Rereading the enlightenment, after (or against) the culture wars

Extract from Matthew Sharpe, The Other Enlightenment (Rowman & Littlefield, to appear Dec. 2022)

Bringing them the plague

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Image M. Sharpe

2016, the year of Brexit and the first ascent of Donald Trump, was also the year in which the term “post-truth” became a buzzword. Like all such half-popular, half-profound terms, “post-truth” is ambivalent. For some, it meant a culture in which political decisions were based on emotions, not facts or science. For others, it was a period in which politicians no longer needed to even care if what they were claiming was true. In another view, “post-truth” is what follows from a culture in which increasing numbers of citizens get their news selected by algorithms on social media platforms. These feed them what they “like”, not what may be true, or even attempting to be so. For yet others, “post-truth” announced the final breakdown of public trust in experts, when it came to everything from climate change to the sanctity of democratic elections. For all comers, what “post-truth” amounted to was a climate in which “everyone was entitled to their own opinion”. But no one could persuade others from different “filter bubbles” by appeals to reasons or evidence that their opinions were any better or worse. [i]

Of course, it was possible to doubt the “post-” idea in all of this, the latest in a generation or so of such “afters”. Politicians have never been on easy terms with independent inquiry and telling nothing but the truth. They have always known the power of rhetoric to move people’s emotions, especially in crowds. Different 20th century regimes were no strangers to the cynical deployment of propaganda to create mass false consciousness and manufacture consent. People in general have never relished hearing contrary opinions to their own. We prefer information which confirms our own and our tribes’ biases. So, human beings have arguably been “post-truth” on several of these models from soon after we sprang up in the Garden or were evicted from it. In 1749, the year when Denis Diderot was jailed for his “Letter on the Blind” (chapter 4), to take one example, rumors were swirling around Paris that Louis XV was abducting small children to bathe in their blood for the betterment of his health. [ii] This is two hundred and seventy years ago…

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Bringing them the plague

Freud's response on arrival in America, some Camus; blogs of philosophy, psychology, culture and politics. (Formerly Castalian Stream, now less pretentious)