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Evaluating Enlightenment: Progressive Critiques of Modernity in Rationalization and Ecology

The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about this and upcoming conferences, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

What is modernity? First, a period “occasioned by a peculiarly ahistorical view of the world, which is flattened into an eternal present. The world we experience appears to exhaust all possible worlds.”[1] Second, modernity is deeply rooted in the three Kantian principles of Enlightenment: “‘What can know?’ the question of knowledge; of the ‘What should I do?’ which is the question of ethics, and of the ‘What can I hope?'”[2]

The Western modern project is dependent upon both Greek and Hebrew antiquity. In ancient Ionia, Thales of Miletus predicted a solar eclipse, Anaximander predicted the changing of the seasons, Theodorus invented the ruler, the carpenter’s square, and the level, and Hippocrates began accumulating medical knowledge through trial and error.[3] These “pre-Socratic” Ionians were merchants and artisans; they worked with their hands, whereas the Athenians were engaged primarily in contemplation. In Aristotelian physics:

the motion of a projectile [is] partly natural and partly unnatural; its natural motion, as for all heavy bodies, is downward, toward the center of things, and its unnatural motion is imparted by the air, whose motion can be traced to whatever started the projectile in motion. But just how fast does the projectile travel along its path, and how far does it get before it hits the ground? …Aristotle does not offer an answer, right or wrong, because he does not realize that these are questions worth asking.[4]

If the Ionians might be seen as the preeminent attempt to answer the Enlightenment question of knowledge, “What can I know?” and the Athenians in the tradition of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle characterize the question of ethics, “What must I do?” then it is the ancient Hebrews who offer an answer to the question of “What can I hope?” “[T]here was no other god like Yahweh who held all the nations in his hands, who governed the affairs of each and every tribe, including the affairs of Israel’s enemies. . . . Should God’s chosen people return to His ways and abide by the terms of the covenant, Yahweh would certainly utterly destroy their enemies and deliver all of creation into their hands.”[5] Modernity is a scientific and ethical project, but also explicitly a utopian one.

Gradually, however, reality was to be subsumed beneath the domain of what can be known and not what can be hoped. It is a sort of narcosis, the tranquilization of an ontological beast by a period sometimes referred to as late modernity. Whereas ancient peoples sought to propitiate capricious gods and primal forces of nature, the ontological beast that is the Western heritage, upon whose back our social structures have been built, need only be lulled to sleep.

An unintended by-product of the intellectual currents, militant religious fundamentalism is consistent with the Enlightenment project, not a departure from it. “Fundamentalism . . . treats words as though they were things, as weighty and undentable as a brass candlestick. Yet it does this because it wants to freeze certain meanings for all eternity—and meaning itself is not material.”[6] “Ideal-type” fundamentalism may be characterized as a visceral reaction to the aforementioned collapse of the Western Triumvirate, a will to re-anesthetize the beast of ontology. In the ahistorical world of late modernity, the answer is methodology; for the fundamentalist, it is the immutable truth of a sacred text.

It is unwarranted to assume that the Islamic world is not in the grips of a similar if culturally distinct onto-epistemic crisis. The 2001 World Trade Center attacks “cannot be reduced to a ‘clash of civilizations’. Indeed, religious leaders from both Islam and Christendom have roundly condemned the acts of 9.11.01 . . . of course Islam can coexist, and has done so in the past, with scientific skepticism, commercial honesty, the freedom of women, basic natural rights, and a separation of religion and state; it is mostly religious fundamentalists in Islam who assail these principles. And, as the Reverend Jerry Falwell so artlessly illustrated when he interpreted 9.11.01 as God’s retribution against America for being a nation of sinners, these illiberal tendencies also plague Christianity.”[7] The ontological beast stirs. Yet late modernity is defined by violence destructive beyond the fantasies of militant fundamentalists or nation-states bent on their defeat. One such form of violence is the expropriation of nature.

The meaning of the word natural has been stretched in numerous directions, but most salient here is the reintegration of the natural and the social. In this, perhaps Nietzsche was the second great sociobiologist, while Hobbes was the first, in his prediction that before society, humans were pre-moral, living in his famous “state of nature” which featured “war of all against all.”[8] “Natural” is a concept that has migrated a long way, appearing today as a dogmatic moniker for all that is healthful and wholesome. A bit of clarification is thus in order.

I contrast what comes from nature, meaning efforts to abstract conclusions from the natural world to the human versus what is for nature, indicating a constellation of beliefs and principles which situate the social within the natural world. This is not to dichotomize in order to demonize: it could be argued that all of natural science, situated as it is within the episteme, the “What can I know?” is from nature, as it has been gleaned through centuries of human endeavors to understand nature and to abstract from it laws and principles as to its function. Drawing empirical conclusions about nature merely implies a standpoint partially divorced from the subject of study.

In the realm of for nature, Nature is a cosmos, an all, of which human beings, societies, cultures, science, and philosophy are a contingent and temporary part. I entertain the possibility of this for nature as a means by which to harmonize the ethical and the social within the natural. In order to establish this linkage, I turn next to the work of Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who has worked toward what he called consilience, or the unification of all human intellectual endeavors. In his discussion of the social sciences, Wilson singles out economics as a model for a “successful” social science, but stipulates that economic practice is fatally flawed in making the methodological assumption that resources are infinite in quantity. A consilience economics, for Wilson, would be one that takes ecology seriously.[9]

Yet “[a]s political economy, economics still held fast at the start to the relation to society as a whole. . . . Economics as a specialized science has broken off that relation. Now it too concerns itself with the economy as a subsystem of society and absolves itself from questions of legitimacy.”[10] Only sociology retains the scope necessary for this undertaking. At once descriptive and prescriptive, its basis cannot be wholly from nature, insofar as “nature” addresses social problems at all, it is often to legitimize existing economic, racial, gender, or educational stratification, justify organized violence, or slash public safety nets. The missive from nature as normative permits the alienation and exploitation of the human as well as the non-human. The broader problem is instrumentalism: ” . . . modern history makes it especially hard for us to think in non-instrumental terms…moral thinking becomes infected by this model as well.”[11] What is needed, then, is an ontology of nature,[12] built on the indispensable insight via Darwin that human beings share a common ancestral heritage with all life, and our continued survival depends on reconsidering the expropriation of nature.

Lukas Szrot is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Sociology at the University of Kansas.


1. Ben Agger, Postponing the Postmodern: Sociological Practices, Selves, and Theories (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002) p. 3.

2. The discussion of the Kantian principles in this context was inspired, in part, by the work of Scott Lash, Intensive Culture: Social Theory, Religion and Contemporary Capitalism (Los Angeles: Sage, 2010).

3. For a discussion of this rather interesting tension in ancient Greek intellectual history, see Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2013) pp. 182–88.

4. Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992) p. 8.

5. Joseph W. H. Lough, Weber and the Persistence of Religion: Social Theory, Capitalism, and the Sublime (New York: Routledge, 2006) p. 89.

6. Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003) p. 207.

7. Tim Luke, “On 9.11.01,” Telos 120 (2000): 131, 139–40.

8. Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) pp.&nbps;453–55. See also Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) and Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985).

9. E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

10. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984) p. 4. In all fairness, some compelling work exists within ecological economics—see, for instance, H. E. Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economic of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

11. Eagleton, After Theory, p. 123.

12. Donald A. Crosby, Nature as Sacred Ground: A Metaphysics for Religious Naturalism (New York: SUNY Press, 2015).

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