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values. Indebted to his efforts, this paper directly engages with his project as well as combines a diversity of scholarship from across numerous disciplines.

Moreover, the following discussion, however informal, seeks to provide a comprehensive account of what might be one positive approach when it comes to re-engaging with the enlightenment and its advancement. In working toward this, my engagement is one that primarily wants to bridge philosophy and empirical study. Through considerable research in the areas of psychology, cognitive science, social and natural science, anthropology, epistemology and critical philosophy (to name a few), I will look to reflect on why an advancing notion of enlightenment values and morality must find direct and concrete expression in what one might term “a radically virtuous alternative of normative (critical) humanism” and in what one might identify as a phenomenological ethics and a fundamental notion of social objectivity.

Furthermore, in engaging with Adorno and Horkheimer’s thesis, my goal is to think about possible broader explanations of the crisis of civilization on the basis of philosophy of history. If “the wholly enlightened earth is” today “radiant with triumphant calamity” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p.1), I want to ask: is it possible that a connection may be drawn between the dialectic of enlightenment – that is, the betrayal of the enlightenment – and the ongoing crisis of civilization?

2. Why does the Enlightenment still matter?
i) An introduction

To state at the outset that after reviewing and working through numerous sources, the Enlightenment and debates around its legacy are today some of the most fundamentally culturally important, this statement may sound extreme or excessive. But it’s not. The positive impact that the Enlightenment had on Western society – and, indeed, throughout the world – underlines a significant part of modern political and social history (Bronner, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2014). This political and social history concerns not only the emergence of such important values as reason, progress and science (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013); in fact, so many of the positive values and ideals we take for granted today owe a debt to the enlightenment and humanist project.

Whether explicitly realized or not, the basic values often shared today by progressive social movements around the world are tied to the Enlightenment and its social-political legacy (Bronner, 2004, 2014). In fact, it is fair to state that many basic values popularly celebrated in contemporary society, whether in the mainstream or on the progressive fringes, owe a great deal to the revolutionary ideals of the 18th Century philosophical movement (Bronner, 2002; Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013). Equality, cosmopolitanism, and modern conceptions of democracy are a few examples (Bronner, 2004). Then, of course, there is the basic value of reason, understood as the basis for authority and legitimacy in thought and action, grounding such ideals as empiricism, scientific rigor, and finally also the view of social-historical progress (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013).

Conversely, and in addition to the above, modern emphasis on individual liberty and religious tolerance, along with notions of constitutional government, normative critique of the abuses church and state, and popular scepticism of traditional authority can all be traced to the Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004). In the world of thought and, especially, the broad philosophical basis for contemporary society, such 19th century movements as liberalism and neo-classicism are a direct product of the Enlightenment intellectual legacy (Pagden, 2013).

In short: with just a brief overview, it is clear how much modern western society and culture is entangled with the Enlightenment. Far from a distinct historical period without connection to the present, the legacy of the Enlightenment remains a central if not primary point of reference when it comes to modern hopes for society, the mission of social-historical and cultural progress, and the advance of basic humanistic ideals (Bronner, 2004; Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013).

The humanistic underpinning of the Enlightenment is of course no coincidence (Trevor-Roper, 2010). Widely understood as the continuation of a process rooted in the Scientific Revolution, dated roughly between the years of 1550 and 1700, the Enlightenment can be traced back to the “renaissance humanists” in France and Italy in the 14th and 15th century (Trevor-Roper, 2010). As a very broad cultural and intellectual movement in Europe that affected every area of life – especially views regarding science, political and legal theory, and morality – the Enlightenment represented more than a distinct era (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). It symbolized or sought to symbolize significant turns in philosophy, culture and society, coinciding with the emergence of a new foundational perspective on life (Bronner, 2004).

Responding to the closed structures and practices of medieval society, the Enlightenment’s best representatives argued for a project, a political vision, and a certain philosophical framework based on the emancipation of human beings (Bronner, 2004). Its main objective was about liberating life, society, culture, and our common human values from the authority and control of the church and established monarchies (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). The God-ordained order of the universe mediated by the church had to be broken through to allow for the free flourishing of the human subject; for human freedom, initiative, discovery, exploration and the transformation of society (Bronner, 2004). These humanistic values were not static, but still remained universal and objective principles (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). They served first of all to liberate the person and society from external authority and oppressive governments (Bronner, 2004).

With these summarized points noted, it should also be said that the Enlightenment encompassed many different aspects of life and there were many historical and national variations (Bronner, 1995, 2004, 2005; Pagden, 2013). In other words, it was not a monolithic movement (Bronner, 1995). Though my own considerations do not cover all of the variations and history, as this has already been accomplished by several leading and notable scholars (Bronner, 2004; Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013), the intention of my essay is to focus on the common values amongst Enlightenment thinkers. This essay, adhering thematically to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and epistemology, emanates from a detailed and comprehensive look at common Enlightenment values and their ongoing significance, which one might take as socially, politically, philosophically and empirically evident.

Perhaps now more than ever, the legacy of the Enlightenment represents an important and deeply morally relevant site of contemporary debate. The many issues which characterize or define this site of consideration cut across almost every aspect of modern social life (Bronner, 2004). A philosophical project, a programme of revolutionary humanistic ideals and values, and an open-ended critical intellectual process resistant to dogmatic and totalitarian political movements, the Enlightenment is more than a distinct historical period (Pagden, 2013). It is the beginning of a progressive project which seeks to establish an alternative way of looking at the world. Indeed, recent scholarship even shows in systematic detail how Enlightenment ideas include a potentially universalizing vision of humanity – of common emancipatory values – as well as the full recognition of the emotional ties that bind all human beings together (Pagden, 2013).

In terms of the study of moral philosophy, which Kenan Malik lays out nicely in his book The Quest for a Moral Compass, it should be noted that the Enlightenment did not invent or discover many common human moral values; but what it did is promoted ideas of individual freedom, scientific knowledge, democratic governance and society in the sense of their liberation from external authority. As I noted earlier, with roots traced back to the renaissance humanists (Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013) we can see for example how Enlightenment thinkers critically retrieved certain basic human values from this 14th and 15th century movement and generally sought to free them from their religious bias and dogma (Bronner, 2004). But it need be said, too, that there are many other cultures at different historical times that have lived these directives, whether successfully or not, starting with the ancient Greeks. In fact, in certain places and in certain ways, other cultures can be said to have practiced one or more of the relevant values we now tie to the Enlightenment. Consider, for example, the Cree nation and their study of the environment and ecological inter-relationships, egalitarian relations, and the basic ideals around communal sharing (De Graaff, 2016). Another example can be seen in the Guna tribe, particularly when it comes to their thoughts on child rearing, democracy, and the intricate relation between the individual and the tribe (De Graaff, 2016). These points of recognition are important when it comes to understanding the enlightenment and what it sought to offer, in a particular moment in history, as part of a larger human struggle toward ideas of justice and solidarity, among others. Throughout history variations of values have not always been realized in a positive way – in fact, there is an argument to be made that much of the history of human society is deeply pathological. What the enlightenment sought was to ultimately ground core values in a normative universal framework, informed by science and empirical thought as well as philosophical consideration. This broader context helps give further meaning to what the enlightenment sought to stand for, not only in Europe but also throughout the world, including the enlightenment movement in India and other places. As contemporary scholars point out, seeing the enlightenment achievement from a broader historical and cultural perspective delivers it from the critique of being Eurocentric (Bronner, 2004), and this is important.

In closing: one cannot deny that the Enlightenment has had a significant impact on the world, and remains deeply relevant. The struggle to defend science and the debates around the importance of the modern scientific endeavour – the values of reason and economics – the enlightenment can continue to serve as an important frame of guidance. At the same time, there are also lots of debates about the Enlightenment legacy. Indeed, when answering the question ‘Why the Enlightenment?’, one can simply point to the Enlightenment’s impact in relation to the many conflicted views it evokes, truly striking the heart of the conflicts of how we view society, our relation with each other and the natural world.

ii) The Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment

The source of criticism for both sides of the political spectrum, the Enlightenment seems to be considered negatively on many parts of the left today (Bronner, 2004). On the right, conservatives have traditionally detested the “nihilism” of the Enlightenment project, which in many ways is a view inherited from the Counter-Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004; Ralston, 1992; MacIntyre, 1984; Pagden, 2013; Thomas, 2014).

Historically and empirically, we can trace back or in the least draw parallels between many of today’s conservative viewpoints against the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Counter-Enlightenment in the 18th century (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013; Thomas, 2014). This counter-enlightenment was essentially made up of political conservatives and clerical defenders of traditional religion (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013; Thomas, 2014). “It deplored the progressive assault on communal life, religious faith, social privilege, and traditional authority” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). The very contemporary idea of personal freedom, for example, rooted in the enlightenment’s resistance against the authority and control of the Church and the closed structure of medieval society (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), represented a significant challenge against established power structures of the time.

Keith Thomas (2014) summarises this complex history and the political dynamics of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in his article “The Great Fight Over the Enlightenment”, when he writes how counter-enlightenment resistance attacked materialism and scientific scepticism, not to mention the natural sciences and philosophy (Thomas, 2014).

In sum, if the enlightenment was meant to blow open history in the sense of challenging and breaking free from traditional doctrines and dogmas as well oppressive regimes of thought and social organization (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), this is because the very idea of the Enlightenment as a project and as a set of ideals was meant to become the “source of everything that is progressive about the modern world”, standing “for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future” (Thomas, 2014). Perhaps more emphatically, the Enlightenment was meant to liberate human beings once and for all (Bronner, 2004). Even Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2002), whose study is widely referenced as a leading critique of the Enlightenment and its betrayal, state that the Enlightenment originally meant to emancipate human beings. This project of emancipation was not only social and political; it represented the possibility of a certain existential liberation as well (Israel, 2002), especially when it comes to the advent of reason and science as common values which support humanity’s overcoming Myth more generally and certainly also the oppressive grip of the Church in particular (Pagden, 2013).

One can cite numerous texts by key Enlightenment thinkers which support the above view.

Marquis de Condorcet (1794/2012), in his famous work titled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, writes for example on the interrelation between the progress of the sciences and enlightened social behaviour (Michael, 1975, 2004; David, 2004; Gregory, 2010; Leiss, 2011; Pagden, 2013).William Leiss summarizes this nicely while quoting Condorcet: “He [Condorcet] remarks that ‘all errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors’. He is saying that there is a connection between our conceptions of natural processes, on the one hand, and our understanding of society and individual behaviour, on the other” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29).Moreover, “Condorcet envisioned a future in which ‘the dissemination of enlightenment’ would ‘include in its scope the whole of the human race’” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). He maintains the position that the enlightenment provides a new way of thinking, a new view of the world, and that this view, based on a transformative ethos (Bronner, 2004, pp. 4-5), not only connects science and reason with morality and ethics, but is principled, as Bronner (2004) writes, on a series of core human values.

Condorcet’s reflections in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind share a common vision with many other Enlightenment thinkers (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, “the Enlightenment” as a whole “crystallized around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). It sought not “imperialism, or racism, or the manipulation of liberty”, but instead the ideals of liberty, individual rights and dignity (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013) and what we might describe today as social conditions which foster the “free flourishing subject” (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2015a, 2016). These ideals formed the basis of Enlightenment universalism (Israel, 2001; Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), which sought to protect rather than threaten the exercise of subjectivity (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).

Enlightenment universalism, in other words, “presumes to render institutions accountable, a fundamental principle of democracy, and thereby create the preconditions for expanding individual freedom. Such a view would inform liberal movements concerned with civil liberties as well as socialist movements seeking to constrain the power of capital” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). In much the same way, Enlightenment universalism – or what we may also describe as the common values of the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2013; Israel, 2002) – moves against prejudice to include “the other”, underpinning the liberal notion of the citizen with its “inherently democratic imperative”, while also pushing back against capitalism’s drive to reduce people to the mere status of ‘economic objects’ and therefore, too, mere ‘costs of production’ (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Therefore, there should be no surprise when Condorcet, for example, writes in rather radical fashion:

Thus an understanding of the natural rights of man, the belief that these rights are inalienable and [cannot be forfeited], a strongly expressed desire for liberty of thought and letters, of trade and industry, and for the alleviation of the people’s suffering, for the [elimination] of all penal laws against religious dissenters and the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments, the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation and jurisprudence which should give complete security to the innocent, and for a simpler civil code, more in conformance with reason and nature, indifference in all matters of religion which now were relegated to the status of superstitions and political [deception], a hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a contempt for prejudice, zeal for the propagation of enlightenment, all these principles, gradually filtering down from philosophical works to every class of society whose education went beyond the catechism and the alphabet, became the common faith . . . [of enlightened people]. In some countries these principles formed a public opinion sufficiently widespread for even the mass of the people to show a willingness to be guided by and to obey it. (Condorcet, 1794/2012, p. 101)

As we read here and elsewhere, including in the works of lesser-known figures, Enlightenment universalism – its core values – “provide a foundation for opposing contemporary infringements on individuals rights and dignity by new global forms of capitalism” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Even in terms of the oft-cited “crisis of democracy” today, where democracy, as a concept and as a thing, has less to do with the actual content of “democracy” as an egalitarian system of political-economic values than it does with the neglect of this content for its (mere) form, “The Enlightenment notion of political engagement […] alone keeps” the very notion of “democracy fresh and alive” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).

The same could be said for the frequently contested notion of social and historical “progress”. It is true that historical “progress” as some clean linear process must be challenged. But as Kenan Malik has pointed out on numerous occasions, such an engagement is deeply nuanced and to suggest that the enlightenment itself is the source of colonial racism and domination isn’t accurate.

Over recent years post- and decolonial theorists have criticized the idea of historical progress, rooted in and a product of the Enlightenment, as Eurocentric, imperialist, and neo-colonialist (Allen, 2016). It is even argued that this idea is largely central to the ‘western fallacy’ (Allen, 2016). In many or all cases of such critique, the notion of progress is at risk being thrown away (Allen, 2016). This is a mistake. While there is certainly a critical normative imperative to breaking open the view of a purely progressive reading of history, which tends to suppress the many critical realities – consider, for example, the issue of “land grabbing” or slavery or resource-based wars and terror – the very notion of “progress” itself is also a critical-political imperative (Allen, 2016). Additionally, most of the issues cited, such as colonialism and resource-based wars, has much less to do with the enlightenment and more to do, as Malik notes, with the forces of capitalism.

Contrary to post-structural and especially post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment, which, usually, are guilty of lacking nuance (Bronner, 2004), the common view of “progress” by Enlightenment thinkers was employed as part of a critical project of rational thought (Bronner, 2004; pp. 20-28). The notion was used to attack the institutions and ideas of a bygone age in the name of reason, rights, and interests of the individual (p. 21), not to mention to support the philosophical vision concerning the need to promote common decency, a sense of compassion for people in relation to the direction of society, and respect for the ideals of fairness, reciprocity, and civility among others (pp. 20-22).

Progress was viewed, most importantly, in relation to the critical challenging of prejudice, oppressive customs, and dominant instincts; it was employed in explicit contempt for dogma and privilege, and relied upon as part of a guiding principle of critique of political purposes that questions tradition and authority on behalf of an open-ended, transitory, many-sided and complex view of societal transformation (pp. 20-28). No doubt that the Enlightenment attempt “to “soften” the vices of humanity […] reaches back to other cultures: Jewish law condemned the torture of animals; the Buddha spoke of “selfishness” and compassion for suffering; Confucius saw himself as part of the human race; Hinduism lauded the journey of life; and Jesus articulated the Golden Rule” (p. 20).

In this sense, there is a clearly distinguishable and very real “anthropological grounding for the historical experience of Enlightenment” (p. 20). In this sense, too, there is a common and shared human value to the broader historical, cultural project which seeks what we may identify as the egalitarian ideals of transformative progress along several important lines. No doubt the struggle continues. But what makes the Enlightenment so historically significant in this regard concerns how, as an intellectual movement, it made important strides toward grounding these values. In contrast to renaissance humanists, for example, who evidenced a very strong religious emphasis, Enlightenment thinkers begun the task of grounding progressive and transformative values, particularly through the notion of reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy in defense against the constant human threat of a return to myth and dogma.


So what are we to make of the 18th century Enlightenment? For over two hundred years the legacy of its most prominent thinkers, from Locke and Newton to Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, and Kant, has been the subject of bitter debate. On the one hand, supporters hail it as the source of everything that is progressive about the modern world. For them, it stands for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. By contrast, its enemies accuse it of “shallow” rationalism, naive optimism, unrealistic universalism, and moral darkness. Certain criticism can be understood as legitimate and worthy of reflection, suggests some scholars, while not in any way undermining the validaity of the enlightenment project as a whole. Another portion of criticism has been shown to be illegitimate (Bronner, 2004).

Regarding the former – the legitimate criticism of the Enlightenment – Bronner (2004) makes it incredibly clear that with its emphasis on civil liberties, tolerance and humanism, there is something to be preserved about Enlightenment political theory. What’s more, it is clear that in viewing the Enlightenment and its complex and deeply nuanced political history in accurate terms, this requires opposition to “current fashions and conceits”, including recognition of the many systematic and unbiased studies on the Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004, p. 10) as well as detailed historical scholarship, which pushes back against postmodern and poststructral views.

