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Enlightenment and the search for meaning

December 26th, 2018 — 5:04pm

The premise of the enlightenment would be that we have finally discovered how to live rationally. Authority is located in natural science, free enterprise and free markets, and empirical knowledge. Thus we can cast aside all the superstitions of the past and finally become what we were meant to be. Can we?

Not everyone agrees. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are commonly associated with the “school of suspicion”, throwing doubt on capitalism, on the rational mind, and on morality and religion, to take but a few examples. Freud in particular burst open the doors to the unconscious, bringing back, seemingly, the demons that the enlightenment had sought to finally bury. The bottom line of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents seems to be that man is doomed unhappiness, since his (sexual, violent, etc) desires will always make him clash with polite society. If true, this is truly a tragic insight.

In contrast to Freud, Jung appears to be a man of compromises. Freud’s view of the unconscious is highly centred on sexuality. The “Id” seems to be  primarily a source of threatening or disturbing impulses. Jung’s view of the unconscious is centred on the possibility of integration, of bringing separate pieces together into a harmonious whole, including the “Shadow”, broadly his equivalent of Freud’s Id. He even postulates an archetype that guides the individual towards meaningful integration of these separate parts, the Self. The self provides the individual with a sort of pattern that is repeated over and over again across a lifetime, increasingly elaborate. Eventually all the parts are, if we are lucky, integrated and even the dark or purely negative parts are given a meaning in the whole. The idea that the individual unconscious can basically provide a teleological, predefined template for an integrated personality reminds one of soul or destiny, and seems much more optimistic than Freud. But perhaps it is more accurate to call Jung a realist. He tends to insist on every phenomenon having both positive and negative aspects. Integration may fail. Life may contain excessive suffering, torment or early death. Although individuals are supposed to be naturally led towards greater integration, Jung doesn’t seem to offer any positive guarantees about mankind’s progress as a whole towards a better moral state.

Enlightenment ideas seem to be alive and well, if in a somewhat mutated form, having survived two world wars. The idea that we can design or plan a better society is perhaps questionable after the collapse of the Soviet Union (a notable exception is China, which sometimes looks as if it operates a semi-planned society, while at other times it looks more capitalist than North America). Instead, we live by the rule of market forces and rationality takes the form of scientific R&D, as well as technocratic administration, where appropriate. The rule of a number of invisible hands, the neutered “individual” as the basic unit of production and consumption. Although technological capitalism has produced immense positive effects, its dark side is also sizable.  Enlightenment has led to nihilism. Alienation is real. Although human beings can endure working as replaceable units for some time (if a man has a why, then he will endure almost any how) in general and over time, this kind of work does destroy meaning and is intolerable. What will be the long term consequences of forcibly suppressing common sense and social conscience on a mass scale?

In this environment, it takes a certain stubborn optimism to insist that technological and economic progress will bring about a better society (Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker). It may be too early to pass judgment on what kind of world we are building, but let us at least be keenly aware of its price.

The problem of loss of meaning is for now mainly a Western one, though it may not remain so for much longer. The same cultural forces that drove the development of Christianity – the search for the one truth – may also have driven the development of science and technology. Thus, according to Nietzsche, Christianity contained the seeds of its own destruction. Countries like India and China have perhaps not yet reached “peak enlightenment”, still absorbing Western ideas and intensifying their implementations of technological capitalism. Japan may quite possibly have reached peak enlightenment some time ago and thus shares in the Western problem, although not on a Christian basis. Thus its solutions may look different. In the near future, this problem can be expected to burden all cultures that are committed to technological capitalism.

According to Jung, God, meaning, and the divine are archetypes, which are so deeply embedded in the human psyche that they must be given a concrete form, lest they be projected and unconscious, with potentially disastrous consequences. Our best solution, temporary as it may be, could be to treat consciousness as holy, in both its social and individual forms, in both its explicit/rational and its pre-rational, implicit, potential, half-finished forms. Existentialist cinema like that of Ingmar Bergman (who would have been 100 this year) seems to locate the holy in interpersonal relationships. Tolstoy does something similar. Their views of love are realist and ambivalent: they endorse it, but it may lead one astray (Anna Karenina, Through a Glass Darkly). Yet they certainly endorse it. This region may serve as a practical locus of the holy. Is love not a form of heightened social consciousness imbued with positive possibilities? Does individual consciousness, even of a mute object, not always refer back to the social, through the meaning it contains and through its driving wish to discover and express truth?

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