This article looks, not very deeply, at a complex of ideas about liberty, progress, democracy and modernity – a field in which the US has often been hailed as a global leader. The US is seen as an example, economic and cultural, that other countries can, should and perhaps must follow. Many people aspire to migrate there, and millions more internalise American values and imitate American lifestyles.
The same complex of values is often associated with the Enlightenment, with the US itself hailed as a typically Enlightenment project. This is sometimes a source of hostile criticism. From different quarters, the Enlightenment has been attacked as aridly rational and naively optimistic, and as the fount of ills ranging from religious scepticism to totalitarianism, from capitalist exploitation to racism.
This article argues that these criticisms, though sometimes well-intentioned, are generally misdirected: they start from a false vision of what the Enlightenment actually was. My argument here leans heavily on Ritchie Robertson's splendid new book, The Enlightenment
(2020), a wide-ranging study of the period from 1680 to 1790, which is sympathetic but not uncritical. He views the Enlightenment as a phenomenon that extends far beyond philosophy, even in its broad 18th-century sense: it deals as much with sentiment as reason and it embraces literature, the arts and practical improvements as much as science and learning.
On this interpretation, the Enlightenment is the name of a historical period rather than a coherent movement. It was a period of great upheaval and experimentation featuring a diverse cast of characters. Some, like the Edinburgh literati, were famously sociable and cooperative: many an evening was spent consuming prodigious quantities of claret in Old Town howffs and New Town dining rooms. Others were not: few influential thinkers can have been as unclubbable – even antisocial – as Rousseau.
It follows from this that there was and is no single Enlightenment philosophy. Not all enlightened thinkers were consistent in themselves and different thinkers often disagreed, sometimes violently. I started by listing four key values – liberty, progress, democracy and modernity – that are often associated with the Enlightenment and with the US. My argument is that these do not form a coherent whole: more specifically, liberalism and progress, as widely understood, are incommensurable.
Turning first to liberalism, I tried in a previous article (20 January 2021
) to look at American liberalism through the eyes of Louis Hartz. His core argument was that the US state was born liberal and consequently all individual American citizens receive freedom and equality as their birthright. This makes the US historically unique; it also makes it a difficult paradigm for other countries to follow.
Hartz derives the theoretical basis of US liberalism from John Locke's idea of a social contract, a device through which a number of pre-social individuals come together to form a society. This leads into a state whose laws are accepted as legitimate only as long as they recognise the inalienable right of the contracting individuals to life, liberty and property. This is the founding myth of Lockean liberalism, one remote from historical reality. The Continental Congress which drafted the US constitution in the 1780s was certainly radical in founding a new state, but it began with a developed and functioning society, not a blank slate.
Some radical liberals push this myth further, to conclude that every individual in every generation has the right to create a social identity of their own choice. This fits neatly with Locke's empiricist epistemology which sees every newborn child as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. In theory, this could make human identities infinitely malleable but Locke avoided this conclusion by envisaging a world governed by fixed laws, meaning that most children have broadly similar experiences.
Locke's influence may also be detected in the sharp separation between state and religion that is written into the US constitution. The First Amendment (1789) says that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...'. This marks a radical break with the Church of England which is established by law with the reigning monarch as its supreme governor. It is equally distant from the situation in Scotland. The Church of Scotland has been firmly anti-Erastian since the 1690s: church and state have parallel but independent jurisdictions but – through a feat of legal prestidigitation – the Church of Scotland is still recognised as the national church.
The relationship between church and state remains controversial. Pure Lockean liberals hold that religious views are a matter of private choice on which the state must remain neutral. Many conservatives, on the other hand, see religion and morality as public issues requiring state intervention. This remains a live issue in many countries, sometimes in the context of multiculturalism, but divisions seem particularly entrenched in the US.
Progress is a very modern idea: it might even be called the defining idea of modernity. It is also very much an Enlightenment idea. It barely featured in the world-picture of the Greeks and Romans, and many Renaissance scholars sought to recover the lost glories of antiquity: their Golden Age was imagined in the past, not the future. Before the Enlightenment, when people thought about temporal change their beliefs were structured by religion rather than by history or science. Their eyes were focused on the last judgement, the apocalypse and Armageddon.
One of the first explicit discussions of progress appeared in the 'quarrel of the ancients and moderns' in 17th-century France. As enlightened thought developed, it initially retained parts of the old theological framework. Some thinkers, rejecting scriptural revelation, moved towards a form of deism which pictured the world as a mechanism set in motion by a benevolent creator (God as the great clockmaker). Natural laws were conceived as universal and impersonal but still divinely ordained.
Over time, this theological underpinning became less visible. One key development was the theory of conjectural or stadial history put forward by Scottish thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith and William Robertson. They disagreed on details but agreed on the broad picture that society in general, and individual societies in particular, advanced through predictable stages, from hunting and gathering through pastoralism and settled agriculture, to commercial society. This later gave way to the processes that we now call industrialisation and capitalism.
Among Enlightenment theories of progress, Hume's account falls towards the naturalistic and determinist end of the spectrum. It formed an integral part of his search for a wider 'science of man' enabling us to 'explain the principles of human nature' (quoting the introduction to his Treatise of Human Nature
). The aim is to discover scientific laws resembling those of Newtonian mechanics. Hume's theory does not presuppose any kind of goal-directedness or Aristotelian telos (though he did understand stability and change in terms of system equilibrium), and it does not place much weight on human intentions and choices either. It was understood that actions can have unintended consequences.
This Enlightenment idea of progress through fixed stages has largely been discarded, with a variety of alternatives proposed ranging from Hegel and Marx through social Darwinism to evolutionary biology. Some conception of progress remains central to contemporary thought. But, stripped of all notions of stages and directionality, how do we make sense of modernity and indeed post-modernity? If well-defined historical eras succeed one another like a row of ducks on the wall, what is the underlying cause?
On any interpretation, it is difficult to integrate the ideas of Lockean liberalism and historical progress. Accidents of birth do not necessarily create good bedfellows. The ideas of liberalism and progress may have been born simultaneously but this does not prove they are logically and causally linked, or even consistent.
Liberalism is individual, voluntarist and ahistorical: it relies on human intentions operating on a micro scale. Progress is collective, determinist and historical (transgenerational): it can only be understood on a macro scale. Liberalism, like the associated belief in universal human rights, is presented as a universal and timeless truth. Progress, however it is construed, involves historical change for the better.
But this incommensurability does not constitute an impossible choice. Liberalism and progress operate, so to speak, in different dimensions: with hard thought and cautious judgement, we may achieve some workable compromise.
The relationship between micro and macro is perplexing. Cosmologists remain baffled by the paradoxes of quantum indeterminacy and quantum entanglement. In our everyday lives, we humans struggle on in a meso-scale Newtonian world. Postmodernists may be right in saying that there are no grand narratives. It is the fate of humans, and perhaps sometimes their glory, to muddle through on the middle ground.
Dennis Smith is a retired librarian who dabbles in philosophy, watches birds
and does a bit of conservation work in the hope that the planet can still be