Moving forward, there is another body of literature that argues that humanistic thought has been appropriated by prejudiced political and economic ideology, and has been corrupted to serve as the basis for such concepts as “human capital”. “Human rights”, yet another lasting legacy of the enlightenment project, is said to now be a concept often employed “as an ideological excuse for the exercise of arbitrary power” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). Democracy, likewise, which as a concept and a distinct political value once possessed discernible revolutionary characteristics, has undergone a “hollowing out” process. The actual content of the radical moment of the enlightenment’s uniquely modern understanding of democracy (Bronner, 2004, p. 58) has been increasingly boiled away. “The security of western states”, often cited by governments throughout the world, “has served as justification for the constriction of personal freedom” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). All the while “rigid notions of progress have fallen by the wayside”, and “liberal regimes have often been corrupted by imperialist ambitions and parasitical elites” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). In reclaiming the Enlightenment or, in other words, in returning to and re-vivifying the enlightenment project, it is argued that progressives must reclaim or critically retrieve these concepts and values.

It is said that notions of “reason”, “science” and “progress” too require critical evaluation. Where “progress” once meant a critical normative value which sought to challenge the status quo of systems of domination and exploitation for the betterment of all of humanity; the confronting of traditional authority; a contempt for dogma, prejudice, and elitism; resistance to dominant institutions and practices, as well as political movements which attack rights and the vision of individual and collective well-being (Bronner, 2004, pp. 19-22, 39, 40); “progress” is argued to be at risk of being divorced from its core radical social philosophical purpose, serving instead the ideological economic worldview.

iii) The enlightenment and race

The main point at the current juncture is to understand that many Enlightenment thinkers understood “progress” in emancipatory and critical ways. But there seems to be a case that core values are open to distortion and to being stripped of their critical, non-partisan and objective character (Bronner, 2002, p.23). Today, the evidence of such a reality is truly striking. “Progress” is celebrated in light of the advance of medical science, for example, and yet the reality that many are unable to access necessary medical treatments; that the privatization of medicine has led to a new kind of social-economic barbarity, where vital treatments are controlled by business and are deeply prejudiced, governed by the capitalist law of inequality (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2014; Grewal, 2014; Piketty, 2014) goes unspoken by those same people quick to revere. The need of the hour, then, is not to abandon this critical concept, as we read in Bronner (2004); but to critically retrieve it for the sake of the enlightenment as part of the retaining of the belief in the possibility of an emancipated future. Rather than being zealous dogmatists, some of the best Enlightenment thinkers perceived “progress” and, impliedly, the struggle for societal transformation as something that may never be complete (p. 21), often resisting the urge to secure a totalitarian utopian ideology, understanding in a very critical way that we must continue to critique, to improve, to challenge and strive to do better (pp. 21-22).

We could dedicate an entire series of books on the Enlightenment; its history and key figures; its values and their ongoing relevance; and the need for a deep project of critical retrieval. Later on, I will offer a number of examples and expand on the direction of such a project, in hope that others might continue the effort. For the time being, it is enough to state that, with regards to the notion of progress, Bronner’s (2004) effort is notably advanced. For this reason it serves as a source of constructive engagement. For example, Bronner’s ideas of progress in the earliest pages of his book are wonderfully descriptive and illustrative, offering the reader historically very careful attention to the real meaning and intention behind key Enlightenment concepts and movements in thought. At the same time we can build from this and also consider where things may have gone off the rails as the 18th century enlightenment began to recede in and through the 19th century (Malik, 2013a, 2013b).

Consider, for example, the accusations of racism against a number of different Enlightenment thinkers. No doubt that, “With its emphasis upon autonomy, tolerance, and reason – no less than its attack upon received traditions, popular prejudices, and religious superstitions – the Enlightenment was generally recognized as the foundation for any kind of progressive politics” (Bronner, 2004, p.2). However, one cannot completely erase the contradictions within the Enlightenment when it comes to the issue race, as one example. One such criticism, particularly from a postcolonial perspective, suggests that certain Enlightenment thinker’s evidenced moments of social prejudice and a Eurocentric point of view. At the same time, we also have to understand the historical and cultural time of the philosophes and the mess that they sought to work through and overcome.

On the one hand, the Enlightenment was a critical movement and sought, for instance, to attack popular prejudices. On the other hand, there are people who argue thatcertain passages expose lasting traces of such prejudices and of distinct aspects of what we might today describe as the language of oppression (Bosmajian, 1974/1983). And the evidence of these lasting traces of deep historical, cultural prejudices were particularly held against non-Europeans (Malik, 1996, 2009a, 2009b, 2013a, 2013b). Moreover, it is argued that there was an emerging contradiction in enlightenment thought moving into the 19th century (Malik, 2013a, 2013b). Notable scholar Kenan Malik (2013a, 2013b) provides a deeply nuanced account of the now oft-termed Enlightenment’s ‘race problem’, particularly in a series of articles and in a book which questions the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. He writes: “The relationship between race and the Enlightenment is […] far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference” (Malik, 2013b).

This account seems to affirm Bronner’s (2004) study as well as a wider body of unbiased scholarship. Whatever the misguided prejudices of Bernier, Voltaire or Kant (Bronner, 2004, p. 89), or even those of Hume and Jefferson (Malik, 2013a), it is important to understand:

The first intimations of a contradiction that was to become a key motor of nineteenth century social and political thinking – a contradiction between the intellectual categories thrown up Enlightenment philosophy and the social relations of the emerging capitalist society, between an abstract belief in equality, on the one hand, and the concrete reality of an unequal society. It was out of this contradiction, as we shall see, that the idea of race emerges.

It is true that in the eighteenth century, a number of thinkers within the mainstream of the Enlightenment, Hume, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson among them, dabbled with ideas of innate differences between human groups, including ideas of polygenism – the belief that different races had different origins and were akin to distinct species. Yet, with one or two exceptions, they did so only diffidently or in passing. Hume’s comment about the innate inferiority of blacks appeared in a footnote. Thomas Jefferson conceded that ‘the opinion that [negroes] are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination must be hazarded with great diffidence’ particularly so ‘when our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.’ Twenty years later, he wrote to a French correspondent that he had expressed his opinions about the inferiority of negroes ‘with great hesitation’. He added that ‘whatever their degree of talents, it is no measure of their rights’. (Malik, 2013b)

As we can see, “the roots of the racial ideas that would flourish in the nineteenth century” in a certain sense “lay in Enlightenment writing” (Malik, 2013). But we must also approach this complicated issue by recognizing there were two basic movements within the Enlightenment (Israel, 2002). These two movements can be differentiated as: Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested (Israel, 2002). As Malik summarizes: “The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul” (Malik, 2013a). Additionally, for Kant and Voltaire especially, concern with race had little bearing on their general theories (Bronner, 2004, p.89). In most cases, where any contradiction may appear, it is found within “the equivocations of the mainstream” (Malik, 2013a). “Yet”, writes Malik, “eighteenth century thinkers remained highly resistant to the idea of race”. (2013a). Furthermore, the actual universal principles of Enlightenment political theory left little room for racism (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, as Malik also notes: “political attitudes towards progress and human unity left little room for race” (Malik, 2013a). The deeper issue, it appears, is the “transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference” (Malik, 2013a). But what allowed this to happen?

Perhaps it is fair to suggest that in some respects we can trace this transformation in the “attempt of the mainstream to marry traditional theology to the new philosophy”, which “constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs” (Malik, 2013a; citing Israel, 2002). As Bronner (2004) notes: messianic visions of Christian destiny have always intoxicated the advocates of both racism and the Counter-Enlightenment” (p. 88). And this is certainly apparent in the Counter-Enlightenment resistance to the Enlightenment’s radical political theory, which, at its core, valued the idea of universal emancipation (Bronner, 2004).

It is fair to say, too, as Bronner acknowledges, that the Enlightenment was always open to distortion (Bronner, 2004). It is clear that “the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophes judged people largely according to their moral capacities”. And yet:

By the second half of the nineteenth century, biology determined identity and fate. It was, in the words of historian Nancy Stepan, ‘a move away from an eighteenth century optimism about man, and faith in the adaptability of man’s universal “nature”, towards a nineteenth century biological pessimism.’ And such biological pessimism marked a shift ‘from an emphasis on the fundamental physical and moral homogeneity of man, despite superficial differences, to an emphasis on the essential heterogeneity of mankind, despite superficial similarities.’ (Malik, 2013b)

The enlightenment is not to blame for this turn, as so much of the leading scholarship makes clear. Indeed, contra to the postmodern and poststructural critique which lays blame at the feet of the enlightenment for a whole list of things, the core problem really is a betrayal of this important historical project.

3. The Enlightenment and its Betrayal: A Critique
i) Introduction

So what of this idea of the betrayal of the enlightenment? The work that seems to most closely touch on this issue (outside of more contemporary literature) can perhaps be found in a critical and advancing reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Originally published in 1964, Adorno and Horkheimer’s text remains one of the more widely read critical surveys in relation to the Enlightenment and social development. Tracing the roots of “the self-destruction of enlightenment” (p. xvi), their research can be described as “an interdisciplinary experiment”, not unlike the research presented in this paper. “Neither a work of history, anthropology, sociology, nor politics”, Adorno and Horkheimer “instead combined these disciplines to remarkable effect” (Bronner, 2004). Providing one of the deepest accounts of society’s long-standing entanglement in blind domination (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. xviii), or what we might more accurately nail down in terms of a study of social pathology, they essentially “turned the accepted notion of progress upside down” (Bronner, 2004). Bronner writes:

The scientific method of the Enlightenment, according to the authors, may have originally intended to serve the ideals of human liberation in an assault upon religious dogma. Yet the power of scientific reason ultimately wound up being directed not merely against the gods, but all metaphysical ideas—including conscience and freedom—as well. “Knowledge” became divorced from “information,” norms from facts, and the scientific method, increasingly freed from any commitment to liberation, transformed nature into an object of domination, and itself into a whore employed by the highest bidder. (Bronner, 2004)

It’s hard to know what to make of the dialectic of enlightenment. On my reading of the scholarship, Adorno and Horkheimer essentially sought in this widely reference book to contribute a critical account toward dispelling the myth of a clean and linear form of progress (Allen, 2016), or, at least, to provide an extra layer of nuance that progress has not been without human sin. But it should be understood that, as alluded earlier, while they offered a critique of the Enlightenment, at no point did they seem to aim to do away with the Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, pp. xvi, xviii). In fact, it is stated quite clearly that the authors sought to work through the betrayal of the enlightenment for the benefit of the enlightenment (Bronner, 2004; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2015a; Allen, 2016). Adorno and Horkheimer aimed to expose how the Enlightenment had been betrayed, even indicating their intention to “prepare the way for a positive notion of enlightenment, which will release it from entanglement in blind domination” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p. xvi). Oftentimes their language can appear confusing, as they speak of “enlightenment regress” and “the self-destruction of the enlightenment” and the regress of “enlightenment reason to myth”, which I tend to read as the regress of society to myth and not the actual regress of “enlightenment reason” (Sherman, 2007). As Bronner points out, the authors also talked about writing a sequel that would have carried a title something like “Reclaiming the Enlightenment” (Bronner, 2004; p.9), and one could take this to support the claim that the best or most progressive reading of their popular critique is one that is in no way “anti-enlightenment”, but rather one that tries to explain how the enlightenment was betrayed, which, for Adorno and Horkheimer, eventually leads to a critique of capitalism, its internal rationale and cultural industries.

For the purpose of this paper, I do not intend to offer a comprehensive engagement with this book and it numerous theses. My interest is primarily in the notion of regression, ethics and on Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature” thesis. For a fuller treatment of the book, its main arguments, as well as an analysis of legitimate and illegitimate criticisms, a selection of quality scholarly texts have been published in recent years (Brunkhorst, 1999; Bernstein, 2001; Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart, 2007; Cook, 2011; Leiss, 2011; Vogel, 2011; Smith, 2015a). More recently, Allen (2016) offers a summarily introduction to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in relation to a study of the alternative histories of Enlightenment modernity.

ii) Social development entwined with power? – Dialectic of Enlightenment

One of the more basic arguments presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment and, too, in Adorno’s own analysis with regards to the psychology of civilization, has to do with the author’s well-known thesis concerning “the domination of nature”. Here we understand in particularly existential terms (Smith, 2015a) that irrational fear or anxiety not only once drove Myth but also the betrayal of the Enlightenment in terms of society’s regress to irrationality. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the domination of human beings’ natural environment was made possible by controlling human beings’ inner nature – what we may also equate to psychological repression – which thus is said to ultimately lead to a limitation of the human horizon to cycles of self-preservation and power (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart, 2007; Cook, 2011; Smith, 2015a).

In psychological terms it seems that one could speculate a link between fear-driven social drives and the pathology of development (Smith, 2016), as there are a number of psychological theories that discuss a certain hardening effect of “the ego” which has subordinated itself to the specific socio-economic system in the interest of individual self-preservation. Or so goes the argument. In this sense perhaps a constructive reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment is one which combines Adorno and Horkheimer’s social philosophical theses with contemporary research in psychology, wherein the author’s “domination of nature” thesis – including a critique of the modern genesis of what they term instrumental reason – refers simultaneously to the systemic or structural workings of capitalism as well as to a radical existential thesis (Smith, 2015a) based on the notion of ‘self-preservation gone wild’ (Cook, 2011) that affirms the capitalist structure-agency relation? This is of course philosophical speculation, but it is interesting to think about: that is, the relation between social structures and systems and the development of the subject.

Understanding the problem of regress as a continuation of the impulse toward absolute identity and mastery – the epistemology of myth – which is rooted in the existential thesis of irrational self-preservation drives (Smith, 2015a), the argument seems how the basic impetus of “instrumental rationality” is to essentially attack the very thing it is supposed to serve. For the authors, it seems to make the most sense to read their argument in terms of how instrumental reason is in a sense a regressed form of the aspirations of enlightenment rationality in which society has regressed to myth coupled with the hardened, closed nature of “constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007). As we read in the more anthropological part of the book, the authors reflect on what they hypothesize about the association between the domination of the object and of one’s self for the benefit of increasing control of (internal and external) nature.

…the justifying idea of a divine commandment to subdue the earth and to have dominion over all creatures reduces the sensitivity of civilized humans for the conditions of their violent domination of nature organized in and by society. Finally, the internalized violent domination of nature also facilitates the use of force in social life. (Fischer, 2011)

If the Enlightenment was about liberating life, society, culture, and our common human values from the authority and control of the Church and the closed structure of medieval society (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), society has regressed – or, more accurately, has the tendency to regress – to replicating now global trends of domination (Zuidervaart, 2007). The God-ordained order of the universe mediated by the church might have been sought to be broken through the earliest philosophical and practical developments of the free flourishing of the human subject – human freedom, initiative, discovery, exploration and egalitarianism. However, as we learn, these ultimately humanistic values were eventually betrayed (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002). Instead of genuinely serving to liberate the person and society from external authority and oppressive governments, how enlightenment values are realized today are said to have been increasingly appropriated by dominant, controlling and exploitative ideologies. The clearest and most direct example can be found in the contemporary context of global capitalist ideology.

“Instrumental reason” was seen as merging with what Marx termed the “commodity form” underpinning capitalist social relations. Everything thereby became subject to the calculation of costs and benefits. Even art and aesthetic tastes would become defined by a “culture industry”—intent only upon maximizing profits by seeking the lowest common denominator for its products. Instrumental rationality was thus seen as stripping the supposedly “autonomous” individual, envisioned by the philosophes, of both the means and the will to resist manipulation by totalitarian movements. Enlightenment now received two connotations: its historical epoch was grounded in an anthropological understanding of civilization that, from the first, projected the opposite of progress. This gave the book its power: Horkheimer and Adorno offered not simply the critique of some prior historical moment in time, but of all human development. This made it possible to identify enlightenment not with progress, as the philistine bourgeois might like to believe, but rather—unwittingly—with barbarism, Auschwitz, and what is still often called “the totally administered society.” (Bronner, 2004)

Adorno and Horkheimer seem to offer a number of explanations as to where things have gone wrong. One such explanation concerns the critical analysis of the emergence of a certain analytic structure (Sherman, 2007) that exists as the inner most logic or epistemology of capitalism. One could also describe the issue along the lines of a critique of a certain cognitive paradigm (Cook, 2004; Smith, 2015e). Tracing the general tendency of the social regress to myth, of society’s regress from reason to irrationality, this analytic structure or cognitive paradigm is particularly dominating and coercive, driven to reduce everything to the realm of profit by way of exploiting scientific and technological means (Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart; Cook, 2011; Smith, 2015a, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016). However, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to argue that these issues didn’t start with the Enlightenment, as they trace the problem back to “primitive objectification” (Smith, 2015a). Moreover, along anthropological and epistemological lines, the example of how certain nature religions, in response to nature as fate, deified a particular dimension of life in attempt to obtain mastery of nature seems particularly apt (Smith, 2015a, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016).

… Dialectic of Enlightenment is best read as an account of the human inclination to constantly drive toward establishing a sense of (existentially-centered) dominant security in the name of the absolute, there is no better example of primitive objectification than in how certain nature religions, especially those who, in response to nature as fate, deified “fertility”. In this case, “fertility” was made absolute – it was universalized as an absolute faith-based principle – while the other dimensions of life were perceived as inferior or secondary. The objective of such deification? To master nature, or, at least, achieve a sense of mastery over nature. Was it possible that nature be actually mastered? No. But the existence of the drive to do so is precisely what is important to acknowledge. Moreover, the mythic concept of fertility in the past was really an effort to obtain a (false) sense of control over pure fate, not only in terms of pregnancy and childbearing, but also in terms of an attempt to control the fate of future harvests, and so on. Thus human beings turned the concept of fertility into the god of Fertility – into an Idol, an absolute or “totalized experiential orientation” in order to achieve a (false) sense of ultimate security in the midst of extremely precarious life. […] In the same way that the deification of the concept of fertility resulted in the securing of a “totalized experiential orientation”, so too does the drive of abstract [economic] reason aim toward a certain analytical and explanatory schema which, in turn, fosters a totalized and reductionistic approach to the phenomenal world. Adorno’s critique of the principle of “universal exchange” is more than telling in this regard. In the case of both myth and instrumental reason, it has already been described how everything tends to get reduced to the status of mere ‘object’ which can therefore be manipulated and controlled – where everything can be absolutely accounted for. Thus the statement by Horkheimer and Adorno that the enlightenment confuses “the animate with the inanimate, just as myth compounds the inanimate with the animate”. (Smith, 2015a)

Some thinkers have recently criticized Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature” thesis. William Leiss, focusing on a passage by Horkheimer’s, reflects how for the author the problem of “primitive objectification” relates to the “disease of reason” insofar “that reason was born from man’s urge to dominate nature” ( Horkheimer, 2003), claiming that this formulation leaves “no exit” (Leiss, 2011). Additionally, another problem seems to be that Adorno and Horkheimer’s arguments can often also be interpreted as saying that reason itself is the disease. This strikes a similar point as Habermas’ critique (Zuidervaart, 2007; Sherman, 2007). To be sure, it is true that, while Adorno and Horkheimer wish to preserve some hope for a positive conception of enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, pp. xvi, xviii), they ultimately seem to leave us with few glimpses as to what this positive conception might look like (Bronner, 2004; Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015a; Allen, 2016). The reason for this, Bronner speculates, “is that the logic of their argument ultimately left them with little positive to say. Viewing instrumental rationality as equivalent with the rationality of domination, and this rationality with an increasingly seamless bureaucratic order, no room existed any longer for a concrete or effective political form of opposition” (Bronner, 2004, pp. 3-4). There would certainly seem to be an element of truth to this observation.

What is most interesting about this book, and perhaps what remains relevant, is its notion of regression and its sense of betrayal.

Though the book lacks nuance and certainly makes some questionable claims, it would seem that accepted scholarship leans toward the idea that a correct or progressive reading is one which understands that at no point do Adorno and Horkheimer claim power and reason are absolutely identical (Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart, 2007; Cook, 2011; Allen, 2016). One of the basic theses at the core of the book concerns how reason becomes entwined with, if not in the service of, power. In truth, we could probably substitute the use of “power” with the basic thesis regarding social pathology and the problem of how values are realized and formed within a pathological society.

At the same time, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to be proponents of enlightenment reason and of the value of objectivity. To make matters more confusing, they use the notion of “instrumental reason” to describe what seems to be a particular form of rationality that has been brought into the service of dominating social systems and drives. Philosophically, as we read, it is no longer reason as a means itself; rather it is reason bound to dominant ends. In other words, the argument seems to be that reason is being pulled into the service of less than rational ends. Perhaps, in this sense, the main point of Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis, as David Sherman (2007) highlights, is that the relation between reason and domination is firstly socially focused and secondly it is historically contingent. Indeed, Allen (2016) writes: “If, however, the relationship between reason and domination is historically contingent, and if it doesn’t involve a reduction of reason per se to domination, then the paradox emerges from a certain process of rationalization and is not internal to reason as such” (Allen, 2016, p. 170). In this sense, it is a certain form of social reason – a certain use of human rationality that is no longer rational. In other words, there has been a social regress to myth or irrationality, which perhaps attests to Axel Honneth’s use of the phrase the “deficit of reason” in contemporary society.

This is exactly what was meant earlier in reference to a critique of a certain analytic structure or cognitive paradigm. In the same sense that the author’s critique of scientism is not the same as a critique of science, it is particularly fruitful to read relevant sections of Dialectic of Enlightenment as a critique of the betrayal of reason as both conceptual and historically contingent (Allen, 2016, p. 170). This is what gives possibility to the hope of a positive conception of enlightenment from within the context of the dialectic of enlightenment; because the focus of study is a particular deformation of reason. As Allen summarizes: “In this sense, Horkheimer and Adorno do posit an essential tension between enlightenment rationality in the broad sense and power relations understood as the control or domination of inner and outer nature” (Allen, 2016, p. 171).

The source of the fascist and totalitarian regression to barbarism that Horkheimer and Adorno witnessed as they wrote this text in the early 1940s, against the backdrop of the war and the horrors of Nazism, is not merely the concrete historical or institutional forms of enlightenment thinking: it appears to be enlightenment rationality itself, which they describe as “corrosive” and “totalitarian”. The key to this shocking claim lies in the meaning of the term “enlightenment”. It refers not – at least not exclusively and not even primarily – to the historical epoch of European Enlightenment that began in France and flowered in Germany in the eighteenth century, but rather to a more general process of progressive rationalization that enables human beings to exercise greater and greater power over nature, over other human being, and over themselves. It is the latter meaning of “enlightenment” that allows Horkheimer and Adorno to link enlightenment rationality with the will to mastery, control and the domination of inner and outer nature; this will to mastery comes to fruition in the historical period known as the Enlightenment, but it does not originate there. (Allen, 2016, p. 167)

What motivates such social regression from the positive, enlightenment, critically self-reflective, and emancipatory reason to a negative, totalitarian, and dominant form is thought to be revealed from deep within. Adorno and Horkheimer offer one interesting site of examination: what motivates today’s blind pattern of domination is irrational fear (Zuidervaart, 2007). “The gods cannot takeaway fear from human beings, the petrified cries of whom they bear as their names. Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. […] Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. […] Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p.11).

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the source of today’s disaster is a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown. […] In an unfree society whose culture pursues so-called progress no matter what the cost, that which is “other,” whether human or nonhuman, gets shoved aside, exploited, or destroyed. The means of destruction may be more sophisticated in the modern West, and the exploitation may be less direct than outright slavery, but blind, fear-driven domination continues, with ever greater global consequences. (Zuidervaart, 2011)

Adorno and Horkheimer’s task, then, was to hold a mirror up to societies that like to make claim to the enlightenment; thus to think through the pathological regression for the sake of the enlightenment. More clearly put: the aim is to hold up “a mirror” so as to “become aware of” such “regressive tendencies” (Allen, 2016, p. 168).

However, where Adorno and Horkheimer fail, I think, concerns firstly the lack of identifying of the underlying existential aspect of this drive to dominate nature (Smith, 2015a) and the historical contingency of the betrayal of the enlightenment in relation to a deeper notion of social pathology and pathological social development. Secondly, while Adorno in particular offers many elaborate analyses, not least in Negative Dialectics, when it comes to the tension between what is called instrumental rationality and power relations, he never quite gets to the core of the issue and in many ways his account seems to lack differentiation (Zuidervaart, 2007).

“If the relationship between reason and domination is a conceptual aporia, and if this means that reason is reduced to domination, then either there is no rational way out, in which case the way out can only be found through a nostalgic return to a romanticized understanding of magic or mimesis, or the way out can only be found by articulating an alternative conception of reason”. (Allen, 2016, p. 170)

On this reason, Adorno and Horkheimer do not disentangle this counterfeit form of social-economic rationality and its thirst for power once and for all, so as to then highlight a positive value of a revived enlightenment reason. But they do leave us with a sense of direction. They leave us, in other words, with a critical examination which renders social rational capacity self-aware of its entanglement with power (Allen, 2016, p. 172). This entanglement is not inevitable; it is a trend or tendency (Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015a), and in this sense their “domination of nature” thesis should be understood as preparing the way for potentially radical reflection on a fundamental alternative paradigm (Smith, 2015e). “On their understanding, the concept of enlightenment is not in itself barbaric or totalitarian; rather, it is deeply ambivalent, in the sense that it contains the potential to descend into barbarism and totalitarianism” (Allen, 2016, 173). I would personally be inclined to offer the caveat that this potential is not of the enlightenment itself, but, to clarify, is the risk of pathological society in which the most positive of values can be realized in the most distorted of ways.

iii) “Domination of Nature” – Moving the debate forward

In Christoph Görg’s (2011) article, “Societal Relationships with Nature: A Dialectical Approach to Environmental Politics”, we read in parts an argument toward how, as humans, we cannot avoid exploiting and transforming nature. Presenting an account of the reality that society has always had to extract from nature – that, in systems terms, there has always been a degree of entropy (Prew, 2015) – Görg offers a critical intervention against the extremist views represented in Deep Ecology or in anti-extractivist movements. He explains that a certain degree of exploitation and transformation of nature is a “natural” aspect of human society. This view would certainly also be backed by science. In light of Adorno and with Dialectic of Enlightenment in mind, Görg asserts that, if contemporary critical theory is going to grasp a critical ecology, we must understand that: “society is […] always dependent on its material conditions of existence, which are anchored in nature” (Görg, 2011, p.49). He then presents a striking discussion on how society can no longer ignore that such dependencies exist (Görg, 2011, p.49), calling, in turn, for a more advanced understanding of the mastery of nature, which, fundamentally speaking, requires that we “distinguish among the appropriation of nature for human needs” , the “destruction of nature”, and the “mastery of nature” (Görg, 2011, p.49). For Görg, “the former two are to some degree necessary”, “whereas the mastery of nature refers to a neglect of the non-identity of nature” (Görg, 2011, p.49).

It should be stated explicitly that Görg’s philosophical reflections correlate with scientific approaches to the issue of natural extraction. As we learn in systems analysis, for example, the problem isn’t entropy per se but the rate of entropy (Prew, 2015). Regarding this last point, the “non-identity of nature” that Görg describes is in reference to Adorno’s negative dialectics. What is important to note is that, what Görg is pursuing in his application of Adorno is a critique of the “total subsumption” of nature under societal aims (i.e., under capitalist forms of appropriation), which essentially functions without respecting that nature has its own meaning. This is a very similar reading of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature” thesis as found in Lambert Zuidervaart’s Social Philosophy after Adorno (2007).

In short, for Görg, we can effect change within our current sociohistorical-cultural circumstances and, indeed, we must alter our way of doing things (Görg, 2011, p. 49). However, the fundamental issue we face today – or at least one of the fundamental issues we face – does not necessarily pertain to the will to dominate or master nature; rather, Görg sees the problem as being in the pervasive manner in which capitalism drives to accumulate. It is hard to argue against this claim. One of the most destructive parts of capitalism, as we increasingly witness, is its lack of concern with regards to natural limitations. Hence one of the basic arguments by green movements regarding the insanity of ‘pursuing constant growth on a planet of finite resources’. The logic of critique here speaks clearly for itself – as does the science.

For Adorno as well as other philosophers that I have read, a critique of the “domination of nature” seems to indicate an critique of epistemology, wherein resides the disputed philosophical relation between subject and object. In considering this disputed relation, “the question of normative judgements about economic systems” comes to the fore (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 120). As Zuidervaart asserts: “the subject-object relation and the question of normative critique are at work in “The Concept of Enlightenment”” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 120), which is the first essay in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Zuidervaart goes on to explain:

This can be seen from the prominence given to a pattern of blind domination when Adorno and Horkheimer explain the “disaster triumphant” that has befallen “the wholly enlightened earth.” In their account, blind domination occurs in three tightly interlinked modes: as human domination over nature; as domination over nature within human existence; and, within both of these modes, as the domination of some human beings by others. To provide terminological markers for these three modes of domination, I shall use the terms “control”, “repression,” and “exploitation,” respectively. Critics of Adorno either downplay one of these modes or argue that they are not tightly interlinked in the manner he suggests. My own response is that all three modes do actually characterize modern Western societies and that understanding their interlinkage is crucial for a transformative social theory. (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121)

In pursuing his analysis of these three interlinked modes of domination, Zuidervaart claims that each requires its own form of normative critique (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Indeed, if Dialectic of Enlightenment “hovers near the trap of totalizing critique”, this is because “it does not differentiate sufficiently in its critique of domination” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Accordingly, Zuidervaart, a notable Adornian scholar, aims to contribute constructively to the retrieval and advancement of Dialectic of Enlightenment by showing why:

1) For Adorno and Horkheimer, violence is systemic, particularly insofar that “this systemic violence has emerged in a specific configuration, namely, in the imbrication of control (Naturbeherrschung) with repression and exploitation (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).

2) Why the differentiation of cultural spheres, and particular advances within science, art, and morality, are neither separate from nor reducible to societal tendencies (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).

3) If developments within the cultural sphere are to “deliver what they promise – for so-called progress not to be cursed with “irresistible regression” – systemic violence needs to be recognized and resisted”, a point which, for Zuidervaart, is the truth to Adorno’s “remembrance of nature” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).

Zuidervaart’s analysis seem to allow for a more fine philosophical intervention in a critique of control in relation to the need for control (that is, the difference of self-preservation drives being realized in an irrational way or a rational way). Moreover, in return to Görg’s article, his argument could be strengthened by Zuidervaart’s sufficient differentiation in his analysis of Adorno’s critique of domination (Smith, 2015a). As Zuidervaart also argues, not all control of nature is illegitimate (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). “In fact, [Adorno] regards some control to be necessary if human freedom is to be possible” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). But, as in Görg’s essay, the question that ultimately arises concerns, “how the distinction should be drawn between legitimate and liberating control, on the one hand, and illegitimate and destructive control, on the other” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).

Zuidervaart offers one possible solution. He argues that if the hope of modernity and the enlightenment gets distorted in a regress driven by fear, then an alternative to this fear would presumably be a form of recognition, which Adorno’s Eingedenken der Natur suggests (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). And yet, as Zuidervaart reflects, “it cannot be a straightforward recognition of “nature” as “other” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Nor can this recognition “be merely a recognition of nature’s power as the object of fear” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Instead, Zuidervaart argues, this recognition must be a form of “mutual intersubjectivity of human beings with other creatures in the dimensions of life they share” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).

The control of nature becomes violent when it does not promote the interconnected flourishing of all creatures but promotes human flourishing at the expense of all other creatures. The formation of the self becomes violent when it represses urges and desires that would lead to the satisfaction of basic needs. And the social distribution of power becomes exploitative, and therefore illegitimate and destructive, when it persistently promotes the apparent flourishing of one group at the expense of another (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 124).

4. The complex relation between science and society

To consider the lengths of such philosophical debates and reflection is challenging, stimulating and cause for reflection (regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions or arguments). When it comes to science, what is one to make of the argument that society and its rationale can or does become entwined with domination?

As a young scientist, what concerns me most is the status of society in relation to the health of science. As individual scientists, we each belong to this social world to whatever extent and in spite of how much one may try to distance oneself from it or to try to intervene rationally, one cannot fully escape it. Thankfully, though, the natural sciences are not without reflecting on the issue of objectivity and the need to constantly defend scientific practices against cognitive biases, and this remains an important normative site of defense. This struggle and concern can be evidenced for instance in an article by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, where she reflects:

To me, our inability — or maybe even unwillingness — to limit the influence of social and cognitive biases in scientific communities is a serious systemic failure. We don’t protect the values of our discipline. The only response I see are attempts to blame others: funding agencies, higher education administrators or policy makers. But none of these parties is interested in wasting money on useless research. They rely on us, the scientists, to tell them how science works.

I offered examples for the missing self-correction from my own discipline. It seems reasonable that social dynamics is more influential in areas starved of data, so the foundations of physics are probably an extreme case. But at its root, the problem affects all scientific communities. Last year, the Brexit campaign and the US presidential campaign showed us what post-factual politics looks like — a development that must be utterly disturbing for anyone with a background in science. Ignoring facts is futile. But we too are ignoring the facts: there’s no evidence that intelligence provides immunity against social and cognitive biases7, so their presence must be our default assumption. And just as we have guidelines to avoid systematic bias in data analysis, we should also have guidelines to avoid systematic bias stemming from the way human brains process information.

This means, for example, that we shouldn’t punish researchers for working in unpopular fields, filter information using friends’ recommendations or allow marketing tactics, and should counteract loss aversion with incentives to switch fields and give more space to knowledge not already widely shared (to prevent the ‘shared information bias’). Above all, we should start taking the problem seriously.

Why hasn’t it been taken seriously so far? Because scientists trust science. It’s always worked, and most scientists are optimistic it will continue to work — without requiring their action. But this isn’t the eighteenth century. Scientific communities have changed dramatically in the past few decades.

I don’t have nearly as much experience yet as Sabine and other physicists, who will no doubt be able to offer much more substantiated analysis. Perhaps in years ahead as I become a more seasoned physicist I will be able to reflect more on practice and the nuances of the issues. Over the years, however, I have had the opportunity to survey quite an extensive body of literature, and one of the things that seems clear to me in my current readings is that the relation between society and science is nothing short of complicated. Cognitive bias is something that science must constantly defend itself against. But what, also, of the social status of scientific outputs? Perhaps this is a question for moral and ethical philosophy, but it doesn’t seem to be taken seriously enough as a site for deep reflection. And this is the lesson I take from an engagement with the philosophical discourses described above.

Moreover, there seems to be a lot of evidence that scientific knowledge, as it enters into the social world (which is not to say scientific knowledge itself), can be used for destructive purposes – that the output of science, as it becomes mediated by irrational social forces, can be used to serve systems of political bias, economic exploitation, among other things. This is a really difficult issue to nail down. On the one hand, science and scientific practice exists generally within a special epistemological space. It generally does possess a certain autonomy that we really don’t see in many other parts of society, thanks largely to the many safeguards in place that ensure the objective rigour of scientific knowledge and practice. But what about the social factor external to science and thus the mediation of scientific advancement within the context of the social world? There is also, too, a question here about the status of reason and objectivity within the industrial sciences.

In critical philosophy, there seems to be a lot of confused literature and perspective that conflates the social and thus also pathological influence placed on scientific outputs with a critique of the whole modern scientific enterprise. It is quite a minefield and difficult to navigate. But from the perspective of moral and ethical philosophy, perhaps the question concerns how values are realized in an irrational society?

One of the most pertinent questions I’ve come across in recent time asks: In an age of great scientific achievement and technological advancement, “why does needless social suffering persist?” Science is the driving force of progress, but as the philosopher Adorno reflected, “can there be a good life in a bad society?”

Maybe there is a deeper truth about a certain contradiction or antagonism that science faces external to science, in terms of its ethical position within a less than ethical society? Consider studies which have expressed concern about the links between scientific output and how these outputs are exploited to serve the military-industrial complex, whose rationale is often systemically linked to exploitative political economy. It is at least worth raising the question, and it is at least worth reflecting on whether there is a real ethical problem about how, as we read in philosophy, the positive value of science is always under threat in terms of its output in an irrational social world (not to mention also in terms of anti-science political movements). For example, think of the development of lifesaving medicines such as penicillin, and yet the logic of modern society – its political and economic systems and structures – enforces in many countries a financial barrier that blocks a lot of people from accessing such an important form of antibiotics. The other day I read a story about an individual in the U.S. who turned down needed medical treatment because they couldn’t afford it. Similarly, there’s a well-documented case currently unfolding where the drug Sofosbuvir, a cure for hepatitis C, is caught in the grips of a patent war. It has been estimated that there are currently 80 million people with hepatitis C, and only 5.4m have access to sofosbuvir. If this patent war goes to the side of pharmaceutical giant Gilead, millions of people will likely continue to not have access to this important drug.

In relation to the above engagement with the dialectic of enlightenment, perhaps this is the more constructive and lucid meaning that can be deduced from the philosophical argument about the betrayal of the enlightenment; about the advent of a systemic instrumental economic rationality that in essence signifies a regress to myth; and about society’s entwinement with domination. To word it differently: is there value in thinking about how scientific outputs can or do (to whatever extent) become entwined with systems and forces of domination? If this question is considered valid, then the next question would likely concern how might we go about an empirical study and assessment of the issue.

5. Grounding normativity

I think another lesson that I’ve been able to derive from critical social philosophy, particularly in relation to the above, concerns the question of how normative universal values are realized. This may seem like a simple realization, but the main takeaway I think is the need for critical and ethical reflection on the status of core values. That also includes the question of how human rationality is realized in society. These ethical and moral philosophical reflections extend beyond the limits of this article, but what I would like to start thinking about is according to what ethical criteria might we normatively judge and assess the status of important humanistic values. Consider “democracy”, for example. Many of the prevailing forms of capitalistic democracy don’t actually seem that democratic in structure and practice, if one weighs the actual content of the value of democracy against today’s popular standard. There are many insightful studies about this, and how the mainstream standard of democracy today is positioned quite far from the actual critical normative (enlightenment) value of democracy, conceived primarily as an egalitarian principle.

In recognizing basic core enlightenment and humanistic values – like democracy, reason, equality, egalitarianism or even more practically, such as in ecological sustainability and community – one of the goals I think should be to ground these ideals in an objective and evidenced-based framework. The universal normativism of enlightenment values already begins to provide a foundation according to which one can assess and judge the status of society. The principle of egalitarianism, both in terms of social relations and how we relate to the natural world, which implies among other things that needless social suffering ought to be diminished if not eradicated altogether, this already helps keep in check the value of democratic systems. If modern political economy does not contribute to an increase in equality, to the diminishing of needless suffering, to an increase in democratic relations, and to economic sustainability, then we know something is wrong. On the basis of these ethical considerations, the goal would then perhaps be to ensure a normative theory of values in which the assessment of the development of those values is predicated on an open, rational form of critical consideration. Rather than any current system or cultural value-formation being hypostatized and made absolute, and thus non-negotiable, normative values are, well, critical and normative. They are also open to positive future development, to the fluid process of change and creation. Anyone familiar with the Enlightenment philosophes will recognize the general direction of such an argument. More practically put: values are unfolding, changing, negotiable, and yet they are also universal. Thus, in my own words, they are always subject to critical thinking and reflection, to non-bias, non-partisan mediation. If our current form of economy or democracy is no longer considered adequate when weighed against the objective demands of universal health and well-being, then perhaps there is a better form? Economic democracy is a good example.

In some sense, the lesson is very much indebted to the scientific mindset: if a theory no longer coincides with the evidence, with the empirical data, then it must be discarded. Phenomena keep unfolding, we continuously learn more about the social and natural world, and thus also our historical circumstances keep changing and call for new responses or perspectives.

Basic values like freedom, justice, solidarity, etc. are perceived not as abstract values given by god, authorized by the church, or as part of an abstract theoretical and political framework; but as a fundamental “life direction” which speak to us throughout human history. Rather than maintaining an abstract status as core values tend to in a lot of political social theory, perhaps what is called for is a much more open evidence-based process. It would seem, at least from everything that I’ve read, that an evidence-based approach is really the only foundation from which one can rely on and start moving forward and building from.

But an evidence-based approach must also be objective, unbiased and non-partisan, otherwise people can tailor their facts and even what evidence they look for in terms of their own political prejudices. Additionally, an evidence-based approach to policy and to social debate must surely be grounded in reason and the value of rational thought, investigation and deliberation. Perhaps I am wrong, but I consider reason and rationality – the process of rational investigation and consideration – to be a complex form enquiry that considers the object, phenomenon or situation in its complexity and integrality. Take, for instance, evidence-based approaches to policy concerning poverty. Research might find that a certain policy for longer working hours reduces poverty. Thus, that policy might be deemed economically successful. But what about the effect on individual health and well being? What effect does it have on family life and relationships? On this point, an evidence-based approach should consider the holistic reality and not just a one-dimensional perspective of investigation. It is about thinking of issues in their integrality and multidimensionality; it’s about thinking of reality in its complexity as opposed to the purely economic for instance. Another example concern disability policy. Government policy regarding cuts to disability benefits might evidence incentive for more people to work. But what about individual health and well being? Is it for the benefit of the individual? Lots of people with disabilities struggle to work, and what if they’re forcing themselves to work against the betterment of their well being due to the threat of economic precarity? In many ways it is about asking the right questions, openly enquiring and surveying, and most of all it is about thinking of the issues, of reality, in all its complexity.

Maybe I am wrong to raise the question: but does a purely economic-bound approach to policy and governance signal a rational approach? An integral and holistic approach can be learned from science. I think science teaches more than it does not about how nature is not just something distinct from or over against humans and human society (Görg, 2011). In some of my first environmental science classes I learned about our understanding of the integral unity and inter-connectedness of all of life and about the sensitive interconnectedness of eco-systems. For me, science helps reinforce the sensibility that we are an inseparable part of the ecological embeddedness of all life on earth, including human life, health and well-being. To this point, one of my favourite contemporary physicists, Brian Cox, recently commented: “Science is not a collection of absolute truths. Scientists are delighted when we are wrong because it means we have learnt something.” The deeper lesson, he suggested, is that “the scientific way of thinking is the road to better politics. The value of science is in embracing doubt.” In its rational openness and process of unbiased critical objectivity, the scientific mindset could inform an approach to public affairs “not by saying ‘this is absolutely right’ but by saying this is the best thing to do based on what we currently know”.

Democracy, respect, equality, science, community, horizontal leadership – they are what Arnold De Graaff calls “guideposts”, and they reverberate across time and “speak” in our experience with one another, especially when we look at things as objectively and with as little bias as possible. I would be inclined to argue that issues speak very objectively. Climate change is very clear and so are issues of sustainability. But such a lucidity so easily gets blocked in a social world defined by prejudiced subjectivity and ideological politicians. The ailing reverberates.

Ultimately, perhaps a reclaiming and re-energizing of the enlightenment also goes to help support the deepening of important humanistic values that also help foster a sensitivity about how we can no longer distance ourselves from the world of inanimate objects and living creatures. There is hardly an area of the earth – some pristine natural world – that is not touched by human activities. Even those wild, unexplored areas that may still exist in the world are subject to the consequences of changing jet streams and ocean currents, of air and water pollution, of the loss of hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals, of northward and southward shifting populations of many creatures as a result of warming temperatures. Everything is inter-connected with everything else through a complex of ecological systems, sub-systems and feed-back loops. Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons of the science of systems theory. Nothing exists just by itself. When one species of fish in the ocean is overfished, it can have radical effects on an off-shore fishery somewhere else. When trees are clear-cut in a particular mountainous area, it has drastic consequences for the whole eco system, the watersheds down the valley and mud slides covering whole villages. The emissions of coal generated power plants on one continent may result in air pollution and smog on another continent, as well as adding to the average rise of CO2. Some of the most isolated and ‘uninhabited’ polar regions are also some of the most polluted areas with rising temperatures and melting perma-frost. The examples are evident everywhere. The human community is inseparably intertwined with all the other non-human communities. Climate change and global warming have greatly underscored this inter-relationship.

The importance of protecting endangered species in different countries, for example, is not just about preserving one particular species of birds, animals, or plants, or even about protecting biodiversity in general, even though that is a serious issue in itself. Each species has its own worth and integrity that deserves protection. However, it helps our understanding even more when we become aware of the crucial role each species plays in the whole of the ecological system (De Graaff, 2016). Protecting plants and animals is about maintaining the integrity and ecological sustainability of the environment as a whole, including the human species. It means that we cannot think about the ocean, the air, the global wind and ocean currents, the fresh water supply, the soil, the land, the forests, or any particular species of animals or the inorganic world apart from the function they have in the total ecological system (De Graaff, 2016). There are many sub-systems and feedback loops that interact with each other. Drastically reducing one species of fish by overfishing or the decline of one kind of seagrass can mean the collapse or decline of an entire fishery. When we destroy, exploit, or pollute one ecological system or region, or one particular species, we often have no idea what the consequences will be until much later, when it may be too late (De Graaff, 2016). At some point there is the danger of the ‘tipping points’ where even two or three relatively minor changes can set off a chain reaction that is irreversible.

To gain an understanding of the environmental decline it is not sufficient to focus on one aspect or another or even a few aspects like global warming and climate change. All the ecological systems and subsystems seem to be interlinked and work in tandem. Temporary changes and fluctuations do not change the basic picture. Variations and some temporary ‘slowdowns’ in temperature, for example, are primarily related to oscillations in atmospheric and ocean currents. They do not change what is happening to the soil, or the fish stocks in the oceans or the decline and pollution of fresh water, or how long some glaciers will take to disappear. It is our human activities that have brought us to this crisis point.

In this context, maybe one is not too far off to suggest that we need an anthropology and an evolved enlightenment social epistemology that takes its starting point in the inextricable ecological unity and intertwinement of the inorganic, organic and human world. Considering “nature” as something separate that can be talked about apart from the human interaction and impact on “nature”, perhaps this leads to too much of removal of the interconnection between social and natural environments. It is one of the ways in which humans take control of and exploit the earth’s resources outside of reasonable limits and within evidenced based and informed systems. By contrast, many present-day ecologists and environmental scientists have adopted a holistic and integral viewpoint that is based on systems thinking and evolutionary processes. They use such concepts as ‘social-ecological systems’ that look at people and nature operating as interdependent systems (De Graaff, 2016). Journals like Ecology and Society and Conservation Biology are illustrative of this approach. This multi-dimensional unified perspective is also evident in the contributions of eco-socialists that start from the inseparable connection between eco-justice and social justice and the development of a multi-dimensional view of life (De Graaff, 2016).

This systemic ecological founding of all life means we are pursuing an enlightenment social philosophy judged by its egalitarian content and the not the mere form of a claim to values. The cosmos and our planet with all that it contains is living, developing, changing, intricate, and appears to still have many unexpected and unknown dimensions. There are many complex interconnections and dimensions that we are only beginning to understand. Along with an enlightenment view of epistemology and anthropology, this perspective has radical implications not only for our view of the earth and life beyond earth (cosmology) but also for our sense of normativity and morality as well as a phenomenological (‘lived’) ethics. Basing cosmology in the fundamental unity of life without artificial separation has far-reaching implications for our use of nature and the economic reduction of nature.

The argument that ‘we cannot avoid exploiting and transforming nature’, or that ‘not all control over nature is illegitimate’ can detract from moving our insight forward. All creatures, including the human species, ‘use’ other creatures and ‘transform’ their natural habitat. There are parasitic insects and birds, symbiotic relations that use each other, predators of all kinds, and so on. Different creatures transform their environment and use materials in all kinds of complex and intricate ways. In many ways ‘controlling’, ‘exploiting’ and ‘transforming’ is not an issue in itself. The problem is not whether we can use nature; all creatures do in a manner of speaking. Even posing the question of ‘good or bad’ and ‘legitimate or illegitimate’ use can be limiting if it is not followed by an extensive discussion of normative objective criteria for how we use the earth’s resources and creatures. The point, again, in systems language, is not that entropy exists, it is the rate of entropy that is the problem.

The primary question, then, is whether we are providing for our different needs in an ecologically sustainable way; that is the first and foremost issue with regard to the ‘use of nature’ (De Graaff, 2016). What effect does providing for our physical and social needs have on the total ecological system and the maintenance of the ecological balance? In our ‘control and use of nature’ are we respecting ecological boundaries, at least in as much as we have come to know them? Many, if not most industrial practices are not in harmony with these boundaries. Stabilizing the emission of greenhouse gasses by itself will likely not restore this balance. A second question, closely related, is what needs and wants do we try to meet and satisfy, primarily material ones or all human needs, from emotional, social, recreational, creative, relational, and explorative? (De Graaff, 2016). For me, these questions are rooted in and can also be guided by the foundational basis of enlightenment values.

In this sense most industrial farming, forestry, and fishing practices, fossil fuel extraction, mineral mining, manufacturing of steel, building materials, and cement, production and use of many chemicals, shipping and air freight systems, etc. are unsustainable ecologically (De Graaff, 2016). For each of these practices viable alternatives are available or being increasingly developed and progressed. However, without a radical systemic change there will be more disintegration, extinction, pollution, poisoning, devastating shortages, and a host of other consequences, like erratic and violent weather, global loss and decline of topsoil, depletion of fresh water, acidification of the oceans, further loss of biodiversity, climate and food refugees, ‘overpopulation’ and much more (De Graaff, 2016). This is the legacy of our un-economic and exploitative use of natural resources that disregards ecological boundaries and inter-connections.

By now it should be clear that what I am promoting is a scientific vision for a rational society.

What about technology? I, for one love technology, from building my own computers to keeping up with all of the amazing technological advancements. Is there a way we can conceive of technology within an enlightenment frame of reference that can serve and open up technological advancement to all of life? There are a lot of books and studies which discuss how, when technology is liberated from the straightjacket of one-dimensional economic practices, then perhaps it is allowed to foster a very different vision. Here durability, practicality, usefulness, simplicity, elegance can guide technological creativity and innovations instead of obsolescence and the constant pressure of developing ‘new products’ in the quest for more profits. Even from a material sciences perspective, the development of new sustainable building materials and intriguing new ways of constructing is exciting and inspiring. From smart homes and solar roof panels, small projects and models have been developed in different countries and have been shown at different international exhibitions. This is just a fragment of the rich technological movement currently unfolding.

New technologies and ways of manufacturing are there for us to see. People are doing some amazing things. If the normative principle of understanding resource limits is grounded for technology and manufacturing in terms of sustainability, durability, practicality, simplicity, comfort, elegance, and even democracy, then it is not hard to envision an even more exciting technological future.

In the end, if contemporary society is deprived of decency, justice, health, solidarity, democracy and egalitarianism, enlightenment values can also help guide how we move forward (Bronner, 2004). A fundamental and rational ethics in this regards represents a radical objective and scientific sense of direction that honours the very best of the Enlightenment philosophes while also seeking to contribute to them and the evolution of the enlightenment project as a whole. Informing a philosophy of history and social development, we have discussed how the enlightenment approach is a constant process of enquiry, debate, renewal and development (Bronner, 2004). A phenomenological ethics, in this sense, too, is expressed in a positive notion of enlightenment reason as being non-absolutizing. Concepts, theories, identities, are not static. Moral and ethical direction, too, is not hypostatized but subject to constant reflection and engagement in relation to unfolding reality, the obtaining of new facts and insights, and the changes realized in the process of time, duration and development. At the same time, science teaches us that there is objective reality and that truth must be striven for. On the bases of the lessons of the successes of the modern scientific endeavour, we might begin to develop a progressive and rational sense of social objectivity. In the spirit of the words by Cox: It is the overall direction that counts, step by step, and our willingness to retrace our steps and change course when needed. What this requires is an open, fluid, multidimensional view of change (Smith, 2014) that is principled on reason instead of its deficit. It requires the notion of Enlightenment reason as normative, practicing, critical, exploring and democratic.

Think, for instance, on a macro level: it is as simple as when our agricultural practices lead to ecological disintegration and climate change, we need to retrace our steps and make a radical change in agricultural practices. We can substantiate this need through our research and our scientific and empirical observations, which tells us something is wrong – the critical realities reveal that practice has gone terribly astray (Smith, 2015e). If our mining practices and the burning of fossil fuels lead to global warming, social injustice and crimes against humanity, we need to stop and come to our senses. If our oceans are acidifying and our fish stocks are depleting, we need to transform our economy. One can see in every aspect of the process that science and reason are at the heart of such a radical enlightenment social philosophy. The same is true on a micro-level. If local people don’t have a voice in what happens to their community, or if they can’t provide for themselves, or are dispossessed, or can’t use the food from their forests, or are deprived of clean water, we can know that something is drastically wrong and that there needs to be a structural change. The very enlightenment principle of democracy – let alone justice, human rights, and egalitarianism – has been betrayed. When a village cooperative becomes dictatorial and does not share equally, we know some fundamental directive for egalitarian relations has been violated. That does not mean that some situations can’t be complex and difficult to resolve, but the key directions are usually very clear. This is the point of a phenomenological ethics and the principle of rational, science-based, evidence-based, unbiased social objectivity and enlightenment epistemology.

Concluding thoughts

During the Enlightenment leading scholars not only started to oppose the political, economic, social and moral power of the Church and tradition, but, even more fundamentally, they rejected the foundation of the Church’s authority. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment project was that it made a radical break with a supernatural source of Revelation as the ultimate authority, power and norm for all of life. Even though many maintained a belief in God as the originator of the world that set things in motion, they held that it is up to humankind to discover the laws that govern life.

In re-enlivening the notion of universal enlightenment normativity, hence the Enlightenment concept of progress referenced earlier that is seen as open and unfolding, the grounded basis of the normativity of core humanistic values is in the constant openness and enquiry about their status, about the health and well-being of people and the planet, and about constantly surveying better possibilities and potentially more reconciled alternatives. Rather than protecting the status quo even if all the evidence points against it, a rational and enlightened society would be based on the foundations of the critical meaning of progress. And this, again, returns us to the importance of the value of reason and of the modern scientific endeavour. In spite of the many misinformed and inaccurate accounts of Enlightenment history, reason was never an enemy of progress (Bronner, 2004, p.20). Nor was science. Instead in almost every case the enemies of reason and knowledge were also the enemies of progress (p. 20) and science. Bronner writes more to the point that, “Unreflective passion offers far better support than scientific inquiry for the claims of religion or the injunction of totalitarian regimes. The scientific method projects not merely the “open society”, but also the need to question authority” (p.20).

Returning to some of the challenging questions posed earlier, the first and most important answer is to reiterate a science and evidence-based ethics not founded in an external authority. It should be an ethics that is safeguarded as best as possible from bias and prejudice. The objective ‘value’ of critical assessment speaks in non-biased and rational investigation. And here, perhaps, my own opinion may be further asserted: objective reality, bit by bit, is expressed when we no longer approach the world in a prejudiced way. But it also requires the complexity of holistic, integral and systemic consideration. It requires a fundamental sensibility with regards to the status of epistemology. It requires, too, an openness and sensitivity toward the intricacies of the rigors of complex rational enquiry. Scientific study of the natural world teaches us fundamental lessons as to how we might approach the social world. Suffering, like health, has an objective component. Sustainability and systemic environmental degradation, too, convey distinguishable objective realities. If moral and ethical progress means anything, surely it is the lessening of needless social and environmental suffering and surely this presents one of many objective criteria when it comes to gauging the current status of social development? In countless ways there is an overwhelming body of scientific research and empirical evidence of millions of ‘free flourishing human and non-human subjects’ being violated to a greater or lesser degree. Their inherent subjectivity, and genuine objective reality, tells us what is ‘right and wrong’ about their situation and about what needs to change. This argument, I think, would seem to represent the basis of an advancing and holistic conception of enlightenment reason. It calls for a return to a scientific vision of society and not a purely one-dimensional economic view – it calls for serious reflection on the level of epistemology as well as for an evidenced-based and objective approach to how we think about society, its complex relationships and integral developments.


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Philosophy and General Reading


[Originally published by Heathwood Press – 15 September, 2015]

Stephen Eric Bronner
The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists
235 pp. – $40
ISBN: 978-0300162516
Yale University Press, 2014

By R.C. Smith

Two weeks ago, 71 refugees from Syria were found dead in an abandoned lorry in Austria. This marked yet another dark day in Europe, the sadness of which was further enforced by reports from international relief officials that 150 people had drown in the Mediterranean. This followed the deaths of at least another 52 people, who had suffocated in the hold of an overcrowded boat found the day before. Then, just a few days ago, a photo of a drowned boy added to an already despairing narrative, the reality of which, truth be told, is as historically longstanding as it is systemic. According to the U.N., more than 2,500 people have died at sea this year. This figure does not include those believed to be victims in the recent sinking off Libya. In 2014, 3,500 people were said to have died or were lost while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. These numbers come as the United Nations refugee agency report revealed the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe had reached 310,000 this year, up from 219,000 in 2014. Then there are the countless thousands if not millions of other people around the world displaced, starving, caught between the suffering of their geography, tyrannical governments, and vicious western neoliberal international policy.

What we are witnessing today is possibly the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. In response to this crisis, the dominant reaction or narrative expressed by a large part of the European and North American populous has been one of blatant racism, prejudice and ideology. In the UK in particular, the response to contemporary crises, as Molly Scott Cato recently reflected, has largely resulted in the development of a narrative which will remind the progressive reader of the darkest days of Europe. The Daily Mail’s headline from the 1930s about “German Jews Pouring into This Country” is echoed today in such headlines as, “The Swarm on our Streets”. But it is not only the Daily Mail or other explicitly right-wing media promoting an openly racist, xenophobic, bigoted language and politics. Prejudice today permeates many mainstream media organizations and channels. It also propagates in many formerly “moderate” politicians and public speakers, not to mention through certain avenues of culture and daily patterns of discussion. In other words, as it tends to happen in a time of capitalist crisis, there has been a notable rise in prejudice.

Laurie Penny was not wrong when she commented in a recent article that “the xenophobic, Islamophobic and, most obviously, the anti-immigrant rhetoric has ramped up everywhere”[1]. What’s worse: as the anti-immigrant narrative shows signs of deepening, a new reality emerges – that of creeping fascism. Although this last observation is extremely important, it is not the problem of emerging strands of fascist politics that I would like discuss here. Rather, it is the manner in which bigotry pervades and permeates the contemporary social context that is the concern of this essay. Aside from the structural and systemic injustices of global capitalism, if the “refugee crisis” has revealed anything it is precisely to what extent exclusionary ideology and racist and prejudiced beliefs cavort under the cover of populism in Europe today. Albeit in different circumstances, a similar narrative in North America very much also attests to the same reality: the bigot is not an isolated phenomenon. Prejudice is pervasive. The bigot, traditionally perceived as the “white skinhead” – the white, rural male on the fringes of liberal society – is a myth. The truth is, the presence of the bigot today is widespread.

Outside of racist and prejudiced political parties and populist leaders – that is, the spectacle of a society drunk on the “the perverse grin and the endless discourse of shock and humiliation”[2] – I would like to consider here howand why the bigot is omnipresent in contemporary society. It is certainly true that the deepening of capitalist crises brings with it a rise of xenophobic, racist rhetoric.[3] Even in general sociological terms, we already know that modern political-economy has racist and highly prejudiced roots.[4] Modern capitalist institutions can also have a directly racist, prejudice-driven legacy. But outside of a critique of institutions and structures and systems, it is the ubiquitous existence of the bigot on an individual and community level which takes direct focus in this essay.

There is a reason why, as Molly Scott Cato reflects, a “deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices” have arisen “in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror”.[5] There is a reason why there is a “parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s”.[6] Recent economic developments surely play a significant role. But in order to grasp the problem of the bigot in general, a systematic and interdisciplinary analysis of the persistence of prejudice is required. Countless articles have been written in recent years about the increase of racist and homophobic behaviour being a socio-economic problem, a result of inequality, the outcome of poor education, a consequence of the ideological agenda of politicians and the media, and so forth. There is certainly a practical truth to these different analyses of, and explanations for, contemporary trends. But in each case, the innumerable articles and commentary lack a broader critical theory of society in their attempt to grasp the reality of racist, anti-immigrant and generally prejudiced language and politics. This is one reason why it is no longer enough to respond to the dominant narrative in the era of neoliberal crises by exclaiming that prejudice is unethical, irrational or violent; that the Bigot’s beliefs are unfounded; that they are principled on colonialism; or that his or her reactionary politics is ideological – rooted in structures of domination. Persistent fightback in the form of an endless stream of articles and commentary in popular media is useful in the maintenance of important flood walls – to fight and resist against the tidal wave of prejudice – but at some point it becomes merely another shot in the war of rhetoric. Contemporary popular discourse requires critical intervention and grounding, if it is to successfully combat bigotry. But such an intervention requires fine incisions, precise critique and sharp theoretical formulation – it requires a fundamental analysis of bigotry in all its complexity in relation to ‘the crisis of the state, law, economy, religion, in short, the entire material and spiritual culture of humanity’ (to paraphrase Max Horkheimer).

Thankfully, it is just such a complexity of study that Stephen Eric Bronner executes in The Bigot – Why Prejudice Persists (2014), as he examines bigotry in its various dimensions – the anthropological, historical, psychological, sociological, economic, and political.

What makes the bigot tick?

the bigot - why prejudice persistsWithin a few pages, l could tell that Bronner’s study was the sort desperately needed. Though I do not pretend to offer a thorough treatment of his book, what I will say is that The Bigot provides the basis for further development of a critical theory of prejudice. On the one hand, Bronner’s analysis represents a timely critical intervention. More than just a passionate study from a person who has spent years working to progress political philosophy and critical theory, Bronner’s book finely weaves an interdisciplinary analysis of bigotry and prejudice, offering individuals, academics, popular media contributors and writers, as well as anti-oppression movements a fundamental philosophical and practical framework for understanding the bigot. With an energy that might remind one of the first time they read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (1944), Bronner offers a significant contribution to a rich tradition of analysis and critique, as he dissects the cognitive plane of the bigot’s existence. This mode of cognition is revealed not only to be rooted in structures of social privilege; Bronner argues convincingly that the bigot is actually also one of the most malignant products of Modernity.

In a sense, one could say that the broader view of the bigot that Bronner presents is one which recognizes the bigot’s existence as being interwoven in the entirety of the social process – by which I mean to say that the psychology of the bigot is, in some respects, a projection or exemplification of what lies beneath the surface of existing systems and structures. Inasmuch that the bigot is a product of modernity in the sense of a fear of modernity, as Bronner explains, on my reading I think one could also argue that the existence of the bigot is a result of, or at least has some connection to, the anti-enlightenment. Indicative of broader social processes, the social practice of the bigot today essentially reproduces dominant forms of social activity. Unaware of the ways in which s/he is bound with social processes of production and reproduction, of a regress to irrationality, the bigot’s opinions, Bronner reflects, “are set before he enters into disputation or engagement with the world” (p. 110). Conformist to the coercive, hierarchical and authoritarian paradigm which is the source of his/her oppression, the genealogy of the bigot’s character structure is one principled in the repressed subjectivity of the individual who silences critical faculties, prereflectively submitting to dominant instrumental values. In a sense, one could say that there is an element of social determination here, as the bigot is an expression of the coercive and authoritarian apparatus of modern society.

Whatever experiences the bigot has serve only to reinforce inherited patterns of thought and imagery. Seeking to restrict the opportunities of his victim, he ironically restricts his own capacity to experience, learn, and reflect on reality. For all the bluster […] modernity tends to weaken the bigot’s sense of self and strengthen his propensity to embrace authoritarian politics. It is characteristic of that “prejudiced subjects want to be taken care of like children […] they want to exploit their parents like they exploit other people. […] not being self-reliant, they need support and comfort, first from the parents and then from parent substitutes.” Thus they are easily manipulated, quickly enraged, and prone to acts of aggression (pp. 63-64).

In this example, one can see that it is how Bronner formulates his argument, how he formulates all the right questions, which makesThe Bigot – Why Prejudice Persists an important study. What we read is a fundamental account of why prejudice appeals to the bigot, how s/he chooses their target, and what impulses are common to his or her worldview. We are essentially presented with a dialectical account: that is, an account which balances the broader brush strokes of a universal picture with the finer dabs of incisive detail about the particularity of bigotry in its many forms. This balance is one of the many applaudable aspects of Bronner’s analysis, as he works through the general and the particular, phenomenologically sketching a portrait of the bigot in practice: what constitutes the bigot’s existence, what characterizes his or her cognition, and, significantly, what underlines the bigot’s claims in effort to preserve his or her sense of diminishing power.

At the same time, the book is incredibly easy to read – a credit to Bronner’s style. In immersing myself in its pages, I was reminded of the most penetrating, sharp and moving pieces of existential-phenomenological literature. As deeply theoretically informed The Bigot is, the book is written from a place never far from the everyday reader. This allows Bronner’s study of such a complex phenomenon as the bigot, to remain accessible to a diversity of readers. It is as theoretically substantial as it is experientially reflective. Analyzing the systematic, all-encompassing mindset of the bigot, Bronner reveals its appeal, motivations, and complex relation to society’s historic unfolding. He shows how and why prejudice energizes cognition of, and even practically shapes, the conspiratorial and paranoid worldview of the “true believer”, “the elitist”, and “the chauvinist”, illuminating in the process the social, historical and political basis of mass paranoia and exclusionary ideology. Relating back to a broader critical theory of society, we come to understand in concrete and practical terms why the bigot is an ever-presence in mainstream conservative and right-wing movements, and also why prejudiced subjectivity is never too far from the sort of fascistic politics witnessed in the 20th Century. We also learn – and perhaps this is most crucial – that the bigot today, who is a ubiquitous presence in contemporary society, is a fabricated relativist and a paradoxical opportunist (pp. 17-19), often preferring to slyly shift about the mainstream in order to support, influence or design populist policies and thus also shape populist politics that aggressively set upon whatever targets of his/her contempt.

Educating the bigot’s enemies

Written not in the naivety of the idea “of converting bigots”, Bronner makes his aim clear: to instead “help educate the bigot’s enemies” (p. 3). Conversely, it is a testament to Bronner’s precise and sharp conceptual analysis that The Bigot has received some notable reactionary reviews, such as Naomi Schaefer Riley’s piece in Books & Culture – A Christian Review. Even when announcing that I would be writing this essay, I received several interesting comments from the public which, in essence, exemplify the exact widespread portrait of the bigot that Bronner strives to capture and examine. In achieving its ambitious aims, his book ultimately challenges the reality of the deeply ingrained racist, prejudiced language and culture throughout much of the western world. Inasmuch that existing racist culture – the categories of black and white and brown, which children are subject to early on in their development – usually eventually turns into a racist knowledge and language, however subtle or in-direct in the subject, it is the manner in which prejudice embeds itself in the popular psyche that represents a challenge for us all. This culture – a dominant culture of real coercive legacy – historically produced and continues to produce racist significations, in which we all must introspectively reflect upon and defeat. And this is a point that Bronner is certainly well aware of. He writes, for example, that we cannot “compartmentalize” bigotry, because “prejudices such as anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, sexism and religious intolerance […] intersect in their ideological and political expressions” (p. 4). In another way, “the bigot rarely only has one target for his hatred”, thus, in theory and in practice, “solidarity in combating such clusters of hatred requires illuminating what is shared by all yet irreducible to none” (p. 4).

The fight against bigotry, prejudice, hate – or oppression and domination writ large – is a fight we must all take up. But the difficulty for anti-oppression movements is, in part, the general complication of identifying bigotry in practice. Of course certain forms of bigotry and prejudice are easy to identify, just as certain forms of racist knowledge and language are easy to identify. But not all instances of racism or prejudice are easy to see, becoming all the more difficult to identify when we start to analyze bigotry on the level of structures and systems and institutions. This again is why critical theory should aim to assist individuals and movements in understanding the complexity of anti-oppression struggle today. Bracketing this point until the conclusion of my review, one important way Bronner’s study helps us moving forward is that it provides an accessible theoretical foundation to understand, for example, how and why the dominant racist narrative in an era of neoliberal capitalist crises is an exemplification of the all-pervasive presence of the bigot. Ubiquitous, diffuse, the bigot is no longer limited to the identity of the “white skinhead” or the neo-Nazi. Instead, the struggle we face today against oppression is rooted in the fact that the bigot “is elusive” (p. 195). Moreover, “No political or economic reform is secure and no cultural advance is safe from the bigot, who is always fighting on many fronts at once” (p. 194). Thus, “Remedies that deal with one realm don’t necessarily carry over when engaging with another”, as the bigot “appears in one arena only to disappear and then reappear elsewhere” (p. 195).

The professor, the artist, the bricklayer, the politician, the dentist, the gardener, the shop owner, the neighbour, the labourer, the hairdresser, the data processor – the omnipresence of the bigot is not only a result of the diffusion of the many conditions, characteristics, boundaries and exclusionary identities of prejudiced subjectivity. The simple fact is that “the bigot is not always a religious zealot, a contemptuous elitist, or an embittered chauvinist. The bigot is more than the role he plays. He can be a parent, a neighbor, a worker, a professional, a consumer, and a friend. He is often polite, hospitable, charitable, and nice to animals. His degree of obsession differs” (p. 86). In other words, the bigot does not always openly express his prejudice or assume readily identifiable prejudiced identities. Unlike the clear and direct outburst of prejudiced subjectivities and violent neoliberal psychologies often personified, for example, in the form of right-wing political parties and leaders in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Greece, France, Holland, and elsewhere; the everyday bigot isn’t typically “the face of a political system mired in corruption, an economic system that is as ruthless as it is authoritarian”.[7] Instead, the everyday bigot generally likes to assume the role of the “everyman”, often empathizing in his/her delusion with the struggle of what s/he perceives as “white prejudice” or “white oppression” at the hands of the Other.


In short, we learn in Bronner’s book the basic characteristics of an ongoing reality: that there is no more a deluded cognition than the one which, in moral panic[8], turns the structural and systemic reality of social, political and economic crises into a dominant and violent cycle of ideological rationale. The general, perverted ideological rationale I am alluding to here, is one not only locked in a cycle of increasingly bigoted and prejudiced rhetoric, presented as ‘uncomfortable truth’[9] (i.e., the ideological construction of a set of doctrines which form the basis for a highly distorted interpretation of reality). It is the sort of rationale also locked in the cognitive process of ideological displacement:[10] that is, the deflecting away from the source of contemporary crises, instead directing resentment toward the immigrant, the refugee, the homosexual – the Other – who is said to be responsible for all one’s social trauma, suffering and struggle.[11]

The bigot, a counter-revolutionary in spirit, is actually directly connected to existing modes of domination. The bigot’s existence is principled, one could say, on coercive power. Rooted in structures of social privilege, the bigot’s existence is characterized by fear – one could say an existential level of fear: that is, a “fear that the forces of modernity are destroying his social privileges, his feeling of self-worth, and his world” (p. 22). Moreover, in fear or in a sense of threatenedness regarding the undermining of his/her belief system (pp. 22-23), the bigot’s sense ofself is fueled by religious conviction or dogma of whatever variety as well as inherited knowledge, and thus also by a totalized sense of the world (pp. 100-101). “All the roles played by the bigot buttress an “affirmative culture” supposedly superior to any other” (p. 100).

The decisive characteristic of this culture, according to Herbert Marcuse, is its “assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable world that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual ‘from within’ without any transformation of the state of fact” […] None of the bigot’s roles allows him to employ language as a medium for illuminating what is intellectually unknown: it exists merely to affirm what has already been intuitively disclosed to him. As a true believer, an elitist, or a chauvinist, the bigot is thus provided with an entirely self-referential way of living in the world (pp. 100-101)

In a sense, the bigot is consumed by his or her totalized experiential orientation with the phenomenal world.[12]On this understanding we can see how the bigot’s sense of self is so intimately entwined in the deceptions of his/her rationale, ideals, and compensations – a cognition of privilege, power and domination. Prejudice, then, as we read in The Bigot, is more than a superficial complex. The roots of the bigot’s prejudice reach all the way down to the individual’s securing of his/her existential worth, and his/her “identification with the world in which he came to be what he is” (p. 100). This remarkably progressive insight by Bronner is what gives his account its critical normative thrust – its normative foundation – as he is able to ground a fundamental critique of bigotry, or so I claim, in a social-historical framework of subject (de)formation and development.

In relation to a very broad cross-disciplinary programme of study, my reading of Bronner’s study is one which acknowledges this notion of the (de)formation of the subject as being fundamental in our understanding of bigotry in relation to the historic unfolding of the structures and systems of modern society. That the bigot represents a certain form of cognition – a highly delusional, paranoid, alienated and terrified mode of being – means that what we’re up against today is both a deeply ingrained prejudiced subjectivity, and also the systems and structures which produce and reproduce that subjectivity.

One can imagine here, for example, a twist on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus or even the Frankfurt School inspired view: that bigotry is simultaneously systemic and developmental, structural and subjective. It is the product of modernity insofar that it is a product of the genesis of the anti-enlightenment subject that fears the progressive force of the enlightenment.

The bigot in relation to a theory of the (de)formation of the subject

It is around this point that I wish Bronner developed his argument in more detail and in richer colour. Perhaps it is the critical theorist in me, but I wish that he took more time to explain and develop an analysis of the relation between existing capitalist structures and systems and the genesis of the bigot. This is not to say, as I’ve alluded above, that an analysis of the genesis of the bigot is entirely absent from Bronner’s wonderful and gripping study. He comments, for instance, that the bigot’s self “derives from power-protected inwardness” (p. 105), a diagnosis of which refers back to the essentialism of the bigot’s belief system (i.e., the development of a totalized experiential orientation). As a petrified subject, similar in a way to what we read in Adorno’s own account, the bigot “displaces reality” and “closes himself off from questioning reality’s actual character and complexity” (p. 104). Diversity, divergence, the possibility of otherwise[15] – the experiential ‘moreness’ of experience[16] – not to mention new ideas, new choices and, indeed, revolutionary politics, produce intense anxiety for him/her (p.104). The application of homogenous stereotypes, the employment of instrumental rationality and “identity thinking” (Adorno once more), represents a deep existential and ideological refusal in the bigot to recognize anything that may oppose his or her (false) sense of ultimate security in the world (pp. 104-105). Belief of course takes a “dogmatic and ostentatious form” in the bigot, not least because, again, one’s self confidence – the very fibers of one’s sense of self-constitution – is “tinged with hysterical fears of contradiction”, even though the neurotic-like and highly repressed patterns of actions and statements of the bigot exist according to an ultimately highly contradictory psychic paradigm. Thus we get in the United States and the United Kingdom today racist, prejudiced and authoritarian forms of right-wing libertarianism: such as in attempts by UKIP and The Tea Party, ‘to mesh libertarian capitalism with a parochial populism preoccupied with family values, religion, and a mythical vision of community’ (p. 168).

The ultimately dominant, authoritarian and coercive politics of the bigot – however it may be formulated – is understandable, too, if we consider, similar to what I argued in Consciousness and Revolt (2013), that prejudice requires a certain closing down and conscious stunting of the subject. “Each role played by the bigot”, writes Bronner, “requires unthinking submission to what Sigmund Freud termed the “cultural superego” (p. 102). It is understandable, then, why “Myths have always held a particular attraction for the bigot” (p. 54), especially when it comes to his/her politics. In short: myths “offer an intricate network of symbols and meanings for making sense of life even today. They evince desires, illuminate experiences, alleviate fears, and raise hopes. Mythological thinking provides structure. But it does so in a prelogical fashion that pays little attention to critical reflection or the transformation of powers of human agency. The world of myth is fixed and unalterable even as it is often erratic and chaotic. It is a world dominated by fate in which one can explain one’s woes without reference to individual responsibility” (p. 54). Insofar that “Myths are easily adaptable to the self-serving outlook of the bigot”, enabling the individual “to withdraw from history”, the main point is that mythological thinking largely represents “the bigot’s conceptual apparatus” (p.55).

Conversely and additionally, it is striking how much Bronner’s analysis of the analytic structure of the bigot echoes what I frequently read in much of critical social philosophy. We read in Adorno and Horkheimer’s study, for example, a critique of the standardizing impulse of the modern anti-enlightenment subject, in which in the prejudiced subject enlightenment reason reverts to myth, serving as a mode of instrumental consciousness typical of the repressive cycles of the bigot’s cognitive mode of experience as illuminated by Bronner. The bigot is shut off from open, mediating, critical and rationally enquiring experience. Pre-reflectively experiencing that which constitutes his/her world of self-deceiving belief – or “bad faith” in Sartrean terms – the bigot’s cognitive plane of action manifests as a lasting repression of sense, reflex and emotional responsiveness. In a way, I think this lasting repression serves the purpose of control: not only outward control and domination of the bigot toward the Other, but to also subdue the subject in one’s self. The bigot’s closing down thus plays a duel role: a pre-reflective mode of domination and coercive power that not only draws rigid distinctions between friend and enemy (p.57), but essentially suppresses the unfolding process of self-development.

In another way, one could say that the bigot represents the deepening of surplus repression (to play on psychoanalysis) – that is, the opposite of healthy subject (self-)development which requires the individual to be open to diversity, divergence or the possibility of otherwise and therefore also to other people and themselves. On this level of analysis, we can begin to understand the sort of insensitivity characteristic of the bigot’s subjective experience. Rather than an attentive and sensitive mode of experience, the bigot is shut-down to the world of multifarious phenomena; because everyone and everything is reduced – preemptively – to an object of the bigot’s already established worldview. One can expand on these claims by suggesting that domination and violence enacted by the bigot is actually the purest expression of the status of his/her subjectivity and epistemology.

But, again, if there is a problem with Bronner’s analysis, it is how it lacks more thorough consideration along these lines: that is, it doesn’t consider to my satisfaction a broader philosophy of the subject.


Admittedly, I have only offered a brief caricature of Bronner’s otherwise thought-provoking book. Within this caricature I have touched on just a few important points. On the basis of these reflections, my one criticism is that there are too few indications of the relationship between structure and agency in Bronner’s account of the bigot and the genealogy of the bigot’s prejudiced subjectivity. In a society where domination and violence is increasingly openly tolerated – in a society which fosters a hardened, repressed subject as opposed to an open, free-flourishing and sensitive subject[18] – one has to ask the question of the structural and systemic construction of that society in relation to such social phenomena as bigotry. In doing so, one must also ask the question of the status of the modern subject – the question of the social construction of the subject. Thus, while Bronner’s account is thorough in so many ways, it lacks when it comes to one of the most important questions: the social production of prejudiced subjectivity – the cognitive plane of the bigot – in relation to contemporary social, political and economic systems.

We read, for instance, that “the bigot lags behind the rapid changes generated by capitalism and so is condemned to resist new forms of social and political life” (p. 21). We read also that the bigot is “uncertain of what to make of capitalism”, as s/he is an opportunist at heart, and likes it only when his/her interests are being served, when his/her superiority is maintained, when the Other is exploited (p. 17). In other words, we come to understand that the bigot dislikes it when s/he feels disadvantage, when s/he no longer feels on top (p. 17). Bronner thus gives us a sense of the bigot’s complex relation with capitalism and hierarchy: that the bigot is “caught between fear of the capitalist and contempt for workers, admiration for competition and principled dislike of socialism,” thus s/he “vacillates” (p. 17). But for all that, Bronner doesn’t provide enough of a satisfactory explanation of the role of capitalism and the coercive legacy capitalist institutions might have played in the development of the bigot. It’s not that I think Bronner is unaware of the importance of this question, it just seems to slip his focus. To his credit, an awareness of colonialism is present, as one would expect. And there is no question that the relationship between the bigot and modernity is well examined. “Modernity relies on growth”, reflects Bronner, and what was “once taken on faith is now subject to criticism”, which is undoubtedly a source of real conflict for the bigot. In this complex relation, the bigot will at times employ “the same scientific methods as his critics”, using reason and science to “support his prejudices” (p. 15). In other words, the bigot will adapt to modernity to serve his/her own prejudiced ends.

Relatedly, there is a part of me that wishes Bronner developed further a detailed understanding of the bigot’s psychology, particularly in relation to the bigot’s general affinity for hierarchy; for the allure of charismatic and dominant leaders; and often for hollow forms of ideological and prejudiced collectivity. These points, which could have and should have been explored in more detail, remind me of interesting studies in recent time. From the tradition out of which Bronner’s book emerges, it would have also been interesting to read more about what he thinks of Adorno’s critique of Freud’s concept of the unconscious in “Sociology and Psychology”[19], where he argues that the psyche must be dragged back into the social dialectic, which happens to also be “the position Marcuse takes in Eros and Civilisation”.[20] Considering Adorno’s thesis here, one of the issues we face today, as David Sherman reflects, is how: “If the ego fails to differentiate itself by virtue of the fact that it has been colonized by the institutional structures of society (bourgeois or fascist), it not only effectively cancels itself out as an agent, but, in the process, it also immediately transmits to the unconscious those social aims that would otherwise be subject to the critical capacities of a well-functioning, mediating ego – aims that actually contradict the goals of the primary libido. In other words, if the primary libido is what Adorno intends by the “nature of the subject”, which ideally serves as a reminder of the nondominating possibilities of genuinely enlightened thought (DOE, p. 40), the transposition of societal aims directly into the unconscious (due to a colonized ego structure’s inability to filter out the irrational) would effectively negate the possibility of the “remembrance” [of nature] that would permit the libido to serve as this source of resistance. And, indeed, this is precisely the aim of fascist propaganda.”[21]

It would seem to me, in other words, that a broader social theory of the colonization of the ego and subject (de)formation would have benefited Bronner’s overall thesis. It would have grounded it even more in history and in a complex, many-sided theory of society. Furthermore, consider in critique of Freud’s Oedipal Complex the notion Adorno puts forth: “the internalisation of external authority [is] the deeply problematic outcome of the dialectic of enlightenment”[22]. Though I don’t agree with all of the Adorno’s analysis, the idea that anti-enlightenment or social irrationality persists within the manifesting tendencies of coercive society to maintain control, and, indeed domination through top-down application inasmuch as also through the subject, is quite a striking idea. In a passage also quoted by Sherman, Adorno describes how:

 The social power-structure hardly needs the mediating agencies of ego and individuality any longer. An out-ward sign of this is, precisely, the spread of so-called ego psychology, whereas in reality the individual psychological dynamic is replaced by the partly conscious and partly regressive adjustment of the individual to society …/ A brutal, total, standardising society arrests all differentiation, and to this end it exploits the primitive core of the unconscious. Both conspire to annihilate the mediating ego; the triumphant archaic impulses, the victory of id over ego, harmonise with triumph of the society over the individual”.[23]

In sum, I think Bronner could have done with developing more of a complex argument regarding the dominant, coercive and authoritarian nature of modern capitalist societies and how domination is particularly produced and reproduced in the bigot. There is a lot of substantive research on this issue, that would have deepened even more the book’s cross-disciplinary ambitions. A clear and direct line would then have also been opened for him to relate his study of prejudiced subjectivity to the deeply troubling formation of what some social scientists are terming “the neoliberal subject”.

Closing reflections: A radical politics

In closing, Bronner offers several suggestions in how we might combat the all-pervasive presence of the bigot moving forward. Around these suggestions he introduces the notion of the “class ideal”, the purpose of which is to create solidarity among diverse movements and identity groups (pp. 193-194). Although I don’t entirely agree with the general sentiment that “social movements structured around identity rather than unions are now probably the primary sites from which class issues can be generated”, I do agree with the general horizon Bronner seems to want to work toward: a progressive, transformation awareness of injustice, oppression and anti-enlightenment, bigoted social forces. Ultimately, I think there are more effective ways to approach the notion of the “class ideal” or the creation of symbolic solidarity. In any case, Bronner is spot-on when he reflects that:

“Any new approach will need to navigate and integrate three previously distinct facets of the struggle to marginalize the bigot: cultural practices that foster a cosmopolitan sensibility; political action that provides recognition for the disenfranchised and the outsider; and economic programs that privilege the class interests of the working people” (p. 194).

Moreover, the abolishment of prejudice, Bronner states, “should inform all struggles against class exploitation” (p. 194). To that, one might suggest taking Bronner’s analysis to its radical political conclusion: the need for an inclusive, participatory, mutually recognitive politics, which may potentially establish far-reaching solidaritybetween a diversity of movements in struggle against hierarchy, oppression, and exploitation – or domination writ large. Such struggle, in the end, is the struggle for enlightened and emancipated society.

In building off Bronner’s argument, I suggest that to successfully combat the bigot, one must come to realize the universality of struggle, and shift the debate from a politics of fear to a politics of hope and openness and inclusion. One must establish a counter-narrative that signals the pursuit of an emancipatory, enlightened politics. This would include an open, inclusive, tolerant politics within the field of participatory public engagement – one not principled on fear, but on compassion and empathy, on mutual recognition, and on a view of freedom that exists in and through relations with others, the exact opposite of a politics of alienation and coercion and one-way circuits of power. Many walls seem to have been created between people; the task should be to dismantle them and encourage rational, open, critically enquiring dialogue. Thus, in refusing the bigot’s claims, not only should we recognize the particular struggle of diverse identity groups, but we ought to cultivate a politics which, prefiguratively speaking, overcomes the hierarchy and exclusionary ideology of prejudiced subjectivity that seems to be increasing in our present society.

Of course it is not so simple to organize such a diologue and awareness, but perhaps this is challenge that Bronner alludes. In combating the bigot, the struggle is not just one for a social-political, economic system that cares for all people irrespective of their race, gender, or sexual preference – a system that doesn’t foster economic and social conditions that create desperation, inequality, hardness, economically-centred xenophobic and racist outbreaks, authoritarian psychologies and pedagogies, global exploitation and ultimately the most ruthless oppression. It is also ultimately the struggle for emancipation and justice insofar as it is the struggle for collective social healing, after centuries of adapting to and developing within an ultimately coercive and dominant social reality. In this struggle however, one thing remains clear: the bigot is one of the biggest threats to progressive, enlightenment and core humanistic values. “Remaining steadfast in resisting the prospects for a world in which all individuals insist on respect, equality, and social justice, knowing more, learning more, enjoying diversity”, the bigot “knows his enemy”, as “It is the same enemy the bigot has always had, namely, the idea that things can be different” (p.195).


[1] Penny, L. 2015. Europe shouldn’t worry about migrants. It should worry about creeping fascism. NewStatesman. Retrieved from

[2] Giroux, H. 2015. Trumping America. Truthout. Retrieved from

[3] Fuchs, C. 2013. How Ideology is Policing the Crisis of European Capitalism (On the rise of far-right, dominant ideologies in Europe). Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from; Smith, R.C. Insecure Britain: On the Anti-Immigrant Narrative, the Rise of UKIP and the Unquestionableness of Capitalism. Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from

[4] Davis, A. 2013. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Closures and Continuities. Retrieved from; Sperber, E. 2014. Property, Racism and Police Violence: Why Recent Injustice in the US is Systemic. Heathwood Press. Retrieved from; Osterweil, W. 2014. In Defense of Looting. The New Enquiry. Retrieved from; Smith, R.C. 2015. An Institution of Oppression or for Public Well-Being and Civil Rights? Reflections on the Institution of Police and a Radical Alternative. Heathwood Press. Retrieved from

[5] Cato, M.S. Our treatment of today’s refugees harks back to Europe’s darkest hour. NewStatesman. Retrieved from

[6] Ibid.

[7] Giroux, H. 2015. Trumping America. Truthout. Retrieved from

[8] Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. 1978. Policing the crisis. Mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan.

[9] Nagarajan, C. 2013. How politicians and the media made us hate immigrants. openDemocracy. Retrieved from

[10] Fuchs, C. 2013. How Ideology is Policing the Crisis of European Capitalism (On the rise of far-right, dominant ideologies in Europe). Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from; Smith, R.C. Insecure Britain: On the Anti-Immigrant Narrative, the Rise of UKIP and the Unquestionableness of Capitalism. Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from

[11] Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. 1978. Policing the crisis. Mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan.

[12] Smith, R.C. 2013. Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[13] Smith, R.C. 2013. The Ticklish Subject? A critique of Zizek’s Lacanian theory of subjectivity, with emphasis on an alternative. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[14] Mascarenhas, M. 2014. Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada. Lanham: Lexington Books; Lissovoy, N. 2013. Conceptualizing the Carceral Turn: Neoliberalism, Racism, and Violation. In Critical Sociology, vol. 39, no. 5 739-755; Davis, A. 2012. The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers.

[15] Smith, R.C. 2013. Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Smith, R.C. 2013. Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[18] Sherman, D. Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity (New York: SUNY Press, 2007)

[19] Adorno, T.W. 1968. “Sociology and Psychology”. In New Left Review 47, P.81

[20] Sherman, D. 2007. Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity. New York: SUNY Press, p. 225

[21] Sherman, D. 2007. Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity. New York: SUNY Press, p. 226


[23] Adorno, T.W. “Sociology and Psychology” (New Left Review 47, 1968), P.95

Philosophy and General Reading


[Originally published by Heathwood Press – 16 November, 2015]

By R.C. Smith

This will either be the age of humanity or its opposite.[i] There is no in-between. As much as I detest a black and white course of analysis, there is no middle here, there is no nuance or greater complexity; we have reached or are close to reaching the fundamental climacteric of humanity, its violent cycles, and the ritual suffering of these days formally characterised as the “war on terror”. Before the death of the notorious Islamic State murderer Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”, whose crimes and acts of violence were particular repulsive (including the beheading of innocent hostages), the political will in much of the west was that this individual and the rest of IS (or Isis) be shown no remorse. Now that he is dead, the general response to the news has been one of an ‘instant sense of relief’. The death of Emwazi has even been described as “highly symbolic”, a shift in the course of the war that is now “showing some signs of progress”. A shy boy who loved football, eventually turned extremist and thirsty for blood, the story of Emwazi has a caused a great stir in the UK, US and other parts of the western world. Video footage of him killing innocent people are unbearable. There is no doubt that there is something especially sinister and savage about his violence, which could perhaps be seen as a clear example of the intensifying patterns of barbarity of this young century. Cries for his death have echoed throughout society, in newspaper columns and on the television. His acts are gruesome. His ideology sinister. That Emwazi and all he stands for is particularly notable in its horror – a horror that stands out from all the especially gruesome realities of the last 14 years – shows that the direction the war on terror is taking is of limitless, pure brutality. The repulsion felt by many in the west and beyond has been met with cries that Emwazi should suffer ‘a death of a thousand wounds’, conveying not only a general attitude toward his violence and that of IS but also our own. Irrespective of faith, of religion, or lack therefore, agreement seems set that no decrepit death would be enough for this man. As I read on one forum, “he must die, and no unimaginably gruesome death will be enough”.

Yesterday, 13 November 2015, messages of celebration rippled throughout the media, on comment boards and on the radio: Emwazi was finally killed. It has been reported by the US military that they are “reasonably confident” he was finally brought to justice in the Syrian city of Raqqa, after a Hellfire missile hit his car. The popular and mainstream response has been one of joy. That his body was likely torn to bits, fragmented, annihilated, scattered in and amongst debris, likely blood soaked – society’s cry for vengeance has been satisfied. The thirst for public execution – or, at least, execution energized through public will – has been quenched. Tomorrow there will be new targets. New acts of violence. New acts of barbarity. IS will no doubt respond in its own typically horrific way, and in retaliation new calls for capital punishment – for death as justice – will ring throughout society. Though one can be sure that the execution of Jihadi John and those like him would not be tolerated in the public squares of our towns and cities, with the spectacle of the guillotine having long been done away with, the same rationale persists. It persists in the demand for blood, for justice as death, but only insofar that it shall happen out of sight. This cunning cognitive manoeuvre, to demand death and yet bear no responsibility for it, defines an age in which murder and casualty by bombing in some remote part of the world is viewed as just, without ever needing to know the details. This has increasingly become the psychology behind the general view of the war on terror, as the western subject becomes increasingly entwined in an ever-more heightened culture of violence and domination. Details such as how Muslim terrorists do not represent all or even anywhere near a significant percentage of the world’s Muslim population; that westerners are not the only and true universal victims, when a lot of people in the east suffer too; that western bombs have caused, as of the time of my writing, 459 non-combatant deaths in Syria and Iraq, including 100 children[ii] – these are facts, critical realities, which are uncomfortable for the mass population to accept. The belief is that western society is the universal victim and at the same time the rightful overseer of universal justice. But this is ideology.

I admit that I have never personally witnessed gruesome death, though I have spent significant time studying the experience and imagining what it must be like. Violence, irrespective of its form or argued justification, is something that has long concerned me. For this reason I take great interest in talking with people and listening to their views on the issue of execution, drone assassination, war, and state violence, particularly in relation to the war on terror. I can say without being guilty of hyperbole that a large portion of those I have encountered seem sympathetic to the ritual of death on behalf of the notion of “justice”. Though the death penalty is not currently practiced in the UK and Canada, the psyche and rationale for its reinstatement is present, even if not in traditional form. In the United States, the practice of capital punishment is still ongoing in dozens of states. But the US has a particularly violent culture which, for the sake of focused analysis, I’ll shall bracket and put to one side. The general rule, the general sentiment, shared among all three countries – and also in France, Germany, Belgium and beyond – is that violent retribution in response to acts of terror, especially when such death is executed in unknown and distance places, hidden from sight – better yet, from either drone or cruise missile – is justified. That is to say that the spectre of the guillotine, of the public impulse to kill and torture haunts. It haunts precisely in the popular encouragement of death as retribution, in death as justice against terror. There is hardly any division among the moderates today, the left or right-wing liberal centre of contemporary society. Of the majority who may vote no to the reinstatement of capital punishment, agree on the execution of, and continued violence against, terrorists. But it remains to be said that, ‘a punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge. It is a quasi-arithmetical reply made by society to whoever breaks its primordial law. The reply is as old as man; it is called the law of retaliation. Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm; whoever has put out my eye must lose an eye; and whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, not a principle’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 627). Retaliation, in other words, is irrationalism practiced as reason; it is related to instinct but not to law (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 627). Law, by definition, cannot obey the same rules as the impulse to retaliate (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 627). That is to say that ‘law is not intended to imitate or reproduce’ the irrational impulse, ‘it is intended to correct it’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 627). In progressive and emancipatory terms – terms which I shall increasingly draw – retaliation is inapplicable. To play on the words of Camus, ‘let us admit that it is actually just and necessary to compensate for the murder of the victim by the death of the murderer’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 627), the fact remains that the torture of potential suspects, the assassination or annihilation by drone of an entire town, is not simply death:

…it is just as different, in essence, from the privation of life as a concentration camp is from prison. It is a murder, to be sure, and one that arithmetically pays for the murder committed. But it adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, an organization, in short, which is in itself a source of moral sufferings more terrible than death. Hence there is no equivalence. Many laws consider a premeditated crime more serious than a crime of pure violence. But what then is capital punishment [or ritual violence] but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 627)


On the same day that Jihadi John was reported killed, the city of Paris was attacked. Unimaginable violence was inflicted on innocent Parisians, killing 129 people and wounding at least 352 (as of the time of my writing). It is widely suspected that these acts of terrorism were perpetrated in response to France’s role in the war against Islamic State insurgents. Within hours IS issued a statement revealing that this suspicion is accurate: IS was responsible for the attacks. France, it was claimed, is the “top target” for IS terror. Paul Rogers assesses the strategy of the attacks, when he writes:

The ISIS assaults in Paris on the evening of November 13 were carefully planned by a large team of three groups with at least eight men prepared to die. Some internal French involvement, perhaps limited, is possible.

The operation had three components, each with a distinct target. The Stade de France attack was small-scale but large impact – its ingredients a modern national sporting icon, the occasion of a match with Germany, and the French president’s presence among the fans. The Bataclan theatre was hosting a popular American rock band, thus ensuring a very international audience. The café and bar attacks would result in persistent fear across a popular district of Paris and well beyond.

Indeed the global impact is already huge, probably more than London’s bombs in July 2005, Madrid’s Atocha rail terminal bombs in March 2004, and even the Sari nightclub attack in Bali in October 2002. Paris is on a similar scale to the even more complex and long-lasting Mumbai operation in November 2008, which had a profound impact in India (but less so outside). Among western states, the effect is the biggest since 9/11, which was of course much greater still (Rogers, 2015).

In light of the shocking scenes on the streets of Paris, it is without question that the barbarity of terrorism has taken a historical step. The latest violence, which followed largely unreported and indifferent news of two separate bombings in Beirut (suspected to also be linked with IS), killing 43 innocent people and wounding at least 239 others, reveals a new level of pure ritual hate. While state official are quick to define it as war – that is, an open, armed and prolonged conflict between parties – the situation is actually one of systemic cycles of domination. There is no question that the massacre coordinated in the heart of Paris was particularly appalling. One is left feeling repulsed, saddened, and shocked. There are no words to describe the blood, the images of the bodies, the barbarity. The ritual terror was conducted in cold determination, and this time it was on ‘our streets’, provoking pure outrage as it involved killing ‘everyday people’ not so different to those in our own communities. Unlike the Beirut bombings, the earliest images of the Paris attacks spread throughout the world – images of bodies strewn throughout the city centre, blood everywhere. Men, women and children were seen crying, buckled at the knees in despair, while others emerged from the Stade de France defiantly signing the national anthem. The sites of violence were all focused on public orientated districts largely comprised of entertainment, pubs, and atmospheres of friendliness and leisure. Witnesses to the horror spoke of shock and dismay – of their entire worlds collapsing, as they stood in tears unable to comprehend exactly what was happening. Death, suffering, inhumanity – mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, of faith or no faith, lay cold and lifeless before our very eyes. The line of fire, the focus of violence, were everyday people going about their lives, simply out with friends, celebrating the start of another weekend. One can only feel indefinable grief on a night which will forever be marked in France’s history.

In truth, when it comes to IS, there is no shortage of words which may underline the menace that France and the rest of the west are dealing with. But we must remember, when mourning the horror in Paris, that human life was also taken elsewhere.  That no western outrage was provoked in response to the attacks in Beirut is regrettable. To think that equally innocent Lebanese people, of both Muslim and Christian background, were killed in cold blood and without hardly the same outburst of despair speaks to the psychology of the western subject, and the divisive perception that the “war on terror” is creating: one of us and them. These lines are not only drawn in terms of race and ethnicity, culture and language, but also geographically. That the west may only focus on its own suffering at the hands of brutality, of the evil of the Islamic State, does not do justice to the very human struggle unfolding around all around us, in Europe and abroad. One of the purposes of recent attacks by IS, including the destruction of Russia’s Metrojet over Sinai and the bombing in Beirut, is to demonstrate that IS has now gone truly international (Rogers, 2015). International solidarity with all victims, whether Christian or Muslim, must, in response, be a constant focus. Outrage, mourning, compassion should have no boundary or division. Now is not the time to diminish or make less significant the loss of life in one region or another: to succumb to the wishes of IS is to undertake a view of us and them. The attacks, irrespective of their geography, are tantamount to an assault on the whole of humanity.

If another goal of IS is “to further damage intercommunal relations, not just in Paris but across western Europe and further afield”, particularly by fuelling reactionary movements and “accelerating Islamophobia”, this is because the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment suits the project of terror “in its quest to attract more recruits from recent diasporas and more established migrant communities, many members of whom now feel thoroughly insecure and greatly worried and even fearful of the hardening of attitudes towards them” (Rogers, 2015). The issue of the western psyche is that it is becoming increasingly hardened and hostile to the diversity within and around it. The Muslim world, the people of the Middle East and Africa and elsewhere, have already or are well on their way to becoming reduced to the object of the Other – a form of epistemic violence which plays into the cycle of ritual violence. When perception shifts in the majority in this way, life is devalued in those foreign regions now perceived as synonymous with any and all terror.

When it comes to Europe and European suffering, in witnessing the violence and murder in Paris, one can only immediately respond to the massacre in horror and compassion. We think of the victims and their families as we take in the news and the images and all of the commentary and personal accounts. As hours and days pass, it becomes impossible not to mobilize in solidarity with all those affected. To offer every bit of humanity available, every bit of civility and empathy, this is a first step. No doubt French society – with its deeply rooted bonds of liberté, égalité and fraternité – will find the courage to move forward, to rebuild, and to not give in to terror and to direct acts of violence and oppression. Along political lines, internally speaking, if we have any decency, we must not allow terrorism to continue to justify the rise of right-wing movements and violence. We must not allow – if the bonds of liberté,égalité and fraternité are real – right-wing and reactionary movements to target the influx of refugees to Europe. Undoubtedly the Paris attacks will be used to support the cause of hate, a trend that has already started to crystallize in the language of far-right political leaders who have spoken in response to the Paris tragedy. But as Martin Luther King once said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”. It remains vital, in moving forward, that resistance persists against reactionary movements, against the threat of a final tidal wave of xenophobia, which could forever scar European society. That reactionary right-wing movements have no legitimacy, that their hate against refugees has no real foundation, that their irrationalism is anathema to actual rational discourse and critical thinking, this context of truth must be weighed and weighed again. Political struggle within France, within Germany, the UK, the US – within the west writ large – for a better and more just society, this struggle is ultimately one for solidarity, emancipation and egalitarianism. That same struggle should be seen internationally. Thus there is no divide, in human terms. Such ritual acts of horror and violence as witnessed in Paris go against every decent moral fibre of actual emancipatory struggle, and we must resist the right-wing populist agenda to use this violence and barbarity and suffering caused by terrorist groups to cease control of power, to exploit fear and anxiety, and persuade our collective consciousness to close down our boarders once and for all, to target immigrants and refugees as the source of our problem and as the source of terror. Instead, we must respond critically. We must try to understand the international context of terrorism, the systemic trends behind such violence, and extend our solidarity from the streets of Paris to the streets of Beirut, from the despair of Parisians left to mourn the loss of friends and family to the refugees fleeing from everyday violence in Syria and elsewhere. To defeat the evil of IS, this is not achieved by building walls and by deepening indifference to those who also suffer in other parts of the world.

France, Germany, the UK, the US – their policies and international roles are targeted by vicious, reactionary groups like Al-Qaida and IS, with the goal only to unleash inexplicable cruelty. Moving forward – if and when we’re able to begin to look to the future – how we respond as a society, how we decide to begin looking ahead, this is the question which could define our historical moment. How we respond and plan our action in the days ahead directly concerns our vision of society: what society actually means, what we want in society moving forward, what we see as the society we should like to defend. The bonds of liberté, égalité and fraternitébear no meaning if they are not internationally transferable – if those value do not also, in our minds, extend beyond our own geographical boarders. If we truly believe in peace, then we must not partake in war. If we truly believe in freedom, as a concept and as a thing, and if we actually hold the value of human flourishing to be more than pretense, then we must reflect on those emancipatory ideals when trying to grasp how we might respond to terror and its threat. Actual democracy, actual egalitarianism cannot be built on ritual violence and bloodshed. The psychology of retribution, of the ritual of violence and execution, are anathema to any actual emancipatory politics. When President Hollande declares, “I want to say we are going to lead a war which will be pitiless”, and as other elected leaders follow in thirst for blood, the social body is forced to look inward, to engage in deep introspection about what sort of society we are building and in struggle to work toward.

There may be variations in form on the scale of democracy, with liberal democracy not being the most nor the least progressive – but in a liberal democracy, tyrants like Mohammed Emwazi and those guilty of recent attacks on Paris and in Beirut, should have and should still face trial. To react and jettison any actual justice, both in practice and belief, at the mere scent of redemptive blood, goes against the grain of what liberal democracy wants to believe in itself. Now is not the time for unabashed praise for the ideals of western life, to then suppress all of the struggles and conflicts and lack of progress that still remains within western society, its destructive and exploitative political-economy, and its internal policy arrangements. The truth is – and it is a difficult one to come to terms with – the bloody attacks in Paris are invariably linked to the violence and barbarity unfolding in the Middle East. Western interventionism, the invasion of Iraq, the deep legacy of colonization has played its own role – a rather significant one at that. And this is something that right-wing political movements refuse to accept. As one respectable and noteworthy analyst commented: “the war in Syria is coming home”. If our first course of action is to look at the situation critically, from systemic trends to foreign policy and beyond, then surely the reality behind the west’s complicity in thecreation of Isis in the first place is a vital point worthy of serious reflection.[iii] The endless turmoil and death as a result of US led bombings and the western incitement of ever-deepening conflict in the Middle East, which has caused tremendous suffering, must surely also be taken into account. France, for all the suffering it currently endures, has also played a part in the manifestation of such ongoing violence and death abroad. Somewhere, at some point, the vicious cycle must stop. A horrible international situation is spiralling into insanity, and the worst we can do is react by calling for more violence and for the persecution of Muslim people – that is, by slipping into and prolonging the irrational. The path of justice, of democracy – of hope in the possibility of an egalitarian society – is not always the easiest path. To think that society is simply an abstract term to describe social, political and economic systems which operate above our heads misses the point. This type of rationale is the product of decades of neoliberal language and theory. Society is something that constitutes and is constituted by the subject. It is something we prefigure and must constantly prefigure in our everyday practice and struggle for a better life. In trying to come to grips with how we may move forward, with how France may begin to mourn its victims, we must ask, before the impulse for vengeance overwhelms the collective psyche, what is this cycle of violence and how might we actually put an end to it. If society chooses that the just penalty is more death, the question becomes for all of us: how might we as respectable citizens consider violent retaliation as a justifiable action to defend to liberty, reason, and genuine solidarity? If more bombs were to drop on more hostile targets with more loss of innocent civilian life to inevitably follow, how can we honestly maintain the idea that this will eventually bring peace, that these actions will foster the sort of human flourishing we like to believe we stand for?


In the times when we’re our most collectively irrational, it is easy for us to slip backwards in history. At the end of the Second World War, when Europe was trying to come to grips with the unspeakable violence and death that had gripped the continent, with the absolute horrors of the Holocaust, there were two sides of debate not too dissimilar to today: ritual death, the perpetuation of the grain of insanity in the form of execution and continued murder, or trial. In a turn of events that will remain forever significant in history, it was decided that the Nuremberg trials would proceed. The crime, the murder, would not continue. Instead, efforts were made to realize a concept of justice and to begin to make amends for the harm done, if ever any amends could actually be made. Today, we face a similar defining moment which will forever impact society’s history and its future unfolding.

Hannah Arendt once postulated that violence can be used, whether through revolution or whatever, to destroy old systems or current institutions of power; but violence cannot establish the “authority” that legitimatizes new power. Violence is an illegitimate means. Society cannot be built, nor can it justify its continued existence, on violence. Jihadi John is celebrated for being killed – his death a spectacle in much the same way as Bin Laden. But death demanded by citizens and enacted by the state equates to moving ever further away from the concept of actual justice and its practice. Perhaps this is why death as ritual, death as justice, by the hands of western military forces is hardly ever dissected in any great detail, at least not in the mainstream. Hence we hear officials talk about the violence inflicted in other parts of the world, reporters comment on it, but the reality is never really held in one’s self-reflective awareness as the details are rarely ever actually considered. A bomb drops on some remote village in Syria, and in the morning it may be in the newspapers and on the television screen. But the act itself, the potential victims, the shameful aspects, generally go unfelt (Camus, 157/2004; p. 610). Thus we watch the news at breakfast time, we absorb the headline that another terrorist has been killed or another military bombing operation has commenced – it is said that the murder and injustice previously against us has been “atoned”. And yet outside of the ritual language that is more often than not reduced to stereotypes (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 610), what actually do we know of the violence our society, our state is inflicting or may inflict on others? The execution of suspected terrorist targets and the annihilation of pitiless air wars may be paraded on the front page of our newspapers, but the standard psychology and emotional impulse remains largely one which speaks of the actual reality of death at a whisper (Camus, 1957/2004; p.610). Much in the same way, as Albert Camus writes, that everyone used to strive to refer to capital punishment through euphemisms (Camus, 1957/2004; p.610), the psyche behind ritual violence today is to the body politics, to play on words, ‘what cancer is to the individual body’, and yet ‘with this difference it remains that no one has ever spoken of the necessity of cancer’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p.610). Similar to the guillotine – that once popular public display of justice as death – there is no hesitation today ‘about presenting capital punishment’ in the form of military drone strikes ‘as a regrettable necessity, a necessity that justifies killing because it is necessary’, all the while admitting we must not democratically debate its existence, nor actually come to close to considering the reality, ‘because it is regrettable’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p.610).

But like Camus before me, my intention is talk crudely about the reality of our political situation and the social, political, economic context in which we now mourn the loss of more innocent life. In raising the question of the ritual of violence in which the west is a part, I am in no way justifying any acts of terrorism. What I am saying is that it is no coincidence that in an authoritarian society, whose legacy is one of domination and whose culture still possesses aspects of this legacy, we are growing more passive to our own violence and to the genesis of an ever-more terrifyingly violent psyche – i.e., a dominant subjectivity. In response to acts of terrorism, calls are issued that justify the perpetuation of a horrible global trend: “we must strike back” is perhaps one of the more popular responses. But the more we repress the ‘grain of insanity’ – the more we refuse to identify it, call it out, and confront it – the more we become blind to the systemic trends in which our violent retaliation plays a part in deepening, and the more society strays toward an irreparable course of action. On the other hand, when ‘silence or tricks of language contribute to the production and reproduction of violence, there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p.610). The ‘grain of insanity’, to borrow from Adorno, lies in the very existence of ritual violence – from guidance missiles and drone assassinations to mass surveillance technology and its justification – it is tantamount to the impulse to dominate, whether through fear or the law of retaliation. Not only does this ‘grain of insanity’ have to do with the very nature and impetus of the (ideological) systems and organisations that support the cycle of death from both sides of the “war on terror”, but also in the very historical process of their development. To take from Noam Chomsky’s critical analytical legacy, we critique western society and its policies and actions because we care about it, because we know it can be better and that it should be held accountable to its own ideals. The UK, US, France, Germany, are the few countries with the status to authorize assassinations and coordinated executions, to launch an onslaught of terror in the form of a sustained air assaults, destroying up to 10,000 targets within the last fifteen months. ‘The survival of such a primitive rite has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which generally reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it’ (Camus, 1957/2004; pp. 610-11). Undoubtedly the state also plays a part in this regard, as testified by the very existence of organizations like WikiLeaks, whose operation is to reveal the realities of either thoughtlessness, ignorance or manipulative concealment. In a social world where the concept and practice of “democracy” is increasingly becoming its opposite, imagination and critical thinking sleeps, while words are emptied of meaning, ceremonies to honour the dead innocent victims of war and terror betrayed (Camus, 1957/2004; pp. 610-11). Instead, as Camus put it in no less stinging terms: with every murder justified in the name of democracy, peace, progress and solidarity, ‘a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man’ (Camus, 1957/2004; pp. 610-11), and then another man, and then another man. Unlike Camus however, I am uncertain whether if people are shown the machine, made to touch the steel of the bomb, the button of the launch device, and to hear the screams after the explosion, to see the limbs scattered everywhere, that ‘public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty’ (Camus, 1957/2004; pp. 610-11). The question I posit, moreover, is whether violence has sunk too deep in the collective psyche, whether hate has grown too strong, for any possible awakening and break in the cycle?

The ethical predicament posed by the revelation of western execution and ritual violence in return is not in and of itself solely a matter of the crisis of democracy. The problem is much worse: On the one hand, it has to do with the type of individual subject that damaged society is fostering and, in turn, the type of collectivity being developed on the basis of our subject formation. On the other hand, the problem goes to the heart of how: “democracy today, as a concept and as a thing, has less to do with the actual content of “democracy” as an egalitarian system of political-economic values than it does with the neglect of this content for its (mere) form”. In a society whose democratic ideals are eroding – if ever actually realized in the first place – it is difficult to speak of things like universal justice when our own social-political situation is “the mere distillate remaining” after the actual democratic content (Equality, Egalitarianism, Justice, Rights, etc.) of our social practice “has been boiled away” (Smith and Sperber, 2014).

Thus, as far as I am concerned, in raising the question of ritual violence, of the vicious cycle that is the war on terror, the ethical predicament we face has to do with the greater (historical) decay of values, of the erosion of ethical concepts and principles, overlapped and converged with the domination of instrumental rationality and the intensification of our own experiential blindness when it comes to insidious violence beyond the shock and horror of acts of murder and terrorism on our city streets. It is not that we are completely unaware of insidious violence, it is only that we recognize the illness of such systemic patterns of violence within the very fact that we don’t actually acknowledge it in explicit terms (Camus, 1947/2004; p. 610). And this, in large, is why one must question not only the path forward, the path to peace in the context of the threat and actuality of inexplicable terror; but also the current systemic trends and cycles in relation to our society’s own unfolding, its structural status, internal conflicts, and foreign and international policy mandates.


I do not pretend to know how to deal with the monstrosity that is the Islamic State. What I do know is that there are comprehensive alternative lines of thought, which do not rely on more needless death. Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is one of the most progressive of our generation when it comes to understanding IS, the system that incubated it, and how we might finally destroy it. His analysis and proposals are worth serious consideration.[iv]

What I will say, in addition to this, as I reflect on the suffering that Paris has experienced and as I mourn the awful images of the bloodshed, that I believe in society and its continued progress. I believe that society, as we continue in struggle to make it better, more just, more humane, more free and sustainable, will not find reconciliation and emancipation on the basis of death. To retaliate by way of retributory killing goes against the laws our society is principled on. There is no evidence that assassinating more extremists, that dropping more bombs, will finally conclude the war on terror. In fact, the evidence we have suggests the contrary, as even admitted by US Intelligence sources (Rogers, 2015):

In the first eleven months of the air war, to July 2015, the US-led coalition killed 15,000 ISIS supporters. By October, that had risen to 20,000, yet a Pentagon source said that the total number of ISIS fighters was unchanged at 20,000-30,000. (USA Today, October 12 2015).

In an extraordinary admission, US intelligence sources say there has been a surge in recruits to ISIS in spite of the air war and the losses. In September 2014, 15,000 recruits were reported to have joined from 80 countries; a year later the figure had risen to 30,000 from 100 countries.

In blunt terms, ISIS is actually being strengthened by the air war, and it can be assumed that it wants more. The movement vigorously and insistently peddles the message of “Islam under attack”; and though it is disliked and hated by the great majority of Muslims worldwide, the message strikes enough of a chord with a small minority to serve ISIS’s aim of creating this purist if brutal caliphate (Rogers, 2015).

“To defeat IS,” writes Ahmed, “we need to [first] recognise that this Frankenstein’s monster is neither simply a fault of “the West”, nor of “the Muslims”. It is a co-creation of the Western and Muslim worlds, specifically of Western and Muslim “security” agencies who have lost all moral compass in the pursuit of geopolitical prowess, self-aggrandisement and corporate profiteering” (Ahmed, 2015). Second. We must mobilize as citizens:

Citizens of all faiths and none must stand together in solidarity to reject the violence perpetrated in our name on all sides. We must pressure our governments to re-configure our alliances with brutal regimes that sponsor terror, ending our abject, slavish dependence on Middle East fossil fuels, and cutting off open-ended financial ties and investments. Our governments must deploy diplomatic, economic and other pressure to shut down the financial networks sustaining IS, incubated covertly by countries like Turkey. We should work with Russia to come to an agreement to decisively end all military and financial support to actors on all sides in the region, to force them to end hostilities and come to the negotiating table.

We must exert robust oversight over our unaccountable intelligence services, whose secret support for militants abroad has undermined national security and permitted associated extremists to run amok at home (Ahmed, 2015)

In mobilizing as citizens in solidarity with all victims of IS and the war on terror, we should move forward by recognizing, mutually, across all faiths, the immense suffering unfolding around us and work toward a future global reconciled society based on justice, egalitarianism, inclusive discourse and mutually recognitive forms of communication. In the process we must not “merely denounce the atrocities committed by Western governments, the dictatorships they support, and the Islamist terrorists wreaking havoc in various parts of the world, but to work together in generating new inclusive discourses of peace, diversity and co-existence inspired by faith and non-faith values alike” (Ahmed, 2015). If there is an immediate path, this is it. Public pressure, public solidarity aligned with an emancipatory politics – a politics of peace and inclusivity, of egalitarianism and actual democracy – is the only way we can begin to heal and to develop and practice transformative power. If it is, philosophically and practically, “in and through interaction that emancipation – or self-determination, or full humanity – may exist” (Gunn, 2015), then we already have a philosophical and practical foundation from which we may begin to confront the war on terror and prefigure the future of society in egalitarian terms. We have an understanding of the grassroots basis from which we may begin to develop international and cross-faith solidarity – symbolic, historically transformative solidarity – whilst we, at home, re-evaluate “the role of the West in the [Middle East] and, in doing so, accept that the only way to end IS’s capacity to recruit extremists is to restore hope: the same hope that we extinguished with unfathomable levels of violence, which to this day we continue to deny. Restoring hope means that Western governments must let go of their counterproductive geopolitical self-interest, apologise wholeheartedly for their wanton destruction of Iraq, and replace the endless provision of instruments of death and torture, with meaningful aid to help rebuild life in the form of humanitarian relief, reconstruction and economic development” (Ahmed, 2015). If these are the earliest and most basic coordinates in which we may respond humanely and effectively to the Paris Massacre, they are also the first steps toward reclaiming justice – steps that require we pressure political leaders to act responsibly, with care and forethought, rather than rushing into a more intensive war (Rogers, 2015).

‘If society justifies death by the necessity of the example, it must justify itself by making the publicity necessary’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 619). In other words, if it so happens that our society chooses to continue on its current path and the public choice is one which prolongs the ritual of violence and the intensification of bloody and horrendous war, then society ‘must show the executioner’s hands each time and force everyone to look at them’, so that every citizen and all those who had any responsibility in bringing the executioner into being, understand the abyss that they are moving toward (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 619). ‘Otherwise, society admits that it kills without knowing what it is saying or doing’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p.619). There is no ultimate proof that another military campaign, another execution, another aggressive phase in the war on terror will deter any future attacks or will deter more individuals from joining IS. In fact, it would seem the contrary: the more western society commits to violence, the more violence will be committed in return. If society votes for prolongation of war, then it should explicitly acknowledge its irrationalism each day, upon each new death.

On the other hand, if society chooses to work toward an end to IS and terror, it will have admitted that death rarely ever involves probability for peace.

In pre-emptive or retaliatory violence, the cycle of which western society is currently caught up in, the rationale of the ritual is simple: that by striking the enemy, they will either be defeated or deterred from future violence. In the case of IS or even Al-Qaida, neither is true. Bombs are dropped, entire cities are annihilated, and the monster grows. Thus more assassinations may be executed, the grain of insanity may deepen, ‘not so much for the crime committed but by virtue of all the crimes that might have been and were not [yet or possibly] committed, that can be and will not be committed’, in which case ‘a dangerous contradiction’ emerges: that ‘sweeping uncertainty authorizes the most implacable certainty’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 624). The basic issue, moreover, is this: ‘what will be left’, to paraphrase Camus once more, if ‘that power of example’ in the form of “pitiless war” and ritual violence as retribution ‘has another power, and a very real one, which continues to degrade humanity to the point where irrationalism prevails, the grain of insanity deepens, while shame, madness and murder become regularities of social existence? (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 625).

Irrespective of one’s politics – with the exception, perhaps, of the individual who has already subscribed to the ideology of the far-right and thus, in all actuality, has already become too hardened to absorb these words – we each want a society that offers us as individuals and our communities the best chance to live peacefully, without unmet needs and in relative comfort and co-existence. We want laws and institutions which serve the flourishing of all people within society, even if this want becomes confused today or ends up supporting political and economic opposites. Ritual violence and murder, either through war and terror or single acts of retribution, undermine the potential of human flourishing by justifying death as a means toward justice. ‘The fact that Cain is not killed but bears a mark of reprobation in the eyes of men is the lesson we must draw from the Old Testament, to say nothing of the Gospels, instead of looking back to the cruel examples of the Mosaic law. […] And if, really, public opinion and its representatives cannot give up the law of laziness which simply eliminates what it cannot reform, let us at least – while hoping for a new day of truth – not make of it the ‘solemn slaughterhouse’ that befouls our society’ and our international relations with one another (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 655). Compromises and potentially humane and effective steps forward are possible, if we open ourselves up to them and mobilize in solidarity with the victims and in the hope that we may work together, in the plurality of our struggle, to generate “new inclusive discourses of peace, diversity and co-existence inspired by faith and non-faith values” (Ahmed, 2015). The new government in Canada, for example, has already taken one step by pulling all CF-18 strike-aircraft from Syria and Iraq (Rogers, 2015). It is possible Australia may now follow (Rogers, 2015). These are positive signs. And yet, without mass public pressure, it is unlikely Paris will lead to a critical rethink (Rogers, 2015).

To those who may mobilize in struggle for peace or are at least sympathetic to the reflections presented in this essay, I offer one final thought: it is true the weight of suffering – that heavy burden of the loss of life and of the experience of horror – is not an easy one to carry forward. But together it is possible that we carry our history, its suffering and pain and terror, and seek an end to the vicious cycle, to the ritual of violence and to the public thirst for retribution andjustice as death. It is the only way. And in coming together to achieve this end, we should remember that our politics of hope and co-existence is one built on interaction in and through one another, irrespective of faith. This is where real freedom begins, where real healing and peace may begin to germinate until finally it overthrows systemic cycles of violence and the psyche caught up in ritual patterns of domination. Ultimately ‘there will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed’ (Camus, 1957/2004; p. 656) – now is the moment to finally expunge death as a ritual and as a law.


Ahmed, N. (2015). No Piers Morgan – This is how to destroy the Islamic State. Middle East Eye. Retrieved from

Camus, A. (1957/2004). Reflections on the Guillotine. In The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 609-656

Gunn, R. (2015). Emancipation, Recognition, Democracy: A Talk on Occupy-Style Politics.Heathwood Press. Retrieved from

Smith, R.C., Sperber, E. (2014). Democracy in Crisis: Toward a Foundational, Alternative Theory of Participatory Democracy. Heathwood Press. Retrieved from

Rogers, P. (2015) The Paris atrocity, and after. openDemocracy. Retrieved from


[i] This essay is dedicated to Albert Camus and his tireless fight against needless violence and suffering. Camus’ famous essay, Reflections on the Guillotine, acts in spirit as a primary inspiration for the analysis that follows.

[ii] For further breakdown of these figures, please see the latest research by Airwars, an independent body who is monitoring the international coalition’s airstrikes against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq and Syria.:

[iii] For a more in-depth analysis of the complex relation between western society and the creation of the Islamic State, I suggest reviewing Nafeez Ahmed’s (2015) widely recognized investigative research published under the title” Pentagon report predicted West’s support for Islamist rebels would create ISIS”:

[iv] For example, see: Ahmed, N. (2015). No Piers Morgan – This is how to destroy the Islamic State. In Middle East Eye. Retrieved from